Published: June 22, 2012 (Issue # 1714)
For years the name of British journalist Edward Lucas was unfamiliar to even the most ardent Russia-watchers in the West. That is because the writer, who has made a two-decade career reporting on Central Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, works for The Economist, a conservative U.K. weekly newspaper that makes a point of removing its reporters’ names from its articles to present a seamless, egoless account of world affairs.
But in 2008, Lucas, now international editor of The Economist, published under his own name “The New Cold War,” a book that examined in polemical form Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. The book — given currency by Russia’s war with Georgia — and its alarmist tone was considered overstated by some, especially in the light of the election that year of the apparent moderate reformer Dmitry Medvedev to the Russian presidency. However, we all know how that turned out and “The New Cold War” has become a classic of cool analysis and, indeed, prescience. In the meantime, Lucas’s stock rose steadily.
The publication in the U.K. earlier this year of “Deception,” Lucas’s second book, was therefore hotly anticipated. A detailed analysis of Russia-West espionage given fresh urgency by the exposure of Anna Chapman and her cohorts in 2010, the book was published in the U.S. this week. Lucas spoke to The St. Petersburg Times about his new book and some of the topics it raises.
Q: “Deception” is broadly a warning to the West not to be complacent about Russia’s will and ability to spy on it. If they read it, how do you think ordinary Russian readers would view the thrust of your argument?
A: Spies traditionally have a good image inside Russia, as I point out — from Stirlitz to Anna Chapman. But I think that this is vulnerable now for several reasons. One is that Russians are increasingly receptive to the idea that the regime is not making the country strong, but is in fact looting it. Another is that the regime’s anti-Westernism is resonating less. The reputation of the “organs” themselves is bad. The FSB [Russia’s domestic intelligence service] in particular plays a despicable role inside Russia and nepotism and corruption are rife inside the SVR [Russia’s foreign intelligence service].
So I think my argument, that the Russian regime is bad for Russia and for the West, and that espionage is an underestimated threat, may gain some agreement — perhaps grudging in some quarters — even inside Russia.
Q: How do you think those in power in Russia, i.e. in the Kremlin and in Russia’s various intelligence outfits, view your book and its central thesis?
A: I don’t know. I praise Soviet intelligence triumphs in the book and highlight Western blunders, so from an academic and historical point of view I think they would find the book fair. They won’t like being called a “pirate state” but that’s their problem. If you steal billions of dollars from your own people and jail or kill those who get in your way, people will notice, even in the West.
Q: In the book you describe in detail the means and motives of the Russian power structure to spy on an unsuspecting, even vulnerable “enemy,” the West, while at the same time noting a certain degradation in the bureaucratic and technical adroitness of its contemporary intelligence services. Which trend, in your view, has the upper hand?
A: For now I think that the vulnerabilities in the West mean that even in their current, degraded state, Russian intelligence services find penetration and other operations quite easy.
Q: You have recently been targeted by “tchaykovsky,” a mystery blogger posting in English and French, as a “pathological Russophobe.” You have made it clear that you are happy to appear alongside figures such as Russian writer Masha Gessen, the Guardian’s Moscow reporter Miriam Elder and the late investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, that this person is tagging as Russophobic. What do you think of the charge?
A: I am not Russophobic in the least. I speak and read Russian with great pleasure. I love Russian literature and have many Russian friends. Like them I detest the way that the regime has behaved both at home and abroad. I am honored to be placed alongside Anna Politkovskaya, even by an Internet troll.
Q: What are your hopes for your new book? What reaction has it elicited so far?
A: I have had excellent reviews in The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and other media, with more coming, I hope — the American edition is launched this week. “The New Cold War” was translated into 20 languages, so I am hoping to match or beat that with this book.