Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West Edward Lucas

Bloomsbury, pp.372, 20

I am no great fan of spy thrillers and positively allergic to conspiracy theories, but I found this book difficult to put down. In an earlier study, Edward Lucas examined Russia’s use of energy as a weapon against the EU and the Atlantic alliance. In this one, he dives below the surface into the murky waters of the country’s security apparatus and demonstrates that, while it has shed the old KGB image, it remains as pervasive and just as menacing.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the battlelines were clear cut and so was the role of the Soviet Union’s defenders. At home, they silenced any criticism of the system. Abroad, they carried on an ideological struggle for dominance with the United States and its allies.

With the end of the Cold War, Western societies limply accepted the ‘end of history’ assumption that the virtues of democracy and the free market economy had been recognised by all. For probably the great majority of Russians, and certainly for all connected with the military and security, 1989 and its aftermath represent a humiliating defeat. They have seen their empire disintegrate and their country’s prestige as one of the world’s two superpowers evaporate. If they cannot reconstitute their empire and put Russian soldiers back in Berlin, they can at least try to rebuild their power status.

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In Putin’s Russia, now free of all ideological constraint, the new masters base their power on money. As a result, gangsterism intersects with politics and international mafia operations with foreign policy. At home, the security service, the FSB, which many Russians liken to the religious police of Saudi Arabia or the Republican Guard of Iran, serves the business as well as the political interests of its masters. Abroad, its sister organisation, the SVR, works alongside various Russian mafias to much the same purpose.

Infiltration, manipulation and subversion have taken over from the conventional spying of the past. The two services have, in Lucas’s words, become inextricably enmeshed in a ‘toxic combination of chauvinism and criminality’, a major element of which concerns the movement and laundering of vast amounts of cash. The effects are so corrosive that, as one American observer of Russia points out, the country’s main export is no longer oil and gas, but corruption.

This is made much easier by the fact that we are all capitalists now. Russians travel to and settle in any country they please, warmly welcomed on the naive assumption that they have realised the superiority of our ways and wish to embrace them. It has never been easier for Russia to plant spies anywhere it wishes. Its citizens can buy property, businesses, football clubs and newspapers. This, Lucas maintains, poses a grave threat to the West, all the more dangerous for appearing so harmless.

In a series of case studies he demonstrates how the organs of Russian internal and external security operate, and how easily western agencies and governments have been duped. It is gripping stuff. Lucas has rooted about where few would dare, providing fascinating detail on the nuts and bolts of the often sleazy operations, and anyone who enjoys Le Carré will love this book.

But the chilling conclusion to be drawn, and Lucas is not reticent in drawing it, is that western society is laying itself wide open to threat in a number of areas, political, military, economic, financial and, for lack of a better word, moral. Russian spymasters, Lucas explains, think differently from their western counterparts, who work to specific demands. ‘They are willing to spend large amounts of time and money building up long-term assets, with little concern for the immediate payoff.’ We might well chuckle indulgently over the fuss made about Ann Chapman and ‘the spies in suburbia’ circus, and make light of the threat posed by Ms Zatuliveter’s affair with a member of the Commons Defence Committee. But we are wrong to do so.

Lucas tells of how a nondescript émigré from a Baltic Soviet republic working as a dentist in one western country was able, merely by tracing how his bills were paid, to shop all of that country’s secret agents. Any relatively intelligent and educated person in any walk of life can at some point or other become a crucial link in a chain that will lead to the most sensational and critical intelligence breakthrough or to the fatal entrapment of a person in a key position of power, political, military or economic. Complacency in the face of this could prove deadly.  

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, Spy novel, Thriller