Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a senior vice president at CEPA where he leads the institute's Information Warfare Initiative, and a senior editor at The Economist magazine. In 1989 he was the only foreign newspaperman living in Communist-era Czechoslovakia and saw the regime there tumble in the Velvet Revolution. He was the last Western journalist to be expelled from the Soviet Union, having received the first visa given by the new Lithuanian authorities. In 1992, Lucas founded and ran the first English-language weekly in the Baltic states. He is also the author of 'New Cold War', 'Deception' (a book on east-west espionage) and 'The Snowden Operation' (an e-book on the NSA, privacy and espionage).

Edward Lucas: the Warsaw Summit – good but not yet enough

Warsaw was the best NATO summit since the end of the Cold War. Serious people made serious decisions about serious problems. Taboos tumbled. Russia is a threat to the frontline states (saying that loudly at previous summits would have been controversial). The European Union is a vital partner (time was when Turkey would have been frothing about that). Deterrence goes beyond military means (NATO used to find talking about information warfare and cyber all but impossible).

It wasn’t all perfect. The Polish political scene – mean-minded and polarised – was an unhappy backdrop. It was sad to see a “historical” exhibition in which the giant political figures who brought Poland into the Western alliance were airbrushed from the story. Defence spending is far too low in many countries. Messages are still mixed: Jüri Luik, an Estonian bigwig, delivered a stinging rebuke to German and other politicians who decry the military exercises that their own countries are involved in. There was too little on offer for Ukraine, and a disappointing rhetorical rebuff to Georgia.

Worst of all was the shadow cast by Brexit: the biggest self-inflicted wound in my country’s recent history. Perhaps as bad as the Suez misadventure of 1956, perhaps even worse. It is tough being British at international security conferences these days; you spend a lot of time apologising, and get a lot of personal sympathy, mixed with barely concealed fury at the extra problems we are causing. Britain used to export stability. Now we export instability.

But the most important point about Warsaw is that though the direction of travel is now generally good, we have not yet arrived at the destination. We have gone from leaving our front doors open in order to show our neighbours that we trust them, to closing them, to installing a lock, and now to adding a burglar alarm and a security patrol.

What is not yet clear is what happens if the alarm actually rings. In theory, NATO has a high-readiness task force which can deploy in a matter of hours. But this exists mainly on paper. Details remain to be worked out. The political decision-making needed to authorise its deployment is untried. What instructions would a future chancellor Steinmeier give to his diplomats at NATO? What would a president Trump do? And how would a Russian threat to use nuclear weapons bear on the alliance’s councils?

NATO’s biggest threat, however, is from within. Few of the politicians at the summit seemed to have anything to say to the tens of millions of Western voters who are thoroughly fed up with the economic and political arrangements of the past 25 years. All this underlines the huge dependence on Angela Merkel. So long as she is firmly in power in Berlin, both NATO and the EU are in reasonable shape. If she goes, we are in real trouble.

There are no grounds for complacency. A lot more is going on behind the scenes than the public realises. Perhaps the most interesting rumour at the summit was that a Polish and Russian submarine collided in the Baltic Sea a few months back. Officials are tight-lipped. But this could be the reason for the recent, and otherwise unexplained purge of the high command of Russia’s Baltic Fleet (another factor may have been that the level of amber smuggling had annoyed the high-ups in the Kremlin).

The decrepit Russian naval presence in the Baltic has been largely unbothersome in the past few years. If that now comes under new and more vigorous management, we will have yet more headaches to add to the plenty that already beset us.

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This article was originally published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Edward Lucas is a senior vice president at CEPA where he leads the institute’s Information Warfare InitiativeThe opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas, US president Barack Obama and (former) British prime minister David Cameron at the Warsaw Summit (courtesy of NATO).

Edward Lucas: Why NATO needs Finland and Sweden

A report published last week takes a lengthy and sober look at practical implications of Finland joining NATO.

To calm your nerves, and jangle those of your enemies, few things work better than a visit from a couple of F-22 Raptor warplanes. America’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft is stealthy, speedy and agile. These amazing machines have been touring the frontline states of Europe – including Lithuania and Ukraine – in recent days, as part of the U.S. reassurance initiative.

But a report published last week on the Finnish Foreign Ministry’s website is probably more important. Its four authors (two Finns, a Swede and a Frenchman) take a lengthy and sober look at practical implications of Finland joining NATO.

The problem is simple: without Finnish and Swedish help, NATO will be hard-pressed to defend the Baltic states against a determined Russian attack, which would be catastrophic for the security of non-NATO countries. Yet unless those two countries are members of NATO, they cannot be fully integrated into the alliance’s planning.

“The problem is simple: without Finnish and Swedish help, NATO will be hard-pressed to defend the Baltic states against a determined Russian attack.”

Opinion is shifting, particularly in Sweden, where the main opposition parties – and some members of the ruling Swedish Social Democratic Party – now want to join. Finns are more skeptical, though if the country’s leadership were to recommend joining NATO, most Finns would agree.

The report bleakly outlines the seriousness of the situation. Faced with a revisionist Russia, Finland and Sweden would be safer once inside NATO. But the decision to join would provoke a sharp, and perhaps dangerous, reaction from Russia. Managing that will be complicated.

It would be much better for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance together

The authors stick to their mandate of exploring the issue, rather than making recommendations – with one exception. They argue that it would be much better for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance together. If Sweden joins and Finland doesn’t, then it risks signaling to Russia that decision-makers in Helsinki lack willpower. If Finland joins and Sweden doesn’t, it poses tricky problems for NATO: how do you defend an ally that you can’t easily reach?

finaland-Sweden-to-join-nato-cartoon by David Parkins

I have been urging both countries to join NATO for years. My argument was “do it now while you don’t need to, because the circumstances that will make it necessary will also make it harder.” My worry now is that this report is an excellent contribution to yesterday’s question, not tomorrow’s.

If NATO were in fine shape, then membership would indeed solve all of northeastern Europe’s security worries. But it isn’t. The F-22s are fine aircraft, but America has far too few of them, and they run out of missiles scarily fast. Other NATO countries are lagging woefully behind America.

Overall, Western defence budgets have been hollowing out for years, particularly with regard to the dull and politically unpopular business of territorial defense. NATO defence spending is no longer falling, but it is nowhere near high enough. And most members still spend most of their money on the wrong things: salaries and buildings, rather than modern weapons. We have yet to re-establish real deterrence. Internal and external threats divide and distract us.

“Finland and Sweden should hurry. The sooner they join NATO, the less likely they are to need its security guarantee. Moreover, by strengthening the alliance, they also make its survival more likely.”

It is not all doom and gloom. Donald Trump is not yet president, and perhaps never will be. Congress fumes at the stinginess of European allies, but it still votes to spend borrowed money on their defense. NATO’s Warsaw summit in July will bring new attention to the frontline states: an American “base” (actually a headquarters) in Poland, plus bilateral “framework nation” defence sponsorships for Estonia (from Britain), Latvia (probably from Canada) and Lithuania (from Germany). It looks good, even if the alliance is running on empty tanks.

