Intellectual level of British leadership so low, it's shocking - European politics scholar

A rift between the West and Russia is growing ever deeper, with NATO keeping up its military buildup, pushing to expand its ranks, while politicians ramp up the anti-Russian rhetoric. Wargames and harsh words are pushing the two sides closer to the dangerous possibility of another Cold War. Is there a way to stop the crisis? Is the Western blame game against Russia truly justified? And are we at the dead end of Europe’s political course? We ask a prominent author, Russian and European politics scholar at the University of Kent. Professor Richard Sakwa is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:  Professor Richard Sakwa, author, Russian and European politics scholar at the University of Kent, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. So, professor, NATO was at the center of debate at the recent Munich security conference. Russia voiced its concern over NATO’s military buildup and its continuing enlargement with Montenegro also set to join the alliance now. NATO keeps on saying its expansion is not aimed at countering Russia, but what is it aimed at then? Why does it look like NATO is trying to corner Russia?

Richard Sakwa: In the technical sense, it certainly was not initially, over the last 25 years, anything to do with Russia. It was, in a sense, a type of demand, of the countries of the Eastern Europe to join. It was also a type of institutional inertia within NATO, because there were other challenges, like Afghanistan, another elements, which concerned them. The feeling was that if NATO had worked so splendidly during the Cold War, why abandon a winning ticket? Of course, there were huge negatives of that and there was no way found to make Russia comfortable within that system. We know that at various times, both Yeltsin and Putin, at  early times were talking about some sort of Russia possibly even joining - we know that there were some informal discussions about that. So we ended up with the worst of all worlds, and this is why now NATO has moved into a confrontation with Russia. Not that it was ever intended: this was a whole series of accidents - accidents, of course, which were just waiting to happen.

SS: We will talk about those accidents throughout the interview. So, extending NATO membership to Montenegro - that would mean offering a security umbrella to a country that has nothing to contribute to common defence; I mean, with only about 2,000 active duty personnel. So, it would likely mean another quarrel with Russia as well as taking responsibility of defence of another small country. I mean, the costs are there. What are the benefits?

RS: There are huge costs. What actually happens is that each time NATO enlarges, especially to include some smaller countries, it undermines its own security, it becomes hostage to those smaller countries. This also applies to Baltic republics and, of course, in massive sense, Turkey, but that, of course, is a historical pact. So, NATO enlarges, and, in a sense, dissolves, dissipates, weakens its own coherence as a security body. Of course NATO has always been a political security agency, and therefore, it’s a political issue now to try to enlarge. As I said, there’s a logical contradiction, because NATO, basically, exists - and I’ve argued this many times - it exists to manage to the consequences of its own existence. So, it becomes a perpetuum mobile, a perpetual movement to escalate.

SS: So, clearly there are financial costs to accepting Montenegro into NATO. Where is the political benefit?

RS: Montenegro is not the end. Gradually, both the European Union and NATO are moving down into a South-East Europe, what we used to call The Balkans. So, in strategic terms, it doesn’t offer much, but of course, once you have this dynamic of enlargement, at what point do you stop? And this also applies to the EU. A philosophical debate that we do need to have, is at what point do this organisation stop, what is the limit of growth, and that is a debate which hasn’t taken place yet in West.

SS: Russia’s NATO envoy said that the Alliance should stop perceiving Russia as an aggressive state and stop military preparations on its borders. Why does NATO choose to turn a blind eye to Russia’s concerns?

