8th March 2012,
It has been four years since Edward Lucas’ The New Cold War excoriated the Putin regime for its increased repression at home and aggression abroad. That book proved a success precisely because it crystalized a trend in Russian politics which had been becoming evident internationally since about 2003, but which no one had previously managed (or dared) synthesize and analyze in such damning detail in a single tome. The central message of the The New Cold War was a warning about western complacency in the face of a determined foe that was recovering its confidence and capabilities. In Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West, Lucas seeks to update and deepen his original thesis with both historical and contemporary evidence.
Lucas’ main point is that while the end of the Cold War and the 2010 unmasking of the Russian “illegal” network in the US have been seen as great victories for western spy-catchers, historically it has often been the case that it was the Russians who had the upper hand. In this regard much of the book focuses on the very mixed western record of espionage and counter-intelligence targeted towards the Soviet Union, but launched from the Baltic States in the inter-war period (and again since 1991), as well as often short-sighted and disastrous western attempts at supporting armed resistance groups in the Baltics after 1945.
Examples here include much which has been glossed over in recent official histories; western support for many years of massively penetrated and ineffective émigré groups in both the post-war period, which led to the deaths of large numbers of their agents, and which never had any chance of revealing information on Soviet military activities or decision-making; superb Soviet domestic counter-intelligence right up until the late 1980’s, which meant that both SIS and CIA were together probably never able to recruit more that a maximum of about 80 agents between 1960-90; and the failure for many years of Western counter-intelligence to detect the activities of Herman Simm, an Estonian citizen who spied on NATO for the Russians from 1995 until his arrest in 2008.
Deception stands as a renewed warning against complacency: While the past few years have demonstrated that the SVR can be penetrated, even in its most secretive enclaves, a more historically informed contextualization of recent events suggests that despite very high levels of corruption present in contemporary Russian society, the special services are likely to remain focused, resilient and reasonably disciplined.
Whereas both the US “illegal” and Simm cases were ultimately uncovered because the CIA was able to recruit a key member of the SVR’s illegal program in the chaos that accompanied the downfall of the USSR in the 1990’s, and while it appears that western intelligence agencies retain a number of agents in situ, Lucas makes it clear that the Russian spooks retain important economic, social and political resources upon which they can draw at home, in addition to taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of comparatively open western societies.
The West still has many secrets; military, political, economic, that the Russians (and others) would be delighted to get their hands on in order to buttress their autocratic regimes at home and spread their influence abroad. In the Russian case is quite conceivable that the current government will remain in power for many years to come, buoyed financially by a resurgence in oil prices. If the west wishes to bolster the gradual trend within Russian society towards democratization, then we must not give the Putin regime an easy ride in its attempts to expand its power and influence.