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Deception - Edward Lucas

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The cold breath of the communist secret police state blighted countless lives behind the Iron Curtain. But it also touched my own childhood in 1970s Oxford. Olgica, our Yugoslav lodger, had an exciting secret: Uncle Dušan. The poet Matthew Arnold described Oxford as ‘home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties’. In Dušan’s case, this was partly right: his surname (like those of most East European émigrés) if not exactly unpopular, was certainly baffling to British eyes and ears. I recall him as a glum, shadowy figure, with plenty to be glum about. His cause seemed irretrievably lost. He was a hero in his own twilight world, but in post-war Yugoslavia the authorities denounced anti-communists like him as criminals and traitors.a Many perished in mass graves or in the torture cells of the secret police. Dušan was one of the lucky ones. He had escaped to Britain, to a humble job as a mechanic and life in Crotch Crescent, a drab street in Oxford’s outskirts – a sad comedown for someone who in pre-war Yugoslavia had been a high-flying young civil servant.

But in one respect, Dušan did not fit Arnold’s dictum. Despite his disappointments, he had not forsaken his beliefs: communism was evil and the people who ruled his homeland were usurpers. In fact, Yugoslavia’s independent-minded communists had become mild by comparison with the much tougher regimes of the Soviet bloc. But they were still ruthless in their treatment of dissenters, particularly those in contact with anti-communists abroad. Olgica’s family maintained, at great risk, secret links with émigré relatives, flatly denying all knowledge of them under interrogation from the secret police. In Oxford, she visited her uncle each weekend. Had the authorities at home known that she was hobnobbing with a dangerous anti-communist émigré, her father’s glittering medical career (which had even brought him, briefly, to Oxford) would end; her own future (she had stayed on to finish her schooling) would be jeopardised too. It could even be dangerous for her to return home, leaving her stranded in Britain as a teenage refugee.

My own childish preoccupations blundered into this grown-up world. Even before Olgica’s arrival, my boyhood obsession had been Eastern Europe. I would spend hours looking at dusty atlases and reading about the vanished kingdoms and republics of the pre-communist era, with their long-forgotten politicians, quaint postage stamps and exotic languages. Now behind the Iron Curtain, they seemed as distant and unreal as Atlantis. In my early teens I needed an example of communist propaganda for a school history project and decided to write to the Yugoslav embassy in London, asking for an official statement of how their government saw their defeated royalist rivals. That would, I thought, sit nicely alongside the other exhibits I had already assembled, including a passage from Winston Churchill’s history of the war, a poignant account of life in Cambridge by the exiled Yugoslav boy-king Peter, and a sizzling history of a British military mission to his doomed soldiers, the Chetniks.¹

I proudly announced my plan. To my consternation, Olgica turned white. My mother took me aside: didn’t I understand that the Yugoslav embassy in London would at once hand over this letter to the secret police? (With its sinister-sounding acronym UDBA, the Uprava državne bezbednosti or Department of State Security was the bane of the regime’s critics at home and abroad). It would be obvious that my childish enquiry came from the very Oxford address at which the daughter of a top Yugoslav paediatrician was living while completing her A-levels. It was bad enough that the UDBA would instantly suspect her of propagandising about the royalist past – a crime in Yugoslavia. Worse, it would start checking up on her family history and might then discover her carefully concealed ties to the notorious inhabitant of Crotch Crescent. Her life could unravel in an instant.

This trivial episode taught me important lessons – albeit in politics not history. First, that the power of the communist state was based on the relentless, intrusive, bureaucratic reach of the security and intelligence services, and their capacity to ruin the lives of those who displeased them. Second that these agencies’ reach extended far beyond their own grim dominions – even to the seemingly safe and secure world of an English university town. The extraordinary idea that my actions could put me under scrutiny by hostile foreign officials sparked an interest that has gripped me for decades. In the years that followed I devoured spy literature, from defectors’ memoirs to John le Carré’s novels. I tracked down retired spies and quizzed them. I also kept a beady eye on contemporaries who were offered jobs by MI6, as Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, is colloquially known.b

