Friday, July 9, 2010

Don't waste a good spy exchange

I grew up in the latter part of the cold war and despite our modern day challenges we are far better off with the nuclear armed and ideology fueled terror that pervaded the post war era well behind us. But the cold war had its allure for an Australian boy often bored by the banality of summer barbecues, afternoon teas and dull middle-of-the range local politics. The cold war was the great war of my youth and it had its own strange allure. I feasted on a diet of Le Carre where stoic and very clever little men from the Circus fought an endless twilight war of attrition against their bleak opponents from Moscow Central. I lapped up the gradual leakage of information on the compromising of western intelligence agencies by soviet moles, and was surprised by the subsequent revelations that MI6 and the CIA were at least their equals.

My spies weren't James Bonds. They were non-descript George Smileys. They shuffled in the shadows and plotted against the Soviets whilst mostly fearing betrayal from their closest colleagues. And the imagery was strangely compelling. Their work was done under grey skies and in dank offices. Bitterly cold middle European cities were most often their battle ground, so that dark heavy coats was their attire of choice. Their boots would clash on frosted cobbled streets as they shuffled out for a drop off. Everything was very serious. It was the raw, cutting edge of the battle of ideas.

But Reagan and Gorby put an end to all of that - and Le Carre was never as good again.

So now we are on the cusp of a likely spy exchange - with the 10 Russian sleepers to be exchanged for western agents who have been buried, along with non compliant oligarchs, somewhere in Putin's modern day gulag. The US and Russian agencies quite sensibly could simply put the spies on a plane and be done with it - but that would be an aweful waste of a good spy exchange. There is a theatre to these things that must be upheld. I know the Anna Chapman fans probably have other ideas - but I miss the Le Carre style of cold war chic. Here is one last chance to see an exchange done as it should be: people as puppets, all victims to realpolitik.

A cursory Google Earthing of North Eastern Estonia suggests that the bridge from Narva to Ivangorod could work very well. The exchange needs to be conducted at dawn and the spies brought to each side in military lorries or dark limousines. The dress code is sombre, bleak and ill fitting. Cigarettes should be provided for each spy so, as they are released, they can trudge across the bridge and share a smoke and a wry exchange with their counter part. As the last exchange is made the sun will rise and, modern day traffic can re-enter the bridge and the cold war can once again slip into the past.


Anonymous said...

Nice one John. But you forgot to mention hats. I'm sure you agree that Fedora hats pulled low across the brow are an essential accessory during the exchange on that grim Estonian bridge.

Seriously though, what I find mystifying about the current spy scandal is 'why?'. What exactly is the 'raw, cutting edge of the battle of ideas' now between Putin's Russia and the US. I mean the battle between Communism and Captilism during the cold war was clear cut and compelling. But what's this spying all about? Some sort of battle between nationalistic crony-capitalism and genuine capitalism? I don't get it.

IF said...

Using a bridge in Estonia sounds like trying to insult the Russians. Let em swim across Guantanamo Bay! This appears to be a rather motivational place. Absent this option, there is not much left. Maybe two unnamed countries on the Balkans crossing the Danube. They might all be in the EU now, but enough shadows lurking around there. Or maybe Transnistria? The old times are alive there.

Thanks, Gorby!

Charles Butler said...

Yes, but I'd bet anything that the present crisis would have been handled very differently with an intact Soviet Union as neighbour. Cooperation is a lot easier in the presence of a common enemy.

Anonymous said...

whatever happened to the bearer bond saga, anyway? (this one:

Anonymous said...

yes, but they don't have Karla yet ;) the circus in london didn't get to play a part either ;) Smiley's people was a great series that most in America never saw. The good shepherd and the Cambridge 4 are good material as well.

Anonymous said...


I heard she was a daughter of high level KGB staff. No surprise this exchange came about so quickly. Frankly this whole operation looked to me more like a well paid vacation and adventure tour for spoiled kids anyways.

Anonymous said...

I too grew up with Smiley et al. Unfortunately, most of the world has devolved - no sense of style anymore...

I like your idea - too bad they didn't lsten.

By the way, it was Moscow Centre (at least in the U.S. versions of the books).

Lorne Marr said...

Nice portrayal of the scene, John. What I find strange is your mentioning the war of ideas in the middle-European cities - Central Europe has always been a little out of the "heat" of the cold war. The ideology was there to provide a buffer to the Soviet Union from the West. Nobody cared for those few small countries really.

And as for the spying today, I think that Russia has lame PR, but they have great spies. The US have great PR, but have to try to build a radar in - surprise - Central Europe to look the Russians into their plates. Too bad the plates are empty and they serve the burgers on a red tray.

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