I’m not a fan of the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank that has the reputation of consisting of uber-hawkish neo-conservatives. Henry Jackson members come across as the kind of guys who even now think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. You can judge their credibility by the fact that their guest speaker today is Timothy Snyder, who’s giving a talk about his truly awful book The Road to Unfreedom – you know, the one which says that Putin’s a fascist because he quotes Ivan Ilyin. In short, the Henry Jackson Society isn’t the sort of place you should visit if you want to be well informed about Russia. Unfortunately, however, you have to pay a bit of attention to what it’s saying. For it represents the viewpoint of an extreme, but not unimportant, segment of Britain’s ruling elite.
The Society’s Russia & Eurasia Studies Centre has just come out with a new report. Its title Putin Sees and Hears it All: How Russia’s Intelligence Agencies Menace the UK gives the gist – Putin’s espionage network is massive and growing, and Russia’s evil dictator ‘sees and hears it all’. He truly is all knowing!
Or maybe not. For despite the hyperbolic title, the report is a bit of a damp squib. I thought it might have some extraordinary revelations about Russian espionage. But it doesn’t. The Russians spy on the UK, apparently. Well, golly gosh. Who’d have thought it? Russian intelligence efforts have been growing in recent years. Again, no big surprise there. And, it seems, Russian spies use all sorts of underhand, unprecedented methods to get their way. According to the report:
A plausible scenario, described by a number of current and former Government officials, is that a Whitehall official attends a high-level, closed-door event in the City. Attendees, as well as making polite conversation, exchange business cards, to the point where almost everybody has spoken with everybody else and most have exchanged business cards. When the Kremlin needs some information, one of the individuals who swapped cards with the official will reactivate the contact, seeking a meeting. When the two individuals meet, most likely at a café or bar, efforts to gather intelligence begin.
You don’t say! I never imagined that diplomats and their intelligence confrères might do such a thing. Those Russkies are so damned clever. They network!! And we learn further:
The Kremlin is also interested in London’s expert community: the small group of academics, commentators, journalists, and think tankers who are professional ‘Russia-watchers’ and who, collectively, help shape the way Russia is view in the UK. Russia’s operatives try to become confidants or trusted sources of the experts, or at the very least their acquaintances. They are hoping to be invited to the latest closed-door roundtable session that takes place at a think-tank … The Kremlin wants to know what is being said and by whom.
Scary! Russian spies at the roundtable! I mock, but with serious intent. We’re not talking state secrets here. My own view is that no harm comes from having the Russians know what people are saying about them or what people think about the world more generally. In fact, information gathering of this type can be beneficial to international security. More information reduces the chances of misperception, and as I’ve so often said, misperception is one of the most significant causes of international conflict. Things should be secret only if they need to be secret. If they don’t need to be, by all means let the Russians hoover it all up. Invite them to the roundtable. The more accurate their understanding of the world is, the better.
In short, there’s no reason to make so much of this. But the Henry Jackson Society isn’t in the business of reassurance. It aims to scare. And for this, it relies on interviews with mostly unnamed people, the veracity of whose information we cannot confirm. We’re told, for instance, that ‘According to well-placed sources, Russia has as many as 200 case officers in the UK, handling upwards of 500 agents.’ But how well-placed are they? We don’t know. Besides, we’re also told that in the Cold War there were only 39 Soviet case officers operating in the UK, and that the Russian embassy in London nowadays is 56 strong. There’s also the Russian Trade Delegation and Rossotrudnichestvo, but even if every single Russian official in London is a spy, it’s hard to see where the 200 are going to come from. One feels that there’s some threat inflation going on here. The report’s author, Andrew Foxall, notes that there are 150,000 Russians living in the UK. Up to half of these may be ‘informants’, he says. That’s 75,000 Russians consciously working for their country’s intelligence agencies, an extraordinary figure. This claim seems designed to blacken the reputation of an entire community. And yet Foxall produces no evidence to support it. If I was a Russian living in Britain, I’d be more than a little aggrieved.
Foxall says that he conducted 16 interviews for this report. Those interviewees whose names are mentioned are not people I personally would regard as 100% reliable – for instance, former oligarch jailbird Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Chechen rebel Akhmed Zakaev, and Magnitsky Act promoter Bill Browder. I think it’s fair to say that they all have an agenda. And as I learnt when researching my first book (about interwar Russian military émigrés), émigré communities can be extremely paranoid, and often paranoid about entirely the wrong people and things. One has to take what they say with a massive dose of salt. But that isn’t Foxall’s approach. Instead he treats his sources decidedly uncritically. The story they give is of being under continual pressure from Russian spies, who are always following them, observing them in cafés, trying to infiltrate their organizations, and asking awkward questions at public meetings. It could well be true. I can imagine the Russian security services doing such things. But one shouldn’t take all this stuff at face value, and sometimes one has to wonder who is really paranoid: Putin or his critics? Take, for instance, the following passage from the report:
‘At just about every public event I speak at there are always one or two FSB people in the crowd’, says Browder, ‘You can spot them a mile off’. He described how these people ‘wouldn’t show the normal emotions of a story of a man being tortured and murdered. They would just sit there passively, almost counting the time until I was done speaking so that they could ask a question which was always consistent with the Russian government’s position, like my conviction in Russia for tax evasion.’
So, anybody who questions Browder, or who doubts his story, must be an FSB agent! This isn’t very credible evidence. Rather, it’s proof of a rather unhealthy frame of mind which can’t imagine that people question the prevailing narrative for legitimate reasons.
Foxall ends his report with a number of policy recommendations, the most notable of which is that, ‘The UK government should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to Russian intelligence operations on its territory.’ This is just plain silly. In the first place, it’s not practicable. In the second place, if the UK expels every Russian who might be an intelligence agent, the Russians will reciprocate and adopt a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ towards Britain. It’s not obvious how Britain would benefit from this.
One shouldn’t be naïve. Espionage happens. It’s part and parcel of international relations. The Russians do it. The Brits do it. Everybody knows it, and everybody tolerates it (within certain limits), because the advantages are believed to outweigh the disadvantages. The broad thrust of Foxall’s report is probably true – Russians are spying on the UK, and spying more than they used to. No doubt the Russians are tracking dodgy émigrés in London, handing out some business cards, having a few chats about unclassified matters over coffee, and attending the occasional roundtable. It’s right that the British Security Service does what it can to keep tabs on it all and to put a stop to anything which threatens to cross the unwritten line of acceptable conduct (assassination attempts, and the like). In a sense, therefore, it’s perfectly fair for the Henry Jackson Society to point this all out. But the Society goes further than that. It exaggerates (75,000 Russian informants in London – give me a break!), and creates the picture that all this activity amounts to a major threat, without providing any evidence that Russian intelligence is getting its hands on really sensitive information that has the capacity to seriously damage British security. There’s a lot of huff, but at the end of it all, not a lot of puff.
What bugs me then is not all the stories about business cards, but the way such things are used to stoke up tension. It seems that the UK has a whole industry devoted to elevating the Russian threat, while anybody who casts doubt on the scale of danger is likely to be denounced, like Browders’ interrogators, as a Kremlin agent. For sure, Russian espionage is an issue which needs addressing. But, as with most other Russia-related matters, somewhere along the line a sense of proportion has been lost, while nobody seems to be interested in what can be done to make mutual relations better. It’s not a healthy atmosphere.