New East Platform’s editors Flavia Munteanu and James Allcock interview Edward Lucas about the political situation in Russia and its repercussions for the Western and Eastern European arenas
NEP: Given the use of censorship as a power tool in Russia, will it take a a revolution to trigger the birth of civil society and free press in the country?
Edward Lucas: In a sense, Russia has a free civil society at macro level, since people don’t live in fear as they used to under the Soviet Union. It’s not a totalitarian system: an individual can still choose where to work, whom to marry, small associations at private level are formed. For the apolitical person in Russia, there is a lot of personal freedom. The problem emerges when individuals interfere with the regime. We witness extensive use of arbitrary power which is not directed against an individual for who he is, but rather for where he is. For instance, if your car bumps into a car which belongs to an important person, then you may suddenly find yourself imprisoned. Similarly, if you have a business it might be taken away from you. Arbitrary power renders a tough pushback against any organized civil society but there are still safety valves, one of them being emigration: you can leave if you don’t like it. That is why I believe the chances of a revolution to be pretty small and in fact, a revolution might even worsen the situation in Russia. If the Soviet Union was a machine disabled of safety valves, today’s Russia is a badly constructed machine with safety valves in terms of individual freedom of movement and choice. The Soviet Union tried to maintain an information blockade with its very strict censorship of post, telecommunications and radio. This is not the case at the moment. If you want to subscribe to the Economist in Russia, you can. Nonetheless you can’t set up your own newspaper or a television station, but there’s little standing in the way of individual curiosity.
NEP: Given the existence of separatist regions in former USSR republics such as Georgia and Moldova, do you think the Kremlin will be adopting an expansionist policy in the near future?
Edward Lucas: We already see the Kremlin adopting an expansionist policy. In fact, we have been witnessing a growing revanchist policy since 1991. Putin and his friends feel that something has been taken away unfairly from the Soviet Union and they want it back, both in terms of dignity and authority. Unfortunately, that comes at the price of the captive nations which is why we should not allow it. I think we can draw a direct thread from the establishment of the separatist enclave of Transnistria in Moldova through to the Georgian South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions through to stirring up travel in the Baltic states and to the situation Ukraine – it’s all part of the same picture. It’s happened because the West has been unwilling or unable to call Russia to push back so each time Russia draws a lesson and applies a different strategy, all part of its expansionist plan.
NEP: Given that the Ukraine crisis has been labeled the ‘greatest crisis of the 21st century’, do you think it likely that the conflict will trigger a new cold war between the West and Russia?
Edward Lucas: I think the Ukraine crisis is the greatest European security crisis of the 21st century, but you could argue that 9/11 and the launch of the Global War on Terror was the biggest security crisis of the century. Nonetheless, the failure to contain Russian imperialism has led to a loss of principles dating back to 1975, before the Cold War started. We need to take the Russian attack on Ukraine very seriously, but let us remember that this is not the first wake-up call – we’ve had many of them, the West simply refuses to wake up.
NEP: Russian policies have recently backfired into a national energy and financial crisis. Do you believe Western sanctions will incentivize Russia to back out of Ukraine?
Edward Lucas: I don’t think the West operates under a very nice framework of analysis. We assume that once we apply sufficient economic pressure on a country, through reducing the standard of living and generating economic misery, we will then see the leaders of that country back down and adopt a change in foreign policy. This is a perfectly logical approach but it has no basis in reality – we’ve seen it fail in Cuba, Zimbabwe etc. It arguably worked in South Africa but I would argue other elements were at play. Hence the idea that we can force Putin into taking a certain course of action is illusory. I don’t think Putin is particularly bothered by the economic distress in Russia at the moment; it is an inconvenience and Putin likes emergency conditions, because he can tear up the rules, which he has been doing since he came to power. This bears resemblance to the stavka under Stalin’s former Security Council, which has been a civil, political and military stavka until now, but has recently developed an economic dimension as well. This is bad news for other centres of economic power in Russia, where people like Evtushenkov are losing their business empires. The crisis allows Putin to concentrate economic power, by telling the Russians to tighten the belts, which demonizes the West even more. I’m not sure whether Putin would have chosen the crisis. In fact he probably prefers high oil prices and lots of money, but there are plenty of means through which he can exploit that. In terms of the Western reaction, we need to apply more sanctions indeed and sanctions on Russian dirty money in particular. We should be going after people in the city of London who have laundered Russian dirty money and give them a fright. That might have a deterring effect on Putin but all we can hope to do is to deter Putin from attacking the Baltics and make things worse in Ukraine. I don’t think we can force him to give up Crimea.
NEP: In light of Fitch’s downgrading of Russia’s credit rating agency, particularly given that Russia and China are hoping to establish their own agency, should we be worried about the strong economic relationship between the two countries?