Even without knowing much about the intelligence world I was struck by the clumsiness of those approaches: on the same day a crop of identical government-issue buff envelopes would arrive in student pigeonholes. Some recipients ignored the strictures to keep silent. A friend even framed the letter and put it in his lavatory, so his friends could appreciate the unconvincing letterhead and the strangulated wording of the offer: ‘From time to time opportunities arise in government service overseas of a specialised and confidential nature.’ For those who did apply, the clumsy efforts of the vetting officers (also accompanied by dire warnings about secrecy) were similarly corrosive of confidence in the spooks’ world-view. Did it really matter in the struggle against the Soviet empire, I wondered, if Tom had gay flings, if Dick smoked dope or if Harriet had a boyfriend in the Socialist Workers’ Party?

I reckoned I could do more good on the outside, and searched for any East European cause that would accept my help. Inspired by my father, who smuggled books to fellow-philosophers persecuted in Czechoslovakia, I helped organise a student campaign to support Poland’s Solidarity movement, crushed by martial law in December 1981. I waved placards outside embassies and wrote letters of protest on behalf of political prisoners. I studied unfashionable languages such as Polish, and practised them by befriending bitter old émigrés in the dusty clubs and offices of west London – the world of le Carré’s Estonian ‘General’ in Smiley’s People.² Like the spy author’s fictional émigrés, these real-life ones had been sponsored by Britain’s spooks, then betrayed and dumped. I did not know then the full extent of the fiasco of Operation Jungle, which I detail in chapter 9.

This book is the result of my twin interests, espionage and Eastern Europe. I would occasionally take the number 12 bus down Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth, past the headquarters of Britain’s MI6. The location was in those days, supposedly, a closely guarded official secret, though the bus conductor was prone to announce jovially ‘Century House – all spies alight here’. I never went inside. But I would gaze up at the grubby concrete structure, with a petrol station incongruously sited in its forecourt. Was this really our answer to the fearsome Soviet Lubyanka in Moscow? The imposing classical façade of the KGB citadel (originally an insurance company headquarters) would have suited the grandest streets in central London. But the MI6 building looked liked a scruffy Soviet tower block.

Spies, whether paid agents, idealistic volunteers, or professional intelligence officers, were foot soldiers in the struggle between East and West that shaped the lives of all post-war generations, including mine. They intrigued me as a student, activist and journalist, first in London and later behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1980s I rubbed shoulders and clinked glasses with spooks on both sides, dodging their blandishments while swapping jokes, jibes, arguments and ideas. For a brief while, the collapse of communism looked set to doom the whole business. Now that the Soviet Union was gone, and with it the danger of the Cold War turning hot, what was left to spy on? But the champagne corks that spooks popped in Britain and America in August 1991 were as premature as the gloom in the Lubyanka as the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s secret-police chief, was hauled away by a crane to the cheers of exuberant Muscovites. MI6, the CIA and their partner services rejigged their budgets and turned to new targets: rogue arms dealers, terrorists, gangsters and cyber-criminals. But new crime and old espionage soon proved to be easy bedfellows; the spivs and crooks in the foreground were sometimes new, but in the background lurked, more often than not, the wily and ruthless figures of the old Soviet-block intelligence world.

They were the dark partners in the new order. Far from being swept into the dustbin of history with the rubble of the old system, the communist-era spooks have evolved to match the new conditions. Some figures from the old days stayed undercover, gaining trusted roles in the new state structures. One of them was the Estonian Herman Simm, whose activities are the subject of chapter 11. Others turned to business, where their foreign languages and knowledge of the outside world gave them a flying start in the new game. All across the former Soviet empire, assets of the Communist Party and its front organisations speedily melted away, often ending up in the hands of the wily and well connected. So too did the operational funds of the KGB and its allied agencies. Estimates of the money squirrelled away abroad during the collapse of the Soviet Union are in the tens of billions of dollars; a crop of still-unexplained suicides in the old system’s dying days disposed of those in a position to blab.³ These caches of illicitly acquired cash were a financial springboard for the fleet-footed members of the old elite in their new business careers. In effect they turned their power into wealth, and then back into power.

