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“Why is this order so easy to provoke?” An interview with Bruce Pitcairn Jackson

  • 2014-12-03
  • By Richard Martyn-Hemphill

It is now over a year since the Vilnius Summit last November. The Summit was intended to be the grand stage for the signing of an Association Agreement — a political and free trade pact between the EU and Ukraine.

In the months before the Summit, the European Commissioner for Englargement and European Neighborhood Policy, Stefan Fule, described the summit as an “historic moment” and a “game changer."

Fule turned out to be completely right, but for reasons that were of course completely wrong: just days before the Summit, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych stepped away from signing the agreement in favor of closer ties with Moscow. The EU’s plans were scotched, and protestors began to gather on Kiev’s Independence Square, calling for an end to corruption, a respect for the rule of law and closer ties to the EU.

To mark the one-year anniversary of this “historic moment”, The Baltic Times is publishing an edited transcript of a phone interview with Bruce Pitcairn Jackson, President and Founder of the Project on Transitional Democracies, recorded on Oct. 30 this year, shortly after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections.

Though his influence in Washington is hard to quantify, Jackson played a key role in US policy making in the post-Soviet world in the years preceding the Vilnius Summit.

Earlier this month [October] U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel labeled Russia as “revisionist” – what revisions do you think Russia is trying to make to the World Order today?

With all due respect to Secretary Hagel, I think “revisionist” is last month’s word. Russia is clearly not a revisionist power.That means they would want to make a correction to the existing world order. They are not revisionist; they are rejectionist. They are not trying to fix it. As President Putin’s recent speech [at the Valdai International Discussion Club] makes clear, Russia does not see itself as a beneficiary of a European order; nor does President Putin believe that the European order — the Western order — applies to the post Soviet world, or to other regions of the world for that matter.

So there’s a lot of thinking going on right now about the implications of President Putin’s Valdai Speech and what does that mean for the universal claims of Western and European norms.

A number of commentators have pointed to NATO’s eastwards expansion as something that has led to Russia feeling encircled […] As someone who was at the forefront of NATO’s eastwards expansion, were you ever worried about this possibility?

I think one thing is clear from President Putin’s statements, and other doctrinal work in Russia, is that Nato expansion is not particularly relevant to their claim. If anything the case of Kosovo, or the Balkan legal norms, or how they were applied, is more directly relevant.

NATO expansion per se, that is to say, to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, is not referred to in Putin’s Valdai Speech. The claim Mr Putin has is merely that the order set up in 1991 was deliberately prejudicial to Russian interests; and it was manifestly unfair.

Frankly the old encirclement argument, which was primarily an old Soviet argument, has been dropped by the wayside. I mean clearly the Crimea was not trying to encircle Russia! That’s just not relevant; and actually Putin does not refer to that; and frankly, if the system was going to break down due to NATO expansion - well, why didn’t it?

What broke relations was this extremely modest, Association Agreement which was the opposite of expansion. It was a decision not to expand.

So you would characterize the Association Agreement as a decision not to expand rather than a precursor to further NATO expansion?

Absolutely. I think that was evident at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, when Nato made a formal decision not to extend membership action plans to either Ukraine or Georgia. So since 2008 expansion has been off the table in the formal sense, certainly for the East, and it has not gone forward even for countries that were already at the door such as Macedonia and Montenegro.

So there is no possible claim that the militancy of Mr Putin, which has manifested itself over the past 6 years, was triggered by NATO expansion. There may be a self hating quality in the West which is all about “blame us first.” But there is no evidence that  expansion itself played a role in Russian thinking.

If anything, the pressures of globalization, reinforced by the norms of mostly Europe, were putting more and more pressure on the Russian economy, the Russian demography, the Russian sense of self, and the Russians felt themselves in decline — and what was to blame for their decline was the 21st century, and modernity, and most particularly globalization.

In that respect then, looking over towards existing members [… ] Defense analysts have classified Russia’s actions in East Ukraine as a form of “hybrid warfare.” Do you think NATO is adequately positioned to counter any use of hybrid warfare in the Baltic States?

Well, obviously there’s more than enough military power in the West and NATO to counter anything in that part of the world. I just think it’s a mistake to think we’re dealing with a military competition, because it’s clearly not a military competition … there’s really no organized fighting going on. There may be disorganized fighting. This is very much an ideological or political competition that is really caused by economic phenomena.