Finland and Sweden should hurry. The sooner they join NATO, the less likely they are to need its security guarantee. Moreover, by strengthening the alliance, they also make its survival more likely.

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This article was originally published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Edward Lucas is a senior vice president at CEPA where he leads the institute’s Information Warfare Initiative.

Edward Lucas: Russia is winning

I have been dealing with European security for more than thirty years, as an activist during the Cold War, as a journalist, and at think-tanks.

I argue that:

● Russia is a revisionist power;
● It has the means to pursue its objectives;
● It is winning; and
● Greater dangers lie ahead.

I recommend that the United Kingdom and its allies:

● Give up any hope of a return to business as usual;
● Boost the defence of the Baltic states and Poland;
● Expose Russian corruption in the West;
● Impose sweeping visa sanctions on the Russian elite;
● Help Ukraine; and
● Reboot the Atlantic Alliance.

I am the author of several books relevant to today’s session. The first of these, ‘The New Cold War’, was written in 2007, at a time when most Westerners were still reluctant to face up to the threat the Putin regime poses both to its own people, and to Russia’s neighbours. Many accused me of scaremongering. Few do that now.

Yet conventional thinking about Russia is stubbornly rooted. Many policymakers and analysts in London and other Western capitals still believe that containing and confronting Vladimir Putin’s Russia is dangerous and that seeking a diplomatic accommodation, though difficult, is far more desirable. They blame the West for provoking the crisis in Ukraine by ignoring Russia’s interests.

I disagree profoundly. My views are based on my experiences over many years in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia and other countries in the region. Our friends there have long been warning us of the dangerous direction of events. We have not listened to them. Instead, we have systematically patronised, belittled and ignored people who understand the problem better than we do. Now they have been proved right. I hope that my voice may be heard, where theirs, still, is not.

Russia is a revisionist power

Accommodating Russian interests is not about changing outcomes within an existing set of rules. It is about accepting new rules dictated by Russia. This is hard for many Westerners to understand, because we believe implicitly that the European security order we have known for nearly 40 years is fair, and therefore stable. Russia regards it as unfair and ripe for change.

Russia wants to rewrite the rules in three ways. First, it does not believe that its neighbours should make their own decisions about their geopolitical future. Russia’s security, in short, depends on these countries’ insecurity. Russia particularly begrudges the former captive nations of the Soviet empire their freedom, their prosperity, and their independence. These pose an existential challenge to the stagnant and autocratic model of government pioneered by the Putin regime.

The Kremlin also wants to end the two big institutional threats to its interests. One is the Atlantic alliance. This provides a framework for what it regards as American meddling in Europe. It also brings vestigial nuclear guarantee which in theory outweighs the most powerful part of Russia military arsenal: usable tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia also wants to end the European Union’s role as a rule-setter, especially in energy policy. The Kremlin regards this as confiscatory and a potentially lethal threat to its most important export industries, and to its main source of political influence in customer countries. Russia deeply resents the EU’s ‘Third Energy Package’ which prohibits country-by-country price discrimination, and monopolies and cartels in gas distribution.

These are not changes Britain or its allies can accommodate. Russian-run satrapies in eastern Europe would be poor, oppressive, ill-run and unstable: like Belarus if we are lucky, like Moldova if we are not. A year ago, we faced the prospect of Ukraine, one of the largest countries in Europe, embarking on reforms which would have made a bigger market, better neighbour, and happier country. Now it faces dismemberment into a Russian-run puppet state, and a resentful unviable rump.

That is an appalling prospect for Ukrainians, and for us. For both moral and practical reasons, we should not consign allies such as the Baltic states and Poland to such a fate.

The Atlantic alliance, for all its current woes, is the cornerstone of our security. Without the United States’ military and economic weight, Europe would be far more vulnerable to Russian pressure. And an open and transparent energy market is a vital national security interest. It would be a disaster if Europe returned to a world of murky long-term deals struck by political cronies, in which money is siphoned off by influence-peddlers and distributed among favoured clients.

Russia now has the means to pursue its revisionist approach

● It ruthlessly uses its energy weapon against European countries, particularly in pipeline-delivered gas, where it has a substantial monopoly in the eastern half of the continent. We see this plainly in the promotion of the South Stream gas pipeline, which directly challenges EU rules, but is supported by Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Serbia and Slovenia.

● It uses money. It bolsters a self-interested commercial and financial lobby which profits from doing business with Russia and fears any cooling in political ties. Austrian banks, German industrial exporters, French defence contractors, and a slew of companies, banks and law firms here in the United Kingdom exemplify this. These energy and financial ties constrain the Western response to Russian revisionism.

● It practises information warfare (propaganda) with a level of sophistication and intensity not seen even during the Cold War. This confuses and corrodes Western decision-making abilities. Fourthly, as we have seen in Ukraine, it is prepared to threaten and use force.

Russia is winning

Russia has not only challenged the European security order and seized another country’s territory – Crimea: it is now in the process of seizing more, creating a puppet state called Novorossiya (New Russia). It has already crippled the Ukrainian economy and threatens to turn Ukraine into a failed state. The response from the West has been weak, late and disunited.

Many European countries have no appetite for confrontation with Russia. They take an essentially pacifist stance, that military solutions never solve problems, and that dialogue is under all circumstances better than confrontation. The United States is distracted by multiple urgent problems elsewhere and many Americans wonder why they should be borrowing money to pay for security in bigger, richer Europe.

That gives Russia, with its bold decision-making and high tolerance for risk and pain, free rein. Our feeble response has allowed Russia to wage war in Ukraine with disastrous effect.

Even greater dangers lie ahead

The Ukrainian adventure has given a big boost to the Putin regime, which showed some signs of declining popularity last year, amid economic failure and growing discontent about corruption and poor public services. Those who said that Russia would be content with Crimea (and that the peninsula’s special status, and specific historical and ethnic mix made it an anomaly of political geography) have been proved dramatically wrong.

Worse, our weakness over Ukraine (and before that, Georgia) has set the stage for another, probably more serious challenge to European security, possibly in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia or Moldova, but most likely in the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are loyal American allies and NATO members. These are our frontline states: the future of the world we have taken for granted since 1991 hangs on their fate. If they are successfully attacked or humiliated, NATO will lose its credibility overnight: a huge victory for Russia.

Geography is against them: the Baltic states form a thin, flat strip of land, lightly populated and with no natural frontier and little strategic depth. Their economies are liable to Russian pressure, especially in natural gas, where they are largely dependent on Russian supplies (though Lithuania will have an independent gas import terminal by the year-end). Estonia and Latvia are also vulnerable to Russian interference because of their ethnic make-up (between a quarter and a third of their populations self-identify as ‘Russian’ in some sense). Lithuania is vulnerable to demands from Russia for a corridor across its territory to the Kaliningrad exclave.

