The British journalist Edward Lucas is currently a senior editor at The Economist and one of the best-known writers on Eastern and Central Europe. A correspondent in Moscow in the late ’90s, he has been a ferocious critic of the Putin regime for many years. His 2008 book The New Cold War exposed the criminal and internationally destabilising activities of the Russian state at a time when many in the West saw conflict with Russia as a thing of the past. More recent books like Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West and regular articles for British and international publications have developed the theme: Putin’s regime is a corrupt kleptocracy deliberately undermining western powers, NATO and the EU and endangering the balance of power in Europe and beyond. He has urged higher defence spending and tougher sanctions against the Russian state and officials, and prioritising cyber security to a great extent.
Lucas’s links with the Baltic states run deep as well. In 1990, having flown to Vilnius without a Soviet visa, he was issued with the first official visa from the restored Lithuanian state, and from 1992 to 1994, he was managing editor at The Baltic Independent, an English-language paper published from Tallinn, which later merged with another publication to create The Baltic Times. He has been among the most vocal supporters of NATO membership for the Baltics and of stationing significant numbers of troops here to deter Russia. In December 2014, he became the first person to be issued with a digital identity by the Estonian government, which he described in the following terms: “it is user-friendly. It is transparent. It is exciting. In short, it exemplifies everything we estophiles like about Estonia!”. Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood spoke to Lucas about Trump, Putin and NATO, and what recent events mean for the Baltic states.
Do you think that the Baltic states can survive without NATO?
I think we are moving into a post-NATO environment, so we jolly well need to be able to survive without NATO. The security assumptions of the past 25 years have been fundamentally undermined by the combination of, first of all, low defence spending in Europe, and now what I call the “Trumpquake” in America. So we need to find regional and sub-regional security arrangements which will allow us to defend ourselves.
What would be a basis for such an arrangement? Would that be an alliance with other nations in Eastern Europe or something else?
The clearest thing is the Nordic-Baltic axis because, as I argued in my report “The Coming Storm”, the Nordic-Baltic-Polish economies combined have a bigger GDP than Russia’s. Nordic, Baltic and Polish defence spending combined is about 40 billion, and Russia’s is about 80 billion – and Russia has to run a strategic nuclear programme to defend itself against China whereas the NBP9, as I call them, only need to worry about defending themselves against Russia, which means they can cook with what they have in the kitchen. If we add in also a nuclear power – Britain, ideally France as well, although that may be more difficult – you’d have a really formidable North European sort of mini-NATO. But the problem is not in means; it’s the coordination of political will, which at the moment is lacking.
That would be rather different from what certain people seem to have been tentatively proposing, which is a revival of the interwar idea of the Intermarium [an alliance of the nations between Russia and Germany, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea].
Well, the Intermarium is a stupid idea. It didn’t work last time, and it won’t work this time.
Why do you think it’s a fundamentally stupid idea? Because the interests are too divergent?
Just look at a map. How are you going to defend the Baltic states in the Intermarium – it simply doesn’t make sense. You also have countries in the Intermarium who are profoundly unsympathetic to the idea of collective defence, like Hungary. You have countries which spend almost nothing on defence – like Hungary again, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia. You have countries which are heavily penetrated by Russia, such as Bulgaria. You have Ukraine, which is struggling to defend itself and certainly doesn’t have spare capacity to defend other countries. I’ve never seen a coherent explanation of why the Intermarium matters or how it would help.
You’ve written about Russia as being “militarily weaker but mentally more resolute”, and that this means that it has a decisive advantage. What exactly could NATO do – or any kind of post-NATO security arrangement – that would not antagonise Russia to a dangerous point? Or do you think it’s not possible to antagonise Russia to the point where it would actually do anything decisive?
