Spies (Un)like Us

245700Reviewed: Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas (Walker & Company, 384 pp., $26.00). Communism is dead, but the threat from Russia is still very much alive—and we in the West are dangerously complacent in the face of this menace.

That is the central thesis of Edward Lucas’s Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today.

A senior editor at The Economist who was stationed in Russia from 1998 to 2002, Lucas gives a precise account of several sensational post-Cold War spy cases that underscore his theory that Russian espionage is “not just a lingering spasm of old Soviet institutions,” but an ongoing effort to penetrate the West by exploiting our “open and trusting approach to outsiders and newcomers.”

He illuminates each case with meticulously documented examples—including a long account from exclusive interviews with Herman Simm, the jailed Russian spy caught passing NATO secrets to the Russians—and provides a window on the businesses of spying and spy-catching in a post-Soviet world.

We are especially vulnerable, Lucas argues, because we are not paying close attention to Russia’s relentless efforts to infiltrate Western countries. Russia’s new spies not only engage in old-style “subversion, manipulation and penetration of the West,” Lucas writes in the book’s introduction, “they also defend a regime that…is tyrannical, criminal and murderous.” His larger point is well taken, if well known: Post-Cold War Russia is famous for its corruption. But is the West really not paying attention? As the cliché goes, we only hear about our own spies’ failures, not their successes.

The book’s opening chapters underscores this new Russian “cruelty” with the chilling story of a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. In 2009, Magnitsky died a painful death in a Russian prison for having the audacity to represent an American financier’s investments in Russia in face of a massive tax fraud against him. According to Lucas, the sham trial was orchestrated by corrupt officials in the interior ministry and the FSB’s Kafkaesque-sounding “K Directorate”—a successor to the KGB that, in a Western democracy, Lucas reminds us, would investigate white-collar offenses. In Russian, he writes, the outfit is a “unit for perpetrating economic crime, not fighting it.” The ex-KGB has brought “not the promised transformation to order and modernity, but only a sleazy stability.”

Corruption permeates beyond the security services. Lucas paints a picture—vivid though unsurprising—of a modern Russia in which the politicians are also the corporate CEOs, and the line between public and private entities is perilously blurred. Masters of industry, he argues, siphon profits for “insiders’ private schemes and to promote Russia’s foreign-policy agenda.” In short: “As Don Jensen, a stalwart American critic of the regime, points out, Russia’s main export isn’t oil and gas. It is corruption.”

In a particularly well-researched and entertaining chapter, Lucas details the unveiling of Anna Chapman, the redheaded spy who became a celebrity—especially in Russia—after being outed as part of a sleeper cell of Russians in New York in 2012. “Most spies retire quietly to the shadows after they are exposed. Not so Ms. Chapman.” For instance, since Chapman was arrested and deported, she has posed semi-naked for a magazine, hosted the “lightweight” TV program Mysteries, and approved an iPhone poker app that allows gamers to choose her as an avatar.

Lucas makes Chapman’s metamorphosis from a provincial teenager to “her country’s leading political sex symbol” less a commentary on the spy herself than on “Russia’s attitude to spies, the West, women and its own rulers”—obsessively fascinating, sex objects, and naturally corrupt, respectively.

He has done fine reporting on each of these vignettes, and doesn’t shy away from titillating particulars in service of his central point. That point is perhaps best captured by the words of an anonymous Finnish official whom Lucas interviewed, but who declined to provide information on a senior Russian figure. Asked to give details about the man, the Finn demurred, and replied: “Good luck. But we can’t help you. That’s why we’re still here.”