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Ukraine Crisis Requires A New Rulebook, Author Says


More than any city in the world, Minsk feels like a Soviet throwback. It's in Belarus, a small, former Soviet republic that feels very much stuck in history.


And maybe that's an inappropriate venue for peace talks today aimed at ending a conflict that feels like it belongs in the Cold War.

GREENE: Russia, Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists are all meeting in Minsk to end fighting in eastern Ukraine that continues this morning.

GONYEA: Which has NATO leaders at a summit this week, dealing with an old problem - how to contain Russian aggression.

GREENE: We spoke to Edward Lucas. He's a senior editor at The Economist magazine who's written about Russia's role in the world today. We asked him about NATO's options. Edward Lucas, thanks for coming on the program. We appreciate it.

EDWARD LUCAS: Thank you for inviting me.

GREENE: So you've written that it is a big mistake to try and manage this crisis with Russia by using the current rulebook when it comes to international diplomacy. What exactly do you mean by this?

LUCAS: I mean that we're playing chess and Putin's playing poker. And he has torn up the rules on which European security have been based, certainly since the end of the Cold War and arguably since 1975, when the Helsinki Accords came in and we agreed we wouldn't move borders by force in Europe. And he just did that in Crimea, and he's doing it again in eastern Ukraine. And that's a game changer.

GREENE: So you're saying he is playing by rules that he thinks are legitimate?

LUCAS: He thinks the rules are unfair. He thinks that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Russia, that the West is out to get Russia and Russia has every right to try and assert its interests, both in the immediate neighborhood and on the global stage. And those are interesting ideas, but I don't think we should be trying to accommodate them. In fact, I think it would be disastrous if we tried.

GREENE: So if he's playing by a different set of rules - and we've seen these recent actions in Crimea, now eastern Ukraine. We look back to the war in Georgia that Russia fought. What exactly is he trying to achieve here?

LUCAS: So he's got three big ambitions. One is to establish Russia's right to determine the geopolitical future of its neighbors, former Soviet empire and other countries, so nothing happens there that Russia doesn't know about; nothing happens there that Russia doesn't like. Secondly, he wants to stop the European Union bringing order to the European energy markets. The European Union is trying to bust Russia's business model, which is very corrupt and exploitative, market abusive. And thirdly, he wants to bust the whole idea of the West. He doesn't like the idea that America is the security guarantor in Europe, and he wants to separate Europe and America. And I think on all three of those, he's making considerable headway.

GREENE: And the other thing is the neighborhood that you mentioned. I think of some of the countries in Russia's neighborhood, the Baltics, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. These are NATO countries. Are you really foreseeing that Russia's going to try and move its borders and threaten NATO territory?

LUCAS: We're already seeing a lot of subversion, harassment and intimidation of the Baltic states. And I think that will continue and escalate if we don't make it absolutely clear that it's hands-off. And I think President Obama did a very good job in Estonia, which he visited this week just before the NATO summit, by saying, you mess with the Baltics, you mess with the United States. And that was exactly the right thing to say. But Russia does have means to put pressure on these countries. And so NATO's really got to do its homework on getting proper troops and supplies and equipment and all that sort of stuff into the Baltic states, so that Russia really sees that there's no mileage in trying to do any stunt or mischief there.

GREENE: OK, so you're suggesting that NATO should put some sort of more permanent troop presence in the Baltics. What else should the West be doing?

LUCAS: The most important thing is to go after the corrupt Russian money that has flowed into the West. One of the really scandalous things of the last 10, 15 years has been that tens of billions of dollars have been looted from the Russian people. And they've been laundered through London, through the American financial system, through European countries. And we need to go after that money. And we need to go after the people who laundered it, the lawyers and accountants and bankers in the West. And that, I think, would raise the cost of doing business for him and might deter him. But these kind of pinprick sanctions we've done so far, I think, don't really make any difference.

GREENE: And we should say that Putin, in doing everything that you suggest he's doing, is enormously popular right now.

LUCAS: He is popular according to the opinion polls. But if we drill down a bit and ask Russians, do you think your country's getting more or less corrupt? - they say more corrupt. Do - you happy with public services? They say no. Are you happy with infrastructure? They say no. There's all sorts of things that the government actually does in Russia that people are very fed up with. But when you ask them, do you like Putin? - well, they say yes. And I - I'm skeptical. If you had a really free media in Russia asking hard questions about everything that's happened over the last 15 years, I think the Putin bubble would pop pretty quickly.

GREENE: Edward Lucas, really a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

LUCAS: My pleasure.

GREENE: Edward Lucas is a senior editor with The Economist magazine, also author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia And The Threat To The West." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.