Book review - Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West

Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist and former Moscow bureau chief, is a foremost expert on the political machinations of Russia. In his latest book, exposing the criminal tyranny of Putin’s regime, Lucas describes the death in 2009 of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky as a “political parable.” Magnitsky had been investigating corruption on behalf of a British investor and uncovered a £150m tax fraud in which the FSB (the KGB’s successor) was implicated. Already in poor health, he was held in pre-trial detention for 11 months in appalling conditions. After refusing to withdraw his testimony, he was straitjacketed, beaten with rubber batons and died on the floor of his cell.

This is by no means an isolated incident in Russia today for those courageous enough to expose corruption or the misuse of power. One only has to think of the brutal murders of investigative journalists Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Natalia Estemirova in 2009.  As Lucas contends the murder of Magnitsky and other dissidents illustrate “the overlap between gangsterdom and power in Russia”. Espionage is a crucial part of the equation and the means by which Putin and other Siloviki (hard men), all ex-KGB, are able to retain their control.

The central thesis of Deception is that the West should continue to fear Russia’s vast intelligence network and recognise it as a corrupt and malevolent force. As well as propping up the current regime its links to organised crime have far reaching consequences and the potential to damage other states.

Lucas traces the history of East—West espionage since 1925. He reveals lesser known stories, dating from the Cold War, that highlight the superiority of Soviet intelligence and the vulnerability of the British and American networks – many of their agents met their deaths. Lucas also focuses on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, of strategic importance to both sides since the end of World War II. He gained exclusive access to Estonian, Herman Simm, who fed sensitive information on NATO’s decision making to the Russians until his arrest in 2008.

The new generation of spies is perhaps best epitomised by Anna Chapman who shot to fame when she was arrested in the US in 2010 and was deported together with nine others. They had been leading inconspicuous lives but, Lucas argues, it was precisely their “ordinariness” that allowed them to carry out espionage assignments so effectively. Chapman returned to Russia a celebrity. Unlike other spies who use stolen identities in order to operate undercover, Chapman had acquired a British passport, after her brief marriage to Alex Chapman, and continued to use her married name when she left London for the US.

As immensely readable as the best spy fiction, and often profoundly shocking, Lucas sheds some much needed light on the darker side of Russian politics, and offers a brilliant analysis of complex issues. Rather than lowering their guard, Lucas argues, Western governments should be calling for more security cooperation amongst those countries still threatened by Russia. His final message is that the West must wake up to “an adversary that understands us better than we know ourselves”.

A shortened version originally published by The Tablet