In Russia itself Soviet-era spies, chief among them Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, now run the country. They are known as the Siloviki or ‘men of power’.c The old KGB was decapitated in 1991 amid the Soviet collapse, but not uprooted. Instead it renamed itself, just as so often in the past. (Under Vladimir Lenin it was the Cheka; later it became the OGPU, then the NKVD and finally the KGB.) It is now split into two: the FSB, which has inherited the repressive domestic apparatus of the old system, and the SVR, which is the heir to the Soviet foreign intelligence service; alongside both works the separate GRU military intelligence agency.⁴

Part of this book, therefore, deals with this deception: the story of how the ex-spooks and their friends, in effect in a criminal conspiracy, took over one of the world’s largest countries, hugely enriching themselves and duping the West. Their modus operandi fuses organised crime, big business, conventional diplomacy – and intelligence. I show that Russia’s spymasters are now using not only old tools against us, but also new ones of which their Soviet-era predecessors could only have dreamed.

Their most potent weapon is ordinariness. Just as Russian politicians and officials seem at first sight to hail from the same besuited and unremarkable caste as their counterparts in other industrialised countries, the spies I describe in this book appear neither glamorous nor sinister. They lead normal lives and work in normal jobs, moving effortlessly and inconspicuously among us. They are the kind of people you might meet at the school gates, work alongside in an office, bump into on a business trip, or see mowing the lawn next door. Yet their real job is to penetrate our society, to influence it for their own ends, and to steal our secrets.

The best known of this new generation of Russian spies was Anna Chapman, the young redhead who was made a global superstar by her arrest and deportation in June 2010. She has become an intimate friend of Mr Putin’s, a prized asset of his political machine, a prominent figure in Russian finance, and a television celebrity. But as I show in chapter 7, her main talents in working abroad were not the highly honed skills of spy-school legend. She started her life here in the humdrum London suburb of Stoke Newington, to the outside eye just another hard-partying, quick-witted young Russian woman with an English husband and an eye for the main chance, enjoying the safety and comfort of life in Britain. But her ordinariness was deceptive. She was well placed to carry out her espionage assignments precisely because she seemed so inconspicuous. Her later transformation into a trophy superspy adds another dimension. It is proof of the skills of her imidzhmekeri (image-makers) and casts a revealing light on Russia itself.

The spy scandal that made Ms Chapman famous was part of a larger picture. She was one of ten people arrested in the United States in June 2010, all of whom lived unremarkable middle-class lives, seemingly far away from traditional espionage targets such as the Pentagon or State Department. She and another Russian lived there under their own names. Seven others had fraudulently obtained identities – American, British, Canadian, Irish and Uruguayan (the tenth was the latter’s Peruvian spouse). One more suspect, a Russian called Pavel Kapustin, working under the alias of Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus but allowed to escape by the authorities there – an episode, never satisfactorily explained, which still arouses fury in American officialdom.⁵ (In a related case, a Russian who once worked at Microsoft was deported on immigration grounds in mid-July of that year).

Some people reacted with derision to the idea that Russia would send spies to suburbia, others with surprise. Both reactions were mistaken. This was not a new or foolish initiative by the Kremlin’s spymasters, but the latest twist in an old and sinister one. Only two years previously, in 2008, the case of Herman Simm had highlighted Russia’s penetration of NATO. A portly Estonian ex-policeman who had become that country’s top national-security official, he was exposed as a Russian agent after some able work by Western spycatchers. His case officer – the career spy in charge of his activities – was unmasked too. This was ‘Antonio’: a Russian masquerading as a Portuguese businessman, under an elaborately constructed illegal identity. But the media furore over that case soon died down, leaving most people unaware of the effort that Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, still puts into deception, infiltration and subversion. After much lobbying and argument, I was able to persuade the Estonian authorities to allow me to interview Simm; the results of that investigation are in chapter 11.

