US President Barack Obama “does not care very much” about security in Europe, Edward Lucas, who has been The Economist’s Eastern Europe correspondent for more than 20 years, told EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview.
Edward Lucas recently published a book entitled ‘The New Cold War’, which covers world affairs since Vladimir Putin became Russia’s strongman.
He was speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Michal Hudec.
Your book, ‘The New Cold War’, was published in 2008. One year later, do you still find its title relevant?
I had written book in 2007 and the thing I was the most worried about then was a war in Georgia. And I think that war in August 2008 proved that I was in a way right to be worried about Russia, so I feel vindicated on that front. I also think that the main front of a new cold war is about finance and energy. And I think that’s still very worrying, I think we’ve seen a continued use of energy as a weapon by Russia and we’ve also continued to see the use of Russian money in Western policies.
And as I always say that the old Cold War was a military confrontation, this one is much more of a confrontation of values; the Kremlin style of authoritarian credit capitalism against the Western system. And the reason why we are losing and doing badly in this is because the Western system is not working very well, and I think the financial crisis [showed this].
And the other problems we are seeing also underline that NATO is weaker than it was two years ago. It is clear that [the Obama] administration is not as engaged in Europe as the Bush administration was. So we have to be worried about that. As far as the changes in Russia were concerned, I think they are messy mainly because the media widened the possibility of discussion. In Russia you can talk about things at an official level that you couldn’t talk about before.
But there are no real changes. We still have political prisoners and control of media is still almost total. The security services are still out of control, and constitutional supervision – the rule of law – is still not working. So I think the position of Russia has not improved at all.
You described the war in Georgia as the first step in a new Cold War. Commentator George Bovt wrote in an August column for the EU-Russia Centre that a war between Russia and Ukraine is likely. Would you share this observation, especially in the context of the expiry of the lease on the naval base harbouring Russia’s Black Sea fleet in 2017?
I don’t think there will be, if you like, a big war between Russia and Ukraine, because the Russian military is not in great shape, they can basically attack countries that are 1/30 of their size, which they can drive to, and this is a fairly short list of countries. I think that the most worrying thing is another war in Georgia; this is by far the most likely. I think that there is the danger of mischief-making and provocation in Crimea. But I think that the aim of the Russian pressure on Ukraine has been to consolidate Ukrainian identity and even the Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine show no desire of wanting any kind of unification with Russia or anything like that. So Ukrainian statehood, I think, actually it looks more solid than it did ten years ago. But Crimea is a real problem; there are specific kinds of Russians in Crimea, who are quite anti-Ukraine and quite pro-Kremlin. And we have the naval base there, which Russia should be closing and doesn’t seem to want to close.
Some commentators say that the war in Georgia marked the inauguration of President Dmitry Medvedev. What did it mean for EU-Russia and NATO-Russia relations?
Well, I think one of the dreadful consequences of the war in Georgia was that it showed how divided the EU and NATO are in their dealings with Russia. The EU imposed very light sanctions and then dropped them; NATO went back to business-as-usual quite quickly. And so I think it is very difficult for NATO, which used to have a united policy towards Russia on every conceivable issue where there might be a real conflict. I think the Germans and the Southern European countries will probably go one way and some of the North European countries will go another. So, there is a real division.
I don’t really find Article 4 and Article 5 credible on their own. NATO needs to do real planning, it needs to revise its strategic concept and make clear that territorial defence is still absolutely central. And it needs to do for example some land exercises in Poland or in the Baltic states – and that is not happening.
I think that the problem with Obama is that he does not really care about Eastern Europe, that his advisers basically see Eastern Europe as a Bush administration project. I think they rather complacently feel the problem is basically solved and they have got lot of other things to worry about, they are worried about China, worried about Iran, worried about North Korea and the danger is that they look for Russian help on these issues, where they can get it, but they are not really interested in making it sort of strategic push back in Eastern Europe to counter growing Russian influence there.
President Medvedev has proposed the idea of a new security architecture in Europe. But there are no concrete details…
I think we already have a security architecture in Europe: it is called the OSCE. And for anyone to make a suggestion about changing it, they must have some credibility, and I think Russia has no credibility at the OSCE at this moment. It systematically blocks OSCE budgets; it’s trying to stop the OSCE as an election monitoring body. I think any European security architecture has to be based on values and we do not have shared values with Russia at the moment. In 1992 under Yeltsin we did, and that was great, and we could really see that everybody was basically moving in the same direction. That is not the case any more.