RS: I don’t think it turned into an enemy, and it still isn’t the enemy. What we’ve got now, is a security dilemma, is that each move by one side is perceived as aggressive and threatening by the other. Ultimately, I don't believe either should be in conflict with each other, because I don’t think NATO initially was ever intended to be anti-Russian. What it was intended to do was to act as a global security force and many other things. It was always,in the last 25 years, looking for purpose, but its purpose, ultimately, was not to contain or to threaten Russia, and that’s quite clear - and vice-versa. I don’t think Russia was in any way intending to threaten or to be aggressive towards the NATO alliance. What we now have is for a whole range and series of reasons. We do have this confrontation, it’s one which came clear in 2014, when the 25 years of what I call “the Cold Peace”, 1989-2014, in which none of the fundamental questions of European security were answered. None of the fundamental questions, like what NATO is for, what fundamental relationship we can have between Russia and NATO - none of these were solved, therefore we ended up in this position of confrontation in 2014, which is the most purposeless and pointless confrontation possibly of all times. It’s just simply pointless, because neither side, ultimately, is designed to threaten the other - but what sort of common language can we find to mediate and resolve this conflict? Of course, it’s all become much worse because of the grievances and big historical baggage of some of the East European countries who joined NATO - Poland, the Baltic republics, particularly Lithuania, Romania and the others, who simply do see NATO as a guarantee against Russia. But by that very fact, it then makes Russia more of a danger to these countries, and so to say, we’re into a negative cycle of escalation.

SS: At the Munich security conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated plans for the massive military buildup on the block’s eastern borders, aimed to thwart any actions taken by Russia, so - his language seems to be: “the relations with Moscow will be based on more defence and more dialog”, whatever that means. Can they do both? Defence and dialogue?

RS: I haven’t seen much in terms of dialogue, but it’s certainly welcome that he mentioned it. The language they use, Jens Stoltenberg and others is for the reassurance of allies, because if NATO cannot guarantee their security, then it becomes no longer credible, so this is a way of maintaining an internal credibility of NATO. Of course, on the other side, the language, as we know, of Russia’s very large military exercises, the planes which have been flying down the channel and elsewhere - all of these signs, as it were, are of insecurity on both sides. As I said, it’s leading and provoking an escalation cycle. What we do need and that was not visible in Munich, was the language of de-escalation, a language of dialog. And genuinely, talking about concerns, we have so little, so few channels now of dialogue, that it is, actually, extremely worrying and a small incident could lead to a major escalation, into, possibly, a fighting war. I was just going to mention a BBC-2 documentary I’ve seen about the Third World War…

SS: We’re going to talk about that documentary in just a bit, but your country, Britain, is also contributing ships and personnel to NATO’s maritime forces to counter Russia in the Baltics. Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, said: “increasing deployment sends a strong message to our enemies”. When he says “our enemies”, does he really mean Russia? Is Russia an enemy of Great Britain?

RS: Well, whatever the British leadership says, one has to say that the intellectual level of these people is low, the ability for them to analyze… it’s shocking. I was trying to tell these people that, really, Britain must change, they need to understand the larger strategic issues. So, I can’t take these people entirely seriously. But they are extremely dangerous in talking in this way. If talk like an enemies, you become an enemy and therefore it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. So, it is extremely dangerous to talk in this way.

SS: So let’s talk about that BBC documentary you mentioned, a documentary film like “World War Three: Inside the War Room” that recently made headlines, international headlines. It depicts a world on a brink of nuclear war, which is Russia’s fault. Moscow is generally portrayed as aggressive, and the general line of thinking is that Russia only understands strength. Is this the reflection of the real stance towards Russia taken by British leaders?

RS: In British policy, while it makes itself sound pretty tough, it is actually more measured and there’s, clearly, an interesting debate going on. I think this TV programme, itself, was welcomed in that it did begin to start a debate about where we are today, even though some people saw it as provocative. I don’t think so, I think that those members, they showed a good range of views and I think that those participating all had important points to make. As I say, I welcome it, it finally begins to take to the public just how dangerous, that we are at the moment dancing on the edge of the volcano and this volcano can go off. No one wants such a confrontation, but accidentale we can just slide into a conflict… Of course, British policies have always been in favor of enlargement of NATO and moving to the East and so on. It’s part of its commitment to the Atlantic community, so Britain is deeply atlanticist, not European - so, it’s doing it for Atlantic reasons rather than continental reasons, and I think that the fundamental flaw in the UK policy is that it doesn’t have a European policy.

SS: Romano Prodi, former Eu Commission chief told me that towing America's foreign policy line is the price Europe has to pay for transatlantic partnership. Is it a good bargain, is it worth it?

