By John Helmer, Moscow
Spy novels are a dime a dozen – make that £10 before they are remaindered; the fact that some of them are written by ex-spies or counter-espionage agents doesn’t make them more precious for their veracity or insight. What makes Stella Rimington (right) a cut above (or below) is what she reveals to be her understanding of her enemy’s character, purpose, modus operandi, and pathology, as inculcated in Rimington during her 27-year career as an MI5 officer. In that time she was promoted successfully through every branch (counter-espionage, counter-subversion, counter-terrorism) until she spent her last five years as Director-General. Since then Rimington has been writing fictional thrillers. The last of these, The Geneva Trap, published a few weeks ago, is about several agents of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). It’s what Rimington understands of them that makes the read worthwhile: not for what it reveals about such Russians, but what it reveals about the MI5 mind-set.
There are the clichés, naturally. Russian agents are recognizable because they are all shaped “broad and square”. If any of their male organs protrude from their heavy overcoats, according to Rimington it’s only their “jutting chins”. They are predictable and inflexible in equal extremes: they never drink champagne, only vodka (Stolichnaya). Whether they are drunk or sober, “you got nowhere shouting at the Russians”. Their national characteristics as spies are made out to be quite different from the British, French or American ones. For instance: “the Russian Special Services don’t tolerate traitors.”
According to Rimington’s plot, the Russians appear to have perfected a cyber-penetration of a top-secret British and American operation to guide drone aircraft armed for killing on voice command from their controllers at remote locations. It’s well known that in this line of battlefield and assassination technology the Americans are ahead of the Russians. What’s odd in this tale is that instead of hacking through computer programming loopholes and stealing the special command technology to equip their own drones, the Russians reveal their presence by sabotaging the technology, and sending commands to cause the drones to crash. Of course, this gives the game away.
Never mind that in the real world American drones are killing harmless Afghans, Pakistanis and Yemenis by guidance mistake or human error, for which the Pentagon sometimes apologizes. In Rimington’s fiction, the drones would be unfailingly accurate and do their job without fault, if not for Russian sabotage. That at least is what the CIA station chief in London says.
It’s up to the wily MI5 agents, and their French counterparts, to prove the American as crudely uninformed on the matter as Mitt Romney.
In the end, Rimington’s theory of Russian organization goes off on an unusual tangent from the cliché. This is because the Russian villain turns out to be operating way beyond his orders. He also gets careless, letting a crucial bit of intelligence about what he’s doing slip to one of his Russian subordinates. This happens after a night of heavy drinking and ogling at the PussKat Club (no, the Pussy Riot girls aren’t on the bill). Rather than report up the line to Moscow, the Russian subordinate sends a message to MI5. That’s the second bit of unauthorized tradecraft attributed to the Russian intelligence agency.
The outcome of both is what exposes Rimington’s unusual understanding of the Russian intelligence agency mind in all its crudeness. First off, the big square Russian behind the sabotage operation manages to kill ten people, and was planning to liquidate the eleventh, the MI5 agent in charge. His methods include vehicular homicide, poison in tea cups, and dynamite. Before he gets that far, though, the smaller, square Russian agent who tips off MI5 is beaten to a pulp by his station colleagues, then shipped back to Moscow on a private ambulance plane, and finally sentenced to capital punishment for having made an unauthorized disclosure to the Brits instead of to his bosses. The implication is that MI5 suspects the SVR of operating without any of the top-down discipline once ascribed to the KGB.
There are also eye-opening revelations from Rimington. The worst of the Russian agents is driven by psycho-pathology (under-age girls). He also kills serially. Finally, when his organization catches up with him, he is tortured and his body dropped into Lake Leman. The Swiss post-mortem shows that “he’d been shot in the face with a soft-nosed bullet.” The MI5 agent responds cross-culturally: “It’s classic KGB”.
So there you have it. As of today, one of MI5’s most successful career officers thinks Russians are motivated to sabotage, not to steal, the superior technology of the NATO alliance, for no gain. When their agents go renegade, they opt not to report them to Moscow, but to London. And finally, when Moscow headquarters finally cottons on to all the unauthorized operations being undertaken in SVR time on Swiss and French territory, it orders peremptory beatings and torture. In the case of the Geneva officer with seniority, repatriation to trial before a Russian court is dispensed with in favour of the “classic” soft-nosed execution. The corpse is then placed where the allied secret services are bound to find it.
If this accumulation of Russian detail sounds improbable, that’s because it is. What is more probable is that this is what MI5 teaches its novices and advises its political masters to believe. That’s a thriller of a sort Rimington has scarcely begun to grasp.
Note on MI5 maps: Rimington makes two errors of geography so egregious, it does look like her personal drone guidance system must have been sabotaged by the SVR. In the first, her MI5 agent is catching her plane from Geneva airport back to London, which every drone knows is to the northwest. However, the agent claims to be looking out her aeroplane window and seeing Mont Blanc, “its snowy cap glistening in the sun”. The French mountain is 90 kilometres to the southeast of Geneva. Either British Airways was flying backwards, or the MI5 agent was standing on a rear toilet seat, craning her neck out the porthole.
In the second incident, French agents are on ground surveillance of the Russian villain’s Mercedes (black, natch) as it roars at 150 kilometres southward to Marseille. According to Rimington’s
factoid, the Russian spy takes “the clever route, avoiding Lyons… cutting down around Nimes, then west to the A7 after skirting Chambery.” Clever indeed, since Chambery is 100 kms due east of Lyons, and more than 300 kilometres nor-noreast of Nimes. To take the A7 towards Marseille, a Russian drone would take the Avignon fork in the road at Orange, avoiding Nimes altogether.