But in that case what does it really mean when we see NATO reports telling us that NATO aircrafts have had to conduct over 100 interceptions of Russian aircrafts so far this year? That’s around a three-fold increase from last year. This is particularly evident around Baltic airspace. Is this not a military conflict, or is this all for show?

I do think it is symbolic; it is intended to project instability. The Russians are past masters at getting the Baltics to start screaming the “Russians Are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” It plays out because it happens so many times in history. I just don’t think that the Baltic States are the Sudetenland and the precursor of a military competition on a long term plane.

I think this is a profoundly economically and politically unsettled post soviet world … [and that Russia] has looked at the 21st century and decided that it wants to go back to the 19th; and largely because over the last 20 years it failed to find a place in the modern world, [conforming to] behavioural theory, they blamed everyone else but themselves for it: it’s the Americans fault and Kosovo’s; it’s the Europeans’ fault and the European idea of expansion; it’s the barriers to the European market; it’s the horrible people in Brussels with anti-trust and energy treaties … all those pressures were seen as basically a plot against Russia.

And now, an aging military is about all they’ve got, and they use it to send political signals…

I think one of the things you’re seeing in the Baltic-Nordic zone is the Americans and NATO did not do what they said they were going to do about protection and securitization of this part of Europe during a period of NATO expansion — and they are realising they have to do now what they should have done then: I think the strengthening and the further security of the all important Baltic region is happening now. Russia’s the excuse for it happening now. It should have happened 10 years ago.

You’ve referred to George Bush’s speech in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square back in 2008 as having a “fin de siecle” quality. What do you make of the quality of President Obama’s recent speech in the Baltics, where he said that “the defence of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius” was “just as important as the defense of London, Paris and Berlin”? Should policy makers in London, Paris or Berlin feel maybe a bit worried by this statement?

Well, I think it’s fairly significant that he had to make it, because it’s got to the point where that statement needed to be made in order to be clarified. I’m just sad we’ve got to a place where Americans have to clarify Article 5 [the article on common defence in the NATO alliance in the event of an invasion] because people aren’t sure about it. That’s a problem. You know, of course, the security in any NATO country is supposed to be uniform across the alliance. I’m glad he said it, and I’m sorry it needed saying.

It’s just back to the previous issue with hybrid warfare and whether that would trigger Article 5 is less than clear…

Again I return to the point: the solution to the Russian problem, the Ukrainian problem, the Eastern problem, is not NATO. President Obama and everybody else, including the Chancellor of Germany, said: we’re not going to engage in a war with Russia in the post soviet world; we will defend Europe.

But I don’t think Europe is the question. It’s the unstable, economically fragile, politically unaffiliated, isolated countries that begin at the border of Slovakia and go all the way to the border of China. I think there is a struggle going on for how one orders this great amount of disorder. And that’s the immediate challenge. And frankly NATO does not produce political order. NATO deters attacks on the West. It does not project order and stability and prosperity outwards — that’s not what it does. I think the ball is not in the court of NATO … the ball is really in the court of the incoming European Commission.

You have written that the only one of the EU’s Eastern policies still standing by 2013 was the Eastern Partnership. I was hoping to get an update on whether you believe it still stands in 2014? And if so, with Latvia assuming the Presidency of the EU Council this January, what hopes are there for the Eastern Partnership in 2015?

After this 9 or 10 months of the Ukrainian crisis, obviously it has deeply damaged European institutions, including the Eastern Partnership. I think I don’t fully understand what EC President Junker is trying to do in his new organisation: but what he seems to have done with foreign policy is make 8 to 12 people responsible for 1 job.

The Eastern Partnership under the successor to Stefan Fule [the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy] is only a part of the Eastern problem. But Energy must also be a part of it. And Trade is increasingly the most important part of it. We have competition and anti-trust and all sorts of other foreign policy mechanisms that are spread out all across the Commission. It is a serious question as to how the commission functions in a coherent fashion.

We are past the time when the Eastern Partnership could be run by Radek Sikorsky, Carl Bildt, and Stefan Fule. I think now the new High Commissioner is going to have a role on this. Obviously there are two Presidents, both Juncker and Tusk, who will have something to say: there are all these new powerful vice presidents, a middle level management ...

So I think the old Commission where one person was responsible for one thing seems to be gone. And with the new Commission where the clusters of of 5 or 6 Commissioners are working issues, well, I don’t know how well that will function with Russia, which seems to move faster and more decisively.

But I think a critical question, particularly for Ukraine, is where are these institutions that are supposed to be available when we’ve got our act together? We’ve got a government [in Ukraine] but where are the European institutions? I’m not exactly sure what the answer to that is.

