Edward Lucas wants to alert western decision makers about the threat coming from Moscow. The question is: do we really need spies to “decode” or uncover Russia’s true intentions? Eugeniusz Smolar reviews Deception – Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West by Edward Lucas, International Editor of The Economist.
I devoured this book in no time. I love anti-Soviet spy books. And this is one of those, even though it is about today’s Russia. It is fabulously well-written, with zest and vigour. The book is rich in examples, sources and theses which, for sure, won’t leave readers indifferent. Strictly speaking, I read two-thirds of the book with complete satisfaction – the further I read, however, the slower and more careful I became, and with increasing reservations.
I know Edward Lucas personally and I respect him a great deal. I appreciate his knowledge of our region, and the sheer number of people he knows here, both well-known and unknown, is impressive. I admire his ability to speak many different, exotic to an Englishman, languages, and his skills of absorbing information and making sharp observations. I am impressed by his rich command of language and his writing skills. He is omnipresent and influential.
New Cold War
Official Russia is on the record for Edward Lucas (which is a great source of satisfaction to him). The object of Edward Lucas’s greatest enmity has always been the Soviet Union, its ideology, the functioning of the apparatus of power and repression, as well as its domestic and foreign policy. Even today, Lucas fights Vladimir Putin’s Russia, seeing it more as continuing the past rather than a departure from it. This is directly reflected by the title of his book: Deception – Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West.
Lucas claims the return of the Cold War, the issue on which he focuses on in his book The New Cold War published in 2008. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is ruled no longer by the Communist Party, but by a murky conglomerate of secret service interests, well-selected representatives of public administration and the oligarchs, supported, when needed, by organised crime. The privatisation of state assets and policies reached a scale that was unknown during the communist period, which resulted in billions for its participants who could easily count on the lack of any form of punishment. Corruption became a system of power while the profits it brings are an effective means to execute loyalty. The overambitious few or those who have somehow managed to break out of it usually end up in a prison (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) or emigrate (like Boris Berezovsky and others).
For Lucas, a case which characterises how the new system functions is the fate of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer murdered in prison whose only “crime” was revealing tax fraud among the people in power. The policy, which Putin symbolises, justifies Lucas’ theses: the war in Chechnya and the brutalisation of Northern Caucasus; war with Georgia; the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in London; the killing of or tolerating the murder of human rights activists (Natalya Estemirova) and journalists (Anna Politkovskaya); using natural resources as a tool for pressure and influence, hence a special role for Gazprom; and impunity for “unsinkable” officials, etc. All these are signs of how the new system functions; a new system which aims at achieving old goals. Hence, the thesis of the “New Cold War” and a permanent threat.
Fascination with spies
Lucas’s description of the system is an exit point to illustrate not only the goals of the government, but also Russia’s modes of influence on its international surroundings. This includes employing intelligence agents as an important tool of influence of an empire aspiring to regain its power. Incomparable to anything else, Lucas draws our attention to the integration of will and resources, of politics, administration, diplomacy, business, both state and private, all – if needed – enforced by a network of organised crime, both within the country and abroad.
Lucas admits that he has been fascinated with spies, especially Russian ones, since his childhood, and his recent book is proof of his enormous knowledge in this area; a knowledge which is larger than he can show us due to a restrictive British law on defamation. Publicly known cases allow him, nevertheless, to classify and analyse the role of Russian spies today.
He describes how Russian diplomats enjoy official status in NATO, thanks to the NATO-Russia Council, where they get access to people and documents, something they could have only dreamt of under the Soviet Union. These diplomats not only take part in official meetings, but also meetings they are not entitled to – hiding their ID badges as they enter the meeting room. NATO leadership had been turning a blind eye to this practice, proving that the goal of the NATO-Russia Council is to show that the Alliance has no hostile intentions towards Moscow.
However, the storm came with the arrest of Herman Simm in 2008, a main representative of the Estonian security forces, as well as with the uncovering of his case officer – a Russian citizen with a fake Portuguese ID. Even though the uncovered and convicted Simm is doing time in an Estonian prison, his case is very important for Lucas. As a KGB collaborator since the 1980s, Simm became Estonia’s representative in NATO and informed the Russians of numerous crucial secrets about the Alliance. Lucas expands the conclusions drawn from this fact to all others who are over the age of 50. In his opinion, such people cannot be trusted too much as one never knows what blackmail methods the KGB/FSB and Russia’s military intelligence agency – the GRU might use towards them. At the same time he thinks that this shouldn’t influence the assessment of new NATO members, especially Estonia, which – as he repeats many times – “is the star pupil of the West”.