RS: My personal view is that long past due. It certainly was, it gave fundamentally public good. The alliance during the last war was hugely important, certainly, for the UK and also, possibly, let’s say, in the Cold War. But after the Cold War, we’d been stuck in inertial thinking and we haven’t moved beyond it. That’s why, the  institutions of the Cold War continued, the mentality of the Cold War continued, and so, in the end, we ended up with another Cold War. That’s the dilemma with which we find ourselves. I actually now come to the position to say that the Atlantic community, that is the links between European Union, NATO and the TTIP, “the economic NATO” as it’s called… I don’t see this as the way forward. Because, what that means, is that Europe as a continent, a pan-European ideal which includes Russia is simply ditched or completely lost, and I think it’s catastrophic, and it’s establishing a block which doesn’t actually help resolve issues, but it actually accelerates the division of the world into competing blocs.

SS:  Now, Britain was a huge supporter of imposing sanctions on Russia. Today we’re seeing trade drop, huge losses for both sides and investment halted. Why this drive to isolate Russia at all costs? I mean, especially since it’s not really working…

RS: It certainly is not working in the sense that if its aim was to try and modify Russian behaviour, then it obviously has not worked. In fact, sanctions have a poor history of achieving the goals for which they set themselves. In fact, they often achieve opposite goals as in the attack of Japan on United States in December 1941. Obviously, all of this is a symptom of a deeper failure. Clearly, they were provoked by the Ukrainian crisis, but the fact is that we have not yet moved to a situation in which Ukraine issues can be resolved. To achieve peace within Ukraine you need to establish a larger peace on the European continent, and, indeed, between Russia and the U.S. There seems to be no way forward, we’re got into a dead end of escalating conflict in terms which sanctions are just a reflection of.

SS: Refusal to lift sanctions against Russia is explained by the failure of the Minsk agreements concerning Ukraine. Western states keep saying that Russia must comply, but the deal is between Kiev and the rebels in the east, so… How can Russia be responsible for both of those sides?

RS: Well, clearly Russia does have a part to play in all of this, in terms of its support of Donbass insurgency earlier. But at the moment, clearly, it’s up to Kiev to honor its part of the bargain. Paradoxically, despite what a lot of Western commentators say, Russia ultimately, now, and I believe, always, was the greatest guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty, just up to 2014, with events, as you know, which clearly were controversial but can be seen as defensive, actions in Crimea. So, at this point… Minsk is only a symbol, a symbol which is important. I think Kiev has to move forward on some genuine autonomy for Donbass and then elections can be held and then the border can be restored with the Ukrainian sovereignty. I think that’s Russian position, I think that’s the right position. But to blame Moscow for it is a sort of displacement activity. I think that, going back to the question of escalation, at the moment we’re in a situation where the Ukrainian process and then the others in the West who are expressing hopes of some sort of collapse of the Russian regime. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but, equally, some of Russians are looking for collapse of Ukrainian regime. Again, I don’t think that’s immediately possible, but of course, it’s not a particularly stable regime. This whole thing doesn’t have a way out, which is a mutually beneficial one. Minsk has to be fulfilled by both sides, including Kiev. This is what Angela Merkel and European politicians have been pushing for, but it is a total lack of trust, of course, which is a larger issue at the moment.

SS: You’ve called EU strategy in Ukraine “stupidity on a grand scale” - what is making the EU to pursue the line they’re sticking to? I mean, overconfidence and inability to change course without losing face?

RS: Did I say that?

SS: Yeah, it’s your quote, actually.

RS: Yes. Indeed. Since then, of course, wiser council has begun to prevail. We do know that the new external person, Federica Mogherini, is more open to engagement. I think she’s got a larger view and a better strategic sense that her predecessor. I also think that head of the European Commission has also talked about engagement. So, at the past Summit of the Eastern Partnership in Latvia was also more sensible, more balanced, less aggressive. So I think that the EU has come to understand that its previous, almost hubristic sentiment to enlarge without taking into account Russian interests has now being turned back, so I don’t think… the initial blunder was enormous, of course, in 2013, they just didn’t realize where they were going into. They were used to easily enlarging into a vacuum of power, if you like, but in Ukraine that really had critical consequences of its own behaviour.