Another aspect I suppose would be the role the West’s sanctions are playing. How do you think the sanctions are being implemented and what effect do you think they are having?

Well […] foreign policy of the Obama administration has pretty much ended where it is. There’s not going to be vast changes in Obama’s policy for the last two years of his administration. So I think we’re stuck with sanctions because that’s all we can think of, and so that’s pretty much where it’s going to stay.

The intellectual and the expert community are increasingly pointing out that sanctions may punish Russia, but they are having no effect on its behavior.

More importantly they are doing nothing to help Ukraine, and they probably will increasingly impose burdens on our European allies which will become quite painful as the recession grows deeper in Europe. I think the consensus view here is sanctions were necessary to say something, but they don’t seem to be a solution in and of themselves.

Do you have any potential solutions that you would put forward if you were called upon to do so?

I know solutions, but I can’t claim them for my own. There is a discussion going on about energy, which is not going well. They have just broken off talks again today. And there has been discussion about directly engaging all these Association issues, the DCFTA issues, and the Eurasian Customs Union tariff concerns, pushing Russia off the battlefield, and back into a complicated trade negotiation, where its economic interests are at stake.

That was considered by the heads of state before the Vilnius Summit a year ago, but it didn’t work. The base of all these arguments is the energy trade, is the tariff trade, is the two rival blocs - the internal market of the European Union and this sort of pretend Eurasian Customs Union. Well, that’s where the money is. So how do you get back to a discussion of trade between countries, which is roughly what the US does with China: we don’t agree with them; we just talk about trade measures. And maybe if we’re not ever going to agree with Russia, we talk about about the things that countries have continued to do, which are the rules of free and fair trade.

That’s not the only thing that’s out there. There isn’t any military solution being discussed. And there’s no way Berlin or Washington would consider any concession on political rights or human rights, or compromise on basic values, so that’s not on the cards.

So it seems like there’s a fairly limited selection of policies on the table, or at least ones that are being listened to…

I don’t know if I completely agree with your characterization of that. In many times in history [… ] I mean even the the European Union began with the coal and steel community, which was an economic discussion; it was not a political discussion.

So if you look at the building blocks of international relations, when all else fails, you can look at these rudimentary navigation tariff barriers as an alternative to shooting at each other. The idea is to get the shooting to stop, and stabilise relations at the lowest common denominator, which is pretty clearly the economics of trade.

In terms of the economics of trade there’s the energy dependency issue as well. Are there any strategies in place for the diversification of energy supplies in the EU? We’ve just seen in Klaipeda a new LNG gas terminal. But elsewhere things have stalled. Do you think the US will be supporting these sorts of initiatives in future?

In the future, yes, but now, no. I don’t expect any major decisions from President Obama on the Canadian pipelines or the exportability of shale or anything in this presidency. There is no reason for him to do it.

And if you look at global gas prices today, they have fallen through the floor. So I’m not exactly sure how this economic picture is changing. Usually when the economic prices are reasonably high, people are prepared to make investments in diversification, organisation and transport corridors.

The oil prices are extremely low, and these companies are losing money like crazy, and European countries look like they are going into a recession. For the short term I think we’re going to have a hard time getting the kind of money we need to really integrate and diversify European energy security. That would be my guess.

It seemed that you were writing prolifically on this subject until around the Ukraine crisis itself. And then you went rather quiet. Could you give us a quick heads up as to what the Project on Transitional Democracies is up to at the moment? It’s been quite surprising your absence from the public sphere.

I’ve been working on Ukraine for 14 years now, and it’s worse now than when I started. Usually aspiring, would-be intellectuals don’t rush to publish their failures!

Our plan for Ukraine took a huge hit at the Vilnius Summit, when Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych rejected the Association Agreement, which I had been working on for three years. And obviously the Government of Georgia, which is not a government I’m particularly fond of, arrested almost all the previous government, which was much closer to our way of thinking about Europe in the United States.

So there is a depressing picture now across Central and Eastern Europe, notably in Hungary, where it looks like a retrograde movement rather than this forward movement we’ve been pursuing since the early 1990s.

We are entering into a new architectural period, looking at what went wrong and why [central and eastern Europe remains] so fragile. Obviously Russia is provoking this order, but why is this order so easy to provoke?

