Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
This book is a very timely reminder of the perils that Russia continues to present to civilised Western nations. Our governments are welcoming a very strange country - Russia is joining the World Trade Organisation, and will be president (for goodness’ sake) of the G20 in 2013. Deception shines a spotlight on the dark and turbid world of Russian crony capitalism, and how the cessation of the Cold War has not diminished the power of the Russian secret services in the running of their nation. (Few nations of any size have a former spy as their head of state). To put this into context, the FSB (the successor to the KGB) employs 300,000 people – more than the US Marine Corps (and c. twice the size of Great Britain’s total armed forces).
Lucas is a senior editor at the Economist, and former Moscow station chief; he is supremely qualified to write this book. It opens with the tale of the Russian government’s persecution of Bill Browder, and his firm, Hermitage Capital Management, culminating in how its assets were expropriated by criminals with state connections. Whilst little of this is new news, Lucas’ clinical dissection of the way the state dismembered Hermitage is a salutary warning to anyone considering doing business in Russia. Lucas does not spare ink in detailing how Hermitage’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was imprisoned, tortured and murdered. That those responsible soon received top awards makes the tale even more repugnant.
The fate of the average Russian is often overlooked by Western politicians as they welcome Russia to the fold. Lucas quotes an estimate of $6bn a year of spending disappearing in bribes, whilst other estimates go as high as half of all public spending disappearing into the yawning pockets of gangsters and officials.
From my several visits to Russia, most of what Lucas writes is eminently plausible. There is one issue where my knowledge overlaps with his, and where in my view he has been overly seduced into a conspiracy theory. Stephen Curtis was the lawyer for Mikhail Khorodovsky, a plutocrat who rubbed Putin up the wrong way. Only a few months after Khorodovsky’s arrest, Curtis died in a helicopter crash near Bournemouth. Lucas infers a FSB sponsored assassination. I read the AAIB investigation report as soon as it was published, and I re-read it after Lucas’ book, and the AAIB did their customary thorough job. Though it is highly likely that glasses of spirits were raised at the Lubyanka when they heard the news of Curtis’ demise, my conclusion is that Curtis’ fatal mistake was to employ as his personal pilot someone who had not gained an instrument rating, and then expect him to take him to his Dorset redoubt on a murky winter’s night. The pilot became disorientated in low cloud.
Another (very small) point that arouses a slight concern for accuracy in this reviewer’s mind is when Lucas refers to Britain’s giving parachute training to Baltic émigrés at “an airport near Abingdon.” Lucas is referring to Weston-on-the- Green, a pastoral grass airfield about as far removed from an “airport” as is possible.
Lucas provides a very thorough investigation into the recent spy ring exposed in the US, of which Anna Chapman (or more properly Anna Vasilyevna Kushchenko, since her British marriage was clearly one of convenience) was the most well known member. Readers are left wondering what sort of society later turned her into a cultural icon. He describes the how the lightweight Belgian counter-intelligence service means that the EU and Brussels are havens for Soviet penetration, as is NATO. The author’s special interests are the Baltic States – that buffer region that has become an even hotter bed of espionage since the Cold War. The final part of the book deals, at length, with the case of Herman Simm, who percolated to the top of Estonian military intelligence (with all the access to NATO secrets that implies), all the while a KGB agent.
Just as Afghanistan represents what is known as an “asymmetric warfare” (the two sides play by different rules), so Russia engages in asymmetric espionage. Our open society is an open goal – Lucas unsurprisingly highlights the case of Mike Hancock MP (on our Defence Select Committee no less), who engaged a Russian siren as his personal assistant. No guesses for how many monthly pay cheques she received. The chances of a British spy being engaged for a similar job at the Duma are about as likely as Putin joining the Salvation Army. Further asymmetry: at least two major British newspapers are owned by Aleksandr Lebvedev, a former KGB officer, whose son, the titular head of the papers, is increasingly seen prancing over their pages.
The precepts of Deception remain topical: there is no sign of an end to extra-judicial assassinations on British soil, where the Russian government (or those of its satellites) is directly or indirectly implicated as the culprit. From Georgi Markov, via Alexander Litvinenko, to Alexander Perepilichny as recently as November 2012, there is a continuum of murder on our shores. Lucas largely achieves his aim of causing readers to question whether we take the continued Russian threat sufficiently seriously.
He quotes an economist, Inozemtsev, who said:
“The elite’s most important goal is the preservation of a system that enables incompetents to control the country’s wealth. Hoping that change will come when the current ruling class retires and newcomers replace them is forlorn.”
So the book serves as a wake-up call to US and European governments that they are sleep-walking to a very dark place. But perhaps Russia has already sowed the seeds of its own expiry?
Key amongst Russia’s key long-term weaknesses are its lack of health, lack of longevity and its population decline – all leading to economic weakness, let alone public unhappiness. Putin’s recent state of the nation speech suggesting financial incentives for families to have three or more children shows a belated awareness of this. Yet a damning indictment of Russia is that most Russians who have tasted the West no longer want to live in their nation of birth.
There are 300,000 Russians in the UK. Deception will cause Britons to question whether this diaspora is of benefit to us. Thankfully even those Russians that flaunt their wallets in Knightsbridge tend to be readily identifiable. There is something in the Russian male gene pool that means, even if they are wearing a bespoke suit, they have all the appearance of being clothed in BHS! Meanwhile Deception should be required reading, not only for every Foreign Office official, but for anyone thinking of visiting the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.
Deception Spies, lies and how Russia dupes the West
Edward Lucas, Bloomsbury, 2012
The late Magnitisky