Edward Lucas on Brexit, Donbas, and Ukraine-US Scandal
17 October, 2019

The Riga Conference 2019 brought a host of government officials, journalists, policy experts, and others all interested in discussing and solving the big issues facing Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. One of the big focuses was security – the Baltic countries have yet to forget their experiences under the Soviet government, and with Russia’s seemingly nonchalant invasion of Ukraine and seizure of territory, their concerns have not abated. One of the panel moderators at the Riga Conference was Edward Lucas, a journalist and current vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank promoting transatlantic links between Europe and the United States. Hromadske had a chance to talk to Mr Lucas about his feelings on Brexit, the risks for Ukraine in negotiating with Russia, and much more.

I’d like to start with a question about Brexit. The rest of Europe has been watching with dread at what’s been happening in Britain for the last month. What do you think will be the most likely scenario? How will all this end?

The dread with which you watch what is happening is nothing compared to the dread with which we watch what is happening. I still think that it’s possible that we will not leave in the end. I think that it may be the only way to get through this deal which seems to be now, nearly agreed through Parliament, will be, if it's attached to the promise of a second referendum, on the deal. And as this deal will not be as good as what we have at the moment, if there are only two options on the ballot paper, maybe we will then vote after everything then to stay and reject this deal. But I think that the damage has been huge, we’ve suffered extraordinary loss of international prestige and we’ve suffered huge political polarization at home. And this issue that basically nobody cared about only five years ago has now divided us worse than we’ve been divided in my lifetime or in my parents lifetime.

So what do you think are the lessons to be learned from this situation?

I think one lesson is that mixing direct democracy and representative democracy is not a  good idea. We have a parliamentary system, and what we should have said is that if you want Britain to leave the European Union, then form a political party and win an election on that manifesto and then you can do it. But the idea that a referendum gives a simple answer, a simple powerful answer, is a very dangerous one, because the answer is simple, but the question is very complicated. It was never really clear on the ballot paper during the campaign, what kind of Brexit we wanted. Was this the very soft Brexit that was promised, publicly, by the Brexiters, was it going to be the very hard, radical Brexit that they talked about to their supporters, or something in between. We don’t know. And the referendum result didn’t give us that. I think that if we had better political leadership – and that’s the second thing, that our political class is kind of exhausted and discredited. If David Cameron or Theresa May, straight after the referendum, had said ‘Right, it’s a narrow result, it’s not going to be a very  hard Brexit, it will be a soft one, we’re going to be like Norway’ – we could have joined the European Economic Area and have been out of the EU within six months. And nobody would notice and nobody would care, and it would already be two years ago, and we would have got a deal which in some respects was in a way plus, in some respects in a way minus, but it would be very boring and basically satisfactory. So we could have done that, and nobody stopped us doing it except our own political weakness at the top. 

Our new president Zelensky is promising to bring peace – he made it a cornerstone of his agenda, he seems on the way to meet Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and French President Macron in the Normandy Four summit. What are the risks, what should he be aware of?  Do expect there to be significant pressure on him, and European allies with regard to the Russian agenda?

I think there are risks. I think one risk that Ukraine is pushed by the West into making a bad deal. I think there is also a danger that Ukraine is pushed by Ukraine into making a bad deal. The big thing for me is not so much what are the terms – say we have a ceasefire in the East, say the question of Crimea is postponed for a decade, or longer, these are reasonable potential political compromises and its up to Ukrainians if they want them – the question is ‘What does Russia do next?’ And my worry is that Russia’s long-term interest is in destabilizing Ukraine. And that the eastern territories will be used as a continual kind of wound, an economic and political irritant for Ukraine and that Russia’s interests here are not sincere, so I worry about that. But I’m against outsiders telling Ukraine to be tough, because I think Ukraine has been tough and the outsiders didn’t help and we are in no position to advise you to take more casualties, and more suffering, and more economic losses, when we didn’t help you. This is fundamentally a question for Ukraine to decide and the Ukrainian president has a huge mandate. And that’s the thing about democracy that you elect leaders and they do things. 

