Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas: Once powerful “Stierlitz” has grown very weak


Your last book, “Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West,” is about a massive infiltration of Russian spies in the West and represents a sort of warning which, as Vaclav Havel recommended, should be treated seriously. Why? What is the actual threat of Russia “stealing secrets”? Where can it materialize?

I think you have to start off with the rather controversial assumption that this country [Great Britain] still has secrets and still has national interests and that Russia’s interests conflict with ours. A lot of people in Britain, and particularly in continental Europe as well, have this idea that we do not really have secrets any more. So, therefore, there is nothing to worry about.

But that’s not true. Russia is interested in a whole range of things. It is interested in military secrets, which we still have. But it is also interested in the way in which our financial sector operates: What are the rules of money laundering and getting a listing on a stock exchange? How does due diligence work in [London]? So they use intelligence as a way of answering the questions which they need to answer, as well as, to some extent, to exert influence, getting to the position where they can exert influence. So we see this all over Britain and America.

It could be something of a kind of high-end espionage, like trying to getting a source close to the White House. That was something one of the Russian illegal operatives who was arrested in 2010 in America was doing when she worked in New York; [she was] friends with [New York financier] Alan Patricof, who was a friend of Hillary Clinton. Or it could be someone who works in an office in the European Commission – which may be negotiating with Russia on something very important like energy – and is able to read the emails and see what the EU’s negotiating position is. A third example could be looking at Britain’s relations – with Georgia, for example, just working out how much does the West really care about Georgia, what would happen if there is another crisis, will the West stand by or do a little bit or do a lot? Wherever the question is that involves Russia, Russia will have some kind of espionage tool available, some espionage means involved in trying to find out what the answer is.

In the same book, you quote your colleague Donald Jensen, who asserts that Russia’s main export is not oil and gas, but corruption. Can you please elaborate on that?

Sure. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian superpower. It was handicapped by communism. Communism did not work at home; it was not very attractive abroad. And what we now have are ex-KGB groups working a kind of ruthless capitalism. They understand capitalism, in a way better than we do. They certainly understand its weak points. They see that the big vulnerability of Western-style capitalism is corruption, that capitalism operates within the framework of rules. These rules are set and administered by human beings and, therefore, human beings are corruptible. And I think what Russia has spotted is that political influence is actually quite cheap and bureaucratic influence is quite cheap – and if you are willing to get in and put somebody on your board of directors, give a job to their daughter or their niece or their nephew, or even just pay a straightforward bribe, or buy a newspaper or finance a think-tank or do any other things they do – you can still influence debate in your direction. This is not a new tactic. In a way, Saudi Arabia has been doing this for years – but within limits. I think Russia does it more aggressively and more destructively.

Still, there are many who think that the threat from Russia is confined to the region and it does not cause any global threat….

I think, at least, it keeps [exerting its influence] in the former Soviet Union and former Soviet Empire because that’s where Russia is proportionately stronger. Russia is not a global superpower. Despite its enormous increase in arms spending, its military is really a pathetic shadow of the Soviet military. Basically, it can attack small countries that it can drive to. So that’s bad news for you, I suppose, for Georgia, the Baltic States, maybe Mongolia. But Russia can’t project power globally. It can be a diplomatic spoiler; so it can use its veto in the [UN] Security Council. It can play kind of anti-Western games, but there is not much muscle behind that. There is a much bigger problem in Europe, because Europe is divided and Russia is very good at playing divide-and-rule in Europe. And they play one Baltic State off against the other; play off the Poles against the Czechs; they play the Hungarians and Austrians off against each other, and they play off French and the Germans. And they understand that if you offer a nice big contract – for example, a buy on assault ships from a struggling French shipyard – you don’t just get the assault ships, you get some political goodwill as well. They play this game very excellently.

You explain Russia’s hostility toward the West partly because of its inferiority complex and partly because of its irritation about the affluence of the West. Is it so simple? Is Russia jealous?

I think it’s a mixture of a kind of paranoid Chekhist world view – if anything is good for the West, it must be bad for Russia. And therefore, they have to fight hard in this sort of zero-sum game.

So you think it’s all psychological?

It is not all psychological; I think it is one big element. Just recall Herman Simm, about whom I wrote in my book: the Estonian Defence Ministry officer was [a Russian] spy and his case officer entrusted him with finding out the “secret NATO plan” to attack Russia from Estonia, which did not exist. The Russians were convinced that the only reason that NATO would admit the Baltic State into the Alliance would be if they were preparing to do something nasty to Russia. Paradoxically, at that time, NATO didn’t even have a plan to defend the Baltic States from Russia, let alone a plan to attack Russia.

I think there’s also an old-fashioned idea of national interest – they want to sell their weapons, just as America wants to sell its weapons. There is a kind of pretty brutal rivalry between countries for all sorts of things. Every country, to some extent, is engaged in this superpower struggle, and that is just normal. But, their surveillance is constrained by other things – the idea that cooperation can bring benefits as well. I think that Russians do not really see the benefits of cooperation and they see very clearly the benefits of competition, particularly unfair competition where they are playing dirty.

