Spies not like us
A review of Shadow State. Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West. By: Luke Harding. Publisher: Guardian Faber, London, 2020.
On August 20th this year, news broke that Alexei Navalny, the de facto leader of the opposition against Vladimir Putin in Russia, had fallen seriously ill while on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Videos of Navalny screaming and howling in pain quickly, and suspiciously, found their way on to social media. Navalny’s flight made an emergency landing in Omsk, in south-western Siberia, where he was rushed to the hospital for treatment and ultimately put in a medically-induced coma.
For many observers, there was little doubt as to what happened to Navalny. An outspoken critic of the Putin regime and an active anti-corruption campaigner in Russia, Navalny essentially put a target on his back. After some negotiations, Navalny was airlifted to Berlin for emergency treatment and has since made a partial recovery. It was later determined that he was poisoned by novichok – a chemical nerve agent that was developed and created by a military lab in the Soviet Union.
The attack on Navalny was another illustration on how the “shadow state” operates – as described by Luke Harding in his latest book titled Shadow State. Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West. Harding’s book is a masterpiece of stories and accounts on how this process of security organisations, secret agents, deceptions, manipulations and high-level assassinations characterise one of the dark sides of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Harding opens Shadow State with another account of novichok – in fact it is the one on how the world first learnt of this killer nerve agent. It takes place in Salisbury, United Kingdom in 2018. Piecing together all the evidence from investigations, Harding tells the story of the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal – a former Russian intelligence double agent who made his way to Britain thanks to a US-brokered spy swap. Two colonels with the GRU (Russian military intelligence), Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, arrived to the UK with a mission that spring: to slip into Salisbury, poison Skripal (the traitor) and disappear before anyone even knew what happened. The two more or less succeed; they cover the doorknob of Skripal’s house with the deadly chemical and are on a plane back before anyone was able to put two and two together.
It is a horrifying thought even today – one that seems to be more out of a Hollywood script than real life. Russian intelligence agents are roaming freely in Europe (and around the world), carrying out secret missions which include spying, hacking and even killing. Each mission is meant to also send a wider message. With the Skripal attempt (thankfully, Skripal and his daughter survived, but sadly Dawn Sturgess, an innocent bystander who stumbled upon the bottle with novichok,died), Harding notes: “the ultimate audience for this deed was the Russian elite, and any Russian in the GRU or elsewhere, thinking of co-operating with the special prosecutor Mueller, the CIA or western intelligence generally. Decoded: Skripal was poisoned to pre-empt further treason.” What’s more, these were not the actions of rogue agents.
We learn later, thanks in part to the ace online sleuthing of organisations like Bellingcat, which used data from social media and other sources (including databases achieved through less formal means) pieced together every move of the would-be assassins, revealing their identity and outing the GRU in the process. The state, for its part, tried to cover up this narrative, even interviewing the two colonels on Russian television. Their claim was that they were mere tourists who came to visit Salisbury. It was hardly believable (and in fact became more of a joke). In the end, the whole affair revealed a sloppy and even lazy approach, instead of seamless, villainous spy craft.
The Skripal attempt was only one side to the story of the “shadow state”. Harding’s accounts highlight other elements of it as well. He takes us back to 2016 and how the GRU used primitive hacking techniques to orchestrate a massive disinformation and interference campaign into United States’ presidential election. The evidence presented by the author, gathered from sources including the Robert Mueller investigation, a meeting with Christopher Steele (who wrote the infamous Trump dossier) as well as personal experience and interviews, leaves little doubt on the attempts to hack the election. We can argue whether it is 100 per cent conclusive if these activities swayed the election towards Trump – but we know for sure that Russia’s shadow state was involved.
Throughout the book, Harding takes us on the trail of more GRU agents responsible for hacking western institutions, organizations and individuals. We learn of efforts to discredit members of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) after it was revealed that Russia had a secretive systematic doping programme for its athletes competing in the Olympics. The result of the revelation led to Russian athletes being banned from competing in major international sporting events. Yet, revenge is one of the motivations behind the shadow state, so it sent secret agents to hack officials of international organisations, including the International Olympic Committee.
We also learn the story of how hacking attempts were made to disrupt the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This time, however, the culprits were caught red-handed. Again, the agents’ overconfidence and sloppy work ethic gave western intelligence agencies a treasure trove of information. This scoop put a serious damper on future operations and certainly set the GRU back several steps in its fight against the West. In the end we are asked to wonder about the level of competence of this super secret spy agency. As Harding concludes following the OPCW affair: “An agency known for its ruthlessness and professionalism during the Cold War now gave the impression that it was incompetent and bungling, a shambling golem, lethal and dopey.”
The fascinating tales, which at times read like a gripping spy novel, reveal that the main character in the book is the shadow state itself – which Harding defines as “the machinery of government used for private benefit and personal enrichment”. The Kremlin’s shadow state’s aim is to perpetuate its existence by any means possible. Often motivated by revenge or pure spite, the shadow state sends its agents on missions to assassinate traitors, hack western institutions, discredit democracy and of course sow discontent in western societies – not necessarily in an attempt to generate any sympathy towards the Russian regime. In fact, this is the ultimate retaliation for the fall of the Soviet Union – considered by the shadow state’s chief commander, Vladimir Putin, as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
There are many lessons to be learnt in the stories told in Shadow State. The author highlights the importance of investigative journalism, online sleuthing and how openly available data can be used in the fight against the secret agents. We also learn that Russian bureaucracy is a key weakness in the shadow state, with multiple agencies involved in shadow operations (e.g. GRU, FSB, SVR) and they do not always communicate well with each other. Most importantly, Harding dissects and reveals the methods that were quite successful in the past. Having this knowledge now, however, makes it much more difficult for future operations to be as effective. Most western intelligence agencies know this now, but thanks to Harding we, too, can and should have a better grip (not to mention the book being a good reminder of the importance of securing our own personal information).
Nevertheless, the shadow state continues its operations. In Mid-October, reporting by the Guardian, including Harding, revealed that security agencies in the West have privately concluded that the FSB was the Russian agency behind the poisoning of Navalny, “in effect, pointing the finger at the Kremlin for ordering the attack”. This is just another example of how the shadow state works. The challenge now is how to stop it from happening again.
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.