So a lot of these questions are not focused on the incoming EU Commission. There is a lot of work going on here and notably in Europe on after-action studies: why did this happen? What was fragile about the order? If we can’t do expansion — or if expansion is inappropriate — what are the other alternatives? I mean there are more questions here than answers…

Obviously we are continuing to push on the completion of the Balkans, which was, I hate to say, frustrated by the American president, who did not move forward in either [NATO’s] Chicago summit, or at the NATO summit in Wales, to bring in Montenegro and Macedonia as had been agreed.

Obviously we’re very excited about the change in sentiment in Sweden, and, to a lesser extent in Finland, that suggests there could be a move to complete the integration of all the Nordic zones into both NATO and the European Union, which would be terrific — very consistent with what is being discussed in Estonia, which they call Mare Nostrum, which suggests a highly integrated Northern Europe, and which would be terrific.

So I think there are things going out there, but I think it’s a period of reflection and reconsideration, and also you have to say: we’ve been getting our ass kicked for the better part of the last ten years — what are we doing wrong?

There is a question of American leadership; there is a question of what the hell Europe is doing. Our closest allies in Britain seems to be going the wrong way most of the time, which Americans don’t really understand…

So you think we will be living in what you’ve termed the “Post Soviet Twilight” for many years to come, or are things picking up?

Well, if you’re referring to the paper I wrote, Ukraine on most days looks a lot like this “Post Soviet Twilight” in the worst sense. That’s exactly what should not have happened. One thing I stay up at night thinking about is, there were 5.3 million people who could not go to Ukraine because they had been annexed, or they were occupied by some gangster or foreign power.

Their currency has been devalued by over 50 percent; their trade has completely collapsed. All countries who have engaged in European integration and NATO expansion, their economies have all doubled, trebled and quadrupled, and their GDP per capita has gone straight up. This is the opposite of the case. This country is dismembered, cut off from all trade, its currency crushed, its reserves non-existent — and 4,000 or more dead. That’s a big problem.

We were supposed to be in this period completing the Balkans, and beginning to look at the association and integration with the Post Soviet World. Instead the opposite happened: we didn’t complete the Balkans and the Post Soviet World is becoming Balkanized. That’s not good!

No, not at all … Any thoughts about the upcoming elections in the “People’s Republic” [in Donetsk; now also known as the self styled statelet of NovoRossiya]?

The hope is that the elections in Kiev would bring to power a government with a mandate which could, with confidence and with some degree self assertion, negotiate a peace treaty with Russia based on the terms of the Minsk Accords.

I’m not sure that happened, because Crimea is annexed out, and Lugansk and Donetsk seem to have been effectively de facto partitioned. And the mandate for this new government looks rather narrow, very focused on Western Ukraine, and completely divided against itself. 

So the worry is they won’t be strong enough to negotiate with confidence with Russia; the worry is the longer this goes on, the more the demographic, sectarian, economic partition begins to set up.

So I think that really has to be avoided. I think the immediate challenge is how does Europe get money to Ukraine so it can pay for the gas to survive the winter — because if they don’t survive the winter, it is certainly a partition.

Then there’s a question of how the money falls into the right hands in Ukraine, as there has to be a certain amount of actually tackling the corruption issues that set a lot of this in train in the first place…

I completely agree with you. In America, There is a little too much of Ukrainians were innocent victims and were doing everything right until this horrible event happened to them. That is false. The Ukrainian [elite] have been screwing around politically and economically with corruption for the last 20 years.

They share a great deal of the blame, getting their country into this vulnerable and now precarious situation. I mean all of them — not just President Yanukovych. Almost every politician in Ukraine had a chance to be prime minister! And all of them did exactly the same thing, stole as much as they could, ignored the voters, did nothing to increase stability and political pluralism; and after 20 years it shows.

I am very sympathetic to the IMF. How would you give money to these people if you wanted to?

Is there something to be said for what you have written before, how this is not a clash of civilizations, it is just two different civilizations with two different value systems up very close against each other. Do you think this idea remains true today?

I think Russia and the West broadly have different values. That was what Putin’s Valdai Speech was all about. Certainly there is a test between those things. Within Ukraine, I think Ukrainians have very similar values. They are a nation. It’s just the political compromise that exists between minorities within the nation which has fallen apart.

Also the Ukrainian people have been completely abused by their political leaders in pursuit of corrupt gains.

So again Ukraine is caught between these two alternative values and trading blocs. They don’t have to solve the problem by shooting at each other. I don’t think we are at the Sunni-Shia level of civil strife … I don’t think this is completely out of the question to restore Donbas to its place within Ukraine and to rebuild trading relationships and cultural exchanges between Russia and Ukraine and the West.