Edward Lucas: the message could hardly have been clearer

Edward Lucas

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Russia marked Victory in Moscow with a parade overseen by President Putin. He also visited Crimea and praised its return to the motherland. Meanwhile bandits wielding Kalashnikovs guard roadblocks in Eastern Ukraine and helicopters are shot out of the sky.

Ukraine — a European country — is facing the choice, forced on it by Russia, between dismemberment and civil war. What more will it take to wake up the world to the threat posed by Russia under its sinister strongman Vladimir Putin?

The Russian leader has torn up the rules on which European security has been based for decades.

He and his cronies loot tens of billions of dollars from Russia each year – and launder it in the City of London, corrupting our public life.

 They bribe and bully to get their way. At home, they jail and persecute their opponents. Those who seriously cross their path end up dead.

 One of them was my colleague Anna Politkovskaya, a gutsy campaigning journalist, who was shot dead in 2006.

Another was the defector Alexander Litvinenko, assassinated by Russian agents in the streets of London with a radioactive poison in 2007.

It was these killings that prompted me to write a book «The New Cold War», first published in early 2008. It warned the West that Mr Putin’s regime was a new and terrifying threat.

The regime was funded by organised crime and big business and at its heart was the evil of the old Soviet KGB. It was bent on repression at home and aggression abroad. And it was fuelled by greed, paranoia, and deep resentment of the West.

The event that prompted me to write the book was Russia’s 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia – the first example of interstate cyberwarfare

I warned that others would be next and that we should contain Russia while we still could. If we hesitated, it would prove far more costly and dangerous.

 I traced the Putin regime’s roots to the chaos and corruption of 1990s Russia under the drunken President Boris Yeltsin.

The supposed democracy and capitalism of the new Russia, praised by the West, were a sham - distorted and discredited versions of the real thing.

Indeed, ever since Russia’s rebirth amid the Soviet collapse of 1991, Britain and other Western countries have adopted a policy of shut eyes and crossed fingers.

The truth is that Russia’s failure to disband the KGB and the Kremlin’s refusal to acknowledge the crimes of the Soviet past had fatally tainted Russia.

I was based in Moscow when Mr Putin came to power in 1999, amid an outbreak of apartment-block bombings which were unconvincingly blamed on Chechen terrorists. Only a few brave voices argued that they were in fact a cynical stunt by Kremlin provocateurs. The aim was to use terrorism to panic Russians so that they would accept an ex-KGB regime which stole their freedoms while offering safety.

The book was a best-seller, translated into 20 languages. But many dismissed it as scare-mongering. Distinguished diplomats and eminent Russia experts lined up to pooh-pooh my fears.

Russia, though not perfect, was now capitalist and democratic, they said. It was part of the West. Mr Putin’s regime was no worse than many others. The business opportunities for foreigners were good.

Some of my critics were merely naïve. Others were cynical. Britain was - and still is - awash with Russian money.

Any criticism of modern Russia, my book included, was countered by an influential pro-Kremlin lobby of bankers, lawyers, accountants and businessmen, whose comfortable lifestyle depends on lavish fees and contracts earned from the suppurating mess of Kremlin crony capitalism.

They ignored the growth of a new ideology in Russia.

 It was an old idea reborn — the Czarist trinity of autocracy, nationalism and orthodoxy.

Mr Putin and his ex-KGB cronies brook no opposition.

 They have a sinister, superstitious belief in their own destiny. They want to restore Russia’s greatness – and believe that God is on their side. 

Bizarrely, they combine those beliefs with Soviet nostalgia – not for Vladimir Lenin’s failed communist experiment, but for the greatness of the Soviet empire.

 In truth, that was built on the bones of tens of millions of innocent victims – including countless Russians.

But the Putin regime has no time for such quibbles.

For pointing this out, I was accused of Russophobia.

But in truth the real Russophobes are those who collude with a regime that loots its own country – a country whose language I am proud to speak, whose literature I adore, and whose people I admire.

Far from scare-mongering, my book actually understated the danger. I said then that the «New Cold War» was about banks, not tanks. It was about subterfuge, bluff, propaganda and the use of cash for political ends.

What I did not foresee was the terrifying way Russia would modernise its armed forces.

In 2008 it barely managed to invade its neighbour Georgia, in a conflict it cynically provoked and then – with characteristic Kremlin chutzpah – blamed on its defeated victim.

The result was the dismemberment of that small pro-Western country and the humiliation of its backers – chiefly the United States.

Much of Russia’s military is indeed still in a woeful state. But enormous increases in the defence budget have improved equipment, training and readiness.

In 2009 Russia staged huge military manoeuvres on NATO’s borders – next door to Poland, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Western military officials were aghast when intelligence reports came in of the scenario for that exercise. Russia was rehearsing the invasion and occupation of the Baltic states – it also carried out a dummy nuclear attack on Warsaw.

In 2013 it repeated those drills.

This time Western military observers were deeply alarmed by the huge improvements in the Russian ability to move large quantities of men and equipment long distances in a short space of time.

While Russia has been investing massive sums in its military, NATO has been cutting its defence spending. Only a handful of countries – Poland, Estonia and Britain among them – spend the 2% of national income on defence that the alliance mandates.

A study in Sweden, commissioned after a dummy Russian air raid last year, says that the country could not last a week against a Russian attack.

Russia has also fiercely stoked anti-American sentiment, which is now rampant in Europe.