The international media frenzy surrounding Ms Chapman trivialised espionage as a branch of show business. The mistake was easily made: pouting and haughty, the Russian firecracker could easily be a fictional character, not a real one. She would fit in neatly as the sultry sidekick to the arch-villain in a Bond movie – 007’s relationship with ‘90-60-90’ (Ms Chapman’s Russian nickname, which comes from her shapely figure)d would provide appropriately cheesy sexual tension. The lurid and seemingly pointless affair invited ridicule. New York magazine’s headline was ‘Russian Spies Too Useless, Sexy to Prosecute’. In London, the Guardian said confidently that ‘none of the 10 Russians had culled any secrets from their hideouts in US suburbia’. A grand old man of Anglo-American journalism opined that the Russian illegals’ operation was marked by ‘complete futility’.⁶ As the detainees were swapped in Vienna for four people jailed in Russia for spying, David Cornwell, who under the pseudonym John le Carré so ably captured the dark intrigues of Cold War espionage, even suggested that out-of-control ‘rightists’ in America’s intelligence agencies were trying to jinx the improvement in Russian–American relations. He asked: ‘As we watch live in glorious Technicolor the greatest spy-swap of the twenty-first century, and hear in our memories the zither twanging out the Harry Lime theme, do the spies expect us to go scurrying back to our cold war shelters? Is that the cunning plan?’⁷

With respect to Britain’s greatest spy writer, and with rather less to other commentators, that is an oddly complacent approach. Spies need to seem as boring and inconspicuous as possible, to develop the capabilities that their real jobs require. If they are to be humble errand-runners, ferrying money, false documents and other wherewithal to more glamorous operatives, then they need jobs that allow them to travel. George Smiley, le Carré’s best-known character, spent the war years working undercover as an official (supposedly Swiss) of a Swedish shipping company – the perfect background for someone needing a regular excuse to visit Hamburg or other German ports.⁸ For some the task is to gain jobs, hobbies or lifestyles that give access to secret information. If the mission is identifying potential sources and the weaknesses that will enable their recruitment, they should be good networkers. If they are case officers, who recruit, direct, motivate and check the agents, they need a lifestyle in which meeting a wide range of people arouses no suspicion. If they are moles, aiming to penetrate the other side’s security or intelligence services, they need educational and career paths that will make them credible candidates for recruitment there.

Charles Crawford, a British diplomat in the region for many years, explains it well on his blog.⁹ Espionage means finding out where highly sensitive and useful information is stored or circulated, then using the human or physical weaknesses in its protection to copy the information in an undetectable way. All this must be done without anyone noticing or suspecting, and repeated many times over. In such work invisibility is a prime advantage. Spycatchers can watch the every waking and sleeping hour of a diplomat suspected of spying. They can comb through visa applications to spot foreign visitors who may be more or less than they seem. They can put suspects on their own side under surveillance to see if they are having odd meetings with strange people. Such techniques may be effective in catching a spook disguised as a diplomat, or a careless traitor. But they have almost no chance of catching a properly trained and targeted ‘illegal’ – someone working under an acquired or stolen identity.

As I show in chapter 6, such a person is an asset that can be used whenever, however and wherever it is needed. That Russia is running such agents in America, Britain and Europe (and elsewhere) should be cause for alarm. Imagine that someone who loathes you has a key to your front door. It will be little comfort if he has not yet got round to burning your house down, stealing your valuables, or planting drugs. The worry is that he could.

Russians do not trivialise or ridicule espionage. They take it rather seriously, both as a threat from abroad and as something that their country excels in. Admittedly, people everywhere find fictional spies glamorous. America has the amnesiac but indestructible Jason Bourne:¹⁰ Commander Bond’s high jinks sprinkle stardust over the reputation of SIS. But real-life spies in Western countries have only modest privileges compared to their counterparts elsewhere. In Britain, for example, they retire at 55, earlier than the diplomatic colleagues whose cover they use. They have rather larger and more loosely scrutinised expense accounts than other officials, but on the whole enjoy the same lifestyle as any other middle-class professional.