And it is absolutely clear that the Russians nowadays – like the Soviet Union before – want to get America out of Europe. And this new security architecture, as far as I can see, is a plan to set up a kind of condominium in Europe between Russia and the big European countries, excluding the United States and also overriding the interest of small countries. I think it’s very bad and we should speak about that. What we should be trying to do is to engage Russia within the existing security architecture to do things that would benefit everybody.
Moscow claims Russia is a free country with democratic values. You say Russian values are different from the ones of the West. How different are they?
Even if we have elections, we do not know who is going to win [laughter]. You can look at each individual thing we have in our system. We have courts, where powerful people in the country lose. So in Italy for example, even the very powerful Mr. Berlusconi is in trouble with the courts there. We didn’t know who was going to win the general election; we didn’t know who was going to win the next Slovak election. We do know who is going to win the next Russian election; anyway you look over to the guy who has the backing of the Kremlin.
How big a possibility is there that the gas crisis could be repeated this winter?
I think that Ukraine is going to act together, and it’s going to be much more difficult to have a gas war this time round. I think corruption played a huge role in the gas war and I am not saying that either one side was 100% right or 100% wrong on this. There is obviously a huge amount of money in gas being stolen.
I think the real gas crisis is actually a shortage; because Russia’s gas reserves and gas industry have been run extremely badly. Gazprom is an exceptionally wasteful, corrupt and incompetent company. Russia is very dependent on gas in Turkmenistan and it seems that there is not as much gas in Turkmenistan as we thought, and the gas industry itself is very badly run. The real problem is that there is not going to be enough gas to go round if European gas demand uncovers.
We should think about how to get gas out in some other way. We need to get hold of Iranian gas, we need to get hold perhaps of Iraqi gas, and all these other gas sources in the Middle East and South-West Asia. And for that, it is particularly important that we get Nabucco built. I think one quite good sign is that whereas Gazprom’s North Stream does not seem to be going ahead – except on a political level but they are not laying any pipes yet – Nabucco which I was rather gloomy about in my book, seems to have moved on a bit.
And I think that indicates one quite important point, which is that Russia’s tactics are often counterproductive and they have mucked around on the gas front so much that it has pushed energy security up the European agenda to the point that there are some serious efforts now going into building Nabucco. I am still not hopeful, but I am less gloomy then I was.
Where does Eastern Europe find itself in the Russian perspective?
In the Russian view, this is a sphere of privileged interest, as Mr. Medvedev so unpleasantly put it. I think there are three things that the ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe need to do. One is to make sure they keep their own systems working properly. So it is very important not to go down the route of corruption, authoritarianism, bad governance, etc. I see a bit of ‘Putinism’ appearing in all sorts of countries, which is one thing.
The second thing is to try and coordinate much better, and particularly to stress the need for the Baltic States and Poland to cooperate with the northern countries, which have their own existing security cooperation. You could create a kind of mini-NATO for the Baltic region: that would be very good.
And the third is for the Central European countries to do what they can to keep the Atlantic alliance going, because they are the Atlanticist countries in the region and it is very important for them to try and keep America engaged and show they can be good American allies.
How would you evaluate the main challenges in Eastern politics?
Obviously, we have a whole load of global problems like climate change, terrorism and so on, but on the regional front I think Russia is becoming weaker and nastier, and that is the general direction. And we all have to hope that Russia does not become a failed state and in this period of disastrous experimenting, authoritarian crony capitalism proves temporary – rather like the Meciar experiment in Slovakia proved temporary – so we have to hope for a Russian Dzurindas [Mikuláš Dzurinda, reformist prime minister of Slovakia, 1998–2006] to turn things round. I do hope in the long run that the Russian people will see that this is not a fantastically successful experiment on Putin [and that it is] a dead end.
Until that happens, what we need to do is to make sure that the bad tendencies in Russia don’t damage us. We have to defend ourselves, we have to try and defend the countries slightly further to the East – so we need to try to give Ukraine a European perspective, continue to help Georgia, look after Moldova, which everybody forgets, engage Belarus as much as we can and hope that they can move a bit more in our direction. It is a very long to-do list and many of the items are very difficult.
In a nutshell, how would you answer the question you are asking in your book: How can the new Cold War be won?
I think we have wasted the financial crisis. The financial crisis was a great chance to address some of the big weaknesses in our system – both in terms of the way financial markets work, but also the openness of our banking system to people who have obtained their money in corrupt ways.
One of the things that most worries me is the ability to conceal the ultimate beneficial ownership of companies, so we have for example a company like RosUkrEnergo, which is becoming extremely successful in the gas business, in business with pipelines or gas storage or gas fields. It has billions and billions of dollars and we can’t find out who owns it. And that is a real scandal. Until we get our act together we can’t really expect the Russians to take us seriously while we preach values.