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Question: Do you think Russia today is the biggest threat to European and British interests?

Answer: I think it’s the most immediate threat to Europe in the widest sense, which includes Britain and Norway, as well as the members of the EU, the biggest security threat, yes, I do. It’s not the only one. There are big problems in the Middle East. And of course, we can’t simply opt out of the possibility of bigger problems between China and the United States. But for us Europeans, Russia is the main security risk and threat in possible terms. I’m not saying that it’s certain, but it’s big enough to be required to be dealt with seriously.

Q: How should Europe deal with Russia?

A: I don’t think we can accept in any way what Russia did when they invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February, 2022. I just don’t think that any security for us Europeans is consistent with simply saying, “That’s fine, no problem. Let’s pick up where we were before we started.” So that can’t be. But equally, we have to recognize that for reasons of geography as much as of history and politics, Russia, a big country, is next door to us. And we have to have in the longer term some form of relationship which doesn’t involve a kind of hair-trigger cold war.

Q: Let’s imagine Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States and decided to cut off assistance to Ukraine. What will be the role of Europe and England in these circumstances?

A: I don’t myself like speculating in that sort of way about an event that is still ten months away, the election in the United States.  Of course, you were right, Trump is likely to be the Republican candidate.  He might win the general election in November of this year.  But I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to go into elaborate planning about what various countries would do if Trump did something which he hasn’t yet said he would, although there have been hints that he might back out of any support for Ukraine. I don’t think it’s sensible to presume that. And one of the reasons I don’t think it’s sensible is that Trump is totally unpredictable. He sometimes zigs one way and sometimes he zags another way. I don’t think we should assume that he’s going to go in the worst direction from our point of view. But if you ask what Britain and the rest of Europe should be doing, well, we should be increasing our military preparedness to defend ourselves against the risk of Russian aggression, which has been demonstrated in Ukraine. We should be working more effectively and more closely together as Europeans. That is necessary whether Trump or Biden is elected.

Q: You think it doesn’t matter and Europe should be ready to defend itself regardless of who is in the White House?

A: I don’t believe it doesn’t matter. It matters a lot who is elected in November, and what the person who is elected does after he takes office in January 2025. All that matters a huge amount because the United States has been a crucial, the crucial member of NATO since it was set up in the 1940s. So of course, it matters. All I’m saying is that I don’t think it’s very sensible to do a lot of elaborate contingency planning for a particular eventuality. But I have said, and I believe that very strongly, that whoever is elected in November to the White House, Europe needs to do more in the face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Q: How do you see the new security architecture in Europe following the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

A: I think it’s a smoking ruin at the moment. The old security arrangement, which was most recently established in the 1990s with the Paris Charter following the end of the Cold War and with some pretty elaborate structures to it, like the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement, like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement, all that has been junked, mainly by Putin. So it’s not there anymore. Could one envision a reasonable modus vivendi between the rest of Europe and Russia without some structures like that in the long term? I don’t believe so. We would have to look for structures which, for example, limit the amount of conventional forces who conduct exercises close to the border between the two groupings and so on. You should have something that limits both intermediate and strategic weapons, but that involves the United States. So in a sense, you’d have to redesign the wheel, though it might not be quite the same kind of wheel as the wheel we had before, which, of course, was completely overridden by a Putin’s aggression.

Q: What about the new alliance that England started with Poland and Ukraine? There’s also the Lublin Triangle between Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland. Is this an attempt to create some kind of supplement structures to NATO?

A: I don’t think they are new alliances. They are new structures. They’re strengthening and thickening the cooperation between NATO allies within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance. They’re designed to make more solid and more operational obligations which exist under the Atlantic Alliance but have perhaps been neglected in their operational construction in recent years. And now various countries are fleshing those out, which is quite right, too.

Q: Recently, Secretary of State for Defence Grant Shapps declared that we have moved from a post-war world to a pre-war world. He named Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran as belligerent states that are threatening the West. According to Shapps, we’re getting closer to a new armed confrontation, particularly with Russia. What do you think of that?

A: One should be a bit careful about overstating the imminence of problems. But equally, we should be even more careful about understating the direction in which geopolitics is moving. And I think geopolitics—the relationship between large powers—Russia, China, the United States, NATO, the European Union—and the extent to which they have moved in a damaging and risky direction in recent years, they have done and are still doing so. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought this home to people who were reluctant to recognize it. My view was that even from about 2014 onwards, with the covert occupation of Crimea, Russia had set off down a course which led it into a cold war with the West. And that we were in a cold war. I think it’s quite right that the West has taken very great care not to move towards a hot war. But are we in a cold war? Sure. Now, I’m not speaking there about the relationship with China, which I think is a bit less clear and a bit less easy to characterize. But with Russia, we’re in a cold war.

Q: Britain signed security guarantees with Ukraine a couple of weeks ago. We’ve seen the Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed security to Ukraine back in 1994 and it didn’t work. Do you think this is something that is going to be more efficient?

A: Well, it’s quite different. The Budapest Memorandum didn’t work because one of its signatories, Russia, broke it. It’s as simple as that. The British didn’t break it. The Americans didn’t break it. We were the two with Russia who signed it. Why were we three? Because we were the three countries which were participating in a guarantee to Ukraine in the context of it giving up the nuclear weapons, which were based on its soil, and which were subsequently passed back to Russia. It’s not that the Budapest Memorandum didn’t work. Three nuclear powers guaranteed one non-nuclear power that if it gave up the nuclear weapons on its territory, its territorial integrity and sovereignty would be respected. And one of the three then decided to jump that. It changed everything. That is where we are.