SS: Today there’s an Association agreement in place between Kiev and Brussels. Do you see a future for Ukraine in the EU?

RS: Personally, in my view, is that it makes sense for good relations, and, indeed, deeper relations between Ukraine and EU. But and this has to be embedded into a larger, pan-European mode of conflict resolution. So, of course, EU and Ukraine are neighbours, they should be utterly good, because Ukraine needs massive support, it needs governance reform, it needs rule of law, de-oligarchization, it needs enormous amounts which can come and be helped by the European Union. At the same, it needs strong economic and political links with Russia.  These will have to be framed in this pan-European context. A lot of people say now that this idea which I talk about, the Greater European idea, which, of course, was given birth in its modern form, by Gorbachev, “a common European home” - they say that this is over now, that we’ve got one side, the Atlantic security and economic community, and on the other side, Russia, outcast, its economy in tatters and so on. I see that as a totally bankrupt policy. The only way forward is to establish some sort of pan-European framework, in which Ukraine is comfortable. It won’t join the EU for many years, just as Turkey won’t, if ever, but what we do have to think about now is to establish a genuine European community which can take control of its own political, security and economic destiny. This has been lacking. In fact we are going in opposite direction, with TTIP and so on, in the Atlantic alliance. I am not opposed to Atlantic alliance, of course not, but this have to be balanced by a sense of European autonomy in politics, economics and security.

SS: Professor , 1600 UK soldiers are taking part in a large military exercise in Jordan, and according to British military source, cited by The Telegraph, the wargames are about the UK being prepared to join the U.S. in Ukraine. Is that the war London is preparing for?

RS: I don’t think so. I think that we shouldn’t be too alarmist. Clearly blunders can be made, but I think military intervention in Ukraine, at the moment, by the Western powers is not really on the cards.

SS: Britain’s Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said that “peace in Syria depends on whether the Russian President pressures Assad to go” which, he believes, can be done with a single phone call. This echoes, actually, what we constantly hear about the situation in Ukraine. Where does this belief in the almighty power of the Russian President come from?

RS: I saw that, and I was amazed. On the one side, Putin is supposed to be an all-knowing strategic leader, genius, at the same time, the devil in power. These two  images indeed can be not necessarily explicit, but I think this is very foolish, because the British, as much as anybody else, are responsible for enormous catastrophe within Syria. The idea which happened just a few days after the first demonstrations in February-March 2011, that “Assad must go”, has always been a bankrupt policy. It was a policy of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Why the Western powers endorsed this - I’m not entirely sure. If they’re so keen on democracy, then I think they should look at Saudi Arabia and Qatar more closely than Syria. Syria was secular, multi-national country and Western policy has not helped it. By calling for Assad to go, we’re talking about a demand which is simply impossible at this stage, and they know it. And so, to call for it in this way shows, as I say, the lack of wisdom of the British leadership which was astonishing in the last few years.

SS: Now you also said before that the West is “mistaken” in its reading of President Putin’s actions. Is portraying them as irrational or sinister is the way for politicians to spin this situation for the audience at home, or is it a genuine mistake?

RS: I think it’s a genuine mistake. Clearly, there’s no lack of disingenuity in all of this, but this is genuine. I think, because the way the political debate has become so limited, the political discourse has been closed at the moment, and it’s just mutual abuse. This is just a reflection of that… there’s no genuine statesman out there who could really understand a larger picture. We’ve become all hostages to special interests, to interest groups… For example, endless criticism of Russian democratic and human rights issues. Clearly, the situation in Russia is not perfect, but the fact that these are so exaggerated, out of all normal proportion… It’s a genuine, sort of philosophical position which they have adopted. It’s a position which is hermetic - it’s closed, it’s unable to absorb information which can shake or question their beliefs. I think this is, fundamentally dangerous, when we get into that mindset, which simply cannot see the viewpoint of the other.

SS: Professor, thank you for this interview. We were talking to Professor Richard Sakwa, author, Russian and European politics scholar at the University of Kent, digging into the reasons behind the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.