Edward Lucas: Greater Europe was always a non-starter
Edward Lucas is a senior editor of The Economist. He was the weekly’s Moscow bureau chief between 1998 and 2002, later serving as its Central and East European correspondent. Lucas is author of three books: Deception, on Russia-West espionage, The New Cold War, on Putin’s Russia and the threat it poses to the West, and The Snowden Operation. He is a non-resident fellow at the Washington think-tank CEPA.
Assessing the consequences of the Ukraine crisis for the wider world, commentators’ concerns are manifold. National sovereignty, international law and norms, the European security architecture, dividing lines and polarity within Europe, to mention but a few key concepts. What do you think are the main concerns of each player, apart from Ukraine itself: the EU, the US, and Russia?
The EU is reluctantly waking up to the reality that, although it considers geopolitics out-of-date, Russia still believes in it and practices it energetically. The EU thought the Eastern Partnership offered a win-win; that Russia would be happy to have prosperous, stable neighbours with strong institutions, rule of law and political pluralism. Europe failed to realise that this prospect, particularly in Ukraine, posed an existential threat to the Putin regime and that it would stop at nothing to derail it.
The US is reluctantly waking up to the fact that European security is not a done deal. It is perplexed by Putin's foreign policy: why doesn’t he concentrate on fixing his country rather than bullying neighbours, they ask themselves. Obama's world-view is of cool, rational dialogue. He finds the whole issue a huge distraction and wishes it went away. However, he does not want to be the US president who oversaw the collapse of NATO, either, so he is doing the minimum necessary to reassure European allies that America is still a dependable security partner.
Russia, meanwhile, sees Western weakness and is looking to exploit it. Putin and his friends regard the post-1991 settlement in Europe as profoundly unfair and want to revise it, especially in pushing back Western influence in the former Soviet empire, in encouraging neutralist sentiment in Germany, in changing the rules governing European gas markets and other game-changers which will secure the external environment for the Kremlin in the years ahead. The Ukraine crisis is also playing well politically at home, distracting public opinion from stagnation, corruption, repression and incompetence.
What, in your opinion, are the foremost dangers the Ukraine crisis poses to the international community?
There are two dangers. One is that Russia succeeds in turning Ukraine into a failed state, with the resulting refugees, economic dislocation, violence, and potential for terrorism and crime. The other is that the conflict escalates and spills over, most likely into the Baltic states, leading to an East-West military confrontation, with potential for miscalculation and perhaps armed conflict, including nuclear.
What is to blame for the apparent failure of the April 17th Geneva agreement?
The April 17th agreement was a maskirovka, allowing Russia to continue its piecemeal annexation and subversion of Ukraine, while tying the West up in knots over diplomatic process and procedure.
What would be a best- and what a worst-case scenario in Ukraine in terms of Russia-West relations?
The best-case scenario would be a whole-hearted Russian effort to stabilise the political and constitutional situation in Ukraine, with free elections for both parliament and other offices, and a period of calm reflection about the country’s future constitutional order. It would help if Russia explicitly accepted that Ukraine is a real country, that Russians can live there in dignity and freedom, and that Ukraine's future is a matter for Ukrainians alone. The West would continue to offer economic support, particularly in the energy sector, and give advice about reform and restructuring of public services and state administration.
The worst-case scenario is a civil war in Ukraine. It would see Russia and the NATO drawn in — like in the Yugoslav wars, but worse.
Many have pushed for a cooperative Greater Europe, a common economic and security space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, on the level of high politics as well as in the expert discourse, in Russia as well as in the European Union. How do you assess this initiative in light of the Ukraine crisis?
This idea was always a non-starter. Until Russia can reassure countries that are frightened of it that it means no harm, all such initiatives will be viewed with grave suspicion — probably rightly. Russia either does not realise, or does not care, that the Baltic states, Poland and others are terrified of Russian militarism and subversion. Until these countries are reassured that Russia is no threat, no grand designs are possible or desirable.
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