Like West Berlin in cold war days, the military defence of the Baltic states is difficult, especially against ‘hybrid warfare’ of the kind seen in Ukraine, which uses a deliberately ambiguous mix of military and unconventional means. Russia knows that. NATO has only a token presence in the region. We have no hardened infrastructure, no pre-positioned armed forces, weapons or munitions. We do not have proper plans to defend them. Russia knows that too. If we try to remedy these gaps in our defence – as NATO is now proposing to do, belatedly and partially, Russia will denounce these steps as a provocation, and threaten countermeasures. On current form, we will quail and back down.

What can we do?

The first task is to see clearly what has happened. European security will not be fixed with a few deft diplomatic touches and clever compromises. Coping with a revisionist Russia requires a fundamental overhaul. Policymakers need to explain to the public that the war in Ukraine was a game-changer. We have moved into a new costly and uncomfortable era, but we will never go back to business as usual. Anything else sends a message that the kleptocratic regime in the Kremlin understands all too well: crime pays.

We need to rebut the phoney Realpolitik arguments, which advise us to make the best of a bad job. We should accept the loss of Crimea, so the argument goes, do a deal with Russia over the future of Ukraine, and get used to the new realities, of a Russian droit de regard in neighbouring countries.

Such an approach would be morally wrong and strategically stupid. Securing a Europe whole and free after 1991 has been a magnificent achievement in which Britain has played a huge part. True: we made mistakes. We tried too hard to pander to Russia in the Yeltsin era, ignoring the growth of corruption, authoritarianism and revanchism. We overlooked Russians’ resentment as their country drifted from the European mainstream and our vulnerability to the steps they could take in response. We neglected Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the countries of the Caucasus. The Blair government was bewitched by the Putin regime’s offer of cooperation against Islamist terrorism in 2001. We have been frequently dazzled by the spurious commercial prospects offered by Russia – in particular BP’s decision to form an alliance with Rosneft, the main Russian oil company, was a shameful example of greed and short-sightedness.

But having made these mistakes is no reason to compound them now, by retreating into a grubby defeatism.

Legitimising Russia’s land-grab in Ukraine, and its attempted power-grab in the neighbourhood, would fly in the face of historical justice. The Tatars—whose suffering at Soviet hands is all but unmatched—are now under the rule of their former tormentors. Are we really proposing that countries which paid the greatest price for the mistakes of the 20th century (including many made by this country), and which the past masters of the Kremlin occupied and despoiled, should be once again subject to outside interference and oppression?

Instead, we should make it clear that our aim is simple. We will boost our security and that of allies, and weaken our opponents. We do not want to be enemies with Russia. But if the Putin regime treats us as an enemy, we help nobody by pretending otherwise.

Russia is far too weak to mount a conventional military attack on the West. But it does not need to. It has more potent weapons, of the kind already seen in Ukraine – the confusing and fast-changing combination of regular and irregular forces, economic sanctions, energy blockades, political destabilisation, information warfare, financial panics, and cyber-attacks. Traditional armed forces are not equipped to deal with this. Britain’s own psychological-warfare capabilities (both in offence and defence) have been severely downgraded in recent years; neither we nor our allies have effective means of countering Russian propaganda. We need new, sophisticated and resilient means of defending ourselves against the Russian chimera, which blends military, criminal, intelligence, business, diplomatic, media, cyber and political elements.

The immediate priority is military. A security crisis in the Baltic region is the single most dangerous threat facing the Atlantic alliance. Reckless behaviour by Russia could face us with a choice between a full-scale military confrontation (including the potential use of nuclear weapons), or surrender, with the collapse of our most fundamental security arrangements. We must make every effort to ensure that this does not happen.

That means NATO allies must preposition military equipment and supplies in the Baltic states. It means NATO creating a standing defence plan—one which assumes that there is a real and present danger of attack. We need to put a major NATO base in Poland, to reassure that country that it can safely deploy its forces to the Baltics as reinforcements in the event of a crisis. We need to boost the NATO presence in the Baltic states with rotating visits by naval vessels, extended air-policing, and ground forces—initially on persistent rotation, but as soon as possible on permanent deployment.

Russia will complain vigorously about this. But the fact that the Kremlin is unhappy when its neighbours are well-defended is telling. We should explain to the Russian authorities and to our own public that when NATO expanded in 2004, we did not even draw up contingency plans for the military defence of the new members, because we assumed that Russia was a friend, not a threat. It is Russia’s behaviour which has changed that. Russia attacked Georgia in 2008. It rehearsed the invasion and occupation of the Baltic states a year later, in the Zapad-09 exercise (which concluded with a dummy nuclear strike on Warsaw). It has continued to menace the Baltic states ever since, with air-space violations, propaganda and economic warfare, and state-sponsored subversion. We take the step of securing our most vulnerable allies belatedly and reluctantly, and solely as a result of Russian policy directed towards them.

A further vital military component of security in north-eastern Europe is the closest possible integration of Sweden and Finland into NATO planning and capabilities. These countries are not members of the alliance, so they cannot formally be part of its command structure. But we should make every effort to maximise cooperation in every respect. We cannot defend the Baltic states or Poland without their help. Rich, well-run countries with serious military capabilities, excellent intelligence services and strong strategic cultures are in short supply in modern Europe. We should make the most of what we have.

We also need to consider how to help countries hit by Russian economic sanctions. I commend Polish apples and Lithuanian cheese to this committee. Poland is one of the world’s largest apple exporters. Half its production goes to Russia and has been halted at the stroke of a pen, on arbitrary grounds. I do not believe that taxpayers should pay for the imprudent decisions of exporters (for more than 20 years I have been warning companies not to depend heavily on the Russian market). But as consumers we can do our part to help blunt the edge of Russian economic warfare.

Making it clear that we are serious about helping our allies will make our attempts to help our friends more credible. The top priority here is stabilising Ukraine. It is hard to overstate how parlous the situation is. Ukraine is suffering a world-class economic and financial crisis, which even in a stable and secure country would be far worse than anything experienced elsewhere in Europe. The economy is fundamentally uncompetitive. The main export market, Russia, is at risk of closure at any moment. Public finances are in ruins. Foreign exchange reserves are empty. Crippling debt repayments loom. The government subsists on a hand-to-mouth basis, relying on ad-hoc donations from wealthy oligarchs for even core spending requirements such as national defence. Even if everything else goes well, simply fixing Ukraine’s economy will take five years. A defeated Ukraine – embittered, traumatised and dismembered – will be even harder to help.

The outside world must respond generously and imaginatively. A new Marshall Plan for Ukraine should involve not only direct financial support, but also the widest possible relaxation of tariffs and quotas on Ukrainian products such as steel, grain, textiles and agricultural products. The European Union has led the way with the newly signed deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, but much more remains to be done. In particular, European countries should accelerate efforts to supply Ukraine with natural gas by reversing the flow of existing pipelines.

