Eighty years ago this week, Germany’s imminent invasion of the Soviet Union was an open secret around the world. The British Foreign Office’s Weekly Political Intelligence Summary had been talking about it for two months. Soviet spies kept warning the Kremlin, too. Unfortunately, Joseph Stalin didn’t believe them, recounts Owen Matthews in his gripping biography of Soviet agent Richard Sorge, An Impeccable Spy.

The head of the USSR’s military intelligence, Filipp Golikov, was enabling Stalin: knowing that his five predecessors had been shot, Golikov tried to show the boss only pleasing information. When a report nonetheless reached Stalin on June 17 1941 saying that “all preparations by Germany for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed”, the dictator scrawled on it in blue wax pencil: “You can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother.” Five days later, Germany invaded.

Russian spies and saboteurs remain hyperactive today, whether it’s attacking defectors abroad, offering the Taliban bounties to kill US personnel, interfering in western elections or even hacking sport’s World Anti-Doping Agency. Yet now, as then, the benefits are dubious. Russian spies seem to blunder even more than their western counterparts. In fact, they provide a case study of the inefficiency of authoritarian regimes. Especially in knowledge sectors, the authoritarians aren’t half as good as democracies sometimes imagine.

Dictatorships overspend on paranoia. If you pour money into espionage and recruit foreign agents motivated either by communism or venality, you will discover some secrets. Soviet spies in 1941 knew about Hitler’s plans and the western allies’ project to build the atom bomb.

Stalin used the atomic intelligence, but only because he wanted to believe it. As the British KGB double agent George Blake (subject of my recent biography, The Happy Traitor) discovered after fleeing to Moscow in 1966, “if the intelligence service gave information that didn’t match the boss’s view, then either that information wasn’t passed on, or it was changed so that it did match the boss’s view. So he was never correctly informed.” The whole Soviet system worked that way, said Blake.

Then there is the tendency of spy agencies to go off the rails, especially in countries without democratic checks. Russian spy services possess money, information and licence to kill. They are also competing with other Russian spy services. The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, probably suspected that poisoning the defector Sergei Skripal in an English cathedral town would enrage western countries but may have cared more about outdoing rivals.

In any case, authoritarian spies are rarely subtle analysts of democratic countries. In 2014, the GRU seems to have swallowed the ludicrous proposition that Nato would accept Ukraine as a member and use the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol as a naval base, says Matthews. These beliefs may have encouraged Russia’s invasion of the Crimea.

Even when Russian spies seemed to hit the bullseye, helping Donald Trump get elected US president in 2016, there was probably an element of fluke. Interviewing people close to the Kremlin in Moscow two years later, I was told that the GRU’s involvement in election-meddling was run by underlings, who merely hoped to weaken the inevitable next president, Hillary Clinton. Trump’s victory stunned the GRU.

In Europe, nuisance-making by Russian spies often subverts Russia’s own interests. A canny Russia would lean on historically friendly EU member states, such as Greece or the Czech Republic, to push its agenda in Brussels. Instead, Russian spies excel at alienating allies. Most spectacularly, in 2014, GRU agents blew up a Czech arms dump, killing two people, in the hope of stopping weapons reaching Russia’s enemies.

Angry European and North American countries have expelled 309 Russian diplomats and other officials in just over four years, calculates Le Monde newspaper. Matthews says the spying activities “have horrifically damaged Russia’s strategic position in the world”. The regime in Russia may understand this. In a possible echo of Stalin’s purges, Igor Korobov, the GRU’s chief when Skripal was attacked, died eight months later, aged 62.

Yet even now, reports The New Yorker magazine, senior people in both the Trump and Biden administrations suspect GRU agents of “aiming microwave-radiation devices at US officials to collect intelligence from their computers and cell phones”. Officials have fallen ill, and Washington is angry. As the US national-security official John Demers noted last year, Russia keeps “wantonly causing unprecedented damage to pursue small tactical advantages and to satisfy fits of spite”.

The west’s inferiority complex vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes probably peaked in 2020. While Trump was mishandling the pandemic, China kept deaths down and Russia pretended to. Today things look different: democracies have outdone their rivals in producing and administering vaccines; there are plausible suggestions that Covid-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab; and Russia’s own continued mishandling of the virus has become clear — its excess death rate during this pandemic is about 50 per cent higher than the US’s. Our awe of these poor, corrupt dictatorships is misplaced.

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