Lucas is shocked by the relaxed reaction towards the arrest of ten “illegals” in June 2010 in the United States, whose symbol was Anna Chapman. Some American sources told him that among those arrested, some had high credentials and contacts with the American elite, more than Chapman ever had. Nevertheless, it was Chapman’s beauty and shape (the Russians jokingly called her “Agent 90-60-90”), and her “below the radar screen” life in the suburbs (first in London and later in Washington, DC) that have all caused the case to be derided in the media, and sometimes even presented as an attempt by “certain forces” to bring back the Cold War (John le Carré!). The mood has somehow changed when the spies were deported and welcomed back in Moscow as heroes. Putin himself, when he met them, said that he admired their devotion to the motherland “in the most challenging circumstances”, and Chapman was made a role-model of the patriotic education of the younger generation by becoming one of the leaders of United Russia’s Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard).
The existence and activities of the “illegals”, both the known and the unknown (because they must also exist), is seen as a casus belli for Lucas, and brings up important questions: What purpose does Russian intelligence have for spending millions of dollars sending people to live in the West (sometimes for more than a decade) as a normal average person with a false identity? What role can they play without direct access to valuable information sources? What’s the purpose of breeding these “illegals” if the Russians and Chinese are able to steal more secret through the internet?
Lucas replies: firstly, because of old instinct and habits; just in case these spies still turn out to be quite useful in the enemy’s backyard, in the case of war. Secondly, those who traditionally govern the Soviet Union/Russia have greater confidence in materials described as “strictly confidential” than those found in broadly available sources. Thirdly, knowledge of the context and the possibility of identifying targets – infrastructural and human, recognising their habits, weaknesses and opportunities – could prove valuable. Sunk in the context, invisible to counter-intelligence, doing various tasks, they could be support for the real spies.
Lucas tells the story of an émigré from the former Soviet Union who opened a dental practice in Washington DC, and was later able to identify which of the diplomats stationed in the US capital, treated at his practice, were employed by whom by tracing their payments – some were paid by the Department of State, while others by a completely different office.
The book provides plenty of such fascinating stories. According to Lucas and his intelligence contacts, while using his or her professional position, one can come across people or sources of information that have a political, military or economic value. This is why, he warns against a massive presence of Russians in the West: millions of Russians can now travel freely, obtain a foreign citizenship, set up families, work, and start businesses. They are, nevertheless, a source of potential threat as they have their weaknesses or families in Russia and are vulnerable to the blackmail practices of the FSB and GRU.
And yet, Lucas admits the threats do get neutralised. For example, the “illegals” were discovered thanks to the Mitrokhin Archive and cooperation with the CIA of Sergei Tretyakov and Alexander Poteyev (both of whom, at the top of Russian intelligence, were in charge of the “illegals” programme). Simm is doing his time in prison; the security codes in Brussels have been changed; the security regulations tightened. Lastly, President Barack Obama, whose policy of reset Lucas doesn’t trust, has pushed towards ironing out NATO’s defence contingency plans for Poland and the Baltic states, as well as undertaking serious military manoeuvres in the region – something that has surprised the Russians.
Lucas provides a relatively comprehensive record of all this. His view, however, remains unchanged: the West is weakened and Russia is more dangerous than it seems. Regardless of the assessment of the results of the activities of the moles, Russia reveals its hostile intentions. But are spies really needed to reconstruct the intentions of Russia’s policy? Aren’t the official statements and political initiatives, the training system in the military and the secret service (not to mention the war in the Caucasus) enough?
The New Cold War was published in February 2008, which explains why Lucas didn’t include the war with Georgia. Surprisingly, however, in this new book, Lucas analyses the Russian attack on this western ally only very superficially. And the case of Georgia is a perfect example of Moscow’s will, readiness and ability to even use military force to achieve one of its strategic goals – hindering the integration of a country which is its “near abroad” into the West. The fact is that regardless of the rhetoric of the reset or the will to cooperate with Moscow in the spirit of realism for the sake of common interests, the war has caused western leaders to lose their illusions towards the objectives and nature of Putin’s policy.
