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Edward Lucas: ‘Russia is a revisionist power; Even greater dangers lie ahead’ #EdwardLucas #Russia

Edward Lucas
The following is written testimony given by Edward Lucas to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.K. on Sept. 2, 2014.

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 bene 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.

(Edward Lucas is Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (Washington, D.C.), and a Senior Editor at The Economist).


NATO Summit Wales 2014 #NATOSummitUK #NATO

10 Downing Street, LondonOn 4 to 5 September 2014, Wales will host the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain as the UK hosts the NATO summit. President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and President Hollande are expected to attend along with leaders and senior ministers from around 60 other countries.

The summit comes as NATO draws down from its longest ever mission in Afghanistan and against a backdrop of instability in Ukraine. It is an opportunity to ensure that NATO continues to be at the forefront of building stability in an unpredictable world.

This will be the first NATO Summit since Chicago in 2012, and the first NATO summit in the United Kingdom since Margaret Thatcher welcomed NATO leaders to London in 1990.

During working sessions at the Celtic Manor and more informal events in Cardiff, world leaders will look to address issues which threaten NATO countries’ national security, from fragile states to piracy, from terrorism to cyber attacks.

As a strong player in NATO over the last 65 years, the UK continues to provide forces for NATO operations around the world today. Beyond Afghanistan, there are British service personnel serving in the Baltic Air Police mission and on counter-piracy operations.

Bringing the summit to Wales is an opportunity to shine the global spotlight on this corner of the United Kingdom, highlighting its strong commercial sector – from manufacturing to innovation, life sciences to cyber, and its academic excellence. And showcasing the tremendous potential in Wales for investment and business, tourism and study.

Announcing that Wales would host the NATO Summit 2014, the Prime Minister said:

It’s a great moment for Wales to advertise its modern and economically brilliant face to the world. We are going to have up to 60 world leaders coming to Wales for this vitally important NATO conference, so I think it’s a very good moment for Wales to put its best foot forward.

We had the G8 in Northern Ireland, we had the Olympics in London, we’ve got the Commonwealth Games in Scotland – it is Wales’ turn for one of these big events, a great showcase for Wales and a great opportunity and I’m really pleased that we are going to be doing that.

Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street – GOV.UK.

Vladimir #Putin is ‘dragging West towards new Cold #War with illegal invasion of #Ukraine

David Cameron spoke out as Nato said Russia had sent 1,000 heavily armed troops to join separatists in a “significant escalation” in “military interference”.

By James Lyons.Prisoners: A group of Russian servicemen detained by Ukrainian authorities.Prisoners: A group of Russian servicemen detained by Ukrainian authorities.

David Cameron has accused Vladimir Putin of provoking the West with an illegal invasion of Ukraine.

He spoke out as Nato said Russia had sent 1,000 heavily armed troops to join separatists in a “significant escalation” in “military interference”.

One No10 insider said Russian president Putin had dragged the world “back to the Cold War”.

British troops are expected to start ­exercises in Poland for a US-led show of force to reassure Eastern European Nato countries.

And Mr Cameron will also push for fresh sanctions against Russia at an European Union meeting in Brussels on Saturday.

Loggerheads: David Cameron and Vladimir PutinLoggerheads: David Cameron and Vladimir Putin.

The Prime Minister said: “I’m extremely concerned by mounting evidence Russian troops have made large-scale incursions into South-Eastern Ukraine, completely ­disregarding the sovereignty of a neighbour.”

He also urged fellow leaders not to be fooled by Putin’s decision to take part in talks with Ukraine in Belarus.

Mr Cameron continued: “It is simply not enough to engage in talks in Minsk, while Russian tanks roll over the border into Ukraine.

“Such activity must cease immediately.”

But rebel leader ­Alexander ­Zakharchenko bizarrely insisted the Kremlin forces were on leave.

Shelled: Workers try to repair the gate of a bakery damaged during shellingShelled: Workers try to repair the gate of a bakery damaged during shelling.

He declared: “Among us are fighting, serving soldiers who would rather take their vacation, not on a beach, but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom.”

The UN ­Security Council held an emergency session to discuss the crisis.

But as Russia has a permanent seat, there was no prospect of the invasion being condemned.

Meanwhile, 15 civilians were killed as Ukraine troops shelled Donetsk, it was reported.

