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

Daily Telegraph

The risks involved in probing the seamy underside of Russian life are shown by the fate of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Flung into jail for 11 months, he was eventually forced into a straitjacket and beaten to death on the floor of his cell.

His crime? Magnitsky was representing Hermitage Capital Management, a British-based fund manager, in a long-standing dispute with the Russian authorities over trumped-up charges of tax evasion. In the process, he had discovered how powerful Russians had stolen $230 million from their own government by fraudulently securing the biggest tax rebate in the country’s history.

His ordeal says much about the harsh realities of power in today’s Russia, according to Edward Lucas, a senior journalist at The Economist. In his book Deception, he sets out to show how a venal and amoral state is cynically exploiting the openness of Western free societies to spread tentacles of influence and corruption.

Espionage is the chosen tool of the hard men in the Kremlin and Russian spies are doing their utmost to penetrate our institutions, distort our decision-making and make off with our secrets. Thus Anna Chapman, the agent who resembled a Playboy playmate, lived undercover for years in Britain and the US before being unmasked. Lucas wants to alert us to the scale of the peril: he thinks we do not grasp how ambitious this espionage campaign has become, nor the inherent vulnerability of free societies.
He goes so far as to argue that the West risks becoming as rotten as Russia if the Kremlin’s agents are allowed to continue their work. Instead of Russia slowly normalising and becoming more like us, Lucas thinks we could end up becoming more like them.

Thus he approvingly quotes an observer who writes: “Those who keep calling for an engagement that will eventually transform Russia cannot see that it is the West, not Russia, that is being transformed.” Lucas adds: “I hope this book can help the West to avoid that fate.”

First things first: Deception is an excellent read, written with verve, pace and authority. Lucas has produced a spy story like no other – page after page contains remarkable detail and stories that were entirely new to me – and what’s more, this is all real life.

None the less, he only partially succeeds in his aim. Lucas’s great strength is an encyclopedic knowledge of the methods and history of espionage. At times, he lapses into the exasperated tone of a world-weary MI6 instructor as he sternly ticks off sundry Russian and British agents for their cock-ups and “sloppy tradecraft” – his most damning phrase.

But the author’s fascination with espionage is also his greatest weakness: in my view, he vastly overestimates its importance.

Yes, the Kremlin’s dedication to sending sleeper agents into Western countries is a danger that should be exposed. But is it really such a peril that it threatens to engulf the West in Russian-style lawlessness and corruption?

Perhaps the most important leading indicator for Russia’s standing in the world is not the activities of Chapman and her friends but the fact that its national population falls by about 500,000 a year. One astonishing United Nations forecast suggests that by 2050 Russia will have about as many people as Uganda. Add in the fact that Russia’s economy produces nothing useful except oil and gas and you have a picture of a country locked into a long-term decline.

True, Russia can do a lot of damage on the way down, but subverting the richest countries in the world to the point where they start becoming like Russia seems a tall order.

Lucas provides much evidence to suggest that Russian intelligence could not possibly achieve such a colossal aim. Occasionally, you sense him swerving back on course after he provides plenty of reasons to doubt the ability of Russian spies.

On page 191, Lucas writes that Chapman showed the “failings of Russian intelligence: nepotistic in recruitment, with an increasingly blurred line between the professional and private duties of its officers, but still able to plant undetectable and effective agents in our midst” (my italics).
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