Lucas is open in expressing irritation with President Saakashvili for the war; for clearly not taking into account the fact that Moscow will invade Georgia’s territory, and that Georgia’s western allies would not steadfastly defend its ally. The key to Lucas’s grievances towards Georgia’s president seems to be not only the fact the Georgia lost, but also his belief that the war lowered Saakashvili’s reputation as a responsible partner and has halted the process of NATO enlargement. And here a question comes to mind: why has the author, who has gathered every crumb of FSB/GRU activity beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, restrained from engaging in analysing such a drastic manifestation of “direct measures” as the acts of terror and sabotage? A special FBI report, prepared after the explosion near the US Embassy in Tbilisi in September 2010, provided evidence of the involvement of the Russian secret service.
A mirror to the West
Another example. Lucas only marginally mentions two Americans who badly damaged the US intelligence system: Aldrich Ames from the CIA and Robert Hanssen from the FBI; both working in counter-intelligence in the Soviet-Russian divisions, who for over a decade led to the death of many Russians cooperating with the US and United Kingdom, virtually paralysing the intelligence work in Russia. The probable reason for Lucas not being interested in these two cases which had dramatic consequences is the fact that they were both not recruited, hence it was not a Russian intelligence success, as Ames and Hanssen themselves offered their services and betrayed for purely financial gains.
With all his fascination and attachment to often purely technical details of the spying practices procedure, a greater problem for Lucas beyond the spying itself is the situation in the West: ill set priorities and an ignorance of Russia’s threat, deepened by the lack of resources. Controlling the actions of Soviet diplomats and spies wasn’t easy during the Cold War. Today, it is even more difficult, especially when a few hundred thousand Russian citizens live in Great Britain, the majority in “Londongrad”.
With his book, Lucas puts a mirror up to western elites and demands a change in attitude from them. He wants the West to start treating Russia seriously and take adequate counter-measures, as he is convinced that Russian diplomacy, supported by the highest level of government, through using various different methods of influence on Western elites and policies, has one main goal: hiding Russia’s real, strategic objectives, which are hostile towards the West and its Trans-Atlantic cohesion. Hence the subtitle: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West.
The most important question refers not to the spies themselves and their uncertain effectiveness, but rather to the recreation of strategic goals which encourages the Kremlin leadership to make such drastic, long-term and risky operational decisions. The spies are nothing more than a policy tool, which is why the discovery of the “illegals” by the FBI, their arrest and confession, as well as their quick deportation were not as much an FSB/GRU prestigious failure as they were a political disaster for Moscow. For they revealed the goals, intentions, allocation of resources and the determination of Moscow; meaning everything the Kremlin wants, in Lucas’s opinion, to hide.
However, as it is the spies who are at the centre of Lucas’s analysis and passion, the question of the evaluation of the effectiveness of their work and Moscow’s activities aimed at disinformation is legitimate here. And this is where I maintain a healthy scepticism. Public threats, natural gas blackmails, rejection of cooperating at the Security Council, and finally the war with Georgia which impeded NATO enlargement, have all proved more effective for Russia’s strategic goals than the work of spies or misinformation steered by the Kremlin’s friends. What’s more, just like Lucas, I also believe that would Kremlin go too far, another 105 spies would get kicked out of Great Britain, Germany or Poland. It is the need that dictates the priorities, allocation of resources and the undertaking of such actions. Lucas claims that such a time has already come.
Estonia, the star pupil, and the absent Poland
What is quite surprising is why Lucas devotes a large chapter to Estonia? Those who follow his writings know that Is this a country he is in love with? But why does he devote a whole chapter to analyse the Estonians’ fight for independence or the history of the ineffective, in his opinion, activities of the British intelligence services against Bolshevik Russia which have been undertaken from the territories of Sweden, Finland and the Baltic States since 1917? The colonisation of the Baltic States, the heroic war of the Estonian partisans which took place until the mid-1960s and the repression imposed on the patriots, should all be the topic of a separate book. In this one, Lucas breaks down its structure and blurs his declared aim (unless he wants to prove that Estonia, on many occasions he repeats the phrase “star pupil”, should be the main ally of, say, the UK in fighting Russia’s intelligence).