Today, Vladimir Putin snubbed a traditional greeting of bread and salt on his visit to Minsk because he feared assassination by poisoning, sources claimed.

Mirror Online.

Kyiv Post: Britain, US must now act on nuclear weapons assurances given to Ukraine #BudapestMemorandum

Andy Hunder.Budapest Memorandum

Two decades ago, Ukraine was the world’s third largest nuclear superpower. The East European nation inherited a nuclear arsenal bigger than that of the United Kingdom, China and France combined, when it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. 

The country of then 52 million people, which today is being invaded by Russian forces, gained physical control of approximately 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons, including an arsenal of SS-19 and SS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and dozens of Tupolev strategic bombers with air-launched cruise missiles.

Read the story here.

Scotland Divided Ahead of Approaching Independence Referendum #scottishindependence

‘Yes’ or ‘No’? A Divided Scotland Confronts Independence Vote.

By Christoph ScheuermannIn just a few weeks, Scots will be going to the polls to vote on whether they want to declare independence from the United Kingdom. Polls indicate that the answer may be In just a few weeks, Scots will be going to the polls to vote on whether they want to declare independence from the United Kingdom. Polls indicate that the answer may be “no,” but the mood among those in favor of independence is giddy. Signs from both camps dot the Scottish roadways as the vote approaches.

Traveling through Scotland, you might think the result of September’s independence referendum is a foregone conclusion. “Yes” signs are everywhere. But surveys tell a different story and many who are wary of the hype.

Liam Stevenson was never the type to become particularly passionate about politics. A tank truck driver in Scotland, he spent most of his free time with his wife Helen and daughter Melissa in their small house in Cumbernauld, north-east of Glasgow. Every now and then, he would join his friends for a few pints.

But a couple of months ago, he experienced a transformation not unlike that of Franz Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa, who became a new creature overnight. Stevenson became a political activist.

He guides his Volkswagen Golf past working class housing cowering in the shadows of gigantic residential towers. Cumbernauld was created after the war and has since become a Scottish dystopia. It is a place that remains stuck somewhere between the 1950s and 1980s. In the cold jargon of the welfare bureaucracy, the housing projects are known as “schemes” and look just as soulless as the word sounds. Stevenson spent his childhood here. He waves at a man on the way by. “That’s Paul. He stabbed his son in the face. No idea why.”

Iain Downie is an oil drilling engineer from Edinburgh and would like to see Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom. Many are hoping that oil and natural gas will be enough to finance an independent Scotland, but Downie isn't so sure.Iain Downie is an oil drilling engineer from Edinburgh and would like to see Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom. Many are hoping that oil and natural gas will be enough to finance an independent Scotland, but Downie isn’t so sure.

Stevenson wants people to see the city through his eyes so they can understand his confidence. After all, the day that could change everything is rapidly approaching. On Sept. 18, more than 4 million Scots are to vote on whether they want to become independent from the United Kingdom.

Like many of his compatriots, Stevenson dreams of independence. He hopes that it will ring in a new era of prosperity, driven by oil and natural gas. An independent Scotland would be freer, richer and more equitable, Stevenson says. Cumbernauld, too, would flourish.

The process currently underway on the British archipelago is a unique one. Free of violence, amid an atmosphere of amicability, a referendum is to be held that could result in the end of a 307-year-old union with the United Kingdom. The Scottish move toward independence is also reflective of the ongoing erosion of the European nation-state. After years of crisis, many people no longer identify with their countries, preferring instead to be part of smaller, more manageable regions. Separatists across Europe are pushing for independence, including the Catalonians in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium and the South Tyroleans in Italy. But only in Scotland is a nationally recognized referendum in the works.

A Segway training course on a golf course in the Scottish Highlands. The estrangement between the United Kingdom and Scotland began in the 1960s and 70s when the coal, steel and shipping industries in Great Britain began contracting. Just as Scotland had profited handsomely before, it now suffered even more. A Segway training course on a golf course in the Scottish Highlands. The estrangement between the United Kingdom and Scotland began in the 1960s and 70s when the coal, steel and shipping industries in Great Britain began contracting. Just as Scotland had profited handsomely before, it now suffered even more. “Being British began to lose its attraction,” wrote historian Tom Devine in his work “The Scottish Nation.”

