Edward Lucas on Putin’s Gambit

17:38 Tuesday 4th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[C]HRIS MANN: The Foreign Secretary William Hague is warning of a grave risk of escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine, after Russian troops fired warning shots in Crimea. The Russian President Vladimir Putin has described events in Ukraine as an unconstitutional coup. Sir James Paice the Conservative MP for South East Cambridgeshire told the Foreign Secretary that Russia’s been emboldened by the international community’s failure to act in previous stand-offs.
SIR JAMES PAICE: Can I really urge my Right Honorable Friend, particularly on the Thursday’s European Council, to push for the toughest possible economic sanctions? It’s the only lesson that they will learn, otherwise we will see this happen over and over again. And it’s not surprising that former Soviet Union countries are worried.
CHRIS MANN: So Cambridgeshire MP Sir James Paice there. Let’s get some analysis of how the current situation came to be. Edward Lucas is Senior Editor at the Economist magazine, and an expert on Europe. I spoke to him earlier.
EDWARD LUCAS: To think that Crimea was rubbing along, if not happily, at least adequately until all this happened, as indeed Ukraine was. This is basically a successful multi-ethnic country, and Crimea is a more or less successful multi-ethnic region. It does have a Russian naval base there, but you know we have an American base in Guantanamo, which is actually part of Cuba. This is not, it’s not unknown in international relations to have these bases. I think what’s really happened here is that Putin, for reasons of his own, has come in and stoked up the tensions, and caused a problem which otherwise wouldn’t have existed, and now we’re trying to cope with the consequences.
CHRIS MANN: And given the history between those two countries, do you think they will be able to go back to normal relations,if this current bump is smoothed out?
EDWARD LUCAS: I think it’s been worse in the past. I think we had a huge artificial famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, in which millions of people died. And we had a ten year guerilla war in Western Ukraine, with people fighting against the Soviet occupation, which went on from the end of the Second World War into the ’50s. And I think that the real story of Eastern Europe since the collapse of Communism is that it is possible to put these very bitter historical feuds aside, and get on with having a nice life, making money and doing normal civilised things. So again I think it’s perfectly possible, even in future, that Ukraine and Russia will get on well. Although I think it would help if the Putin regime was to fall, which I devoutly hope will be sooner rather than later.
CHRIS MANN: That’s an interesting concept, because since the breakup of the Soviet Union those fifteen republics have all fared differently. We’ve seen of course of Eastern Europe, back in ’89 and ’90, the dominos fall. Might that happen now in the former Soviet Union?
EDWARD LUCAS: I think that the whole Putin project is now rather shaky. He’s basically played double or quits. He didn’t like what the EU was offering, because it was rather tempting, so he tried to force countries not to accept it. And that worked with Armenia, who he arm-twisted into not accepting this deal with the EU; and then Ukraine also arm-twisted even harder. And then people protested. So he thought right, let’s have a crackdown. And the crackdown didn’t work, so he thought right, let’s try something more dramatic. Let’s try something in the Crimea. And that seems to have worked for now, although I think he may have been taken a bit by surprise by the strength of the Western reaction. And it’s difficult for him. He’s got to turn round to his people and declare victory, otherwise they’ll think it’s a failure. And I’m not sure that this is a victory.
CHRIS MANN: But they’ll see the truth of it, won’t they? They’ve got enough access to Western media for instance.
EDWARD LUCAS: I think that the Russian propaganda machine has been pretty good at getting its message across on the TV channels, which are where most Russians get their news. The people who don’t like Putin tend to look at stuff on the internet and get a more balanced view of the world. But his core supporters tend to watch the main TV channels, and get their news from there. But I think that if his gambit ends up in war, I think he will have a lot of explaining to do. If it ends up with him getting more control over the Crimea, he may be able to declare that as a victory. Though I still think the price he’ll pay in Western displeasure is going to be quite substantial, and may be a suprise to him.
CHRIS MANN: You’re suggesting Edward I think that Putin’s almost on borrowed time now.
EDWARD LUCAS: Well Chris I think he’s been on borrowed time for a long time, because what is keeping him and his regime afloat is a high oil price, and a high gas price linked to that oil price, and that’s under threat now. We’ve got lots of new oil coming on-stream, not least in America. We’ve got lots of new gas coming on-stream. Again, very much in America, but also shale gas and other places. The EU is taking an axe to Gazprom’s business model, quite rightly, and there’s a complaint, a kind of prosecution, coming shortly against Gazprom for serial market rigging and market abuse. So I think it’s actually rather a bleak outlook for Putin, and one could maybe interpret this sort of foreign adventure as an attempt to try and turn the tables on the West. But I don’t think the tables are there to be turned.
CHRIS MANN: A last throw of the dice perhaps. So could we actually see a democratic Russia that was almost friendly with the West?
EDWARD LUCAS: I think in the long term that’s inevitable. It’s a matter of geographical necessity, because Russia’s not strong enough to stand up to China on its own. It’s not strong enough to be a kind of independent pole in world affairs. .. So the natural place for Russia is to be rather like Japan, a country that’s very large, large economy, not geographically part of the West but gets on with trying to make the best of things and takes a responsible part of global government. So I think that’s going to happen sooner rather than later. But first they have to get over this kind of delusional neo-imperialist idea, which is so crippling for them. But the main thing about being Russian is to have a frontier with Russian soldiers on both sides of it. And that’s extremely bad for neighbouring countries, more so I think very bad for Russia.
CHRIS MANN: And what’s your analysis of how the EU and the US together have acted in all of this? It seem to be with some maturity.
EDWARD LUCAS: Obviously I would criticise it for not being more, and I think we’ve neglected Ukraine, and we’ve turned a blind eye to Putin since he came to power. And we’ve made many mistakes, both in Britain and the EU and the West generally, in particular I would say the Obama administration. But I think we have got our act together quite substantially as a result of this crisis. I was particularly impressed to see the German French and Polish Foreign Ministers going in a Polish-led mission to Kiev to try and broker a deal between Mr Yanukovych and the protesters. And that was really the diplomatic equivalent of an American US Navy carrier battlegroup, to have these really important European countries, led by Poland, brokering a deal with the Russians basically having to accept the terms on offer. And I think this is the new future of European security, these big European countries making decisions, doing stuff with strong American support. But I just wish that Britain was part of it, and at the moment we seem to be rather on the sidelines.
CHRIS MANN: Why is that?
EDWARD LUCAS: I think it’s this kind of demented Euroscepticism, and I think it’s a psychological question rather than a political one. There’s all sorts of stuff happening in Europe which is really really good for us in terms of the intensification of the single market or the growth of a European security and defence policy, the way in which the EU is able to set terms of trade with the rest of the world. And I just don’t really understand why Britain obsesses. I blame the tabloid press and certain members of the Tory party.
CHRIS MANN: Edward Lucas,Senior Editor of the Economist magazine,. Thank you so much for joining us.
EDWARD LUCAS: Thank you.