The Soviet legacy, however, has left a distinctive aura around espionage in Russia. For officers of the KGB (such as Ms Chapman’s father Vasily, or Mr Putin and hundreds of thousands like them) life was markedly nicer than for fellow inmates of the workers’ paradise. Housed in the KGB’s special accommodation, its officers had access to shops stocked with otherwise unavailable products. They holidayed at KGB resorts and were spared some of the system’s petty restrictions on daily life. Those in the elite foreign-espionage division, the First Chief Directorate, and some colleagues in cryptography and counter-intelligence, could even be sent to work abroad – perhaps even a posting to the fabled Western cornucopia that the class warriors both despised and envied.

Privileges aside, the KGB also enjoyed a mystique that still lingers over its successor organisations. People saw it (rather inaccurately) as efficient, knowledgeable and incorruptible. Its officers had a job that mattered, in an organisation that worked, and were well rewarded for it. Few in the claustrophobic, ill-run and bribe-plagued Soviet Union could boast as much. Like the space programme and sporting heroes, the KGB also touched another emotional chord: patriotism. Though its ultimate loyalty was to the Communist Party, not to the Soviet state (it described itself as the Party’s ‘sword and shield’), it basked in the reflected glory of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Rather as the Battle of Britain provides Britain’s ‘finest hour’, as the Resistance epitomises France’s national myth, and as the Normandy beaches exemplify America’s commitment to the freedom of Europe, the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia) was the central plank in the Soviet Union’s self-image – and plays the same role in Russian identity today.

For all the heroism displayed by Soviet soldiers in defeating the Nazi invaders, the real role of the secret police in those years was a despicable mix of war crimes against the foe, ruthless pacification of ‘liberated’ territories and persecution of real or imagined waverers on its own side.¹¹ Yet Soviet wartime history mostly comes across in a quite different light: on the television screens later adorned by Ms Chapman’s lightweight programme on unsolved mysteries,¹² viewers used to watch the exploits of the best-known Soviet fictional spy, Max Otto von Stirlitz (to give him his German cover name). His wartime mission was to penetrate the Nazi high command. Unlike Bond, Stirlitz shuns gadgets, guns and girls. His weapon is his mind, fuelled not by communist ideology but a plangent patriotism. Though implausible, books and films featuring his exploits were compelling and sympathetic by the hackneyed standards of Soviet propaganda.¹³ They so captivated a tough teenager in the backstreets of 1970s Leningrad that he took the unusual step of walking into the city’s KGB headquarters and volunteering his services. But the young Vladimir Putin was told that the organisation did not accept walk-ins; he should get an education first and wait to be approached.e

The Soviet Union is gone, but the links between Russia’s spies today and their dark and bloody past are real enough. Of course the old and new are not identical. Ms Chapman’s Soviet-era predecessors wore ill-fitting grey suits and sought the shadows. She likes leather catsuits and the spotlight. They served a totalitarian superpower. She serves post-Soviet Russia, a country that is undeniably capitalist and claims to be democratic. But a lasting connection is privilege. The dispensations enjoyed by Russia’s spooks now mean that they lead a life apart, just as KGB officers did in the Soviet era. The difference is not only in salary and access to consumer goods, but in the privilege of living above and outside the law. The results range from the trivial to the monstrous. An officer of the FSB can drive while drunk (and mow down pedestrians) with impunity. A flash of his ID badge will intimidate any lesser official; he can triumph in any private legal or commercial dispute; he can ignore planning regulations when he builds his house in the country. As I show in chapter 1, he can ruin the lives – literally – of those who displease him.

Ms Chapman does not just hit the old Soviet buttons in the Russian psyche. She tickles its modern neuroses too. Her brand is based not on the steely puritanism of the wartime Soviet military but on the sleazy glitz of modern Russia. Her role was to spy not on the hated Nazis of long ago, but on a new bugbear: Western countries such as Britain and America, which the Russian regime sees as duplicitous, arrogant and greedy. Though the elite likes to shop, bank, frolic and school their children in and around London, many of its members despise Britain, just as they resent what they see as American hegemony and the bossiness of the European Union.