Q: If tomorrow Zelensky agrees to Putin’s conditions and signs some kind of ceasefire, and Putin stays in the Kremlin, controlling those territories that he annexed, how should the West, deal with Putin? If he is still in power and the conflict is a draw, something like the South and North Korea ceasefire, what should we do?

A: I don’t want to speculate what the government of Ukraine might or might not agree to, but should it agree to something which represented a kind of recognition of a frozen conflict and an end to open warfare along the lines, that has no effect whatsoever and should have no effect whatsoever on the way the West treats Russia, because Russia would be legalizing through some such stalemate agreement an act of aggression. And in any case, you brushed over one aspect of it, which is that Russia has laid claim to a lot of large stretches of Ukraine as a part of Russia. Not a part of Ukraine but as a part of Russia — Zaporozhie, Kherson, and so on, and they are not in possession of them. If the deal left Ukraine not in possession of them, I think, the deal of the sort you’ve referred to bears an astonishingly horrible resemblance to the various interim arrangements which were reached between France and Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. How many more wars were there before that was all settled? Quite a lot is the answer. And many millions of people died as a result. So don’t let’s kid ourselves that that would be a good act. It wouldn’t.

Q: Many observers say Vladimir Putin is someone who broke international law; his army committed war crimes. He shouldn’t stay in the Kremlin. He should leave the Kremlin one way or another. Should Europe work towards this type of solution?

A: I don’t think it’s our business to decide who sits in the Kremlin. I think that hopefully, it will be for the Russian people to decide. I know that’s a rather far-fetched hope, but there is going to be an election in Russia in March. It doesn’t look as if it’s going to be very free or fair. And it looks almost certain — perhaps you could say absolutely certain, that Putin will be re-elected. But there are other changes further down the track that could occur. But I do not think under any circumstances that either Ukraine or we should commit ourselves to, as it were, marching on Moscow. That is not going to happen.

Q: But how do you deal with an indicted war criminal who remains in power no matter what?

A: Well, as far as war crimes are concerned, the International Criminal Court should pursue its procedures. They have indicted Putin for one war crime, which was the abduction of children from their homes and their indoctrination as Russian citizens when, in fact, they’re Ukrainian citizens. That has been underway. There may well be other crimes, there probably are other crimes, which will arise from the inquiries that the lawyers are making now at the International Criminal Court. That needs to be pursued. Does that mean that Putin will appear before the court? Well, probably not. But the mere indictment of a ruler for war crimes is in itself an extremely important step and one which needs to be pursued.

Q: In your book, New World Disorder, published in 2008, you say that the UN is a demand-driven organization, and what it needs is a strong and sustained dose of supply-side reforms, which will enable it to respond more effectively to those demands. You said that those changes were “within our grasp”. Do you think the United Nations is effective today, and if not, what should be done about the UN?

A: The United Nations has taken some hard knocks, there’s no doubt about that. In 2023, and 2024, it’s taken some really hard knocks. Two wars, one in Ukraine and one in Gaza, have broken out, and are not being influenced in any very positive way by action at the UN because of deadlock in the Security Council. There are other aspects of UN activity which are not going brilliantly. Sustainable development goals and the climate change action are way behind their schedule. Although plenty of warm words have been agreed upon at various COP meetings, the member states that contributed those warm words have been a bit laggard about actually putting them into action. So a lot’s gone wrong at the UN in recent years, and it’s not easy to see a way out of that so long as the deadlock between the five permanent members remains. And there’s no sign of that changing. What’s to be done at the UN? Well, I think we’ve got to persevere; we’ve got to hang onto what we’ve got. We have, after all, an enormous network of international agreements, sometimes called the rules-based international order, many parts of which are still respected broadly. We have certain international agreements that must be sustained, and there are ways of improving the UN too. For example, from the experience of the COVID pandemic, we could draw lessons about how to handle the next pandemic. Of course, there will be a next pandemic; there is absolutely no doubt about that, but we can surely handle it better. The country where it breaks out could be more open about revealing problems immediately. The international community could be much more proactive in dealing with them, working up vaccines, and distributing those vaccines to the poorer countries as well as to the richer ones. All that could be done. On climate change, what is important is a big push now for the 194 members of the UN, to implement what they signed up for at the COP agreements. That’s not rocket science, it can be done. It requires an injection of money from the richer countries to help the poorer countries to do what they have to do. It involves some difficult domestic decisions which, as you can see all around us, are continually contested by people who may have to pay a bit more for their diesel or whatever it is. So it’s not easy, but it does have to be done. There are sustainable development goals; they’re still there. If we don’t get them by 2030, when will we get them? We must persevere with them. So the UN has got plenty to do and plenty that could be done.

Q: But what about reforms?

A: What I wouldn’t advocate is a kind of Big Bang reform program for the UN with everything on the table, from the permanent membership of the five to all the other issues. I think a sectoral incremental reform is much more likely. Migration is, of course, another issue that’s got to be looked at very, very carefully to see whether we can do things better than we’re doing them now. These are all things that could be done at the UN. And I think they need to continue to be done at the UN, not in some cloud cuckoo land with a new charter. I mean, just read the UN Charter. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are wonderful, noble agreements. They are not being fully implemented. Sometimes they are being flouted. But there’s nothing wrong with them except the willingness of their members to abide by them. So, don’t let’s tear them up and say, “Let’s start again”. Let’s persevere. It won’t be easy, and it won’t look like a quick solution, but I think it’s better than any other.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick is Chair of the European & International Analysts Group and a former UK Permanent Representation to the European Communities and the United Nations.

This interview was originally published by the International Centre for the Study of Eurasia here.