I don’t think we should run our security policy on the basis of whether it antagonises Russia or not, because it’s up to Russia whether it chooses to be antagonised, and this then means that Russia has the psychological initiative. They can complain about anything you do and say “you’ve antagonised us and therefore we’re going to react”. What we need to do is to build in very strong tripwires and speed bumps, have excellent situational awareness so that Russia doesn’t take us by surprise, have credible reinforcement plans and have a credible deterrent. I think that will actually de-escalate, rather than escalate the situation. I think that the most dangerous way we can run our security arrangements with Russia is to be weak and ill-prepared, which creates the opportunity for Russia to come in and do something unpleasant.
You’ve written a whole book about Edward Snowden [The Snowden Operation, in which Lucas suggests that Snowden may be a Russian operative, and defends the powers given to the US National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services]. One of the criticisms I’ve seen of the defence you made of the NSA and Western security forces in that book is that considering the amount of power given to them, it could be rather dangerous if someone comes to power who is not someone who will necessarily respect democracy. Is this not something that’s now happened with Trump?
Yeah, it’s a reasonable fear. I mean first of all, you said “the policies of the NSA” – I think these are policies of elected governments. It’s worth remembering that America has the toughest system of intelligence supervision in the world – way tougher than France, tougher than Germany. No one else has this combination of a court with judges who are not appointed by the government, who are appointed by the Supreme Court. You have congressional scrutiny – and it may well be that Congress is in different hands from the party that holds the White House – plus you have executive power in the White House. And then you have a very strong professional code within the NSA. What we have seen from the Nixon experience was this: when Nixon tried to politicise the CIA, trying to overrule it, trying to politicise the FBI, it ended in disaster. And I think that although the American record over the last 50 years certainly has some black spots, I would far rather live under the American system of intelligence oversight than I would under the French. So I think we should all learn from the American system and try and copy it. And actually I think the Swedish system’s pretty good, the Estonian system’s pretty good. I’m not saying that others are bad, but it simply isn’t the case that the president can sit there at his desk and start ordering the intelligence services to break the law, spy on his political opponents, for example. I’m far more worried that if Marine Le Pen becomes President of France, she as president could do things with the French intelligence services that I do find troubling.
You’ve written a lot against criticisms of American foreign policy, using this idea that the West has a kind of moral weight. Many people would argue that bearing in mind how Western powers have behaved in many situations, many places, in the past, it has no moral weight. Why would you disagree with that?
People are entitled to believe that the West has no moral weight, but it’s a bit like people who think that Israel is a hellhole. Which other country would you rather live in? I think that for all of its faults, the West provides a very decent life for about a billion people in the world, and most young people in the world, if they had the choice, would prefer to live in the West. Another thing is that I think the Western system basically works. And I think that certainly the Western system has a self-correcting power: if we have a bad president, like President Obama, people vote him out, and they may vote him out for someone even worse like Donald Trump, but there are fundamental corrective forces, whether it’s the ballot box, the media, NGOs, the courts or public protests, all of which can be brought to bear on decision-making authorities when they make mistakes.
And that’s the fundamental point about the West – in countries like Russia, none of those work. You can’t see the government, you can’t run against the government in elections, you can’t have independent media that holds the government to account, you can’t run NGOs, and if you protest, you’ll be thrown into jail and your family will be punished on your behalf. I think it’s very easy to slip into a kind of self-hating position where you see the flaws of the West very clearly, but there are also fundamental virtues and I think we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
You fairly recently had an exchange of articles on the website First Things with [right-wing British political commentator] Peter Hitchens. I was interested to see that Peter Hitchens’s piece had this kind of thought experiment or equivalence between the US and Russia: how would America feel if the US had broken apart into different states in the ’90s, people were forced to adopt Spanish names in certain former American states, Canada forming an alliance with Russia, etc. This is something I’ve heard from a number of people, in the UK and elsewhere, and there are many flaws in this analogy, obviously, but this does seem to be one that is quite powerful with a lot of people. Why do you think that it is and how do you think you can best combat it?
