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Spies — Russia, China and the long intelligence war with the west

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The secret report about Ukraine reached British intelligence in February. It said that the Russians knew the Ukrainians were “hostile to them and their ideas”, and that the Ukrainians wanted to know what foreign support they would receive. The spy who wrote the report continued: “I pointed out to him [the Ukrainian source] that no power would intervene against Russia now, and that the Russians . . . would never permit the Ukraine to separate itself entirely from Russia.”

Remarkably, that was written in 1922, a century before Moscow launched its full scale-invasion of Ukraine. It is also just one of the many revealing anecdotes that make Calder Walton’s book Spies such an engrossing history of the century-long intelligence war between the US, Britain and Russia. The book gains extra, grim relevance today given Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the unfolding cold war with China.

Walton is a British barrister, author and distinguished historian, currently at Harvard, who previously spent several years in MI5’s archives as a researcher for the official history of the UK’s domestic secret service. His own book ranges across continents and decades, from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution to the second world war, from proxy conflicts in the developing world to present-day Russian and Chinese cyberwarfare. Some of the material was declassified as recently as 2022. Interviews with intelligence officers add further actualité.

China and its spies, Walton writes, have become like the ‘Soviet Union on steroids’

What lessons does Walton learn from a hundred years of rival spookery? The biggest is how often the west failed to realise it was in a spy war at all — a failing as true of a century ago as today.

The cold war started long before 1947, when the phrase was coined by Bernard Baruch, a financier and adviser to several US presidents. As early as the 1920s, Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, had more than 100,000 agents at home and a dedicated unit to co-ordinate operations abroad. In contrast, MI5’s counter-espionage unit had five officers. The US was little better. In 1929, secretary of state Henry Stimson had closed the government’s code-breaking department because “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

Nor did cold war espionage end in 1991 with the Soviet Union’s collapse. If anything, Russian spying became “more aggressive”, Walton writes. In 2003, three years after Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and spy chief, became president, an estimated 2.5 per cent of Kremlin staff had a security background. By 2019, that number had reached an incredible 77 per cent.

Western countries acted as if they were unaware of the threat. Even as the Kremlin and its special services became, in Walton’s words, “the hooligans of international relations”, using all the tools of KGB trade craft — espionage, deep-cover illegals, money-laundering, assassinations, disinformation and other active measures — the west was looking elsewhere.

Book cover of Spies

It believed the cold war with Russia was over. Then, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, western countries diverted the bulk of their security resources into counter-terrorism. By 2006, just 4 per cent of the work done by GCHQ, Britain’s cyber intelligence spy agency, was concerned with hostile foreign nations. By comparison, at the height of the cold war, 70 per cent of its work had focused on the Soviet bloc.

Spies contains valuable lessons for the present. As with the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia, the US and its allies have been slow to recognise China’s threat. Its economic weight makes the country more challenging and potentially dangerous than the Soviet Union. Beijing, like Moscow, has also engaged in massive technological transfer from the west, or “spying and buying” as Walton calls it.

In 2021, the FBI opened a China-related investigation every 12 hours. This year, the British parliament’s intelligence committee warned that China’s spy services were the largest in the world. China and its spies, Walton writes, have become like the “Soviet Union on steroids”. Western intelligence is now “chasing a horse that has already bolted the stables”. He warns that it will be hard for the US and its allies to catch up.

Walton’s agents sometimes suffer from a needless spooned-on glamour that can spoil the book’s many sharply etched profiles: the word “handsome” appears 11 times, “debonair” twice, even “dashing” gets an outing. But his central conclusion is crisp and authoritative. Western countries insist they do not want a cold war with China. Yet as history shows, “western powers can be in a Cold War irrespective of whether they seek one and before they recognise it”.

Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West by Calder Walton Abacus £25, 640 pages

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s security and defence editor

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