Second, Ukraine faces a political and constitutional crisis of a kind unseen since the end of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. Every political institution was degraded and discredited under the previous Yanukovych regime. Decades of bad government, corruption and abysmal public services have corroded public confidence in the state—one reason for the initial public support enjoyed by the insurgents in the poorest parts of eastern Ukraine. We should give the strongest possible support to the parliamentary elections next month.

Third, Ukraine faces defeat in its undeclared war with Russia. We need to offer Ukraine military training, assistance, arms and equipment in order to defeat or at least stall the separatist insurgents. We also – for Ukraine’s sake and for our own – need to deter the Kremlin.

This is the hardest part of the task ahead

Russia is an integrated part of the world economy and of international decision-making on everything from space to sub-sea minerals. It cannot be simply isolated and ignored. But that does not mean that we cannot raise the cost of doing business for the Putin regime.

In particular, we should greatly extend the use of sanctions against individuals. The furious Russian reaction to the American imposition of even a handful of visa bans and asset freezes on those responsible for the death of the whistle-blowing auditor Sergei Magnitsky shows the effectiveness of this approach. Other countries, including this one, have shamefully failed to follow suit. They should. The initiative of Bill Browder, the London-based financier and activist who employed Mr Magnitsky and has championed his cause, deserves special mention and credit.

The scope of such sanctions should be widened to include hundreds or even thousands of Russian decision-makers and policy-makers. It could include all members of the legislature (Duma and Federation Council), all members of the General Staff, military intelligence (GRU) domestic security (FSB), foreign intelligence (SVR), the interior ministry (MVD) and other ‘power agencies’, the presidential administration, and presidential property administration (and companies which represent it abroad), companies run by personalities linked to the Putin regime, and any banks or other commercial institutions involved in doing business in occupied Crimea. Such visa bans and asset freezes could also be extended to the parents, children and siblings of those involved.

This would send a direct and powerful message to the Russian elite that their own personal business in the West – where they and their families shop, study, save and socialise – will not continue as usual. The more countries that adopt sanctions, and the longer the list of those affected, the more pressure we are putting on the Putin regime to back off and change course.

Here in Britain we have another powerful weapon. We can also apply much tougher money-laundering laws to keep corrupt Russian officials out of the Western payments system and capital markets. We should intensify investigations of Russian energy companies which have mysterious origins, shareholders or business models. We can tighten rules on trust and company formation agents to make it harder for corrupt Russian entities to exploit and abuse our system. It is often said that offshore financial centres are beloved by the Russian elite. But the shameful truth is that it is Britain and the United States which make life easiest for them.

We also need to improve the West’s resilience and solidarity in the face of Russian pressure. Lithuania has built its own floating LNG terminal, which will become operational in December of this year, with the arrival of the aptly named “Independence” a vessel constructed in South Korea. Already, Gazprom’s grip on Lithuania’s natural gas market has slackened, and Lithuania has been able to negotiate a discount from the extortionate price – the highest in Europe – which the Russian gas giant had been charging. As energy editor of The Economist, I am sceptical of the idea that we will ever have a deep and liquid global LNG market: the technology and costs involved hinder the development of the needed supply chain. However at the margins, LNG does make a big difference, blunting the edge of any artificial emergency that Russia may try to create with selective supply interruptions.

Europe can do much more. It can build more gas storage, and liberalise the rules governing it, so that all parties have access to the facilities. It can complete the north-south gas grid, making it impossible for Russia to use supply interruptions on its four east-west export pipelines as a political weapon. Most of all, the European Commission should proceed with its complaint against Gazprom for systematic market-abuse and law-breaking. This move – in effect a prosecution – is based on the seizure of huge numbers of documents following raids on Gazprom offices and affiliates. The Commission had expected to release this complaint – in effect a charge sheet – in March. Then it was postponed until June. Nothing has been heard of it since. Many now wonder if it has been permanently shelved.

European, British and American regulators are rightly concerned about the way in which Russian companies operate in the world energy market. There are grave suspicions of price-fixing, insider trading, money-laundering and other abusive and illegal behaviour. My own researches suggest that these suspicions are amply justified, though writing about them is hampered by the costs and risks imposed by English libel law. In the course of researching the defence case in a libel case involving a prominent Russian active in the energy sector, I met several potential witnesses who were frightened for their physical safety if they cooperated with us. The more that the our criminal justice systems can do, through prosecution, witness protection and plea bargains, to deal with the Russian gangster state, the safer the world will be.

Finally, we need to reboot the Atlantic Alliance. As memories fade of the Normandy beaches, of the Berlin airlift and wall, and the sacrifice and loyalty of past generations, our reservoir of shared sentiment is running dry. Without economic, political and cultural commonality, the Kremlin’s games of divide and rule will succeed. This will require renewed and extraordinary efforts on both sides of the Atlantic. The revelations surrounding the secret material stolen by Edward Snowden have stoked fears in Europe that America is an unaccountable and intrusive global hegemon. This year I wrote a book – ‘The Snowden Operation’ attacking the ‘Snowdenistas’, as I termed the NSA renegade’s unthinking defenders.

I believe that our intelligence agencies as a rule function well, within the law, and to the great benefit of our nations. But much damage has been done. At a time when we need to be restoring transatlantic ties, they are withering before our eyes, especially in the vital strategic relationship between America and Germany. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) offers a rare chance of a big-picture, positive project which could help revive what sometimes looks like a failing marriage.

A final footnote: whereas Russia once regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as a liberation from communism, the regime there now pushes the line, with increasing success, that it was a humiliating geopolitical defeat. That is not only factually false; it is also a tragedy for the Russian people. They overthrew the Soviet Union, under which they had suffered more than anyone else. But they have had the fruits of victory snatched away by the kleptocratic ex-KGB regime. The bread and circuses it offers are little consolation for the prize that Russians have lost: a country governed by law, freed from the shadows of empire and totalitarianism, and at peace with itself and its neighbours.

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The above is Edward Lucas’ written testimony to the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 3 September 2014. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Cover: “Trojan Putin” by Steve Sack/CagleCartoons.com.

Edward Lucas: Europe’s north-south divide

Divisions in Europe are nothing new, and a continent without them would be bland and uninteresting. But that is no reason to exaggerate them, or to make them more significant than they are.

The desire to pigeonhole countries is deeply rooted: Catholic versus Protestant Europe, or Western Christian versus Orthodox; the countries that experienced the Enlightenment or the Reformation, and those that didn’t. The east-west division of Europe during the Cold War was seductively simple: one side was free and capitalist, and the other side was Communist and under the Kremlin’s thumb. It still has a strong appeal, especially to those in the West who have never quite got used to the idea that the “ex-communist” countries have the same votes and clout in international meetings. But it was not really true: some “Western” countries were not democratic and not all “Communist” countries did what the Kremlin said, or practised the same sort of economic and political system.

night-lights-europe-lg

None of these divisions were as simple or useful as they seem, and the same is true for the fashionable notion of the North-South split in Europe now. One idea revolves around political economy. Its elements include that north European countries are thrifty whereas south European countries are spendthrift. North European countries are politically stable. South European countries are not. North European countries are Atlanticist and spend proper amounts of money on defence. South European countries do not. North Europeans are good citizens and pay their taxes. South Europeans do not.