There is also just a kind of historical anti-Americanism, particularly among the KGB veterans like Mr. Putin who grew up at a time when America was “glavni vrag” – the chief enemy. And they still think that way, even when America has nothing to do, is not really a factor. But Russians think that Americans are “there” somewhere.

In your book, you quote Lenin and dedicate a whole chapter to “useful idiots” in the West who help embolden Putin’s regime. You, however, do not name them. Why do you not identify them? Whom do you mean?

English libel laws are very tough. If I were to mention a leading German think-tanker who is constantly praising Putin and seems to have lots of money, or a leading American think-tanker who is constantly praising Putin and seems to have lots of money, or even a leading British think-tanker who is constantly praising Putin and seems to have lots of money, I would get three very expensive letters [threatening lawsuits] and I guess my publishers would have to apologize and pay a lot because I couldn’t prove it. So, therefore, I just have to hint. But, it seems to me quite clear that if there are people who are genuinely idiotic, who genuinely praise Putin, at least it is not libel to call them idiots – that is a kind of honest “useful idiot.” But, there are what you might call “useful cynics” as well: people who just take money and work for regimes – be it China, Saudi Arabia or Belarus. I think one has to be careful in the case of Russia. I think that, in Russia, the case is what it has always been; it has a full spectrum of engagement. Saudi lobbying is for what they want to do: They want to sell weapons and they do not like us criticizing; they prefer [to use proceeds from weapons sales] to finance Islamic calligraphy in British universities studying the origins of Koran. But with Russians, they have this absolutely “get-everything” [mentality], from making sure that OSCE does not work, “getting” NATO, rigging our financial system, getting dirty money, getting pretty assistants to sleep with MPs, putting ministers on the payroll of companies as soon as they leave office. That’s why the case with Russia is much more troubling.

Many speak about a decline in America’s hegemony and a post-American world. Some claim that is inevitable. However, not long ago, Charles Krauthammer published an article in which he asserts that the decline is a choice of the current leadership of the United States. What is your take on that?

I think “post-American world” is much too strong to say. But I do think that Atlanticism is weakening, and I think that [George W.] Bush was actually the last Atlanticism president, though he was not a very good one. So, I think that the main victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for America were America’s European allies who marched in and fought America’s wars. The result was the weakening of Atlanticism. The Americans have worse relations with European allies than they used to and America did not win these wars. So it’s a pretty big price to pay. I think September 11, 2001 was a kind of watershed for America’s influence in Europe. This is when America let itself get tied up in other things and started drawing down the reserves of solidarity in Europe quite fast.

But, the strong case is that the EU and America together, when they want to be together, they can basically run the world. But the balance is shifting. We just see that American forces are leaving Europe and there is nothing you can do about it.

You are very critical of the “reset” policy. You insist that it did not bring about any tangible result. But, on the other hand, what has changed for Russia? Even before the reset, when there was hostile rhetoric between the United States and Russia, Putin still always managed to have his own way. Take, for example, the Bucharest Summit, where Georgia and Ukraine were denied MAP [the NATO Membership Action Plan], or the Russia-Georgia War in August 2008…

I think that “reset” was a gimmick, and gimmicks can sometimes be useful if they create a diplomatic space. I think you can make the argument that the Baltic States, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians were not very comfortable being kind of frontline states in the new Cold War and that they benefited a bit as they got some breathing space from reset with Russia. Some can also say that there has been success on the nuclear arms treaty, some cooperation in Afghanistan. My feeling is that, basically, Russia gained. What it gave away: The START, it would have given away anyway; it was in Russia’s interest – America’s success in Afghanistan, as well as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START]. We got nothing else.

In your book, you say that some countries, especially Germany, are wrong in their belief that the tension with Russia is the result of misunderstanding and, therefore, Russia should be understood rather than deterred. Do you think the Bucharest Summit, where Germany blocked the award of MAP to Ukraine and Georgia, is an illustration of that?

I think that the actual blame for Bucharest goes to America, rather than to other countries, because America can pretty much get anything what it wants in NATO if it spends enough time and efforts. If the Americans had explained properly that MAP is not a guarantee of membership – it’s a reward for progress towards membership and the start of a new phase of getting membership – and if they then had said to the European allies, “We really, really, really mind about this and it’s very important,” and if they had said to the Russians that, “We are going to do this and we will do that in a way that does not upset you,” and if they had said to the Georgians that, “We are going to make sure that you get this, but you have to do X, Y and Z,” then I think, with the full focus of the American Administration, the Bucharest Summit would have been different. People would have swallowed hard, taking a deep breath, and then made the next stage – and the world would be a better place for that. But what they did is they made lots of mistakes and allowed MAP to be turned into a guarantee of membership for Georgia and Ukraine. That made it very difficult for the European allies, who thought that meant there must be a blank ticket, that we would have to extend Article 5 guarantees to these two still fairly unknown, unstable countries. America did not make an effort to make the Germans, particularly, realize that the United States was serious [about the award of MAP to Georgia and Ukraine].