Ukraine now has also been dragged against its will into the center of this political scandal, political storm in the United States. Do you think that might have an impact on US bipartisan support to Ukraine? There are some fears in Ukraine that that might be the case.

I think this is an absolute nightmare, because whatever you do, you offend someone very important. So if you cooperate with President Trump, you infuriate the Democrats, and you need the Democrats both in the future, because they might be in government, and right now because Congress votes the money through for you. But if you annoy President Trump, well, he’s the guy in charge, so it’s a lose-lose situation. I feel very sorry for Ukraine that you’re in this, and I don’t think you could have done anything differently. I think this is fundamentally not Ukraine’s fault. There’s no point you can say ‘Well that was a big mistake.’ You just got sucked into this.  

What do you think Ukraine should do at this point? Should it just wait until the 2020 elections with its fingers crossed? 

I would suggest that you rename the NATO operations center near Odesa as Fort Trump and try to attract President’s Trump attention with some bright shiny thing that he will like, or rename the…

You know there’s a cafe somewhere in Ukraine already named ‘Trump.’

Yes, I would rename the road from Boryspil Airport to Trump Highway. And just...I mean you just have to try and play this game, and do something that will attract his attention in a positive way but that doesn’t damage your standing with the Democrats. 

So these small measures you think would help?

I’m being slightly flippant. It’s really difficult, I think, there are serious questions about Hunter Biden’s involvement in Burisma, generally, and Mister Zlochevsky, and all these things. If I wanted to be critical, one could say that this is the problem with running a corrupt political and economic system, is that it doesn’t just damage you, it gives outsiders ways of attacking you as well. If, and its a big if, if it never happened with the gas licenses and Burisma and so on, then Ukraine would not be so open to criticism. There are things that are worth investigating here, but they are not things that President Trump should be using as part of his political fight against Joe Biden, who’s still his likely rival in the presidential election. So I’m afraid I can offer you only sympathy, but not advice on this.

Do you think Ukraine can still count on U.S. support or will there be less support? Or will the US want to stay away and distance itself from the Ukrainian fight against Russian aggression?

It’s going to be difficult, I don’t think people are queueing up to replace Kurt Volker or to be the new Ambassador to Ukraine. Ukraine is now toxic in the American political context. So I think the key thing is to concentrate on practical – President Zelenskyy has a good reform agenda. I’d concentrate on making sure the IMF is happy, dealing with the Privatbank problem, making sure that all the other multilateral and other governmental partners are satisfied, broaden your appeal and be prepared for less interest from the United States.

Russia’s President Putin is probably happy with the situation.

I think he’s probably popping open the champagne in the Kremlin every night, except he doesn’t drink. This is very good for him – Zelenskyy’s victory was very bad for Russia, because it showed that you could have a free and fair election where a political outsider could come in and overturn an incumbent. This is not something that would happen in Russia. The Rada elections were also the kind of election that Russians could only dream of. It would never happen in the Duma. The difference between Ukraine’s open political system and Russia’s closed one is really underlined. I’m afraid that a lot of those gains have been undermined by this controversy over Hunter Biden and the prosecutor and all these issues that are really not of Ukraine’s making.

The US has been withdrawing from Syria and have basically left the Kurds, who are part of this anti-ISIS alliance alone, so now the allies of the United States in other parts of the world, like Ukraine, are asking themselves, ‘will the same fate one day meet us as well?’ What consequences will that have and do U.S. allies really have a reason to be worried?

It is very bad. I think this is possibly the third or fourth time that the United States has betrayed the Kurds. It’s becoming a kind of habit, and it's terrible. I think that it’s not a direct analogy, because the YPG is closely aligned to the PKK, which is not like a typical American ally. You don’t have the other NATO allies, you don’t have militias carrying out terrorist operations inside neighboring countries. I’m certainly not sympathetic to the Turkish government on this and I think they’ve created the Kurdish problem by their very repressive policies. But I think that one could argue that the YPG relied rather too much on the American support. Perhaps what they should have done was to use the period of American backing to try and reset the negotiations with Turkey. It would have been very difficult – Erdogan is not an easy man to deal with, but there was perhaps a little bit of complacency on the Kurds. They thought ‘Well, the Americans need us,’ so they could carry on with their extremely hard line approach to Turkey. Maybe there was retrospect, they should have handled that a bit differently. But I don’t think there’s a direct analogy with say, Latvia, because Latvia is a state, and the YPG is a militia. 