The Undecided

The plan to hold the vote was born in 2011 after the Scottish National Party (SNP) emerged victorious in parliamentary elections there. In March 2013, the date of the referendum was set for this September. This year, various factions and groups belonging to the “yes” campaign have been fighting hard for Scottish secession. Foremost among them is Alex Salmond, SNP party boss and Scottish leader as first minister of Scotland. But the three largest parties in Great Britain, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are largely opposed to Scottish independence and are working against secession under the motto “Better Together.”

Currently, surveys indicate that a majority of Scots will likely vote to remain part of the UK, with between 45 percent and 55 percent in favor of staying. No survey has yet projected a victory for the “yes” camp. But many voters remain undecided, making it difficult for pollsters to make reliable prognostications. Campaigners, meanwhile, have zeroed in on those who have not yet made up their mind.

Liam Stevenson is talking into his mobile phone as he walks into his kitchen. He has organized a panel discussion on the independence referendum for this evening, to be held in a small Cumbernauld theater. He wanted to have representatives from both camps there, but the unionists declined to send anybody. Now, a PR consultant, a health worker and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party are going to speak in support of independence. Stevenson is euphoric. He has never before spoken in front of so many people and has also never organized a political event. “It gives me a huge boost,” he says.

The author Janice Galloway at her home in Glasgow. She is One of Those Whose books helped the Scots writers develop a sense of self-confidence in the face of economc decline. The author Janice Galloway at her home in Glasgow. She is One of Those Whose books helped the Scots writers develop a sense of self-confidence in the face of economc decline. “We were wild,” she says.

Helen scoops mince and tatties (mashed potatoes, ground beef and mashed carrots) onto his plate. The couple is eating on the sofa in front of their flat-screen television, but Stevenson is too agitated to have any appetite. “The English have gotten drunk on our riches for decades: oil, natural gas, whiskey,” he says. Scotland, he continues, must finally regain control of its own resources without allowing the government in London to skim off the profits and only send a part of them back. As he speaks, his meal becomes cold.

Stevenson isn’t a politician, nor is he an intellectual. If you spend an afternoon with him, you find out about his uncle’s affairs and learn that Stevenson sometimes cries when he goes to the movies. He wears his heart on his sleeve — and that too, he says, is something that separates him from the taciturn English to the south. Helen gets a quick kiss and then her husband sets off for the theater, where all 270 seats are filled. After the podium discussion, he later says, two women who had previously been undecided came up to him. They said they now planned to vote for independence.

The debate over independence isn’t one just for politicians. It has also become a vital one for people like Stevenson as well — and for people like the author in Glasgow, the fashion designer in Dundee and the engineer from Aberdeen. Not all Scots that one meets want to split off from the United Kingdom. But there are many of them, and they are eager to talk about why.

Compelling Arguments?

Janice Galloway says she was long unsure as to whether she should vote “yes” or “no” on Sept. 18. She is an author and is sitting in a Glasgow tearoom. At the end of the 1980s, she was among the young writers, painters and other artists who began to more closely examine Scotland. Her own debut novel was about an anorexic, alcoholic teacher on the west coast. Galloway belongs to a generation that doesn’t just see Scotland as being home to beautiful landscapes, romantically weathered castles and whiskey distilleries.

Liam Stevenson is a truck driver in Scotland. He used to spend his free time with his wife Helen and his daughter Melissa. Now, though, He Has become Involved in the pro-independence campaign and is busy organizing rallies.Liam Stevenson is a truck driver in Scotland. He used to spend his free time with his wife Helen and his daughter Melissa. Now, though, He Has become Involved in the pro-independence campaign and is busy organizing rallies.

She says that she waited for compelling arguments from those opposed to independence, but not many were forthcoming. At the beginning of August, more than 200 prominent British wrote an open letter urging the Scots not to leave the kingdom. But aside from “let’s stay together,” there wasn’t much to the missive. “It looked more like a dinner invitation than a defense of the kingdom,” Galloway says. She found herself disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm among unionists.

Galloway spent her childhood and youth in Ayrshire on Scotland’s west coast. One of her first jobs was as a singing waitress, entertaining tourists in a banquet hall. Her first paycheck went toward buying a telephone for her mother, who lived in Yorkshire at the time. When her mother spoke on the phone, she always used a fake Yorkshire accent out of shame for her Scottish roots.

