Shadow State: A Review

By Pierre Tran

Paris – It is all about people. That is the story idea behind Shadow State, a riveting book that recounts the individuals who act as agents and assets of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who pursues power and influence around the world.

The author, British journalist Luke Harding, introduces the reader to the cast of named persons who labor and toil on behalf of the Russian intelligence agencies, which are the handy tool set of Putin, a former KGB officer.

The book is written in the voice of a chatty bloke in the pub rather than the fact-laden, hard-hitting style of a news reporter on a broadsheet. That breezy tabloid delivery carries the message that the Russian services work assiduously in the shadows, seeking to extend the Kremlin’s reach in the West and elsewhere.

Harding was the Moscow correspondent for a UK daily paper, the Guardian, before the Russian authorities told him to leave.

An Oct. 18 ABC News television interview with Christopher Steele, an ex-British spy of the MI6 secret intelligence service, shows the interest in alleged Russian attempts to get close to former president Donald Trump will not go away.

The “Steele dossier” sparked intense controversy with allegations the Russians hold visual record of Russian prostitutes performing a “golden showers” urine show for Trump in a Moscow hotel room when he was on a business trip before he took office in the White House.

Trump has denied that allegation, with the Washington Post daily reporting Oct. 14 the ex-president telling Republican party supporters, “I’m not into golden showers.”

Harding was guest speaker June 5 at the Folkestone book festival, in which he told the moderator, Lennox Morrison, the high likelihood of the Russians holding compromising material on Trump, as it was common practice to collect private information on foreign visitors.

The author-reporter tells the reader how the Russian FSB agency routinely broke into his home when he was Moscow correspondent between 2007 and 2011, and the spooks once left a manual on sex and relationships by his bedside, just to make the point he was under close surveillance.

Early on in its narrative, Shadow State points up a scene in Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love, in which Soviet agents secretly film British spy James Bond making love to a beautiful Russian cypher clerk in an Istanbul hotel room.

Such Russian use of sex tape was a reality, not fiction served up by Fleming, with the Soviet agencies fielding “swallows,” or attractive women agents, to compromise  Western officials, which included British and French ambassadors, and a CIA station chief, Shadow State says.

There are three categories for Kremlin assets, the book says.

The first is secret agent, a recruited operative who takes direct instruction from the Russian agency; the second is agent of influence, someone who “willingly supplies” information to the KGB and its successor agencies; and the third is confidential contact, a high-level source who knowingly or unknowingly supplies information, and is unlikely to become a fully fledged agent.

Who are those guys?

The focus on individual actors on the global intelligence stage can be seen at the opening of Shadow State, which introduces the reader to Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, two officers of the GRU, deemed to be the most powerful and secretive of Russian agencies, one which worked abroad in deadly manner.

These officers have been assigned to kill Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who had worked as an undercover agent, or mole, for MI6. Skripal had settled down to live in the quiet cathedral town of Salisbury, southern England, after a Russian presidential pardon. The Russian FSB intelligence agency had previously caught and imprisoned Skripal, before releasing him in a swap of Russian sleeper agents with the FBI.

From a detailed reconstruction of the 2018 Skripal case, Harding switches narrative tracks to sketch out Putin’s rise to power and his seeking to influence the 2016 US election, which yielded a surprise result: election of an outsider, Trump, over Washington insider Hilary Clinton.

The story threads of Trump, Skripal, the GRU hacking into computers to tilt the US elections, and the UK government communications headquarters (GCHQ) are bound together, the book says. There is information war – the use of the internet to suborn truth and facts – writ large. There is cyber hacking and leaking of sensitive data.

One of the themes running through the tangled narrative of Russian pursuit of power and sway, is the importance of freedom of the press. Many of the twists and turns have been covered by the Western press and the gallant Russian Novaya Gazeta. The book gives credit to the media outlets which ran the disturbing stories which invoked the ire of Trump and his accusation of “fake news” and “enemy of the people.”

The latter phrase was a favourite of a noted authoritarian leader, Joseph Stalin.

Finland’s biggest daily paper, Helsingin Sanomat, booked billboards on the way into Helsinki for the 2018 Trump-Putin summit, with the message in English and Russian: “Mr President, welcome to the land of the free press.”

The value of geeks

There is the false glamor of a war reporter, as sketched by Harding as he sets out to cover the Libya civil war in 2011, and then there is Eliot Higgins, a British nerd working from home, drawing on online research to deliver scoops on Syrian jihadist fighters using weapons from Croatia, supplied by the Saudis.

Higgins went on to track the Syrian use of cluster bombs, barrel bombs, and shoulder-launched missiles, all from the safety of his sofa in the East Midlands in the heartland of the UK.

The reader learns that Higgins’ homely online investigations grew into a respected research outfit known as Bellingcat, a name borrowed from the Middle Ages poem, Piers the Ploughman, by William Langland. That political allegory was a plan by mice and rats to hang a bell around a cat’s neck, so the rodents would be warned of the feline assailant, considered to be John of Gaunt, a man of great power and wealth in the 14th century.

In its latter day use, the Kremlin was the cat to be belled. British journalist Peter Jukes proposed Bellingcat as the name for the investigative team, the book says.

Bellingcat went on to uncover the 2014 downing of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 airliner, with the use of a Russian Buk missile launcher from the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in Kursk.

For dedicated geeks, and in the theme of uncovering key individuals, there is a story on perhaps how the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group got its name. The commander was said to be Dmitry Utkin, a GRU officer, who used the call sign Wagner because he was a fan of the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war film. That film was loosely based on Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s account of 19th century colonialism.

Swing the Brexit vote

Apart from the tale of Trump, there is a tangled web of allegations of Russian financial support for the Brexit campaign, which led to victory for the vote to leave the European Union in the 2016 UK referendum.

The chapter Moscow Gold explores a criminal inquiry by the British Crime Agency into allegations of foreign funding for the Leave campaign, which led to an acquittal, much like the US inquiry by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into alleged overseas meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

As can be expected in any British account of a day in the life of a spy, Harding draws on the late John le Carré, whose novels on the art of espionage cast a penetrating eye on the UK power structure.

In this case it is le Carré’s Agent Running in the Field (Viking): “You Brits, what do you do? You take our black money and wash it…You wring your hands when we poison our traitors and you say please, please, dear Russian friends, trade with us.”

With the Conservative government content to look the other way on allegations of foreign funding for the Brexit referendum, it was up to the media to follow the money, the book states. That investigative approach threw up curious leads to South African diamond mines, but the revelations were not enough to lead to criminal prosecution. The case was closed.

The 2019 general election returned Boris Johnson as prime minister and an 80-seat parliamentary majority for the Conservative party, and a hard line Brexit deal, the dire consequences of which are now being seen.

One of the minor, but indicative, consequences for post-Brexit trade with the UK is the independent Abbey Bookshop, here on the Left Bank, finding it easier to order a copy of Shadow State from the US publisher across the Pond, rather than from Guardian Faber Publishing, based across the Channel in the country of publication, the United Kingdom. Harper is an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, based in New York.