At its worst, this can verge on the racist. Decrying the “olive belt” can easily sound like prejudice against the “olive-skinned”. But it is also wrong in fact. The idea that the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) or the PIIGS (including Ireland) belong in the same economic boat is wrong. Italy has slow growth (but solid banks); Spain has bust banks. Portugal has weak institutions. Greece has everyone’s problems and a lot of its own. But these problems reach farther north. Belgium’s debt to GDP ratio by some counts is 140% (by others it is a mere 90%). Hungary was saved from a colossal meltdown in 2009 thanks to timely international intervention: unchecked it would have taken the Austrian and Italian banks with it.  Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Ukraine and Belarus are the wobbliest economies, dependent on Russian money to keep going.

I think a reasonable distinction can be made between “Solvent Europe” and the rest of the continent. “Solvent Europe” comprises countries not burdened by debt. This creates quite a different atmosphere in economic and political decisionmaking. Politicians have room for manoeuvre in fiscal policy: if they choose to borrow in the face of recession, they can, because their debt-to-GDP ratios are so low that the markets will gladly lend. Even if they don’t choose to borrow much, they have more money to spend on things that voters want, because they are not paying interest and principal on their debts. The countries of “Solvent Europe” can run current-account deficits when they need: that means they can have big inflows of foreign investment without worrying about over-heating. Their households are not so indebted: that means that consumers spend more freely.

Back to the “North-South split”: it is true that most of the countries in northern Europe are also solvent, and most of the countries in the south are not. But the exceptions are important. Britain, with its colossal deficit, cannot belong to “Solvent Europe”, though as a country which prints its own currency, it is not subject to the harshest constraints of the financial markets. Ireland has suffered a huge financial shock, but like the Baltic states, it has managed to bounce back in a way that other small economies (Portugal and Greece) have not, at least yet.

Other southern countries (notably Bulgaria) have macro-economic policies that keep them firmly in the “Solvent Europe” camp, even though their neighbours are in trouble. Bulgaria’s debt-to-GDP ratio is a strikingly low 18%.

The simplest way of thinking about “Solvent Europe” is to imagine that you are the finance minister. Do you wake up in the morning and check the bond spreads (how much more expensive your debt is than US Treasuries or German Bunds)? If yes, then you are worried about your country’s creditworthiness. If not, then you are in Solvent Europe and can spend your time on other things.  But it is not just debt. Solvent Europe also has better-run banks and stronger institutions: that is why Slovenia, which for years was a byword for post-communist prosperity and prudence, has come unstuck.

At a time when Europe as a whole is in trouble, the importance of “Solvent Europe” is huge. It is a kind of economic, political and moral ballast for the rest of the continent: a sign that modern welfare capitalism can work. Amid a persistent and well-supported narrative of Western failure, that is more than welcome, it is vital. What “Solvent Europe” shows is that democracies can take decisions, that politicians do not always pander to the most short-term interests of their voters, that businesses can compete and thrive, and that firms and households can make sensible decisions.

An ultra-pessimist approach would be to argue that this is only temporary. It is possible to imagine that “Solvent Europe” will be dragged down by the mess in the euro zone, for example. The huge economic dislocation of a break-up of the single currency (and with it the end of the single market) would have disastrous effects for the strong and weak alike. So far, the provision of unlimited liquidity by the European Central Bank has fended off this prospect. But liquidity cannot compensate indefinitely for insolvency. Another risk is that the savers and taxpayers of “Solvent Europe” will get fed up with paying for the uncompetitive and seemingly spendthrift part of the EU.

A better approach is to see what in the “Solvent Europe” model can be exported. Good public administration, well-functioning labour markets, transparent political systems, strong institutions and sound public finances cannot be transplanted like garden shrubs. But they can be nurtured. Having been on the receiving end of much outside advice, all of it well meaning and some of it good, countries like Estonia are well placed to give help to places that urgently need to regain solvency and competitiveness. That is not an act of charity: it is self-interest. Solvent Europe cannot survive as a fortress if the rest of the continent is plagued by economic (and political, or even social) meltdown.

The simplistic “north-south” split in economics has a grain of truth. But in security thinking it matters a lot more. Here the picture is clear. The Nordic and Baltic countries plus Poland have genuine worries about Russia. They have seen the Russian and Belarus armed forces rehearse the invasion and occupation of the Baltic states (including the use of tactical nuclear weapons); they also know that those drills, the Ladoga and Zapad-09 exercises in 2009, concluded with a Strategic Rocket Forces drill in which the target was Warsaw.

Later this year Russia and Belarus will hold Zapad-13. The NATO autumn exercise Steadfast Jazz, which was meant to be a symbolic underlining of the Alliance’s commitment to its new members, is looking embarrassingly thin in comparison. America is sending only a manoeuvre company and some headquarters staff. France—not a notable presence in the region’s security in the past—is sending 3000 soldiers, more than all the other NATO members put together (cynics say that is because France spots commercial possibilities in Poland’s civil nuclear power programme).

“Secure Europe” also includes non-EU Norway, and, increasingly, non-NATO Sweden and Finland. Sweden has just experienced an unpleasant reminder of the perils of its semi-pacifist approach, with a dummy Russian nuclear attack on Stockholm and another target in the early hours of Good Friday. The Swedish air force had no planes available to intercept the Russians, and the job was done by Danish planes from the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania. Finland has also suffered a series of bombastic verbal attacks by Russia.

The security worries which stretch from Britain to Estonia across northern Europe are met with mystification or contempt in other countries. Germany—the epitome of “Solvent Europe” is on the other side when it comes to “Secure Europe”. Germany resolutely opposed the drafting of contingency plans for the new member states of NATO, on the grounds that a) Russia was not a threat and b) any such plans would provoke Russia. That thinking is the equivalent of Greece believing it could borrow its way to prosperity: common sense inside the policy-makers’ bubble, bonkers when seen from outside. When the contingency plans were pushed through (thanks to the Obama administration) Germany then tried to block any attempt to rehearse them. It has tried to sabotage Steadfast Jazz—the first big exercise to take place in the new member states—at every stage.

Germany has allies in this: Spain, Portugal and Slovenia among others. Europe now spends so little on defence, and spends what it has so badly, that even sending a small contingent of forces to an exercise can seem unmanageably costly. And why worry about Russia anyway? For two-thirds of the continent, the real security threat comes from Africa and the Middle East, not from the East. Greece is a big spender but only because it worries about Turkey (which is a big spender because it is in a bad neighbourhood). And of course insolvency makes it easy for countries to think that saving money on defence makes sense.