In the south of the island, the Scots were seen as well-behaved minions, an image that was embodied in the figure of John Brown, a servant of Queen Victoria’s. The queen loved Scotland, Balmoral Castle and, it is said, her servant, Brown. People still believe today that they might have had an affair. Brown represents the archetype of the loyal, obedient Scot, true to the queen and the throne to the death. At the same time, he stands for a period when nobody questioned the union of Scotland with the United Kingdom, largely the result of economic prosperity which benefitted the north as well. Between 1885 and 1939, one-third of British governors-general abroad were Scots. The bond remained strong deep into the 20th century. “When I was a girl, there was a strong British identity,” Galloway says.

Hayley Scanlan is a fashion designer in Dundee. She too would like to see Scotland vote yes on Sept. 18. Hayley Scanlan is a fashion designer in Dundee. She too would like to see Scotland vote yes on Sept. 18. “It’s an exciting time for Scotland,” she says.

The estrangement began in the 1960s and 70s when the coal, steel and shipping industries in Great Britain began contracting. Just as Scotland had profited handsomely before, it now suffered even more. “Britishness may have had less appeal than before,” writes historian Tom Devine in his work “The Scottish Nation.” As the economy declined, the Conservatives lost support among the working class and Labour became the strongest political power.

Nowhere was Margaret Thatcher more hated than in Scotland. When she came to power in 1979, there were 15 coal mines in Scotland; by the time she stepped down in 1990, only two were left. Many Scots blamed Thatcher for the economic troubles and her anti-labor union policies deepened the chasm between the north and the south. Janice Galloway is one of those authors whose books helped the Scots develop a sense of self-confidence in the face of the collapse. Others include Irvine Welsh, Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks in addition to painters Ken Currie and Jenny Saville as well as the composer James MacMillan. A counterculture developed. “We were wild,” Galloway says.

Waking Up from Hibernation

Welsh’s novel “Trainspotting,” published 21 years ago, likely had a greater influence on young Scots than any other book. The sallow skies, the social housing, even the junkie-lifestyle in Edinburgh suddenly seemed sexy. Welsh and other artists showed a way to differentiate themselves from Thatcher and the southern British culture.

A sheep shearer throws fleece in the air at the Cupar Agricultural Show in Fife. For years, Scotland has voted solidly center-left and harbors a particular hatred for Margaret Thatcher. Of Scotland's 59 deputies in the House of Commons, only one is from the Conservative Party.A sheep shearer throws fleece in the air at the Cupar Agricultural Show in Fife. For years, Scotland has voted solidly center-left and harbors a particular hatred for Margaret Thatcher. Of Scotland’s 59 deputies in the House of Commons, only one is from the Conservative Party.

This self-confidence remains today, even if bitterness increasingly mixes in with the pride. Liam Stevenson, the truck driver, grumbles an entire afternoon about the English who have “dragged us into illegal war after illegal war.” Little has brought the Scots together more in recent years than their demarcation from the south, particularly when the Conservatives have the upper hand in Westminster. Of the 59 Scottish members of the House of Commons, only one is a Tory. A favorite joke has it that there are more pandas north of the English-Scottish border than there are Conservative parliamentarians. There are two pandas and they live in the Edinburgh zoo.

With just weeks to go before the referendum, Scotland seems like a land waking up from a winter slumber to celebrate the Caledonian version of the Arab Spring. Blue “Yes” stickers are plastered on lampposts while “Yes” signs are displayed in windows. If it weren’t for the opinion polls, one would think that the result of the referendum was a foregone conclusion.

“We’ve been talking about nothing else for months,” says Hayley Scanlan. She works as a fashion designer in Dundee, a port city on the east coast between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Scanlan says she is in favor of independence because Scotland needs its own voice.

Her studio is in an old jute spinning mill in the center of town which provides workspace to jewelry designers, start-ups and artists. Bits of material and leather cover the floor while at the drawing table, an assistant cuts out the patterns for the next spring collection. The room is just big enough for the two women, three sewing machines and a couple of clothes racks. When large orders come in, Scanlan’s mother and aunt help with the sewing.

