THE BEAR BITES BACK
The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West
By Edward Lucas (Bloomsbury 342pp £18.99)
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Edward Lucas is the foremost British expert on contemporary Russia. His book is an outstanding piece of research and a testimony to its author's thorough knowledge and understanding of Russia in general, and its last seventeen years in particular. I doubt if any Russian academic would have been able to write such a work, since both a healthy distance from its subject and a penetrating sideways look are needed. It is difficult to disagree with most of Lucas's insights.
He offers us lengthy chapters on, amongst other subjects, Vladimir Putin and the system he has gradually built up, his foreign policy, his form of 'democracy' and 'elections', and his typical KGB mentality. But the area in which Lucas is a real specialist, and almost overwhelms us with his expertise, is the Russian gas industry and Russian policy on the use of gas as a strategic weapon.
The biographical data on Putin are essentially correct. As soon as he reached the top echelon of power, by way of his career in the KGB (I am deliberately using these traditional initials to cover also its successor organisations, as they do not differ from the Soviet KGB in any meaningful way), he orchestrated an attack by a handful of Islamists on the Republic of Dagestan and then easily destroyed most of the invaders. He then organised explosions in a number of blocks of flats in Russia, ascribed the crime to Chechen extremists and unleashed a brutal war against the Chechen Republic. These provocative actions brought him the enormous popularity that he still enjoys today. Lucas is, however, mistaken in thinking that Putin was involved in anything important when he was stationed in Dresden during the late 1980s. He was, in fact, a very junior 'blanket lifter', keeping an eye on who was sleeping with whom in the Russian community there. After his tour of duty in East Germany, he was not posted to Moscow (which would have indicated promotion) but was sent back to Leningrad, where he met his former teacher Anatoli Sobchak, who became mayor of the city and, in circumstances that are not yet entirely clear, took (or had to take) Putin under his wing. This was Putin's entrée into the corridors of power.
After becoming Yeltsin's heir apparent, Putin slowly but surely began to destroy democracy, freedom of speech and the independent movements for human rights that had blossomed in the 1990s. He brought KGB people into all the most important positions in government, presidential administration and business. As Lucas writes:
The best examples come from the top of the Kremlin: Sergei Ivanov, a career KGB spy who is now first deputy prime minister, has become chairman of the board at the new state-controlled aircraft manufacturing company, UABC. Igor Sechin, a deputy chief of staff in the Kremlin (whose Soviet-era job as a 'military translator' in Africa strongly suggests a background in the Soviet Union's military intelligence service, the GRU) worked alongside Mr Putin in St Petersburg and is now chairman of Rosneft. Thanks to the bargain price at which it has acquired assets, Rosneft is now Russia's largest oil company. Sergei Naryshkin, a fast-rising deputy prime minister, who is a former colleague of Mr Putin both from St Petersburg days and before that the KGB, is his deputy there and chairman of the main shipbuilding company. Victor Ivanov, a KGB veteran and a senior Kremlin figure, chairs the boards of Aeroflot and the air-defence systems giant Almaz-Antei. Similar types also run, or are in powerful positions at, the ministries of economy, transport, natural resources, telecommunications and culture. At least a quarter of Gazprom's management is made up of ex-KGB veterans.
The KGB is in effect running Russia. In the past, the Communist Party could control the KGB, but now it is the KGB that is in overall control of the country. The independent media have shrivelled up, with television in particular completely under the control of the authorities. Independent candidates have been excluded from elections, and all the smaller political parties are now totally unrepresented in parliament. Russia today, to all intents and purposes, is a one-party state, with many MPs still acting as secret informers for the KGB. The judiciary's brief flirtation with independence has ended. The KGB has a say in the make-up of juries. As in the old days, intellectuals are now unwilling to talk about sensitive matters on the phone. Internal repression is on the increase. The most successful Russian businessman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is in prison in Siberia.
A similarly hardline approach is practised against foreign states, especially those nearby. Particularly evil are the policies directed at Georgia and Estonia. When the Georgian authorities expelled four Russian spies, Putin ordered people with Georgian surnames in Russia to be deported. Against Estonia, a member of the EU, Russia started a cyber war. Russia is particularly unfriendly towards the USA and, even more so, towards the UK. In order to kill Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, the KGB sent a consignment of highly radioactive polonium into this country (neither Britain, nor NATO as a whole, has so far delivered an official protest to Russia about this). The Russian authorities claim to be participating in the war against terror, but there is not a single Russian soldier in Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa. They assert that Russia is teeming with British spies, yet there are only two MI6 officers attached to the British Embassy in Moscow. Russian espionage activities in and against the West are now being conducted on a larger scale than during the Cold War.
Lucas is inclined to believe that the Russian military threat is not serious. However, Russia has the largest armed forces in Europe and 16,000 nuclear warheads (the USA has 10,600). Russia is helping Iran's nuclear programme and delivering weaponry to countries such as China and Guatemala. Can we really say that the Cold War is over and done with? Admittedly, at the present time, the main Russian weapon is gas. Romania, Poland, Austria and Greece take between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of their gas from Russia. Germany currently buys 'only' 40 per cent of its gas supplies from this source. Bulgaria, Slovakia, Finland and the three Baltic Republics are totally dependent on Russian gas. Russia is trying to tie as many countries and foreign gas companies as possible to its pipelines and to the state monopoly Gazprom, which are all under KGB control. They find willing and very well remunerated Western collaborators, such as Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schroeder. (Lucas tells us that 'Tom Lantos, the American congressman and Holocaust survivor, went so far as to say that he wanted to call Schroeder a "political prostitute" but that the sex workers in his constituency objected'.) Lucas rightly concludes that 'we stand not the slightest chance of persuading Russians themselves that the authoritarian, xenophobic and distorted version of capitalism peddled by their rulers is not a new civilisation but a dead end'. I would add merely that we in the West can avoid being subjected to Russian domination only by harnessing effective new sources of energy. This is a huge challenge for our science and industry.
Oleg Gordievsky spent eleven years as a British secret agent inside the KGB. He was exposed in 1985 and placed under house arrest in Moscow, facing an imminent death sentence. However, with the assistance of British Intelligence, he escaped and was brought to London. He survives, somewhere in England, to tell the tale, and has written four books, three of them in partnership with Christopher Andrew.