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Is This A New Cold War?

  • RFE/RL

Does the fighting in Georgia mean a wake-up call for the West?

Does the fighting in Georgia mean a wake-up call for the West?

A new era of East-West confrontation, a big chill, a Cold War-style face-off. Whatever epithet you choose, Russia has signaled by its actions in Georgia that shared interests with the West take second place to competitive interests. Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West," spoke to RFE/RL about how the confrontation is taking shape.

RFE/RL: Long before the current conflict, you wrote that the West was losing the new Cold War, "while hardly having noticed that it has started." Is this the moment in which you'd say the West has finally noticed?

Edward Lucas: It's very hard to know what the real wake-up moment is. We've had plenty of wake-up moments already and I feel we're going to have plenty more in the future. The trouble is that the big European countries don't really want to rock the boat. So Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands I don't think are ready to rethink radically their relations with Russia. There's a big business community that does well out of deals with Russia, the energy supplies are tightly integrated.

I was interested that [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel went to the Baltics this week but didn't say that Germany was going to reconsider Nord Stream for example, the [Russian-sponsored] Baltic Sea gas pipeline. I would say the West is no longer deeply asleep but it's not yet fully awake.

RFE/RL: Do you see signs emerging of a more robust Western response?

Lucas: I think the EU basically is incapable of a tough response. So, they are not, I think, going to do anything that really bothers the Russians, At best we may get a special representative for the reconstruction of Georgia and a few billion euros to rebuild the things the Russians have blown up. But ultimately that's neither here nor there. Russia is still rightly under the impression it can divide and rule with the EU.

NATO is less of a lost cause -- to put it no more strongly than that. What we really need is a two-speed NATO; some existing NATO nations should be offered Partnerships for Peace, [such as the] Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, and other ones that clearly don't want to stand up to Russia. And the fast-speed core NATO should be countries that are really willing to do something particularly to defend the Baltic states, which are now absolutely in the front line.

Why, in your view, was the West slow to wake up?

Lucas: It's distracted, divided, and deluded. We've had Russian missile attacks on Georgian territory for a year, we had a Russian-sponsored riot in Tallinn over the bronze soldier [a Soviet-era monument that was relocated from the city center], we've had Russian cyberattacks, we've had Putin's [2007] Munich speech [when the then-Russian president accused the West of trying to start a new Cold War], we've had the formal statement of Russia's foreign policy doctrine which says it's going to use energy as a weapon.

There's no excuse for people not knowing this. It's a bit like people saying 1968 woke people up to what the Soviet Union was really like. Come on! Ever since 1918 it was clear what the Soviet Union was really like -- why did it take the invasion of Czechoslovakia to wake them up? With Putin's Russia it's been clear since the late 1990s that the old KGB was coming back to power and that this crook-spook alliance was running Russia, and why is it only now in 2008 that people are beginning dimly to perceive what the Chekist regime in the Kremlin is really like?

RFE/RL: Does this put an end to any idea that there can be a post Cold-War order based on shared interests? Are we back to an era of competing interests?

I hope we're getting back to neo-containment. I would like rollbacks [pressure to curb Russian behavior] -- I want to see democracy in Russia, and I think the Russian people deserve better than this corrupt, incompetent, brutal government they've got. We're some way from that yet. The first thing to do is to defend the people who believe in what we believe in. That's the Georgians, whom we've completely failed, it's the Ukrainians, and it's most of all the Balts, who are members of the EU and NATO, and we don't have a single NATO ground force soldier anywhere in the Baltic states. We have one squadron of fighter planes; that's the entire NATO presence in the Baltics, it's simply not good enough.

RFE/RL: What about the argument that the West needs Russia more than the other way round, and so it has limited leverage?

I think that's preposterous and offensive. Russia is a country with one-third of the population of the EU and about one-sixth or one-fifth of the population of the EU and U.S. combined. Russia's GDP at $1 trillion is about one-tenth of the EU's GDP. The idea that Russia is in the position to bully the EU is a complete misapprehension. We only think like that because we've got so used to the Russian ability to use bullying and bluff and bluster coupled with this clever divide-and-rule policy that we end up thinking that they're strong [and] we're weak. They're not. America could sink the Russian Navy in 10 minutes if it wanted to.

RFE/RL: Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, called for the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia. What is Britain looking for?

Lucas: Britain is acting with the zeal of a convert. Under [former Prime Minister] Tony Blair, Britain went a long way down the path of trying to be friends with Russia against the sharp warnings of commentators such as myself. So Blair was going to the opera with Putin and there was a tremendous attempt to befriend this repulsive KGB regime in the Kremlin.

I think the murder [by radiation poisoning] of [former Russian security officer Aleksandr] Litvinenko, a British citizen, [in] an act of nuclear terrorism, endangering scores of other people on the streets of London with the direct involvement of the Russian security services, coupled with the grotesque breach of the Vienna convention [on diplomatic relations] with the harassment of the British ambassador [to Moscow] by the thugs of the Kremlin-sponsored youth movement Nashi, coupled with the harassment of BP, Britain's largest company, a grotesque abuse of bureaucratic procedures to basically drive it out of business and make its shareholders surrender -- all that laid the ground for severe disillusionment in British officialdom with Russia, belatedly. So now, with the Georgia thing, Britain is primed and ready to go. Some other European countries are still several laps behind.