Interview: Edward Lucas

Few journalists working on Eastern Europe are more respected or provocative than Edward Lucas, former Moscow Correspondent and current International Editor at The Economist. Edward is the author of The New Cold War and Deception; Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West, dealing with the Russian Federation’s foreign policy and espionage respectively. Josh Black put these questions to him.

Edward Lucas. Photo by Saeima

Edward Lucas.
Photo by Saeima

I’ve just finished your latest book and you recommend a more comprehensive approach to Russian espionage. What does that look like?

I think we need to have a much more joined up approach between our crime fighters, our intelligence services, our financial policeman and our military. We tend to think in categories; I’m a soldier – my job is defending the country from military threats; I’m a financial policeman – my job is keeping the London stock exchange and the banking system clean and honest, I’m an MI5 guy – my job is catch spies or I’m a policeman – my job is to catch criminals.

The trouble is that the threat we are facing from Russia is one where these things overlap quite a lot, so you may have someone who is basically trying to steal secrets through espionage, but also money laundering, selling military equipment to a country that we don’t like and using the western financial system to process their payments.

Again and again I find there is this kind of pigeon-hole thinking that makes it very easy for the malefactors to fall between the cracks.

Should we be focusing on Russians working in sensitive areas? You say in the book that no British or American person would work in the Russian Defense Ministry.

I’m glad I live in an open society where we treat people fairly and decently on the basis of what their talents are, rather than on their passport and background. But I do think we need to get back to a system of rather more systematic vetting, and not just for Russians. We didn’t always catch everyone during the Cold War but today there is a kind of preposterous openness.

We tend to think that as a country we don’t have any secrets and it doesn’t really matter. Actually, we do have secrets and there are people trying to steal them. I feel very strongly that we should start prosecuting people much more severely when we catch them. It’s not just Britain, quite a lot of countries tend to be a bit complacent about spies and I think that this is a mistake. People should think “If I spy for Russia and I get caught I can go to prison,” and not just retire quietly.

Looking at Russia, do you think that their focus on espionage is a symptom or a cause of their poor relations with their Western neighbours?

I think it’s both. The leadership comes from an ex-KGB background that venerates intelligence information which is often a completely wrong or very incomplete picture of what’s going on. I also think espionage is one thing Russia is still really good at and so they do it.

They can’t compete with us properly on an economic playing field because their economy is so dependent on natural resources, bribes and rent collection and things like that; they haven’t developed a proper manufacturing or services base. They can’t really compete with us on soft power – they try, but their system is so unattractive. They can’t really compete on a military basis because their military is set back by corruption, incompetence and obsolescence; what they can do is spy.

Does Russia spy on China and what sort of thing are they interested to find out?

Yes, very much so. The first thing that a country always looks at when it spies on another country is “what are their plans for us” and so they are interested in what China thinks about Russia, how far up the Chinese foreign policy agenda they are, what China is trying to get, and what China’s negotiating position is.

A second area is cooperation liaison. Occasionally you get signs of joint operations between Russian and Chinese intelligent services on a sort of general anti-Western basis but a lot less than there used to be.

We’re now a few years on from your book The New Cold War. Do you think that the new Cold War has been averted?

One of the messages of The New Cold War was watch out, there’s going to be a war in Georgia and that was vindicated, sadly.

I think that the warning I gave had some effects, particularly on the energy front, and the EU has really woken up to Russia’s abuse of its market power in gas. We’ve seen quite a lot of progress on breaking up Gazprom or breaking all the big energy companies’ vertically-integrated models – which are a form of market abuse. And we’ve seen the growth of inter-connectors, which makes it much harder for Russia to play off one country against another. We’ve also seen a change in market conditions because of the growth of liquefied natural gas and shale gas in America.

When you write a book giving some pretty dark warnings, you want those warnings to be taken on board. What seemed like ‘crazy Edward Lucas talk’ in 2005 was credible enough to be worth a book in 2007 and now it’s kind of mainstream – if you say that Russia is a xenophobic kleptocracy run by extremely nasty, dangerous people, people say “Yeah, we know that. Yeah that’s what everybody says.” That was not the case five years ago.

The shale gas element is an interesting one because that would seem to undermine Russia’s energy position, but with a lot of Eastern European countries using state run enterprises, will that hold back the EU policy of unbundling enterprises?

