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Semafor LogoSteve Clemons
Steve Clemons
politics

Elon Musk "is rapidly becoming a destabilizing force," says Garry Kasparov

Steve is Semafor’s Founding Editor-at-Large, joining us from The Hill. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the chess champion and Russian human rights advocate Garry Kasparov have engaged in an escalating argument on Twitter over the Ukraine war, punctuated by insults like Musk's jibe that "while it's true that Kasparov is almost as good at playing chess as my iPhone, he is otherwise an idiot."

I emailed Kasparov a set of questions about the incident, and he told me he "admire[s] Musk for his innovation and business savvy," but that his intervention in the European conflict is "irresponsible."

"He has a significant following with over 100 million Twitter followers, and there are those who hang on his every word," Kasparov said. "Someone in that position cannot afford to be a bomb thrower or a troll, but I’m afraid that Elon doesn’t take this responsibility seriously and therefore, he is rapidly becoming a destabilizing force."

Here are his full responses:

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CLEMONS: What do you think of Musk and other Silicon Valley investors trying to pull the U.S. back from Ukraine engagement?

KASPAROV: Some of them are understandably afraid of nuclear escalation. Their strategic miscalculation is that far from decreasing the risk of nuclear conflict, pulling the US back from Ukraine engagement would only increase this risk because it would send Putin and other world dictators the exact wrong message. Essentially, we would be saying that with enough nuclear blackmail, we will back off and allow wars of aggression to stand. This would increase nuclear proliferation, increase the propensity of bad actors with nukes to use them to threaten the Free World, and increase the likelihood of Putin (or another dictator) making the determination that since we backed off on Ukraine, we might back off on a small member of NATO like Estonia. If he decides to press his advantage at that point, we would have no choice but to engage in what would actually be a nuclear war over a NATO ally or otherwise disband NATO altogether.

But the other thing that’s striking to me is that the arguments I’m hearing from a few corners of this community actually make me nostalgic for Neville Chamberlain. For all of his flaws, for all his willingness to appease Hitler, Chamberlain’s goal was “peace in our time” – not “business at all costs.” It is just mind-boggling to me that there are those who would be willing to sacrifice countless people to the tender mercies of Putin’s totalitarian dictatorship in order to be able to conduct business more efficiently in the short-term. What’s especially galling about this instinct is that it is fundamentally short-term. The long-term implications of any sort of Putin victory in Ukraine on global trade would be incredibly negative. Not only would it put supply chains and trade routes at risk, it would also incentivize dictators to double down on their threats to business interests in the Free World in order to achieve their political and military goals.

CLEMONS: Are you worried about BOTH a group of 30 House Liberals who have pushed Biden to seek a negotiated outcome and shrink the US commitment to Ukraine — AND those pushing Trump to support cutting Ukraine aid. What is your response to those who want to cut and leave Ukraine?

Thankfully, the Progressive Caucus has withdrawn their letter, but this impulse on both the Far Left and the Far Right to doubt America’s capacity to be a force for good in the world and to seek accommodation with the world’s worst actors is a real threat to global freedom. If we are to defend democracy, we must have the confidence of our convictions. At the Renew Democracy Initiative, we often talk about how self-criticism is important, but how it should never devolve into self-flagellation, and this idea that because we have problems at home, we should isolate ourselves from the world not only does little to actually protect American interests, but also enables some of the world’s worst atrocities to proceed without response.

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The interesting timing of this Progressive letter coming on the heels of Rep. McCarthy’s statement should also remind us that the Far Left and the Far Right often meet at the fringes. At RDI, our goal is to empower the “exhausted majority” of Americans to unite and fight for the values that have made the US a beacon of hope for countless dissidents such as myself.

CLEMONS: What are the stakes for the US and Europe now in Ukraine if Russia were to prevail or to achieve a negotiated stalemate holding on to territories?

Ukraine finds itself on the frontlines of the global fight between tyranny and democracy. So it’s no exaggeration to say that the stakes of this war include the survival of the Free World as we know it. If Russia were to prevail, which would essentially amount to holding territories that it acquired by force, who’s to say what it would do next? It could reconstitute its armed forces and within a few years, attack again, seeking to conquer more of Ukraine. It could go into Moldova. Or Estonia. Meanwhile, the precedent this would set would be terrifying to contemplate. If Russia could use nuclear blackmail to get the West to capitulate, what’s stopping China from striking hard and fast and simply taking Taiwan? What’s stopping Iran from quashing the women’s protest movement and killing thousands in the process? Meanwhile, smaller democracies like Israel would be forced to turn inwards and be infinitely less willing to take risks for peace knowing that the Free World would be unlikely to come to their aid. International trade would plummet as protectionism rose.

We are at a key pivot point. According to Freedom House, democracy has been declining for nearly 20 years. Ukrainian bravery in defense of their freedom has given us a chance to turn this around, but we have to remain committed to the struggle and for once, when challenged by Putin, we must refuse to blink.

CLEMONS: What do you think of the role Musk is playing in the US now?

KASPAROV: I admire Musk for his innovation and business savvy, but his irresponsible rhetoric with respect both to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and domestic politics in the US is of great concern. He has a significant following with over 100 million Twitter followers, and there are those who hang on his every word. Someone in that position cannot afford to be a bomb thrower or a troll, but I’m afraid that Elon doesn’t take this responsibility seriously and therefore, he is rapidly becoming a destabilizing force.

CLEMONS: How grateful should Ukrainians be for Starlink?

KASPAROV: Anything that helps Ukraine survive Putin’s onslaught and win the war should be greatly appreciated. Starlink is certainly playing a big role (and RDI has in fact helped raise funds to support the purchase of 10-15 of these systems for schools near the frontlines), but I also think it’s worth considering the media reports that Elon’s company has received significant recompense for offering these Starlink systems to Ukraine via direct payments from the US government and others along with massive amounts of PR.

undefined headshotSteve's view

Garry Kasparov, renowned for his chess mastery, holds no illusions about global players and their intentions around the Ukraine conflict. He sees Elon Musk as both brilliant and a problem, someone who has contributed on one hand to the communications needs of Ukrainians but who because he doesn’t take his power seriously is increasingly “becoming a destabilizing force.”

But another key point from our exchange is Kasparov’s fear that the far left and the far right may meet at the fringes in an impulse to disengage from support of Ukraine against Russian invasion. And until the withdrawal yesterday of a letter by thirty progressive House members calling on President Biden to prioritize diplomacy with Ukraine and Russia, Kasparov and many other commentators saw the left and right aligning.

One of the challenges for American democracy is going to be squaring the equation for citizens that global engagement is worth it for regular Americans, that the benefits of being involved as a supporter of Zelenskyy in the Ukraine War somehow add up to more in the long run for the United States than being disengaged from it. That’s the question that has not yet been discussed much by U.S. political leaders of either party.

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