The problem with the world of shadows is that, by definition, one never really knows what's going on in it. But just occasionally, the grubs and moles rise to the surface and we catch a glimpse. The recent coroner's enquiry in London into MI6's Gareth Williams mysterious death is a case in point, as were the horrendous radiation-caused death of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2009 and the unmasking of Anna Chapman since then.
But Edward Lucas is a respected journalist with 25 years of experience covering Eastern Europe and Russia - and so deserves to be taken seriously when he claims to cast light on the shadows. His is a well researched and careful book, but his writing style is punchy and very readable. If the subject matter wasn't so sinister and threatening, it would be an enjoyable read. But it is profoundly relevant - not least because Vladimir Putin has only just returned to the seat so carefully kept warm for him by Dmitry Medvedev. And what Lucas rather grimly terms the unholy trinity of Gangsterdom, Spookdom and Officialdom that controls modern Russia (p78) presents genuine threats to the rest of the world, and especially Europe (now that the USA is becoming more concerned with its Pacific rather than Atlantic vista). Having lost an empire, he rightly notes that while there is little nostalgia for the ideology of the Soviet era in Moscow, many clearly feel a sense of humiliation at their lost power and prestige. With an economy in tatters through corruption, bureaucracy and the failure to innovate, the power of the old intelligence services is one of the few things to remain intact and functioning well.
As evidence, Lucas carefully examines the details of a number of important recent cases. Most disturbing was the case of Sergei Magnitsky - a courageous lawyer who suffered primarily for doing his job of defending his client's interests. And this elicits one of Lucas' characteristically pithy and devastating verdicts: "It is a sure sign of a rotten legal and political system when lawyers are punished for the crime of representing their clients." (p39) Later, he examines the modern Russian illegals, of whom Anna Chapman was the most notorious (and, from the profile here, clearly the most inept). While it is clear that the western intelligence services can't claim a consistently impressive record in recent years, they have not stopped functioning either. And it fascinating to read, in passing, his articulations of the paradoxes of the spy world, the sorts of mentality a good spy needs, the huge difficulty of creating illegals. But the overall impression is clear. Russia's security and intelligence services are hard at work, perhaps as much as they have ever been.
The reason this is all serious is that the west has let its guard down - for political and economic reasons, it wants to do business with Russia, to put the old Cold War antipathies behind them. But this creates an open door for the FSB & SVR - an open door which is being exploited with alacrity. This book certainly does not appear to hanker after the past, nor harbour a blinkered outmoded prejudice against Russia (as a previous reviewer has suggested). In fact, what makes the problem feel most contemporary is that the issue is no longer ideology - but power and wealth. This is serious because it is actually a matter of state-sponsored crime and exploitation. Which means that we should be wary of exactly what Russia's intentions are. Of course, it seems clear (e.g. from Wikileaks) that behind the press-statements, governments have few illusions about what they are dealing with. But the prevailing anxieties about preserving good diplomatic relations (the USA's 'reset'), the focus on counter-terrorism rather than counter-espionage, and the difficult politics involved in being more openly alert, seem to have put the west on the back foot. If this book can bring about more transparency and vigour in dealing with this issue, then Edward Lucas will have done us a great service indeed.