Book review of Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West by Edward Lucas
Twenty-first century Russia has three famous faces: Anna Chapman, the failed spy, who came in from the cold to become a red hot sex symbol back home; Alexander Litvinenko, the spy-turned-dissident, who was poisoned by a radioactive polonium isotope in London; and Vladimir Putin, the KGB colonel-turned-president, who had himself re-elected for a six-year term last month. It is no accident that all three of these faces belong to former intelligence officers. The point of Deception is to explain how and why Putin’s Russia has succeeded in fooling us all, both about its own sinister nexus of espionage, politics and finance, and about its insidious corruption of the West. This important book is a sequel to the author’s last indictment of the Putin regime, The New Cold War, which came out four years ago. Deception is, if anything, even more devastating.
At this point, I should declare an interest: I have known Edward Lucas for a quarter of a century, ever since he and I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe that heralded the fall of the Soviet Union — he for the BBC World Service, I for the Daily Telegraph. In those days, Ed was a kind of one-man world service, rushing from press conference to demonstration, from the dungeons of the dissidents to the palaces of the politburos, reporting and commenting, sharing in the euphoria but never letting himself be carried away by it. He has not lost his missionary zeal to this day: as a senior editor at the Economist he is still unmasking the enemies of civilisation.
In Lucas’s hands, the case of Anna Chapman reveals much more than the sexy secrets of a latter-day Mata Hari. The daughter of another spy, Anna is a typical product of the post-Soviet envy of the wealth of the West, without any grasp of the democracy, liberties or the rule of law that underpin that prosperity.
Anna Chapmans come to the West in their thousands; some are spies, political or industrial, but most are just unscrupulous adventurers. Compared to the old KGB, she was sloppy in her training and panicked when she realised the FBI was on to her. But she and her nine comrades were swiftly exchanged in Vienna for four of Putin’s prisoners, enabling her to start a new and lucrative career in Russia: as a model (complete with her own-brand fashion products), a media presenter, computer game avatar and pin-up girl for the Young Guards, Putin’s version of Lenin’s Young Pioneers.
Just as significant was the reaction — or lack of it — in the West. No less an authority than John le Carré declared that the whole affair was an attempt by sinister forces in the US intelligence community to halt Obama’s “Reset” policy towards Russia: “Do the spies expect us to go scurrying back to our cold war shelters? Is that the cunning plan?”
In reality, it is le Carré who is typical of the attitude of Western intelligence agencies: George Smiley’s successors have persuaded themselves and their political masters that they have little to fear from Putin’s FSB (the renamed KGB), SVR and GRU (foreign and military intelligence services respectively). Lucas shows how these organisations operate in the interstices of a much larger network of organised crime and state-sanctioned racketeering, with the siloviki (“hard men”) around Putin at its apex.
About these shadowy figures — the oligarchs behind the oligarchs, as it were — Lucas tells us what is known. The agencies they control employ a privileged corps of some 3.4 million men (they mostly are men) that has inherited the power, wealth and many of the characteristics of the old Communist Party. Lucas explains how the system he calls the Pirate State functions: oiled by bribes and kickbacks, with half of all public spending sticking to the fingers of those who administer it, Russia’s “spookocracy” sees no reason why it should not endure indefinitely.
Yet the protests of recent weeks prove that Russians are running out of patience with Putin and the siloviki. They are less aware of the international dimensions of their kleptocracy than of its more localised depredations. The case that combines both aspects best is that of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who was incarcerated, tortured and killed after he tried to expose a $230 million fraud. Thanks to a campaign by William Browder, the Anglo-American financier who employed him, Magnitsky has now become a cause célèbre, and an ever lengthening list of Russian officials implicated in the case are now banned from entering the US, while the British government is under pressure from MPs to do the same. True to form, the Kremlin has reacted defiantly, persecuting the dead man’s family and threatening to stage a posthumous show trial of Magnitsky himself.
Faced with such a vile regime, there is no cause for complacency. Edward Lucas provides all the evidence we need to grasp the fact that we are losing this new cold war of deception. Nearly 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan warned against “the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire…” That temptation is still with us. This book should help us to steel ourselves to resist it.