Which will come first, security or solvency? My guess is the former. Patience is eroding with Russia on all fronts. Germany may be wimpish when it comes to hard security, but it is increasingly robust when it comes to criticising human rights abuses in Russia. It increasingly cares more about its (much larger) trade with Poland than it does with Russia. It no longer worries about keeping Gazprom happy: instead it supports Günther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner, as he dismantles the Russian gas giant’s business model. Worries about Russia are going to grow not shrink. If only the same could be said about Europe’s economies.

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Disclaimer: This article was brought to you in collaboration with Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia: http://www.diplomaatia.ee/en/

The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Cold War in the north

The Nordic and Baltic states are increasingly worried about Russia.

Discussing NATO membership in Sweden is a bit like discussing sex at a church youth club. Everyone agrees the subject is important, but you have to tiptoe round some taboos.

I have just been in Stockholm courtesy of the terrific Free World Forum, run by the tough-talking wing of the Moderate (ie, conservative) Party. The theme was ‘Security around the Baltic’ – a good title, because eight of the countries around the Baltic Sea are increasingly worried about the ninth: Russia.

Saber Strike 2013 exercise in Estonia

It was topical, too, as the events of 30 March exemplify: Russian warplanes carried out a mock attack on Sweden, and were intercepted by Danish jets scrambled from a Lithuanian airfield. This is not the first such incident – but it is the first to be leaked to the media. A debate is beginning: should Sweden return to real (costly) territorial defence? Or pool its efforts with the other Nordic countries? Or join NATO? Or all of the above?

Finland’s prime minister has called for a proper debate on the defence issue (his country retains territorial defence and is even more shy, historically, about NATO). Worries already abound. In the latest in a series of rhetorical assaults, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, recently justified Stalin’s unprovoked assault in 1940, on the grounds that the pre-war Finnish border was a “mistake”. The United States is selling Finland the JASSM – a conventional missile that provides a drastic last-ditch deterrent against a putative aggressor (ie, Russia).

A miniature Cold War is looming in the region. The Russians claim NATO expansion to the Baltic states was a grievous provocation to which they must respond with a military build-up. But that scares the neighbours – and thus brings a bigger NATO presence. The Russians then cite that as grounds for even nastier behaviour. With painful reluctance, NATO is staging a small exercise, Steadfast Jazz, in Poland and the Baltic states this autumn. Russia criticises this: the exercise dares to rehearse how the alliance could respond to a military clash and partial occupation, restoring the victim’s territorial integrity. “This cannot but arouse our concern,” said Russia’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko. The Kremlin’s aim is not conquest, but demilitarisation and demoralisation: instilling a sense of indefensibility makes victory easy.

The conference was buzzing with rumours – that another Russian plane had jammed Sweden’s air-defence radar on Gotland, for example, and that the targets were Sweden’s two main military installations. (Actually, the ‘attack’ was part of a big Russian exercise simulating strategic deterrence, with flights in all directions.)

Yet the Swedish government has been remarkably laid-back (puzzlingly so in some eyes) in its response. Wimpishness? Instructions from the US not to fuss? Or a master-stroke: with public opinion alarmed, and the left-wing opposition in full cry demanding a tougher line on Russia, it will be easy to implement it.

The real point is that Sweden and Finland are in this game whether they like it or not. The Nestor of Nordic-Baltic security, Karlis Neretnieks (a retired Swedish general of Latvian extraction), argued at the conference that ambiguity about Swedish defence capability and orientation is now a cause of instability. In a crisis, the Swedish island of Gotland would be a vital prize, determining whether NATO could effectively defend or reinforce the Baltic states. So who would grab it first?

While Russia stays in its current venomous mood, Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO is now a question of when, not whether. But a much-awaited Swedish defence review last week shied away from proposing any real change of policy. Like the church youth group, everyone knows sex is inescapable. The safety of marriage is looking increasingly attractive.

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Disclaimer: This article was first published by European Voice.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

Edward Lucas: The lost homelands

Will the émigrés return? Countries between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, which have lost millions of their people in the past 20 years, certainly hope so.

I have just been to two ‘émigré’ events at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) – one organised by its Baltic societies, another by the Polish societies of Britain’s top universities. Hundreds of students came to both, plus impressive guests from back home. The Polish event drew the deputy prime minister, Waldemar Pawlak, and a host of Polish blue-chip firms. The young diaspora at British universities is a much sought-after pool of talent.

I had a nostalgia rush, remembering my own LSE days, especially in Student Solidarity with Solidarity in 1981-82, chanting protest slogans in the cold outside the Polish embassy, and hearing Poles singing the national anthem, “Poland is not yet lost while we still live”, at a fundraiser we organised. Our main achievement, though, was a scholarship for a persecuted Polish student to come to LSE.

In those days the dilemma was sharp. “In their homeland they have no freedom and in their freedom they have no homeland” was the poignant motto of the captive nations’ diasporas during the Cold War. Now the mantra is different. It runs along the lines of “In their homeland they have no future and in their future they have no homeland”. The picture varies, of course. Thanks to budget airlines, it is possible to stay in regular touch with home – if you want. Internet radio means you can listen to your favourite station anywhere in the world. For some, expatriate life is just a pleasant career stage.

But for other migrants, attitudes are bitter or just apathetic. This seems to be especially true for the least skilled, and those from small towns or villages that have been hard-hit by the economic changes since 1989. I notice their bemused and disdainful reaction when I try to practise my Lithuanian, Polish or Slovak (and not just because of my accent and grammar). A good new British play, “Tu i teraz” (“Here and now”) by Nicola Werenowska, which has enjoyed a successful run in London, exemplifies this. The main character is an iron-willed Polish woman who has made a big success of her new life in England and tries to scrub her life of anything that reminds her of the past.

Losing such migrants permanently is a real risk. Winning them back – and the skills they have acquired – would be a big dividend. Changing economic fortunes may send some home (though for many it was poor public services and other inadequacies that made them leave). Exhortation can help too. Andrius Kubilius, a former Lithuanian prime minister, half-jokingly told his LSE audience “don’t get left behind” in the rush for good jobs back home.

But the best way of keeping hearts warm is fostering identity – and pride. For governments and embassies, that means paying close attention to the diasporas’ needs. Reducing bureaucratic barriers to return helps (removing the hassle from dual citizenship or welfare and pension systems). Consular services could be better for some countries. Political muscle can be flexed. The ‘east Europeans’ can be, if they want, a powerful bloc of voters and consumers. Politicians, media outlets or businesses that treat them badly deserve to suffer.

But governments can only do so much. The most powerful effect comes from private activity. The Estonian choir, the Polish church, the Lithuanian sports club and the Russian bookshop (to take a few London examples) are places for people to cherish their roots. When people are proud of where they come from, they are more likely to consider returning there.

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This article first appeared on European Voice: http://www.europeanvoice.com/

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Main photo: Kaarel Mikkin/Visit Estonia

Second photo: London Estonian Society

Reinventing banking and revising capitalism in Estonia

A tiny Estonian outfit offers a way out of the credit crunch and, possibly, a way to rebuild banking

I have started making loans to total strangers – scores of them. I am not mad, rich or philanthropic. The loans are tiny. The safeguards are good. So far, the borrowers are paying me back and I am turning a handy profit. Even nicer, I feel I am part of a revolution which could save Western capitalism. It is all happening in Estonia.

