International Affairs Forum: The title of your book is The New Cold War. How do you respond to those who consider Russia as not being a threat since the end of Cold War?
Mr. Edward Lucas: I think it depends where you are. If you live in Georgia, things are pretty scary right now. If you’re in the Baltic states the situation is pretty bad or in Chechnya where it’s quite bad. Actually, if you’re in Western Europe, it’s quite alarming. It depends on where you look and how hard you look.
I’m certainly not saying that the old Cold War is coming back. The old Cold War was military and ideological. This one is political. It’s about values as opposed to ideologies, and not about military but commercial muscle. So it’s really different but I call it the New Cold War to wake people up because they’ve been very complacent. People have had misconceptions about Russia. One is that Russia is a weak, poor country and another is that they’re moving in the right direction. Both of those are wrong.
IA-Forum: What is your reaction to NATO’s recent decision about Ukraine and Georgia?
Mr. Lucas: I think it’s very bad. It should be remembered that NATO was not discussing whether to include Georgia and Ukraine right now. They were not advocating that and I don’t as well. The question was whether to give them a membership action plan which could be up to ten years of specific reforms the end of which is the expectation that a country can join NATO if they still want to. That’s what the summit at Bucharest decided not to give. What it did instead was make a commitment that these countries would join NATO sometime but didn’t say when. So NATO meant to make a down payment on the deal but instead in wrote an undated check. I’m not sure that’s good.
Russia is now pushing ahead with the annexation of the two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that have been Russia pocket states since 1992. This isn’t a big deal on the global scale but it is a sign that Russia smells weakness and it’s pushing ahead. The Georgians don’t really know what to do. They’ve done the right thing, they’ve trusted in the West and we haven’t given them what they wanted, and Russia is pushing back hard.
IA-Forum:Overall Russians are enjoying the fruits of their economy and in turn, there is high support for the current regime. Do you see any chance a change of this mindset barring economic collapse?
Mr. Lucas: I doubt there will be an economic collapse because the energy reserves they have built up are very big. They can survive a drop in the oil price if that happens. I do think however that the boom is quite superficial in Russia. It looks terrific in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the big cities. A lot of this is consumption, retail space and glitzy projects. But where are the new hospitals, the new schools, the new world class universities, where are the improvements in demography? There has been some improvement but Russians may look back on this in ten to fifteen years and say ‘where did all the money go?’.
The real story is the enormous sums of money going into the pockets of the ex-KGB people who run Russia. It’s a story of corruption rather than investment. I think eventually Russians will get fed up with that as they will with lawlessness, abuse of power, and so on. But for now living standards have shot up and life looks pretty good for them so there doesn’t appear to be any great problems for the regime right now.
IA-Forum: How bad is the corruption problem in Russia currently?
Mr. Lucas: I think it’s never been so bad. There’s absolutely idea of no conflict of interest so top people have two jobs, one in the morning is running the country and in the afternoon, running a large company. Even new President Medvedev says that corruption exists at an atrocious level. It’s really carving up the system to the extent that even the people in charge are getting worried because when they try to spend money to organize the armed forces – something they genuinely want to do – it just leaks away. They produce tiny numbers of helicopters, tanks, and ships despite the billions of dollars going in because money’s just getting stolen all the time.
IA-Forum: You’ve called for development of alternative energy in the West. What other policies would you advocate for the West towards the current regime?
Mr. Lucas: There are two or three things we have to do. As said, one is not to be dependent on Russian gas because that always comes with a physical price tag attached.
We need to get our act together here in Europe. The European Union is the first line of defense on the economic front. The EU has to work to stop this squabbling about the internal machinery of the EU and make it into something that delivers security and prosperity for its citizens. That’s a long shot, and I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly, but it’s the only solution.
We’ve also got to rebuild the Atlantic Alliance. What Russia’s done very successfully is to divide Europe from the United States. We need to get back the type of moral superiority, authority, and self-confidence that we had at the end of the last Cold War when our system looked pretty good and their system looked pretty bad. What we’re getting now is a kind of convergence where our system is getting to look a bit like Russia, particularly with Berlusconi in Italy. We need to get our act together from good government on with public integrity, transparency, accountability – all these things. We need to make our political system something we can be proud of. That will also have an effect in Russia because it will contrast more sharply with the way things are run there.
IA-Forum:Do you think there’s been a shift in the West toward materialism and away from ethics?
Mr. Lucas: I’m a great believer in the free market economy but we can’t believe that only money matters because then we’re defenseless when people attack us using money. I think ultimately that free society is about rule of law and political freedom. The free market is a great wealth generator but is a servant of the free society not its master. So we need to be a bit careful about putting profit ahead of everything.
IA-Forum:You’ve stated that Russia’s main weapon is our greatest weakness: money. Can the West use economic ties to pull at the strings of the Russian regime?
Mr. Lucas: Yes. The European Union is three times larger than the Russian population and eleven times larger in monetary terms. Russia is a trillion dollar economy and the European Union is an eleven trillion dollar economy. So it’s preposterous in a way that the Gazprom tail is wagging the European dog. It should be the other way around. Russia should be coming to the EU and saying ‘We really want to sell you some gas. Are you interested?’. And the EU should be saying ‘let’s have a look, we have some good deals from Norway, Libya, and Algeria.’ We should be playing one supplier against the other. That would be the lateral and healthy relationship but it’s the other way around where Gazprom – the gas division of Kremlin, Inc. - divides the rules. It buys bilateral gas deals with individual European countries and plays one off against the other. Ultimately, Europe is a much stronger entity than Russia. We just don’t behave that way.
IA-Forum: Any final thoughts?
Mr. Lucas: The politicians in the European countries need to wake up. I think the public is waking up pretty sharply. I think people are quite spooked by this mixture of corruption, bullying and totalitarianism that they see in Russia. I hope over the next few years that the politicians can start catching up with public opinion.
Edward Lucas is the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist. He has been covering the region for more than 20 years, witnessing the final years of the last Cold War, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet empire, Boris Yeltsin's downfall and Vladimir Putin's rise to power. From 1992 to 1994, he was the managing editor of The Baltic Independent, a weekly English-language newspaper published in Tallinn. He holds a BSc from the London School of Economics, and studied Polish at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. He is author of The New Cold War.
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