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Book review: Soviet Leaders and Intelligence by Raymond L Garthoff

The Soviet Union was exceptional at spying – yet the author finds poor analysis and an inability to grasp basic facts about its geopolitical nemesis stifled the state.
US president John F Kennedy in 1961 with the combat flag of a Cuban landing brigade before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, laid the blame for American support of Cuban anti-Communists not with the president but with the country’s treasury secretary, a book on Soviet intelligence finds. Corbis
US president John F Kennedy in 1961 with the combat flag of a Cuban landing brigade before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, laid the blame for American support of Cuban anti-Communists not with the president but with the country’s treasury secretary, a book on Soviet intelligence finds. Corbis

The Soviet Union was very poor at many things – planning an economy, caring for the well-being of its citizens, butting out of the business of other sovereign states – but one aspect of statecraft it mastered was the art of spying.

The American bomb soon became the Soviet bomb, in large part due to the work of nuclear physicist, and spy, Klaus Fuchs. Western efforts to loosen the iron grip of Communism in Albania were doomed from the outset because of British double agent Kim Philby’s tipoffs. Nato was riddled with spies.

The Soviet Union had lapped its ideological competitors so thoroughly that it began to doubt the reports of its secret agents. When Philby told his handlers that Britain had no spies operating within the Soviet Union and only limited abilities to develop them, Joseph Stalin became convinced that Philby must be a triple agent, secretly pledging allegiance to Britain.

In this small tale lies evidence, and some explanation, for the Soviet Union’s ultimate failings. The Soviet intelligence agencies, and their political masters, could only believe what they were capable of believing – what fit their ideological framework. It was simply impossible for the British to not have agents in their country; after all, only think of how many agents the Soviets had in Britain and the United States.

The KGB was superb at spycraft, as former CIA and US state department officer Raymond L Garthoff details in his insightful Soviet Leaders and Intelligence, but utterly hapless when it came to analysis.

Its New York desk flubbed the positions of UN officials, and leaned on members of the fringe Communist Party of the USA for its understanding of American affairs. “Their foundation,” Garthoff says of Soviet intelligence assessments, “instead was a set of distorted assumptions resulting from Stalin’s application of an ideological lens in interpreting western thinking and policy”. They began with the answers and then found the evidence that would back them up.

Garthoff’s book, dense even at a brisk 100 pages, details the tangled relationship between Soviet intelligence politics, and their effects on the country’s relations with the “main adversary” – the US. The end of the Second World War had marked a brisk pivot from cooperation to mutual suspicion. “The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterised in the postwar period by a striving for world supremacy,” the Soviet ambassador to the US, Nikolai Novikov, argued in an influential 1946 briefing. The world was now to be structured into two “camps”, with the Soviets and Americans (the British, submerged in postwar penury, had rapidly gone from the Communists’ primary enemy to mostly irrelevant) locked in eternal battle.

Stalin saw the West as a funhouse-mirror version of Communist ideology’s imperialist stooges. Its politicians, he believed, were mere figureheads, stand-ins for the industrialists and malefactors of great wealth who were the true power behind the throne.

For all his courageousness in critiquing Stalin’s murderous excesses, his successor Nikita Khrushchev was equally ham-fisted in his approach to the American rivals. Even when looking to win points with a softer approach, he blundered. Convinced that the CIA and its director Allen Dulles were responsible for secret reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, Khrushchev strongly implied that the US president, Dwight Eisenhower, had been unaware of the missions, making Eisenhower both an empty suit and warmonger.

When Eisenhower’s successor, John F Kennedy, authorised a failed invasion of Cuba, Khrushchev was convinced that treasury secretary Douglas Dillon, a holdover from the Eisenhower administration, was responsible for the decision.

It is both comical and terrifying that Soviet leaders could have been so ill-informed about the basic workings of American politics, where treasury secretaries do not have the power to authorise military missions.

Anatoly Dobrynin, the ambassador to the US from 1962 to 1986, argued that most Soviet leaders’ information about the US had come from the pages of its house organ, Pravda. Even when the Soviets established an Institute of the USA in 1967 to study its Cold War rival, its appointed head had never even met an American. As Garthoff argues, Soviet intelligence weaknesses stemmed from a need to fit intelligence to ideology, rather than adapt ideology to new intelligence.

But there was another, subtler thread to the Soviets’ thinking. Marxist thought had pledged itself to eternal war with imperialism, and Stalin believed it wholeheartedly. It was only the development of the atomic bomb, and the potential for mutually assured destruction, that prompted later Soviet leaders to adapt ideologically. War was not inevitable; it could be assuaged, tempered.

“Many in the West considered peaceful coexistence to be a propaganda slogan designed to mask continuing Soviet pursuit of world domination,” Garthoff argues, “but it was not. To be sure, it was used in propaganda, but its real significance was an ideologically sanctioned recognition of realism in the nuclear age.” The Soviets were not feigning their shock when former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s memoir exposed his lack of faith in the cause of détente between the two nations, or when the Reagan administration announced the Star Wars missile-defence system in the 1980s, which many in the KGB believed to be semi-mythical.

The KGB in particular could only see its way to inform Soviet leaders about matters that matched their mindset. Then-KGB chief, and future Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov chose not to inform Leonid Brezhnev that the US had, in fact, played no role in destabilising Czechoslovakia before the 1968 uprising. The KGB lied even when in possession of the truth. Knowing that the G7 group of nations was not going to extend credit to the Soviets in the late 1980s, the KGB lied and told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the West was engaged in a disinformation campaign to convince him otherwise.

The lumbering Soviet state had unexpected outbreaks of common sense; “at the very peak of tension” between Reagan and the Soviet Union, in 1983, the KGB instituted “the Gavrilov channel”, asking the CIA to open a channel for direct communications to avoid any intelligence-related misunderstandings spiralling out of control. But even at the very end, as the dying beast was breathing its very last breaths, Soviet intelligence was pleading with Gorbachev to listen to their delusions of surprise American nuclear strikes.

(Although, to be fair, some American spies were convinced that Gorbachev was playing a long con on the US to get them to let down their defences, even as he was dismantling Communism for good.)

Soviet Leaders and Intelligence is the story of ideology clashing with information, and of the dismal results of a state where leadership became antithetical to the collection of intelligence. The Cold War, in Garthoff’s estimation, ended when the US and the Soviet Union ceased to see each other as opponents. This is true, but neglects two crucial addenda. First, just as Communist ideology insisted that the West was doomed to rot and decay, much of western anti-Communism insisted that the Soviet Union was doomed by its own internal contradictions. It just so happened that only one of them was factually correct – even if the American intelligence apparatus mostly failed to predict when the collapse would occur. Second, events taking place after Garthoff finished his book, including the annexation of Crimea, point to a resumption of tensions between the US and Russia, if not quite a new Cold War. After a welcome but brief interlude, Russian and American interests have returned to their earlier state of misalignment and hostility, with no clear end in sight.

This book is available on Amazon.

Saul Austerlitz is a critic and commentator based in New York and a frequent contributor to The Review.

Updated: August 6, 2015 04:00 AM