This hostility stems in part from an inferiority complex: for all the West’s ills, its inhabitants enjoy a quality of life that is missing in Russia. This is despite what many Russians see as its baffling weakness and indolence (I have heard Russians complain in the same breath, quite unselfconsciously, about the feeble levels of maths education in the West and the flabby unfemininity of British and American women). Another reason is that Russians object to what they see as the West’s political interference – for example by sponsoring media-freedom and pro-democracy causes, and sheltering fugitives from Russia, who claim to be persecuted for their political beliefs, but are seen (at least by the authorities in Moscow) as mere swindlers and terrorists.

Many people dismiss even the existence of this enmity, let alone its seriousness. For them, the era of East–West confrontation ended with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later buried it. The eastwards expansion of NATO laid its ghost and it became completely irrelevant after the ‘reset’ of American relations with Russia in 2009 under the presidency of Barack Obama. Launched on 6 March 2009, this involved the handing over by the American secretary of state Hillary Clinton to her Russian opposite number, the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, of a large symbolic button marked Peregruzka – Reset.f The aim was to separate issues on which the United States and the Russian authorities were bound to disagree (such as human rights, and the security of the countries of the former Soviet empire) with those where agreement was possible and even pressingly needed, such as Afghanistan, arms control, a legal regime in space, etc. Supporters say it helped speed transit of military matériel to Afghanistan, in curbing (a little) Iran’s nuclear programme, and in a new treaty on strategic nuclear arms. The administration’s other foreign-policy initiatives, in the Middle East, China, Eastern Europe, Iran and North Korea have been marked by a notable lack of success and infirmity of purpose, but at least to its fans the ‘reset’ has been a success, simply by improving the rhetoric (if not the reality) of the relationship. The European Union is if anything even more eager to avoid confrontation, partly in order not to jeopardise the continent’s gas supplies (a quarter of which still come from Russia). Moreover, many Eurocrats see bad relations as the product of insufficiently skilful diplomacy, not the necessary result of clashing values and objectives. That makes it hard to take a tough line with Russia.

From this viewpoint, worries about the silencing of critics in Russia, or the remaining wrangles over the future of faraway countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, are trivial. Nothing need disturb the safety and comfort of Western public opinion. Such complacency happily coincides with financial interests. For many bankers, oilmen, lawyers and others, their fortunes depend on good relations with Russia. The sweet smell of money triumphs over the stench from below. Economic woes in the West only heighten the temptation.

I disagree with this approach and in 2007 wrote The New Cold War to explain why.¹⁴ That book highlighted Russia’s use of cash, energy and divide-and-rule diplomacy to undermine the Atlantic Alliance, to weaken the European Union and NATO, and to sow distrust between their ‘old’ and ex-communist members. I highlighted Russia’s bullying of neighbours such as Estonia and Georgia; and the penetration of Europe through corruption of politicians, businessmen and others. Since 2007 the once-controversial notion that Russia is run by xenophobic kleptocrats (a portmanteau word from ‘kleptocracy’ or ‘rule by thieves’) has become commonplace. This new book unveils the hidden side of Russia’s dealings with the West: the use of espionage for knowledge, for influence and ultimately for power. The outcome of these manoeuvres will determine whether the West brings Russia towards its standards of liberty, legality and cooperation, or whether it will be the other way round, as we accommodate (or even adopt) the authoritarian crony-capitalism that is the Moscow regime’s hallmark.g

Few cases highlight this corruption and brutality better than the one I begin with: the torture and death in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer working for a British investor. He exposed a $230m fraud by a criminal group led by the FSB and backed at the highest level in the regime.¹⁵ He paid for this discovery with his life; since his death the authorities have tried to cover up his murder, and their fraud, with a mixture of bombast, lies, bullying and evasion. The scandal exemplifies the overlap between gangsterdom and power in Russia, the abuse of the legal system, and the bravery of those Russians willing to defend the rule of law. The tentacles of FSB power stretch to the West too, not least because Russian officials have snooped on and intimidated Mr Magnitsky’s colleagues and defenders in London and elsewhere. As I show in subsequent chapters, the ruling regime represents not just a tragedy for Russia: it is a direct threat to our own well-being and safety.