You may welcome a state-owned or a partly state-owned company doing the gas extraction. The question is, does it then have a lock on the rest of the business? The answer is that it can’t under EU rules. It’s one business getting gas out of the ground, it’s another distributing and selling it to the consumer. What we’ve got now basically makes it much harder to say I’m the gas kingpin in this country and everybody has got to buy my gas, which is the old model.

Do you think that the Reset has anything left to achieve?

Well I think the reset was a diplomatic gimmick, which was defensible in itself but came with a lot of collateral damage – mainly due to the way the American government interpreted it. It was probably in the American interest to get deals on nukes, space exploration and the northern supply route to Afghanistan.

But I’m afraid that the lesson of the Reset hasn’t really been learned. The White House now seems to be pushing ahead with another big cut in strategic nuclear weapons and with the de-nuclearisation of Europe. With the collapse in NATO’s conventional capability, this is at the expense of the security of our allies, particularly Poland and the Baltic States. I feel that the Obama administration could be forgiven for making a mistake once, but it would be hard to forgive them for making a mistake twice if they go ahead down this road.

What is it about Russia’s politics that makes the leadership so resolutely anti-Western. Is it the people who are there at the moment or is it systemic?

I refer you to a piece I wrote called Paradox and Paranoia. I do think Russia’s strategic culture has some elements of resentment and the feeling of isolation. It’s very easy to retreat into this paranoid mindset and we see that in many previous decades, even centuries. The fundamental problem for Russia is that it lost its empire, but it didn’t lose its imperial mindset, whereas Germany sees the post 1948 settlement in Europe as essentially stable and satisfactory.

Russia still feels that the post-1991 settlement was profoundly unfair, that she gave up her past status, that she is not treated equally and that Russia’s interest is not respected in what they regard as their backyard.

What where do you think would be the next place that Russia tries to reassert or recover some of its pre-1991 power?

They are pushing back in the Baltic states; they are doing quite well in the western Balkans, Croatia and in the Caucasus since the change of power in Georgia. Russia’s approach is very opportunistic, when they see resistance they stop, but if they see weakness they advance so you can really look around the entire crescent of countries from Finland and Norway in the north down to the ‘Stans in the South. I’m probably particularly worried at the moment about the military integration with Belarus and plans to have a Russian airbase in Belarus.

In terms of the country’s domestic policy, do you think it’s possible to predict what will happen over the next couple of years?

Well, I think that the wheels are coming off of Putinism 2.0.

Putinism 1.0 was stability, growth, ‘I’m not Yeltsin’, Russia’s back on the map – that was a pretty powerful cocktail. Then there was the Medvedev era which was about modernisation and that sort of failed. Now we’re moving on, probably to stagnation and repression. The attempt to modernize Russia’s economy hasn’t worked. Putin talks about nanotechnology, and he’s talked about the Skolkovo science park, but this just isn’t working.

This is still a corrupt, narrowly based economy with a bad demographic outlook, dreadful reputation among foreign investors and a very poor infrastructure. That’s a pretty sad place to be 13 years after Putin started with supposedly high hopes, and such an enormous amount of money from oil and gas that they could have afforded to do everything they wanted.

Edward Lucas, thank you.


2 thoughts on “Interview: Edward Lucas

  1. Lucas, between his new Star Wars and cyber-metaphors, has been an oversimplifier of Russian foreign policy for a while. That might be why he is “among the most respected”, which is a category that does not necessarily include who does rigorous research and doesn’t stop at the surface (recent examples of “most respected” failures include journalists as well as professors).
    The “threat talk” he uses has little to do with reality, since his “New Cold War” never materialized because of a Russian threat, but due to NATO-bloc provocations. It was the West that was ready to prepare the battleground (missile shields, NATO expansion…) and it is the West (Europe) that is renegotiating the contracts with Gazprom (which is *not* the same as the “Kremlin”). What we’ve seen in the 21st century is an active, though softer, Russian foreign policy in its neighborhood and a reactive policy to actions taken in Washington and Brussels.
    “Crazy Edward Lucas talk” has probably swept more issues under the “Russia is anti-Western” carpet, than it has provoked thought.
    This interview leaves me with a question: “Who is feeding the consequential relation: ‘Sovietology is dead, long live Kremlinology’? Is it Russia or Western opinion makers?”

  2. Pingback: Vostok Cable | Out of the Black

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