But the Bucharest Summit ended with Georgia and Ukraine being given certain guarantees. Since the Bucharest Summit, we know that we will become a NATO member, that the door of the Alliance is open…

That was a diplomatic thing, rather than a real promise. I felt very uneasy about that. I think it encouraged the Georgians to be overly confident, at the same time making the Russians feel that the West was pretty serious. So, it was very bad and probably the worst possible outcome. And it would’ve been better just to say, “You should wait until the next summit.” That would have been better than giving an empty promise. So, it’s bad and we still live with the consequences. I blame the war in the summer of 2008 on the Bucharest Summit. I went away from the Bucharest Summit saying that there is going to be a war.

In your book, you express your concerns about the indifference of the West toward the Russian espionage. That brings to memory 2006, when the Georgian government exposed a number of Russian spies in Georgia and publicly humiliated them. Many considered that move unconstructive and criticized the Georgian government. What do you think about that?

As a rule, you treat other countries’ spies as you would like your spies to be treated if they get caught. Therefore, you just expel them and don’t make a fuss about it. But, sometimes, you have to send a public signal. You have to say that this someone is unacceptable, for example, when they have been plotting terrorist attacks and are going way beyond [normal spy practices].

Where it is classic espionage – recruiting sources, the usual mixture of blackmail, bribery and fluttering – and it’s done by intelligence officers working at the embassy undercover, it’s pretty clear. When it comes to what is called “subversion” – plotting coups, blowing things up – then I think the argument for sending a public signal would be much stronger. And, of course, if you are a Western country, you are probably not engaged in that sort of activity in Russia. So, it’s unlikely your spies are going to be caught doing that.

So, I think it depends; it’s case-by-case. I think if Georgians could rerun 2006, they would probably have not done it that way.

What makes you think that way?

My instinct is that it’s very easy in the heat of the moment to go for a demonstrative public thing. I may be wrong, but I think that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. When you are completely calm and you know exactly what you are doing, you probably get more out of it then just lashing back.

The key promise of major political opponents of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is that they will “sort out” relations with Russia without changing Georgia’s Western course. Do you think that is feasible? As George Kennan said, it is impossible to have good neighborly relations with Russia because you either have to be its vassal or its enemy. What is your take on that?

There is a great book called “Negotiating with the Soviets,” which is about that kind of understanding of Russians. I think Kennan is quite right – it is either “ya nachalnik ti durak” [“I am a boss while you are a fool”] or vice versa – or it has to be a relationship of friendship among equals, which is sort of absurd with Russia. This is difficult, because Georgia cannot be a friend of Russia.

So, I think it is tricky. And if you look around, where is the country that Russia has really good relations with, big or small? I mean, they got on well with Germany when Germany was run by Gerhard Schroeder, and actually that was because they turned Schroeder around. But, you cannot name a country which is happy at every level in its relationships with Russia.

Perhaps the most accurate example is Denmark and Germany or the Netherlands and Germany. [Denmark and the Netherlands] have every historical reason to be cross with the Germans. The Czech Republic and Germany is actually another good example. In the European Union, you have a really big country [Germany] which makes efforts to get on fine with its neighbors. You can look all over the world and you will not find that in the case of Russia, except the Russians do get along pretty well with Venezuela – and even that is basically because the Venezuelan dictatorship is like a sort of Russian autocracy.

So, I think normal Georgian-Russian relationship will not really happen unless the regime in Russia changes.

Since you mentioned regime change, let me ask: Recent protests in Russia show that a segment of the society in Russia is running out of patience and trying to change the situation. How would you evaluate that process?

First of all, I think that there is not very much we can do from the outside to affect the processes inside Russia. What we can do is to support countries like Georgia and the Baltic States and anyone who is imperiled by this kind of toxic mess in the Kremlin. Secondly, we can stop corruption; we should apply money laundering laws and be the creator of a rigorous external environment which Russia cannot manipulate.

Will Russian middle classes revolt to turn Russia into a modern democracy? I doubt it, I’m afraid.

I think you have got to separate the personality of Putin and the regime’s business model. I think that the personality of Putin is very vulnerable because he has lost this kind of macho I-can-do-everything Mister Fix-It, the “new Stierlitz.” All his positives are looking much weaker now, and he has become a bit of a figure of fun now. He looks weak and Russian politics punishes the weak. [Putin would have to] very quickly get back the authority that he had, and I doubt he can do that. So, I doubt that he will [serve his full term of] six years.

I think the business model of the regime – which is to collect natural resource rents and then distribute them to buy political favors – is also endangered. Because they are running out of oil and gas money, it is not enough to feed this sort of corrupt monster.

The regime, I think, may be more durable. So, I think you could imagine a regime that gets rid of Putin, goes down the path of sort-of authoritarian modernization – a kind of Pinochet-style [regime] which gets rid of some of the oligarchs – and tries to diversify the economy. Russia would still be an ex-KGB regime, still be nasty to its neighbors, but it would concentrate a bit more on modernization and a bit less on this extravagant, corrupt nonsense that Putin has epitomized. I think that’s the most likely [scenario] – that the regime modifies; changes its business model; dumps Putin. But it’s still bad news for its neighbors.

My worry is that the West will be so happy to see Putin go that it will embrace the new/old regime, without realizing that it’s not actually essentially different.


This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 100, published 14 May 2012.



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