Well, I don’t know why people think this; it’s clearly a false equivalence, where you take two things that are actually different and say “let’s pretend they’re the same”. I’ve argued with Peter very frequently about that. If America treated Canada the way that Russia has treated Ukraine, relations would be very different. America is strong because it has more allies than any other country has ever had in the history of the world. Russia doesn’t have any allies because it treats other countries very badly.
Although it does have some allies, in certain parts of Europe especially.
I think it’s very hard to find a country where there is a deep, sustained alliance, of the kind you have say between Britain and America or Canada and America. You have some client states: some client narco-states, like Tajikistan; some satrapies, like Belarus; you have some odd-bods on the other side of the world, like Ecuador, who are just allied with Russia because of anti-Westernism. But these are kind of opportunist allies. I can’t think of a country that is a Russian ally in the same way that Britain and France have been allies for more than a hundred years, or Britain and Germany are friends, or that America and most European countries are friends.
In an interview that came out in December 2016 in The New Statesman with Jeremy Corbyn [UK Labour Party leader], who you’ve been very critical of, he comments that although he would criticise Putin, he does say that “I want to see better agreements made with Russia”. Do you think it is possible at this point in time to make better agreements with Russia, or is it a country that fundamentally can’t be dealt with?
I would caution you against, when interviewing, taking someone they profoundly disagree with and asking them what they think of a statement – that I think that is not necessarily very productive. I think Corbyn is a disastrous leader and I disagree with him about almost everything. So I’d be happy to get onto some other questions.
But the principle of whether basically an agreement can be made with Russia?
I think you could have very good agreements with Russia where we say that “we’ve got your money, if you want to see it again, back off”. That would be a very good agreement. We could say, “we’ve identified 100 million dollars’ worth of money that has been stolen from the Russian people; we’re going to freeze it now, and potentially seize it. We’re also going after the bankers and lawyers and accountants who help in the West, so get ready for a very uncomfortable ride; these are things we need you to do very quickly.” I’m all in favour of agreements with Russia, but we should be drawing up these agreements bearing in mind our overwhelming superiority to Russia in terms of size and the abominable way in which the Putin regime has behaved in the last fifteen years.
A lot of people have commented that with Trump as the president-elect, someone who prides himself on being a “deal-maker”, that there will be some kind of deal in the pipeline with Putin. Do you think that there is actually anything that Putin can offer America? And do you think this is a potential danger?
I certainly do, and I’ve written about it. I think that there are two big dangers from a Trump administration: one is a crisis, either the collapse of NATO or starting a nuclear war with another state, and the other is that he does a “grand bargain” – particularly because things probably won’t go very well for him at home and he will need a foreign policy success. He has an early summit with Putin and comes out with some kind of showy deal, which is very bad for the security of frontline states. So yes, I am worried about that. Putin can offer Trump cooperation on terrorism; he can offer cooperation on Syria. I think both of those are essentially nugatory, and if there was any real willingness to cooperate, they would be cooperating already, so you don’t need a grand bargain to have cooperation on that. But he can offer it; he can also offer some kind of deal on the front line: for example, taking missiles out of Kaliningrad in exchange for America cancelling its missile defence programmes, and possibly also going even further: Russia pulling troops back from its western military district and America pulling its forces out of the frontline. I think that would be absolutely catastrophic. So there are different levels of importance in this grand bargain, any of them bad.
You were in Moscow in the late ‘90s working for The Economist. Do you feel that the West bears any responsibility at all for what has happened in Russia? A lot of people do see Putin as a reaction to the chaos, of various kinds, of ‘90s Russia.
No, I think we were far too soft in the ‘90s. We were kind of naïve – we colluded with the Yeltsin regime in election-rigging, we allowed corruption to become rampant in Russia. Corruption in Russia would never have got anywhere if they hadn’t been able to put the money in the West, and so we opened our financial system to corrupt Russian officials in the ‘90s, thereby discrediting everything we came to stand for. We took our eye off the ball as far as Russian espionage was concerned and sacked a lot of people who understood Russia all over government. So I think we bear huge responsibility; our Russia policy in the 1990s was incredibly naïve – naïve and cynical and optimistic all at the same time.