The former NATO secretary-general Rasmussen said that there might be the option of Georgia being accepted as a NATO member, if Article 5 does not function on the territory that is currently occupied by Russia. Do you think this scenario is realistic, and might it in the future be realistic for Ukraine?

I think that the prospect of getting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO in any circumstances is good. I mean it is to be welcomed. I think that the question of territorial integrity is what we pay diplomats to deal with. West Germany didn’t recognize East Germany at the time that West Germany joined NATO. But we accepted West Germany as a member of NATO at a time when the East, or Soviet, zone of Germany was a country that no Western country recognized at the time. So there’s room for creative ambiguity on that. I’d also point out that Article 5 is much less definitive than people think. It says that NATO members collectively or individually will respond. It doesn’t a sort of unconditional guarantee, so there’s plenty of room for maneuver on that. I think it’s really important to try and get Georgia into all Western security structures as quickly as possible, because Georgia is slipping away. We see more Russian influence, we see great China influence, we see political polarization, we see the degradation of public institutions, violent confrontations at international conferences, we never saw that before. I really worry that Georgia is in a kind of vacuum, because Georgia is a small country, it doesn’t have the critical mass to keep going. I think Ukraine is a big country, it has tremendous internal momentum, foreign help is nice but you can actually do it on your own. Georgia, under 5 million people, really needs outside support and its not getting it at the moment. Not getting it from Germany, not getting it from the EU, not getting it from the United States, not getting it from anyone. 

So what should change for it to get it? 

Well I hope that Secretary-General Rasmussen is right on this. I must say I’m a little bit skeptical. I think that we need – I mean, I do hope things will change once we have the new European Commission in, and a new German leader, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was here at the Riga conference today, when, if she gets her feet under Mrs Merkel’s desk, we may see a more sort of energetic European diplomacy, and it may be that we get something coming up at the next NATO summit where they want to have this success. So hope springs eternal. I have to say that I’m not optimistic at the moment. We are in a period of great dislocation in the West, both internal, in terms of our internal cohesion, and in terms of cohesion between countries. And this is a bad time to be a small country that’s on the outside and needs support and attention.

And in the EU, do you think that the EU foreign policy will change, will put more emphasis on the eastern neighborhood, now with the new European Commission and the new High Representative Josep Borrell?

I’m a bit skeptical because I think the Eastern Partnership wasn’t really a good idea in the beginning. It was an answer, but I could never really find out what was the question, to which the Eastern Partnership is an answer, except ‘We have to do something.’ And the six countries were radically different in size and in orientation, it didn’t really make sense to me to lump them all together. I must say I was skeptical on that. What I want to see is the new EU-Ukraine agreement be exploited to the full, with plenty more to do on that. I want to see trade booming, and more everything, from education exchanges, to infrastructure – there’s a whole slate of things that could be done to strengthen the EU-Ukrainian relationship. So that’s very important. The thing that encourages me with the EU, I think is more that the new commission looks as if it might be a bit tougher on China. The new foreign policy concept for the EU actually explicitly labels China as our strategic rival. That’s new. And I think that although for Ukraine, Russia is the big problem, for the world, China’s the big problem, and I get the impression that the EU is beginning to realize what a difficult adversary, not just rival, it faces in China. And the more that China tries to control what happens outside China, particularly on things like what happens in universities and what companies do, and so on – I think the more Europeans start getting worried and so I think my guess is that we will see pretty much continuity in the Russia policy, but we might see a much sharper edge to the China policy.

/Interview by Olga Tokariuk

/Text by Romeo Kokriatski