In 2010, the FBI rolled up a network of Russian spies living illegally and undercover in the United States. Press coverage focused on one spy captured, the exceedingly attractive Anna Chapman and they portrayed the illegals as a gang of inept klutzes, caught through their own carelessness.
Spy Swap: The Humiliation of Russia’s Intelligence Services, by Nigel West, tells a different story. It reveals that the circle taken down in 2010 was extremely professional and highly dangerous and had been under observation for over a decade. It also reveals the real reason the FBI chose to act in 2010.
To understand the context for the take-down and what motivated it, West presents a brief overview of spying by the Soviet Union and the KGB, and the subsequent continuation of spying by Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s successor, the SVR. Readers of recent espionage history, like Agent Sonya, Gray Day, and others, will find mention of those activities in Spy Swap.
Those books are placed in a context that makes formerly inexplicable parts of those books suddenly understandable. Early chapters provide a matrix for understanding the espionage game between the first and second worlds before, and after, the fall of the Iron Curtain.
More fascinating is West’s description of the struggle between the US and Russian espionage and counterespionage services after the Soviet Union dissolved. He reveals how the US repeatedly penetrated Russian secret services and rooted out traitors within US ranks through intelligence gained from the Russians.
The 2010 takedown of the agents was the culmination of a 10-year surveillance code-named GHOST STORY. The FBI is revealed as a highly effective counterespionage service, patiently tracking a network of agents, to be rolled up at need.
The need proved surprising. The Russian convicted Gennadi Vasilenko, a Russian intelligence agent caught cooperating with the US. His imprisonment was sufficiently harsh that the US feared he would not survive his term. The Russians did not understand how valuable he had been to the US and allowed the US to arrange a spy swap in which Vasilenko was included, but as if he were an afterthought.
Spy Swap reveals a time in which the US was loyal to its foreign human assets and going to extreme lengths to recover them. It documents a time when the US intelligence and counterintelligence dominated its Russian rivals, in a manner humiliating to their Russian counterparts.
“Spy Swap: The Humiliation of Russia’s Intelligence Services,” by Nigel West, Naval Institute Press, 2021, 248 pages, $42.95 (Hardcover)
*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas. Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects. Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.” His website is marklardas.com.