Scanlan says that she isn’t interested in politics and has never voted, but she is planning on casting her ballot in the referendum. “It is an exciting time for Scotland,” she says, adding that she is happy that she has found success in her homeland. Like many of her friends in the fashion industry, she initially wanted to move to London. But she didn’t have enough money so she stayed in Dundee, where rents are much more affordable.

A bagpipe band rehearses in a parking lot in the Scottish Highlands. While traditions in Scotland are still alive and well, much of the country's newfound self-confidence stems from a forward-looking self-confidence.A bagpipe band rehearses in a parking lot in the Scottish Highlands. While traditions in Scotland are still alive and well, much of the country’s newfound self-confidence stems from a forward-looking self-confidence.

Scanlan belongs to the growing number of young entrepreneurs in her city that don’t want to expose themselves to the stress that comes with living in the British capital. Customers reach her by way of her online shop and she occasionally works with department stores as well. She only travels to the south for Fashion Week.

Oil and Gas

Although she is Scottish, Scanlan’s designs don’t use plaids or tweeds. She prefers leather, wool and lighter fabrics. “We don’t focus on the past, we focus on the present,” she says. That is true both of her fashion and of her politics.

For her, pride in her homeland is combined with frustration with the south. In contrast with London, she says, she can be herself in Dundee and she also believes that an independent Scotland would be more prosperous. She herself has seen that energy and tenacity can lead to success. She expects the same of Scotland.

The most important argument for the “yes” camp are the oil and natural gas reserves off the Scottish coast. First Minister Alex Salmond says they would be enough to boost the country’s prosperity and his party promises that income for the state would climb to over 7 billion pounds ($11.6 billion) per year by 2018. Others, though, estimate that treasure will be worth only half that. Salmond’s calculations are nothing but a gigantic bet on the oil reserves in the North Sea, the London-based Economist has written. One reason is the fact that, once the fields have been pumped dry, an independent Scotland would probably be liable for the estimated 40 billion pounds it will cost to clean up the dozens of kilometers of pipelines and cables in the North Sea.
Vote Yes for Scottish independenceIain Downie says the Scottish government is intentionally covering up such costs because they put a damper on the euphoria surrounding independence. Downie is just coming from rugby practice and is still glowing from the exertion as he sits down in an Aberdeen bar and orders himself a beer. He works for BP as a drilling engineer, ensuring that the oil continues to flow. He plans to vote “no” in the referendum. He wants to see Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom.

Downie has been working at his current job with BP for the last two years and is responsible for tapping into new oil fields. He knows just how unreliable reserve estimates can be. He spent most of his first year on a swaying drilling ship west of the Shetland Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. It was winter and they were trying to find a new field 1,200 meters below the surface. It was Downie’s job to calculate how thick and long the pipe had to be. In the end, the project was abandoned. “You have to be sick to like this job,” he says.

His father is a retired policeman and his mother a nurse. In contrast to most Scots, the Downies respected Margaret Thatcher because she promised to bring Great Britain back to life after decades of paralysis. Iain Downie grew up in a quiet suburb of Edinburgh and his parents managed to avoid most of the pain associated with the dying mines and shipyards. The kingdom gave the family a sense of security and belonging.

Optimists and Pessimists

Downie studied in Edinburgh, has lived in South Africa and has worked in Oman and Norway. In two or three years, he plans to move to Azerbaijan or to the Persian Gulf, chasing the oil. Having a British passport opens doors around the world, he says. An independent Scotland would be insecure, Downie believes.

He orders another beer and explains that the search for oil has become more difficult in recent years as the reserves have shrunk and become more difficult to access than they used to be. As he talks, the idea of Scottish independence seems reduced to the crazy idea of gambling addicts. For him, as an engineer who values certainty, there are too many variables, too many unknowns. “What happens with the pensions?” he asks. “Can we keep the British pound? How do we trade goods and merchandise if we don’t even have a stock exchange in Scotland?”
He also thinks it is right for the British military to intervene in conflicts when it becomes necessary. In his view, Great Britain is the only European country that thinks globally and keeps all of its options open when it comes to international crises. “I am proud of the fact that we have an impact on the world,” he says.

In the end, the doubts that plague Downie could also be enough to move other Scots to vote against independence. The referendum is also a measure of a country’s willingness to take risks. It is a fight between the optimists and the pessimists.

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