.
I

t is interesting to watch the publishing world’s response to the foreign policy zeitgeist—the ebb and flow of book releases depending on the day’s hot topic. At the height of the Islamic State’s campaign of violence in Syria and Iraq, there were countless books on the Islamic State’s ideology, its operations, and innumerable hot takes on what the West should do to combat the threat. These ranged from the deeply researched, narrowly focused academic tomes, to the breathless made-for-television accounts of operations.

This is what we are seeing today with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. While they are perennially popular subjects, both received a boost in the publishing world in the wake of the 2016 election interference. On this side of the Atlantic it seemed that nearly every book released was about Russia’s relationship with President Trump; what Russia did or did not do in the election; and/or what the United States should do in response.

In keeping with the theme illustrated with the Islamic State, there was a spectrum of quality, but most of these Russia works fell along partisan lines: either on the side of incredulous outrage at the President’s behavior or vehement defenses of the President from the other side of the aisle. The breathless tones stood in the way of considered analysis.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle—both in tone and style—there existed a category of book that could best be described as broad-brush; an overview, but not a strategic overview. One that surveyed the landscape, but did not come with the heft that one would associate with a strategic survey.

A Global Survey of Russian Operations

Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West | By Luke Harding | Harper Collins | June 2020.

It is this middle ground that Luke Harding’s Shadow State occupies. A former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian and someone expelled from Russia by the government, Harding is a well-known reporter in the United Kingdom, although perhaps less so in the United States. Harding has written on Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and the alleged collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.

Shadow State globe-trots from the United States to the United Kingdom, across Europe and Russia, and on to Africa, pulling on the thread of Russia’s overt and covert activity. The thread on which he pulls leads to a tapestry of Russian activity that covers many stories—some the public may already know, others will be new revelations. This is one of the book’s strengths.

Where Shadow State is strongest is in Harding’s exploration of underreported characters and subjects. He shines light onto individuals who do not have the same public profile of the Putins, Prigozhins, Manaforts, and Steeles of the world—all of whom receive coverage in Harding’s book. He retreads the well-trodden ground of the Russia-Trump collusion story including Fusion GPS, the Mueller report, the Steele Dossier, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos.

There is little that he presents that hasn’t been covered in more excruciating detail elsewhere. Indeed, there isn’t anything here that would convince the skeptic or temper the partisan.  

For American readers, Harding’s exploration of Russia’s involvement in the Brexit campaign and its finances is particularly interesting. Here Harding explores the case of Alexander Udod, a Russian foreign intelligence officer (SVR) later expelled for Russia’s involvement in the Skripal assassination attempt. Udod allegedly had a relationship with Arron Banks, one of the key financial backers of the Leave.EU campaign effort. Where Banks’ finances came from is something of a mystery, but Harding presents a case that Russian gold and mineral opportunities may have been a source.

In another case, Harding describes Konstantin Kilimnik, a “political consultant” who—in his own words—served as Tonto to Paul Manfort’s Lone Ranger. Kilimnik was a Swedish and English linguist trained at a Russian military university that was known as a pipeline for GRU—Russian military intelligence—officers. The “is he a spy, isn’t he a spy” dynamic is fascinating, especially given his connection to Manafort. These connections led him to become a person of interest in the Mueller investigation.

Harding also covers the underreported story of Russia’s attempted hacking of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other locations in the Netherlands. Here he describes Aleksei Morenets—an international traveling hacker for the GRU who was arrested by Dutch intelligence and later expelled along with several colleagues. Morenets and the Russians sought to break into the OPCW as well as a lab involved with the testing of the chemical weapon used in the Skripal assassination attempt. Morenets’ laptop also had evidence that he was in Malaysia attempting to hack into the office of the attorney general to access information on the investigation of the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine.

These individuals and their cases provide interesting, if brief, insights into the variety of activities undertaken to advance Russian political interests. Too often, journalists and the public focus on the high-profile, sensational cases, such as the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal—a GRU officer turned spy for the United Kingdom, later exchanged for the “illegals” arrested in the United States—and miss the more interesting cases where the truth is far more complicated.

Too Much and Too Little

The weakness in Harding’s approach to the subject is that in being so broad-brush and cursory, it ultimately leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied. Throughout the book, he touches on these stories or incidents, but then quickly breezes onto the next vignette or connection.

His exploration of the murder of Russian journalists in the Central African Republic allegedly at the hands of Wagner private military contractors is a great example. Harding recounts the story of three journalists from the Investigation Control Center—a Russian online news organization financed by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky—who were attempting to cover the company’s activities in Syria. When that proved too challenging, instead they reported on Wagner’s presence in the Central African Republic. As Harding reports, they were tracked from the beginning and, when attempting to meet a source outside the capital of Bangui, were gunned down in an ambush.