But this idea that Russia has been humiliated and so Russia is just responding to this?
Well, I don’t understand – what was humiliating about bringing Russia into the G8? What was humiliating about the NATO-Russia Council? What was humiliating about asking Russia to join the WTO? What was humiliating about asking Russia to join the OECD? What was humiliating about lending Russia hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from the World Bank? I think these were bad policies, but the idea that the West was out to humiliate Russia is ludicrous; it’s just part of the mind games that Russia likes to play with its own people and the West.
I wanted to ask about the media portrayal of the Baltics – particularly the impression that I get that a large amount of Baltic coverage is basically uninformed, written by people who have been here for maybe two days, and thus the picture given is often misleading. What do you think the Baltics can do to push their story or at least to ensure that their viewpoint is given equal weight to the Russian argument?
Take it more seriously. Hire good officials who know how to do media, information policy, international security policy. Actually, I think the Baltic states get a pretty good press and I wouldn’t be too worried about it. I think it’s better and better press. Most foreign coverage is pretty weak these days because people who do foreign coverage don’t have any money. I think President Ilves was particularly good at this – the Estonians probably have an edge on this over the other countries, but I’m very impressed by what the Lithuanian Armed Forces have been doing there in displaying their capabilities on information warfare. The NATO Stratcom Centre in Riga is very good. Whatever you do it will never be enough, but I think they’re doing plenty already. But yes I also think they should do more.
You’re well known for being the first person to become an Estonian e-resident [in 2014]. Do you feel that as a journalist you can objectively commentate on Estonia if you’re invested in the country in this way?
Well, I’m not really invested in it. I actually got it free. Normally it’s 50 euros, so I got a free 50-euro card from Estonia, and I was very honoured to receive that. I think as a journalist you should try to find out about the things you write about, and it’s much better to write about e-residency once you are an e-resident because you can see how the system works, and I’m very interested in Estonian e-government. I say critical things about Estonia as well, and in recent years I’ve turned down medals from the governments of the three Baltic states. I did get a medal back in the 1990s, but that was for my work on the independence struggle, which was slightly different. I’m aware of the danger of being seen as a cheerleader, which is why I don’t just cheer them; I sometimes boo them as well.
Do you see any reasons for hope in the region over the next few years? Are there any positive signs at all?
I think there are many positive signs. I think that the economies are continuing to move up the value chain, so we’re seeing more impressive start-ups and moving away from the old model of doing low-value manufacturing and low-end tourism. I’m particularly interested in some of the high-end niche products that are coming in, and the way that the quality of tourism has improved. I think the quality of political writers is pretty good. I’m impressed with some of the new politicians who are coming along – I could mention several by name, but I think that President Kaljulaid in Estonia is a very worthy person to be on the list, as are people in the Lithuanian Parliament; the quality of public servants remains high.
The economies are all growing, and to be on the map 25 years after regaining independence is pretty good. And I think that also the Baltic states have shown that they really matter. Estonia was very nearly Country of the Year for The Economist, and it came second after Colombia, which I think is probably justified, because Colombia has just ended a 50-year civil war. But I think the Baltic states are on the map; they’re on the mind map, but that’s a pretty good place to be, given how small they are and how the odds are stacked against them. There is nobody now, even the pro-Putinists in the West, who would say that the Baltic states would be happier under Russian rule – that wasn’t the case 20 years ago. So I think if we can get through the next few years, which are going to be difficult from a geopolitical point of view, I think the Baltic states have a very bright future; I’m very optimistic about them.
Header image credit – edwardlucas.com
You can find out more about Edward Lucas’s work at his website.
This interview is taken from the forthcoming U19 – the new issue of the Estonian Urbanists’ Review
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