Banking is the economy’s biggest weakness. It offers stingy, fee-ridden savings products and over-priced loans with nasty hidden costs. Intermediaries gain colossal profits, especially when they are greedy and reckless. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the taxpayer picks up the bill. Apart from that, it works fine.

So alternatives are welcome, such as ‘peer-to-peer’ lenders, which put the cash-thirsty and the cash-rich in touch with each directly (they make their money by charging a fee for the service). Zopa, a British peer-to-peer outfit, has lent £260 million (€310m) since it started in 2005.

Isepankur (it means ‘Self-banker’ and sounds like ‘Easy-banker’) offers a better deal, because it is lending in countries where the banking system is less developed. Estonians (even with a good credit rating) typically pay 50% for an unsecured ‘doorstep’ loan. Isepankur gives me and other outsiders a chance to lend to them at much lower rates – 28% is typical.

That is a good deal: the best savings rate I can get in a British bank is under 3% (and half the meagre proceeds go in tax).

Isepankur opened for non-Estonian investors late last year. I sent off a few hundred euros to get going – and immediately got a phone-call from the chief executive. That was an impressive bit of customer service. (I have since helped tidy up the English on the website.)

The potential borrowers have to convince lenders of their creditworthiness. ‘Tanelvakker’, for example, is a telephone engineer wanting to renovate his flat. He wanted to borrow €2,600 for 36 months at 12%. He is a single man, with a salary of €2,500 a month. The capital and interest payment would be €86. I took a look at his other outgoings (mortgage, car-lease payment and a credit card) and reckoned he could afford that easily. So I lent him €10. Dozens of others did the same. He makes one payment a month to Isepankur – which splits the money among us. If loans go bad, Isepankur sells them to a debt-collection agency.

Competition drives loan costs down. Good risks pay less. ‘Akiraam’ (a secretary on €600 a month) wanted €200 to pay for a Finnish-language course. She was ready to pay 28% but ended up paying only 12% because lenders piled in. Dodgy borrowers struggle, or pay more: lenders can grill them online. If they provide inadequate answers (or none), then their credibility suffers.

Some borrowers do default: an average of 3%, Isepankur reckons. But the interest rates that the successful ones pay more than make up for that. So far three of my loans are a bit late – but the money from the good ones more than outweighs that.

My net average return (like most Isepankur lenders) is about 17%. I have so far lent €1,570 to about 50 borrowers, in amounts ranging from €5 to €25. I have received €60 back in repaid capital and €24 in interest. I also got €0.06 in ‘penalties’ (my share in a small fine levied on a borrower called ‘Lillekas’ who paid a few days late).

Isepankur’s costs are low: mainly running its website and advertising. It is still tiny. Perhaps it is too new, and too different. But I remember when they said that about another Estonian invention: Skype.

This article first appeared on European Voice: http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/imported/reinventing-banking-and-revising-capitalism-in-estonia/76243.aspx

Edward Lucas: The Baltic states – defending the least defensible?

Russia is poised to gain technical superiority over NATO in areas that are crucial to the defence of the Baltic states.

Scandinavian defence pundits are a sober bunch. But the latest report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency is a gripping read. Its 115 pages offer the first comprehensive and unclassified look at Europe’s biggest military security problem: how can a weakening NATO credibly guarantee the security of its least defensible members – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

NATO has restored territorial defence to its strategic concept. It has drawn up contingency plans to defend its new ‘eastern’ members. A big exercise next year – Steadfast Jazz – will rehearse those plans. But for politicians and officials in Brussels and Washington, DC, any public discussion about dealing with an unfriendly Russia raises too many unpleasant and embarrassing questions.

But the Swedish authors – Bo Ljung, Tomas Malmlöf and Karlis Neretnieks, and the editor Mike Winnerstig – are able to say what NATO will not. The alliance has a serious credibility problem in the Baltic region. Its members there are too small to defend themselves, so they rely on the alliance’s guarantee. The neighbours most vital for their defence, Sweden and Finland, are not members of NATO. And NATO is cutting defence at a time when Russia is spending billions of roubles on updating its military.

That modernisation is, of course, plagued by corruption and bad planning. In the 2006-15 period, the report notes dryly that only “two of seven SSBN [ballistic-missile submarines] have been delivered, none of six attack submarines…22 of 116 fighter aircraft, 60 of 156 helicopters, four of 18 S-400 [air defence] battalions and one of five Iskander [battlefield missile] brigades. This does not look very encouraging from a Russian point of view”.

Slow progress is better than none. Russia’s haphazard modernisation comes at a time when NATO is cutting spending to the bone and beyond. Even if modern weapons systems comprise only 30%-40% of Russia’s inventory, the report notes, “a larger part of Russian systems will be newer than similar systems in NATO countries”. In other words: in areas where Russia is modernising, NATO’s technical superiority, which is often taken for granted, could disappear within the next ten years.

All this makes defending a thin strip of flat land on Russia’s borders particularly tricky. Deploying heavy NATO ground forces there is difficult: partly because of transport problems, and partly because these military assets are already scant and due to decline further as defence cuts bite. It will be hard, the report says, “to conduct effective defensive operations either in the Baltic states or from outside the area”.

So NATO must rely on air power. But Russia is giving “very high priority” to its air defences, which are already “far more capable” than anything that NATO had to deal with in ex-Yugoslavia, Iraq or Libya. Western reluctance to intervene in Syria is largely because of the difficulty of overcoming the S-300 system that the Kremlin sold to the regime of Bashar Assad. Russia itself has the still more formidable S-400 system, currently being deployed in the Kaliningrad region. And the S-500 is planned for delivery later this decade. “The outcome of a duel between Russia’s integrated air-defence system and NATO’s most advanced air assets is impossible to predict,” the authors note. NATO at full strength, of course, is far stronger than Russia. But by the time it musters its forces, the Baltics could be “overrun”.

Nobody says that such a scenario is likely. But security is about credibility. A weak defence encourages the other side to try its luck. The answer is clear: higher defence spending, more exercises and closer NATO ties with Sweden (and Finland). Any takers?

I

Disclaimer: This article was originally published by European Voice.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Photos: Picture pictures www.pictures.com

How chili peppers made Estonia famous at The Economist

Chili peppers are not part of Estonian cuisine. But they have helped make some of Estonia’s most distinguished sons and daughters famous at the Economist magazine.

I should begin by explaining that my enthusiasm for all things Estonian is not my only eccentricity. Among the others are obsessive interests in railways, cricket – and spicy food. My sister and I frequent a London restaurant called “Hot Stuff” and at Christmas and birthdays exchange bottles of hot sauce with names like “Wild Dog” and “Liquid Fire”.

