Harding’s impassioned indictment of the Kremlin’s nefarious machinations abroad in recent years is wide-ranging and well researched. He combines the findings of the Mueller inquiry, western intelligence reports, the revelations of the investigative website Bellingcat, and his own formidable sleuthing to produce a detailed and compelling account of Russia’s efforts to subvert liberal democracies and project its own power and influence. Many of the key episodes Harding narrates – the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, the hack of the Democratic National Committee servers in 2016, claims of collusion between the Trump administration and the Putin regime – have been extensively reported, including by Harding himself for the Guardian, but the book ties them into a pattern of aggressive and reckless interference in western societies. Moscow is waging an “unofficial war” against the west and its security services are a “deadly shadow monster, on the rampage”.
There is no shortage of books on the Trump-Russia affair — in fact, Harding has already penned one himself. But he says it was his goal to tell the lesser-known story of the GRU spies whose job it is to subvert the west. By that measure, Harding achieves his aim. But for close observers of the espionage world, the book breaks little new ground and jumps around too much, one minute dissecting the Mueller inquiry, the next taking the reader to the sleepy streets of the English city of Salisbury.
In Shadow State, Luke Harding’s mission is to explain the reasons for this failure and tell the broader story of how the Kremlin has triumphed in the post-cold war era. Harding, the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent, knows his snow on their boots. He was effectively expelled from Russia in 2011 for the crime of getting under the Kremlin’s skin, something too many Moscow correspondents fail to do. That episode led to his book, Mafia State, followed by works on the Litvinenko poisoning and on Trump-Russia, the bestseller Collusion. Shadow State reads like a thriller, but he hasn’t made it up.
Prigozhin exemplifies the problem Western agencies have with Russia at the moment. In the good old bad old days, at least it was about ideology: state-controlled Communism vs free-market capitalism. Those binaries have crumbled more than the Berlin Wall. Harding’s book poses a fearful dilemma. It is said that not even the greatest chess grandmaster can always win a game against someone who doesn’t know the rules and is just random. Chaos is what is wanted. And, on the basis of this excellent book, there are fissures for chaos to seethe in everywhere. Nobody with an IQ of over 35 can think that Trump is a deep political thinker. The fact that he was played so brilliantly by Putin is terrifying.