In the annals of Western intelligence history, victories feature more than defeats. Many know of the triumphant exfiltration – spy parlance for a secret rescue – in 1985 of the brave and brilliant Oleg Gordievsky, for years Britain’s top spy in the KGB. The defection in 1992 of Vasily Mitrokhin, a senior archivist in Russia’s espionage service, is also rightly celebrated.¹⁶ The KGB laboured under big disadvantages: the increasingly apparent failures of the planned economy, the climate of fear that impeded sensible decision-making, and the burden of political interference. Yet the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War does not mean its intelligence services were winners all the time. The comforting account of a past studded with triumphs is misleading and leads to complacency. In chapters 8 and 9 I highlight some little-known stories of the previous decades in East–West spy wars, and their mostly dismal results for British and American intelligence. Our services were crippled by conflicting objectives: whether to spy on the Soviet block or to try to topple it. They repeatedly fell victim to Soviet deception operations. They were penetrated by traitors such as Kim Philby, and paralysed by the fear that more such moles remained undiscovered.

The episodes I have chosen to illustrate these problems are linked to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These have been vulnerable and contested territory on the East–West frontline for a hundred years. Even today, they stand most to gain if we win – and most to lose if we are defeated. I make no secret of my sympathy for their cause. I lived there in 1990–94 when they wriggled out of the Kremlin’s clutches. I witnessed their growing prosperity and rejoiced over what seemed like their safe landing in NATO in 2004. I have also seen how Russia systematically tries to undermine their sovereignty and subvert their security. The tales of the spy wars there include torture and treachery, deep deceptions and cynical double-dealing. They feature tragedy and triumph, brilliance and bungling, heroism, sacrifice, betrayal – and deception.

The first episode comes in the months after the Russian revolution of 1917, when outside governments, chiefly Britain, France and the United States, believed that they could snuff out the communist experiment before it took root and spread to other countries. The British envoy in Moscow, Robert Bruce Lockhart, fell for a brilliant deception operation personally masterminded by the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin. Lockhart believed Lenin’s bodyguards – a crack force of Latvian riflemen – would switch sides in return for the offer of an independent Latvian state, backed by the Western powers. But having failed to check properly the credentials of his supposed Latvian allies, Lockhart was hooked by Lenin’s ruse. The British agent’s naivety and carelessness not only landed him in jail. It also confirmed Russian suspicions about Western meddling, and fuelled Lenin’s propaganda machine, which was warning Russians of foreign meddling and menaces. Catching a British spy red-handed trying to mount a putsch was the best possible proof of that.

Despite that humiliating lesson, Western intelligence in the region then fell victim to a far greater deception: the ‘Trust’. British spymasters’ gullibility and recklessness in the early 1920s allowed the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to pretend that a huge underground organisation in Soviet Russia was eager to receive outside help. Nothing of the kind existed: the Trust was an invention. Scores of anti-communist Russians went to their deaths on botched operations planned by Western spy chiefs who believed triumph was just around the corner. This fiasco also cost the life of Britain’s reckless ‘ace of spies’, Sidney Reilly. His successors proved to be the epitome of the secretive incompetence that plagues the world of espionage. They proved unwilling or unable to learn from their mistakes, making a similar blunder only twenty years later when they backed bogus anti-Soviet resistance groupings in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. British, American and other Western spymasters saw these countries as ideal springboards for both spying and subversion: the Soviet-occupied Baltic states were easily accessible by plane or boat, with ardently anti-communist populations that were already fighting a guerrilla war against their new Soviet rulers. But the result was a catastrophe. The brave men that we sent to help this cause ended up in the clutches of the KGB.

I have tracked down perhaps the last survivor of those days. He is living peacefully in southern England, cherishing medals awarded by a country he thought would not be free in his lifetime, and a statuette given in belated gratitude by SIS. I have also found a previously unpublicised example of a successful mission