Chili peppers named after famous Estonians

Although we don’t believe in serious sibling rivalry, a bit of competition is fun. So when she started to grow chillies in her garden, I decided to grow bigger and better ones in my office. Soon I had a tray (a colleague’s unused inbox) filled with compost and a two dozen tiny green sprouts. “What are you going to call them?” a colleague asked

As a joke, I answered “they’re all famous Estonians”. Then I thought to myself, “why not?” I started jotting down names at random of Estonians I admire and would like to have as company in my office.

Otto Tief. Jaan Tõnisson. Jüri Kukk, on whose behalf my mother, an Amnesty International stalwart, used to write letters. Other heroes of the resistance such as August Sabbe and Alfons Rebane. Aili Jürgenson and Ageeda Paavel, the teenage girls who blew up the first Soviet war memorial in Tallinn and were sent to Siberia. Kristjan Palusalu, the great prewar wrestler (who some say was cheekily chosen as the model for the real Bronze Soldier).

Then my favourite writers: Lydia Koidula, Betti Alver. Jaan Kross and Jaan Kaplinski. I researched the Estonians who had been on postage stamps and who had public memorials. I added Friedrich Kreutzwald, Carl Robert Jakobson, Jakob Hurt and some more pre-war politicians.

All the heads of state of the prewar republic deserved mention, I reckoned. I added the two most impressive Estonians I met: Ernst Jaakson and Lennart Meri. All that was missing was an English connection (Rebane doesn’t count). I settled on Gert Helbemäe. I doubt many modern Estonians have heard of him, but he was a leading light in Estonian literary exile circles in Britain until his death in 1970.

I bought more trays, pots and labels and started potting out the seedlings. Working out how to arrange them on the windowsill proved surprisingly time-consuming. At first I tried to do it logically: all political prisoners over there, pre-war politicians here, 19th century writers in one corner, 20th-century ones in the other, and so on. But my sense of mischief soon triumphed. Why not Koidula in bed with Kreutzwald? Their real-life epistolary relationship was tragically abortive (I’ve just been reading Madli Puhvel’s excellent book about it).

But it seemed a shame not to transcend the boundaries of time and space more radically. I decided that it would be more fun for Koidula to meet Betti Alver, and for Kreutzwald to get to know the latter-day literary giants such as Kross and Kaplinski.

It was the same with the politicians. Initially I just laid them out according to a real-life chronology. But it seemed much more interesting to put Ernst Jaakson and Konstantin Päts together. I created a “military heroes” tray where Sabbe, Laidoner and Rebane could exchange stories.

I couldn’t decide what to do with Lennart: he would fit in well everywhere and would be sorry to miss out on meeting others. In the end I decided he should share with Tammsaare and Jakobson: he would be the right person to explain to them what had happened in the years since their death. I spent a lot of time trying to work out whether people had met in real life: did Rebane and Laidoner know each other, for example? What were Ernst Jaakson’s relations with Rebane like?

In the process, I got hopelessly muddled about which chili was which. Some are “Scotch Bonnets”, some are “Habaneros” and a few from the world’s hottest chili, the “Dorset Naga” (this is so spicy that it is the only food product that cannot be bought by under-16s in a British supermarket).

Chili peppers creating interest about Estonia

Then something rather odd happened. My colleagues are very patient with my enthusiasm for Estonia’s achievements. We do write about Estonia when it matters (on everything from the euro to the high anti-corruption scores, the flat tax, e-government and so on cyber-defence). We are robustly supportive of Estonia’s position on language and citizenship laws. I even managed, a few years ago, to get three pages on Finno-Ugric grammar into the Christmas edition. We wrote a big obituary for Lennart Meri. But they maintain a polite distance to the subject. If I start talking about Estonia at office parties, I usually find that my audience is two pot plants and an intern.

Lennart Meri

My own plants changed that. My office is next to the kitchen, so I have a lot of people stopping by, as well as the cartographers, layout artists, fact checkers and other journalists who visit to discuss the paper’s International Section (editing that is now my main job: eastern Europe is a sideline). Lots of them, ranging from interns to even my bosses, started asking me about the names on the labels. I was only too pleased to explain.

The answers proved rather shocking. It is one thing to know dimly about the miseries of communism in a faraway country. It is another to be given a real life example. “Did all the Estonians get sent to the Gulag?” asked one colleague, after I had given a quick explanation of the fates of Päts, Laidoner and Meri.

As more colleagues started asking questions, I prepared some short biographies and photos, trying to find other hooks for their interest. A colleague specialising in Iraq was particularly interested to hear how Laidoner, on behalf of the League of Nations, had drawn Turkey’s eastern boundary after the First World War.

The plants named after people who had been in Siberia had to be closest to the window in order to enjoy the sunlight. As Jüri Kukk had died from forcefeeding, I was particularly careful not to over-water him. Oddly, the plants did not grow to match their names. Tammsaare, fittingly for a giant in literature, proved a giant in his botanic reincarnation too. Given his physical prowess, Kristjan Palusalu should have been similarly huge, but he remained a spindly little thing. Jüri Kukk, by contrast proved to be a great sturdy plant, as did Marie Under. Ants Piip and Jakob Hurt simply refused to grow more than a couple of centimetres.

Jakob Hurt

Some of my visitors began to think it would be nice to have their own Estonian. After a lot of repotting into larger containers, my windowsill was getting rather crowded. I know Estonians hate crowds, so in principle I wanted to give them more space. But it was hard to give them away. Initially I said that those nobody who had been in exile in real life should be moved out of my office. Losing ones’s homeland once is enough for anyone.

Female poets were in particular demand. The deputy editor, Emma Duncan, took Betti Alver. But I simply refused to get rid of Lydia Koidula. It is bad enough having her disappearing from the 100 kroon banknote, let alone having her leave my office. One colleague insisted on a female poet, but I persuaded him to take Tammsaare.

“Chekist” insects

In the summer, I was away for several weeks, but our editorial secretary, in between her other tasks (arranging trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting the Chinese embassy to give visas, and helping journalists recover notebooks left in trains and planes) paid scrupulous attention to the watering instructions I left behind. All the plants were alive and well when I got back.

But my colleagues were not happy. One senior journalist said grimly “It’s like the Niger Delta here”. I could see why. A plague of small black insects was buzzing round my plants, and escaping to other offices. I apologised profusely, explaining that these were “chekist” insects who were trying, as so often in the past, so sabotage Estonia. But the joke fell flat. On close examination, I think the compost, not the plants, was to blame. There was no time to lose. Muttering “nyet rastenia, nyet problemy” I took ruthless action, putting a dozen of the smaller plants into the bin and repotting the survivors in new compost.

My colleagues are happy again. But now they are impatient for the plants to flower and fruit. That requires some sunny weather. The Economist can influence a lot of things. But not that.

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This article was also published in Estonian by Estonian newspaper Postimees. Cover photo: Jaan Tõnisson with his family in Tartu in 1890.

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