This incident, its connection with Wagner, what happened on-the-ground, and how it fits into the broader pattern of behavior of both Wagner and Russia are all piqued interests that are not addressed or further explored. Harding swiftly moves onto the next subject, the alleged owner of Wagner, “Putin’s Chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin. Again, this is an interesting subject and one worthy of further exploration, but one hardly gets settled into this vignette before it is off to another topic.

While this is, perhaps, frustrating for someone who reads prodigiously on the subject, it is likely welcome for the broader public or a trans-Atlantic flight. It provides enough information to whet the appetite and inform those who are not as steeped in the subject, but does not offer much more for those professionally paying attention to Russian activity.

One of the most challenging things about Shadow State is the absence of footnotes, works cited, or endnotes. Save for a three-page narrative “note about sources”, there is no sourcing. This is particularly frustrating as there are countless assertions throughout the book that the reader will find interesting and eyebrow-raising but is left to take Harding’s word for it.

This is particularly the case when one notes that there are some minor factual errors—CIA personnel are officers, not agents, and the GRU’s headquarters was called the Aquarium well before 2016, for example. Indeed, one of the few sources Harding references is Viktor Suvorov, a GRU defector who wrote a 1985 book on Russian military intelligence titled “Aquarium: the career and defection of a Soviet military spy”. Sadly, this book is not currently in print and is over $900 on Amazon for a paperback copy.

Finding a Middle Ground

Harding’s breathless globetrotting narrative style is engrossing, to be sure—a nonfiction Vince Flynn (for American readers) or Mick Herron (for those across the pond). His telling of the attempted murder of Skripal particularly stands out. He writes as if he is trying to craft a television series through these vignettes. It makes for interesting reading, but there are other books that have managed to achieve both depth and engagement while still being thrilling reading.

Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People covers Putin’s rise, his inner circle, and finances with staggering depth while being an engrossing read. Gordon Corera’s Russians Among Us starts with the easily exciting subject of Russia’s spies but provides incredible detail into the inner workings of these operations and those that sought to counter them. Both are deep and gripping in equal measures.

That being said, there is room for that middle-ground of a broad-brush survey. Shadow State occupies that space well and serves as a good overview of the diversity of Russia’s foreign operations campaigns including assassinations, espionage, information and influence campaigns, illicit finance, and more. It serves as a useful illustration of the breadth and complexity of the challenge the West faces from Russia and largely fails to appreciate.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Shadow State: Book Review

July 9, 2020

Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West | By Luke Harding | Harper Collins | June 2020.

I

t is interesting to watch the publishing world’s response to the foreign policy zeitgeist—the ebb and flow of book releases depending on the day’s hot topic. At the height of the Islamic State’s campaign of violence in Syria and Iraq, there were countless books on the Islamic State’s ideology, its operations, and innumerable hot takes on what the West should do to combat the threat. These ranged from the deeply researched, narrowly focused academic tomes, to the breathless made-for-television accounts of operations.

This is what we are seeing today with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. While they are perennially popular subjects, both received a boost in the publishing world in the wake of the 2016 election interference. On this side of the Atlantic it seemed that nearly every book released was about Russia’s relationship with President Trump; what Russia did or did not do in the election; and/or what the United States should do in response.

In keeping with the theme illustrated with the Islamic State, there was a spectrum of quality, but most of these Russia works fell along partisan lines: either on the side of incredulous outrage at the President’s behavior or vehement defenses of the President from the other side of the aisle. The breathless tones stood in the way of considered analysis.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle—both in tone and style—there existed a category of book that could best be described as broad-brush; an overview, but not a strategic overview. One that surveyed the landscape, but did not come with the heft that one would associate with a strategic survey.

A Global Survey of Russian Operations

Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West | By Luke Harding | Harper Collins | June 2020.

It is this middle ground that Luke Harding’s Shadow State occupies. A former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian and someone expelled from Russia by the government, Harding is a well-known reporter in the United Kingdom, although perhaps less so in the United States. Harding has written on Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and the alleged collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.

Shadow State globe-trots from the United States to the United Kingdom, across Europe and Russia, and on to Africa, pulling on the thread of Russia’s overt and covert activity. The thread on which he pulls leads to a tapestry of Russian activity that covers many stories—some the public may already know, others will be new revelations. This is one of the book’s strengths.

Where Shadow State is strongest is in Harding’s exploration of underreported characters and subjects. He shines light onto individuals who do not have the same public profile of the Putins, Prigozhins, Manaforts, and Steeles of the world—all of whom receive coverage in Harding’s book. He retreads the well-trodden ground of the Russia-Trump collusion story including Fusion GPS, the Mueller report, the Steele Dossier, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos.

There is little that he presents that hasn’t been covered in more excruciating detail elsewhere. Indeed, there isn’t anything here that would convince the skeptic or temper the partisan.  