Edward Lucas: I think this is exaggerated, the Chinese regard the Russians with contempt and the Russians are willing to make technical deals with the Chinese. I don’t think it’s a strategic alliance because China is too strong and Russia is too weak. The idea of a world leading rating agency is unlikely. The Russians might indeed make use of a Eurasian rating agency as a way to shove money into the country, by flagging up their conferred A+ status. Yet they don’t need an agency to do that. What really makes a credit rating agency valuable is its record of getting things right – sadly I don’t think Western agencies have a particularly good record either, but whatever agency the Russians produce will have an even worse record.
NEP: What do we make of the disparity in the sets of information stemming from Russian media versus those circulating in the West?
Edward Lucas: Russia has been very good at setting up a narrative in which the Ukrainians are fascists and the Western figures are hypocrites, whilst Russia finds itself engaged in a mixture of legitimate self-defence and humanitarian intervention. That’s bogus on every point and it resonates with anti-Western figures who believe that everything the West does is wrong and filled with propaganda and lies. It is part of a picture which started in 1991, when we started an information war and eviscerated the Soviet propaganda machine. This was perhaps the clearest victory of the Cold War: an information war where nobody in the West believed what the Russians were saying, whilst the Russians wanted to emulate the Western information system. Now that’s been lost, since most Russians believe the West to be an enemy of Russia. We currently have to both defend our own information space against Russian disinformation and also try and push back inside Russia by highlighting the pomposity, corruption and general absurdity of Putinism.
NEP: What do you make of the lack of genuine opposition in Russia? Where has the opposition of 2012 gone?
Edward Lucas: It’s very sad, the opposition has retreated into the sidelines and there is the problem of lack of leadership; if I was in Russian opposition, I wouldn’t want to see Navalny in jail, I’d want to see him president. Putin has done a very good job of marginalizing all the opposition. His opponents are either seen as Gucci liberals like Nemtsov or find themselves in exile like Kasparov or hold a questionable nationalist status like Navalny. There isn’t anyone who really unites the opposition. In fact, I’m not sure there really is an opposition. It consists of a few brave public intellectuals who spend time quarreling with each other. I think when opposition does come, it does so on the basis of regional identity. At Moscow’s level, the most powerful hymn of political force is dislike at the centre which is destabilizing for the system. I’m not optimistic about the chances of a strong opposition in the short-term.
NEP: What do you identify as Western prejudice against Russia and how can it be dismantled?
Edward Lucas: There is a sort of Orientalism targeted against Russia, which echoes an approach we have towards the Arab world. People think that Russians are a playground for the West and we grossly underestimate the humiliation of the 1990s. We have underestimated the dark forces in Russian society, particularly the significance of the KGB and its non-dismantlement. We have some dignified approach to Russia as well – we see the bits of high culture and caricature that side, but we don’t understand the enormous country that Russia really is. We don’t understand the current wealth of the people who run it and how focused they are on us. We can afford to think of Russia for about 30 minutes to one hour a week. We also fail in understanding what Putin thinks about the West, an element which our policy makers simply don’t pay attention to. We need to put ourselves in Russian shoes a little bit: they’ve lost both the political economic system which they had for 70 years and they’ve also lost their own power. We need to find a way for Russia to fit into the world where they don’t feel the need to scratch these old wounds. There was a failure of imagination in the nineties about trying to help Russia do what Germany did; the latter very consciously threw away the Nazi and its economic system, hence becoming a modern democratic state at peace with its neighbours. I think if we’d see Russia more as a post-imperial country, we’d understand that the biggest misapprehension is that we can’t micro-manage it. Russia will do what Russia does. Instead, we must protect Russia’s neighbours who will be at the front end, whatever happens.
NEP: If we are going to see change in Russia, will it come through generational change or political turmoil in the next election?
Edward Lucas: I think change could come at any moment. I’ve seen enough regimes capsize in a short space of time. I’m not particularly hopeful about generational change, since the most nationalist xenophobic racist people in Russia are young, male, university-educated Muscovites. On the other hand, the USSR mentality of internationalism, where people felt it was bad manners to be a Russian nationalist, is still upheld amongst the elderly. The principle of the brotherhood of nations features more amongst the Soviet generation than amongst the publicly racist, younger one. There’s a possibility of change within the elite however. People get fed up with Putin and the odds are that whoever follows Putin may prove nastier. They may pretend to be nicer, suck up to the West then emulate Medvedev. What worries me most is a change of tack, with a new leader who will demand that the West cuts Russia some slack: let’s keep Crimea, agree that Ukraine can never join NATO, give Russia control of the Baltics, remove the sanctions and only then we can start to rebuild the relationship.