The spurious and sensationalised revelations of the fugitive American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has now found refuge in Moscow, have persuaded many Europeans – preposterously – that the United States is the main threat to world peace.

America is understandably furious about this. It is already borrowing money to pay for Europe’s defence. And if Russia tests NATO’s resolve, America will be risking World War Three in defence of stingy, ungrateful Europeans.

Scarred by fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are already war-weary. For the first time since the 1930s, a majority now think their country should mind its own business in world affairs.

Although America has rushed some troops to Europe as a symbolic gesture since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the real trend is the other way.

For the first time since the Normandy Landings of 1944, there are now no American tanks in Europe. The remaining ones left last year.

NATO’s first big exercise in Eastern Europe last autumn. Steadfast Jazz, as it was named, was the alliance’s first attempt to respond to Russia’s threatening military drills. It rehearsed how NATO would defend its most vulnerable members – Poland and the Baltic states.

Yet America sent only a token force. And Germany – always over-sensitive to Russia’s feelings – tried to block it happening at all.

The decline of the Atlantic Alliance is grim tidings for Britain.

Our army will soon be at its smallest since the Napoleonic Wars. Our navy and air force are hollowed out by skill shortages and defence cuts.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, our intelligence services are denuded too. For years we have focused too much on the «War on Terror» and particularly on the Middle East. Hawkish, well-informed spooks with an interest in Russia were side-lined or fired.

Their views - indeed their warnings - went out of fashion in the years when Tony Blair enjoyed nights at the opera with Mr Putin and when George Osborne and Peter Mandelson hobnobbed with Oleg Deripaska, a Kremlin crony.

While our spycatchers looked elsewhere, Russian agents ran rampant in London, including the red-headed sexpot Anna Chapman.

She ran a mysterious money-transfer company based on the stolen identity of an innocent Kent electrician, using a fraudulently obtained address in Dublin — before moving to America where she enjoyed intimate relations with a senior administration official. 

I also underestimated how effectively Russia would fight on another front: propaganda.

The Kremlin throws hundreds of millions of pounds into its propaganda machine. Its slick, jazzy RT television channel pumps out pro-Kremlin broadcasts all over the world. Such outlets highlight Western decadence, double standards and weakness.

Meanwhile our politicians and bureaucrats have ruined the once-mighty BBC World Service.

During the Cold War years it was the pride of the BBC. When I worked there in the 1980s, I was proud to walk the gleaming marble halls of its imposing Bush House headquarters, once trodden by great freedom fighters such as my hero George Orwell.

World Service programmes, in English and other languages, were a valuable counterblast to the Soviet propaganda machine. They gave hope to people living in fear and misery.

Now the World Service is a humiliated, cash-strapped shell, its programmes beset with the political correctness and timidity which have ruined the rest of the BBC. Its huge audiences in Russia and Eastern Europe have dwindled.

Not only do we fail to fight back. We barely realise that the Kremlin is once again waging an information war against us.

One reason we flinch from reporting the growing Russian the threat is Britain’s fearsome libel courts. Senior figures in the regime think nothing of spending a few hundred pounds on fighting a libel suit. For most news outlets, publishers or authors, it is a crippling threat.

I had to pay thousands of pounds out of my own pocket to have a libel lawyer read the New Cold War before it was published. Some of the most powerful points about Western corruption were too risky to publish.

It is hardly surprising that the Putin regime sees our talk of the rule of law, human rights and fair business dealings as a cynical sham.

Perhaps the most shameful example of regime sympathy is BP, once one of Britain’s most highly respected companies. It has taken a 20% share in Rosneft, an oil company which epitomises the greed and lawlessness of the Putin regime.

Rosneft’s rise from obscurity to riches came when it acquired at a nominal price the remains of Yukos – the oil company founded by Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who fell foul of Mr Putin.

Billions of pounds in Western shareholders’ money evaporated overnight. Yet BP saw nothing wrong in taking a stake in Rosneft, the company responsible. Nor did our financiers see anything wrong in listing Rosneft on the London Stock Exchange.

Yet the days of cosying up to the Russia lobby are numbered. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and Mr Putin’s cynical, bellicose public style, have alarmed even the most complacent European policymakers.

Many of the arguments I made in the New Cold War have become impossible to ignore.

Mr Putin is a formidable enemy. He has shown he is prepared to do three things that the West still finds unpalatable.

He will accept economic pain if he believes it is in Russia’s national interest. He is prepared to use force. And he is prepared to lie, blatantly and repeatedly.

We, by contrast, still think we can wish the threat away. We do not want to impose real sanctions and we would like to keep rich, crooked Russians and their companies funnelling money into our financial systems and real-estate markets.

We do not even want to stop their ability to come to London to shop and party.

We are not prepared to spend more on defence. We flinch at the idea that we might have to use force to defend ourselves. As a result, NATO’s future hangs by a thread.

And we are not willing to call Putin what he is: the gangster leader of a gangster state.

Naturally, I was delighted when my publishers asked me to update The New Cold War to include the latest developments from Ukraine. But it is little comfort that the book’s original argument - dismissed first-time round as hysterical scare-mongering - has been vindicated.

I pray that my brave Estonian, Czech and Polish friends will not once again pay the price for the West’s foolishness. As the Kremlin’s shadow lengthens across Europe, it is little comfort to be able to say: «I told you so».

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