In the context of the role that is assigned to Estonia, I am surprised, although not patriotically jealous, that the book hardly even mentions Poland. There is no mention of the struggle with the Soviet Union for the future of the East, especially Ukraine, between 1918 to 1939, not even the espionage battles after 1945 (although Lucas mentions Colonel Ryszard Kukliński); there is no mention of the role that the Polish regular revolts played in destroying the Eastern Bloc; there is nothing about the US support for the underground Solidarność movement, in which both American diplomacy and the CIA had input (the proof of this was President Reagan’s consent to informing regularly Pope John Paul II, through the CIA’s director, Bill Casay, and vice-director Vermin Walters); there is no mention of Poland’s Round Table nor the first non-communist government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and Poland’s exit from the Warsaw Pact.
Little comfort is also had by the fact that there is also nothing about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the take-over of the Stasi documentation. Lucas clearly doesn’t trust the Germans as they are far too eager to cooperate with Moscow. He probably trusts the Americans, but still doesn’t mention their role in taking out much of archives of the civil and military intelligence of East Germany.
I fear that the beliefs and personal approach to the topic along with the passion of the author are the sources of the book’s power, although this lowers the analytical value of the book at times. This is especially the case in the last chapter titled “Conclusions” where without presenting evidence, Lucas writes: “From the Russian point of view, the outcome of 1989-91 proved far less damaging and humiliating than it seemed at the time. An expensive, brittle, and unruly empire has gone. Today, these countries are the West’s problem. It is not Russia that pays for their modernisation, but the EU and international lenders … But more importantly, the continuing penetration of their societies, state structures and business by Russian intelligence gives the Kremlin an influence in Europe far more useful than it enjoyed in Soviet days.”
According to Lucas: the changes of 1989-1991 could have been the result of an, imposed by the external circumstances, operation of Russia’s and the Eastern Bloc’s special forces withdrawing to pre-planned positions and effectively maintaining a network of agents and influences. This leads to his next assumption that the collapse of the Soviet Union became, in fact, Russia’s eventual victory.
I remain helpless towards these statements which Lucas does not justify. How can a reader take the author’s belief that such things as losing East Germany, Poland and the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, independence of the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and all the other former Soviet republics, losing influence on Europe and the world, economic collapse and social crisis, etc. should be considered…a victory for Russia!? It is too bad, and I say this with great sadness, that these types of groundless statements and interpretations weaken the main theses of this book, which have been presented in a clear, effective and attractive way.
Just like Lucas’s previous book Deception will also be warmly received by all those who show their lack of trust in Putin and his policies, but not necessarily by those realists for whom the book doesn’t answer the crucial question on how to cooperate with Russia in such trying circumstances, not to mention Kremlin’s apologists or naive “westerners” who believe that the great game over the world’s future is over, especially in Europe. He openly criticises those who belittle the signs of the already ongoing confrontation and emphasise the necessary cooperation, either in the case of Iran or by ensuring transport of NATO non-lethal material from Afghanistan. In Lucas’s view the price of this cooperation is too high. And what’s worse it covers the real foray.
With his articles and books, Edward Lucas wants to alert western decision-making circles who believe that the greatest dangers lie somewhere else (radical Islam, terrorism, China, etc.), and not belittle the potential threat coming from Moscow – starting with the economic, the export of corruption and specific methods of the activities of state and private corporations, through political and military means, which aim at weakening the transatlantic ties.
The strength of the book is Lucas’s knowledge of a huge number of facts, an ability to interpret them, the political imagination and his passion. However, I am also of the impression that Lucas’s passion and personal choices, at times, weaken the message.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Eugeniusz Smolar is a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board. He cooperates with the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. Under socialist Poland he was a member of the opposition movement (imprisoned in 1968/1969). He emigrated from Poland in 1970 and was involved in creating and publishing a political quarterly, Aneks. He was involved in organising aid for the Polish opposition and the Solidarność movement, and he was also a journalist and later the director of the BBC’s Polish Section. After returning to Poland in 1997 he became a member of the board of Polish Radio. Between 2005 to 2009 he was the President of the Centre of International Relations in Warsaw.