For American readers, Harding’s exploration of Russia’s involvement in the Brexit campaign and its finances is particularly interesting. Here Harding explores the case of Alexander Udod, a Russian foreign intelligence officer (SVR) later expelled for Russia’s involvement in the Skripal assassination attempt. Udod allegedly had a relationship with Arron Banks, one of the key financial backers of the Leave.EU campaign effort. Where Banks’ finances came from is something of a mystery, but Harding presents a case that Russian gold and mineral opportunities may have been a source.

In another case, Harding describes Konstantin Kilimnik, a “political consultant” who—in his own words—served as Tonto to Paul Manfort’s Lone Ranger. Kilimnik was a Swedish and English linguist trained at a Russian military university that was known as a pipeline for GRU—Russian military intelligence—officers. The “is he a spy, isn’t he a spy” dynamic is fascinating, especially given his connection to Manafort. These connections led him to become a person of interest in the Mueller investigation.

Harding also covers the underreported story of Russia’s attempted hacking of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other locations in the Netherlands. Here he describes Aleksei Morenets—an international traveling hacker for the GRU who was arrested by Dutch intelligence and later expelled along with several colleagues. Morenets and the Russians sought to break into the OPCW as well as a lab involved with the testing of the chemical weapon used in the Skripal assassination attempt. Morenets’ laptop also had evidence that he was in Malaysia attempting to hack into the office of the attorney general to access information on the investigation of the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine.

These individuals and their cases provide interesting, if brief, insights into the variety of activities undertaken to advance Russian political interests. Too often, journalists and the public focus on the high-profile, sensational cases, such as the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal—a GRU officer turned spy for the United Kingdom, later exchanged for the “illegals” arrested in the United States—and miss the more interesting cases where the truth is far more complicated.

Too Much and Too Little

The weakness in Harding’s approach to the subject is that in being so broad-brush and cursory, it ultimately leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied. Throughout the book, he touches on these stories or incidents, but then quickly breezes onto the next vignette or connection.

His exploration of the murder of Russian journalists in the Central African Republic allegedly at the hands of Wagner private military contractors is a great example. Harding recounts the story of three journalists from the Investigation Control Center—a Russian online news organization financed by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky—who were attempting to cover the company’s activities in Syria. When that proved too challenging, instead they reported on Wagner’s presence in the Central African Republic. As Harding reports, they were tracked from the beginning and, when attempting to meet a source outside the capital of Bangui, were gunned down in an ambush.

This incident, its connection with Wagner, what happened on-the-ground, and how it fits into the broader pattern of behavior of both Wagner and Russia are all piqued interests that are not addressed or further explored. Harding swiftly moves onto the next subject, the alleged owner of Wagner, “Putin’s Chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin. Again, this is an interesting subject and one worthy of further exploration, but one hardly gets settled into this vignette before it is off to another topic.

While this is, perhaps, frustrating for someone who reads prodigiously on the subject, it is likely welcome for the broader public or a trans-Atlantic flight. It provides enough information to whet the appetite and inform those who are not as steeped in the subject, but does not offer much more for those professionally paying attention to Russian activity.

One of the most challenging things about Shadow State is the absence of footnotes, works cited, or endnotes. Save for a three-page narrative “note about sources”, there is no sourcing. This is particularly frustrating as there are countless assertions throughout the book that the reader will find interesting and eyebrow-raising but is left to take Harding’s word for it.

This is particularly the case when one notes that there are some minor factual errors—CIA personnel are officers, not agents, and the GRU’s headquarters was called the Aquarium well before 2016, for example. Indeed, one of the few sources Harding references is Viktor Suvorov, a GRU defector who wrote a 1985 book on Russian military intelligence titled “Aquarium: the career and defection of a Soviet military spy”. Sadly, this book is not currently in print and is over $900 on Amazon for a paperback copy.

Finding a Middle Ground

Harding’s breathless globetrotting narrative style is engrossing, to be sure—a nonfiction Vince Flynn (for American readers) or Mick Herron (for those across the pond). His telling of the attempted murder of Skripal particularly stands out. He writes as if he is trying to craft a television series through these vignettes. It makes for interesting reading, but there are other books that have managed to achieve both depth and engagement while still being thrilling reading.

Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People covers Putin’s rise, his inner circle, and finances with staggering depth while being an engrossing read. Gordon Corera’s Russians Among Us starts with the easily exciting subject of Russia’s spies but provides incredible detail into the inner workings of these operations and those that sought to counter them. Both are deep and gripping in equal measures.

That being said, there is room for that middle-ground of a broad-brush survey. Shadow State occupies that space well and serves as a good overview of the diversity of Russia’s foreign operations campaigns including assassinations, espionage, information and influence campaigns, illicit finance, and more. It serves as a useful illustration of the breadth and complexity of the challenge the West faces from Russia and largely fails to appreciate.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.