Kremlin foe Garry Kasparov says President Vladimir Putin is resorting to "external aggression" and increased confrontation with the West to bolster his image as Russia's leader and maintain a "dictatorship" in the country.
Talking to RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov on the sidelines of a forum in Vilnius organized by the Open Russia online opposition group on October 15, the former world chess champion and Russian opposition figure said Putin had managed to impose "one-man rule" backed by a "fascist ideology" that helped destroy perceived enemies within the country.
But with economic conditions worsening, Kasparov said, the Kremlin had been forced to point out "enemies" outside Russia.
Russian authorities have intensified their crackdown on independent media, civil society, and the political opposition since Putin began his third term as president in 2012.
Kasparov fled to the United States after he was detained by Russian police at a 2012 rally in support of the punk art collective Pussy Riot, three of whose female members were on trial for an anti-Kremlin disturbance at the time.
"Confrontation with the West is Putin's No. 1 goal," Kasparov said in Vilnius, adding that Putin needs to "maintain his image of an invulnerable leader who is the only one capable of defending the country from external threats."
Moscow's relations with the West have sunk to levels of acrimony unseen since the end of the Cold War following Russia's military seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and an ensuing war between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists.
Ties have deteriorated further over the conflict in Syria, where a Russian bombardment campaign is backing President Bashar al-Assad, as well as U.S. accusations that Russia is behind hacking and electronic leaks targeting U.S. electoral institutions ahead of next month's U.S. elections.
"Putin not only needs permanent confrontation with Europe and America, he needs to demonstrate constantly his own superiority to everyone," Kasparov said.
He said that in the case of Syria, Putin's moves were aimed at demonstrating that Western leaders' repeated calls for Assad to step down over his brutal treatment of Syrians since unrest began nearly six years ago "mean nothing."
On Ukraine, Kasparov said Crimea's annexation was a "crime" that was committed in violation of the Russian Constitution, Russian laws, and international treaties at a time when Russia's internal political opposition was "practically fully destroyed."
"Crimea for Putin was part of a large-scale aggression against Ukraine, a violation of its sovereignty," Kasparov said, adding that Kremlin-guided actions in Ukraine constituted "bandit activities."
Putin eventually admitted to sending covert troops into Crimea, but Moscow continues to deny direct involvement in the fighting in other parts of eastern Ukraine despite what Western leaders say is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Kasparov also described as a "crime" Russia's "de facto annexation" of Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after a lightning war in August 2008, while Putin was prime minister in between presidential terms. Georgia and Russia broke off diplomatic relations over the conflict, and Moscow maintains troops in both regions under what Tbilisi and Western allies regard as an occupation.
More recently, Kasparov said, alleged cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions look like "an attempt [by the Kremlin] to create some sort of chaos" ahead of the November 8 elections in the United States.
Putin and other Russian officials have dismissed the U.S. allegations and suggested that more attention be paid to the substance of the leaks and hacks.
Kasparov warned that nothing restricts Putin from expanding his power beyond Russia because the West "has always stepped back" in order to avoid a potentially large confrontation.
Kasparov called on Western leaders to show "political will" and oppose Putin's foreign policies, including through maintained financial and other sanctions imposed over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
"We see many politicians and businesspeople in Europe who say that the sanctions against Russia should be lifted and Crimea's illegal annexation from Ukraine should be ignored for the sake of doing business with Russia," Kasparov said. "But I think that this situation is gradually changing."
Written by Antoine Blua in Prague based on an interview by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov