The latest spy thriller features the threat of a new Cold War, a resurgent Russia and plenty of stereotypes about the Kremlin. Is this guiding the Obama administration's policies towards Russia?

President Obama in a book store with his daughters. Photo: Michelle Photos.

U.S. presidents have enjoyed a lengthy love affair with espionage fiction. FDR enjoyed British spy novels. John F. Kennedy included Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love in a list of his ten favorite books. And Ronald Reagan called Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October “unputdownable.”

So it was perhaps no surprise that, during a Christmas shopping trip in December 2013, President Obama purchased a copy of Jason Matthews’ new spy thriller Red Sparrow.

Drawing on a rich legacy of Cold War stereotypes, the novel rebrands Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the new Soviet Union—a concept that both reflects and arguably reinforces American public opinion and policy formation. Most importantly, the novel offers an insight into why the Obama administration “reads” Russia the way it does.

The world may not be entering a new “Cold War,” but Matthews demonstrates the persistence of “Cold War epistemology” as a form of policy-driven intelligence and knowledge-production that reflects the interests of its customers more so than reality.

Indeed, both the West and Russia are once again entering a historical period when espionage fiction reflects and even contributes to imaginary narratives about national identities, geopolitical intentions, and even “facts on the ground.” Welcome back to the wilderness of mirrors.

The plot of Red Sparrow revolves around a young CIA operative Nate Nash and a drop-dead gorgeous SVR (Russian foreign intelligence) agent Dominika Egorova who predictably develop a sexual relationship. Nate is running America’s most successful mole—the head of SVR’s Americas Department—while Dominika receives training at the SVR “Sparrow School” for sexual techniques as she prepares to compromise Nate and identify the Russian traitor.

The book promises to be a hit on college campuses. A thirty-three year veteran of CIA’s Operations Department, Matthews offers his readers a commendably realistic portrayal of tradecraft, but also demonizes contemporary Russia to a point unseen since the bleakest days of the Cold War.

And Matthews pulls no punches. The novel opens with a description of Vladimir Putin as a “blond scorpion with languid blue eyes” rebuilding “USSR 2.0.”

At the CIA “Farm,” Nate sits through lectures on contemporary Russia that overlook all political and social evolution after Stalin’s death in 1953. A lecturer in modern Russia calls Putinism a modernized form of Stalinism “as the chain-wrapped corpse of the Soviet was exhumed, hauled dripping out of the swamp, and its heart was started again, and the old prisons were filled again anew with men who did not see it their way.”

A retired ops officer then offers the following: “The kid who pulls the tablecloth and smashes the crockery to get attention—that’s Moscow. They don’t want to be ignored and they’ll break the dishes to make sure it doesn’t happen… People, the second Cold War is all about the resurgent Russian Empire.”

Indeed, this ‘Soviet restoration’ theory has become a very popular reading of Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. The caretaker Kiev government embraced it wholeheartedly in order to justify its “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine and the newly elected president has inherited the tradition.

The mainstream Western media has portrayed Russia as a belligerent party bent on expansionism. One of the most popular forms of proof is Putin’s 2008 claim that the Soviet dissolution was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

But an opinion is not a program. Putin is also on the record as saying that “whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”

The Kremlin’s justification of its tactics towards Ukraine has been defensive. Russia’s absorption of Crimea was a preemptive measure against NATO expansion and the Black Sea Fleet’s expulsion from its historic homeport. Russia’s support for federalization in Ukraine was intended as a counterweight to what the Kremlin saw as a Western-backed coup d’état against a democratically elected government.

Moscow’s justification was that by supporting and then recognizing the overthrow of a legitimate government, the Western signatories of the Budapest Memorandum had already violated their 1994 commitment to “respect the independence and sovereignty” of Ukraine.

There have been many attempts to prove the presence of Russia’s Special Forces in eastern Ukraine, but facts have yet to support this claim.

Indeed, intelligence agencies from all over the world are operating in Ukraine—the Russians have no doubt activated their sources of information, so has MI6, and the CIA’s John Brennan has visited Kiev—but the phantom Russian units have become a convenient excuse for ignoring Ukraine’s deep ethno-linguistic divisions and socio-economic implosion.

Tracing all of Ukraine’s problems to Moscow and containing the Kremlin has emerged as the Western strategy.

Those arguing that Russia will “go beyond” the Crimea and may not even stop at the western borders of Ukraine are deluding themselves about Moscow’s military and financial potential. It makes for compelling drama, but when fiction drives policy, everyone loses.

Policy implications of Cold War stereotypes

Conceived, written, and published before the Ukrainian crisis, Matthews’ book demonstrates that the current view of Russia predated the coup d’état in Kiev.

The ‘evil Putin’ narrative not only obscures the complexity of the Ukrainian situation, but also prevents the articulation of a nuanced international policy to deal with the country’s problems.

To project all the blame for Ukraine’s implosion onto Moscow is to ignore that the country has been run by Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs for a generation since the end of the USSR. Ukraine had great economic potential when it became an independent state in 1991, but the rapacity of its oligarchs and the myopia of its politicians led to economic ruin, leaving it economically far behind its neighbors Poland, Russia, and Belarus.

The Western press has been shockingly unprofessional in overlooking the role of the Ukrainian oligarchs in the current crisis—most do not want to become small fish within an economic union with Russia and have supported controlled chaos in their provinces in order to wrest the greatest possible economic concessions from the Kiev government.

The narrative of a Kremlin-orchestrated rebellion in eastern Ukraine resulted in sanctions against Russia—preserving the appearance of Western attempts to help Ukraine—but they have done nothing to help the economic meltdown, which is the root cause of Ukraine’s current crisis.

Moreover, antagonizing Russia diplomatically and hurting it economically will slow down (and may even prevent) Ukrainian economic recovery, which will inevitably depend on Russia’s participation and good will. While it has been at the forefront of the push for sanctions, Washington has also offered Ukraine the least financial and economic aid of the major foreign players in the Ukrainian drama.

For Brussels, the ‘Russian menace’ narrative serves to keep the U.S. engaged in European defense structures.

For over half a century, America has bankrolled NATO, releasing European investments into socio-economic programs. The Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” threatens to marginalize European security concerns and shift Washington’s financial commitments towards Asian security arrangements.

For Europe, therefore, demonizing the Kremlin is the surest way to keep the U.S. interested in NATO and this narrative has found a sympathetic ear among American neoconservatives.

Matthews’ novel both reflects this tendency to demonize Russia and reinforces it—fiction and reality echo each other. “Today’s Kremlin was suits and ties, press secretaries, smiling summit meetings, but anyone who had been around for any length of time knew that nothing had changed since Stalin, really,” writes Matthews.

Indeed, he paints a comically horrifying picture of the FSB and SVR complete with grotesque Bond-like villains. Dominika fears that if her decision to work with the Americans is exposed, the FSB “would send men with ice picks to stab her to death like Trotsky” and “roll her mother into a furnace,” while she would find herself in the FSB’s Lubyanka headquarters in a “room with a drain in the sloping floor, and the hooks in the ceiling beams.”

The head of the SVR’s counterintelligence department conducts interrogations in his favorite tunic bespattered with “greenish brown material—stiff with brown dried blood spots and thick with the stable stench of a hundred bowels.”

Can Russia possibly be any scarier?

When Dominika realizes that a friend has been assassinated by the SVR for finding out about a classified operation, she refuses to believe that this could happen “in the twenty-first century”—language that has surfaced in relation to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.

Moreover, Red Sparrow’s Russian characters fall into one of two groups—the good guys work against Putin’s regime (and cooperate with the CIA), while the crazed nationalists become Putin’s puppets. No middle ground here.

Anna Chapman, a Russian national who was residing in New York when she was arrested, along with nine others, in 2010, on suspicion of working for the Illegals Program spy ring under the Russia's external intelligence agency. Photo: ITAR-TASS.

Moralizing foreign policy

Espionage writers can be divided into two broad categories—those who attempt to influence public opinion by offering introspective analysis of Western societies (John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Charles McCarry) and those who pander to reigning stereotypes (Ian Fleming, E. Howard Hunt, Tom Clancy).

Matthews falls into the latter category. And the Obama administration’s kneejerk policies towards Moscow stem from the same root. Although several prominent figures from the Cold War era—Henry Kissinger, Jack Matlock, Helmut Schmidt, and Helmut Kohl—warned that the Kremlin would see the coup d’état in Kiev as a political and economic threat and an attempt at destabilizing a neighboring country, their warnings drowned in the media-fueled echo chamber of triumphalist moralizing—the West won the Cold War and therefore its interests supersede all others.

Matthews’ fiction also de-historicizes current events, but in the real world this tendency to dumb down and exaggerate situations has real implications by derailing patient and nuanced negotiations.

Nate thinks as he talks to Dominika over dinner at an Afghan restaurant, “I handle the CIA’s best asset, a high-level penetration of your frigging monolithic service, to thwart the worldwide evil designs of the Russian Federation and your lupine president for life.”

When Dominika responds that she expected Nate to recruit her with talk of world peace, the book’s most comical exchange ensues:

“I would, if I thought Russians knew what world peace was.” He looked around the little dining room. “With Afghanistan and all.”

Dominika took another sip of wine. “Next time I will take you to a Vietnamese restaurant I know,” she said.

Why go back so far in time? Or even bother leaving the Afghan restaurant? This scene provides very useful insight into the historical myopia that American exceptionalism sometimes produces. While the U.S. appears as an untarnished force for good in the book, contemporary Russia acts based on the worst Soviet precedents, and its national security interests are therefore inadmissible in the court of international relations.

Red Sparrow could have been published during the Cold War with minor changes to the text, which demonstrates clearly how tenacious the stereotypes of the era have proven, especially when the political will to dust them off prevails—for which the Ukrainian crisis has provided the perfect excuse. It is unclear who recommended Red Sparrow to the President, but it seems to be informing the administration’s interpretation of Russian geopolitical identity and interests. Unfortunately, the source of this reading is fiction instead of nuanced historical analysis.

What now for Ukraine?

Every U.S. president who loved espionage fiction achieved his greatest foreign policy breakthroughs by working against the fictional narratives of his favorite writers.

FDR embraced realism and deftly dealt with one of history’s most brutal dictators—Joseph Stalin—as the USSR and the U.S. allied against Nazi Germany and Japan.

JFK abandoned the romanticized black-and-white world of James Bond when he offered a laurel wreath to the Soviets with his famous commencement address at American University in June of 1963. And Ronald Reagan transcended Clancy when he outmaneuvered his hawkish advisors to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War.

There are valuable lessons here for Moscow, Washington, Kiev, and Brussels because the Ukrainian presidential election was but the first and easiest step in a long and complicated process of fixing a failing state.

Russia, Europe, and the U.S. will have to help Ukraine along this path, but to do so, all parties have to recognize that dialogue and diplomacy are not signs of weakness, but manifestations of national self-confidence guided by political intelligence. Creative and nuanced geopolitical thinking is long overdue, while the current Ukrainian crisis offers a unique chance to launch a successful campaign against Cold War stereotypes.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.