What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They are a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?

~ John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963

Double-agents live quite dangerously. The poisoning of the former Russian double-gent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in England must be viewed as an attempt on their lives. The intent was sinister ~ it was the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II.

The role of the double-agent is often shrouded in mystery as he generally operates on trust and loyalty. The 66-year-old was accused of working for MI6 over several years, in particular disclosing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.

The data on “several dozen” Russian undercover operatives, according to pro-Kremlin daily Izvestiya quoted by the BBC, was eventually used to put FSB agents under surveillance and then expel them from multiple European countries.

With the eclipse of Soviet-style Communism, the West lost a recognisable enemy, the KGB and its associate service, the GRU military intelligence. But the attack on Skripal seems to have raised an old bogey. The relentless efforts of the KGB throughout the world to infiltrate the ranks of Western intelligence and security services are well-documented.

In an interesting book by Gordon Thomas, Inside British Intelligence: 100 years of MI5 and MI6 we learn how tracking the spies of the People’s Republic of China posed a more difficult and growing problem for MI6.

According to the writer, by 2007, only a few of the forty-six agents so far identified worked out of their country’s embassy while the others were undercover operatives, with no diplomatic cover, functioning as employees of China’s banks in the City of London and as students or, in the classic espionage cover, as importers of one kind or another.

“Their prime task was to obtain economic, industrial, and defence information”. University campuses and defence contractors had all been warned of the threat the spies posed in their hunt for British weapons and systems technology, but “for every suspected Chinese operative uncovered and usually expelled, there appeared to be many more ready to take his or her place”.

While the circumstances that led the British authorities to ascertain that the poisoning of Skripal was the handiwork of the Russians were not made very clear, Russia had initially denied that it was behind the killing of the former intelligence agent, Alexander Litvinenko, one of the two outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin, who in the fall of 2006, died of poisoning by a nuclear toxin in the UK.

Another person was Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot. She had been deeply resentful over how the West turned a blind eye towards Putin’s offensive in Chechnya, his stranglehold on power, and his suppression of opposition, just as it had once overlooked the starvations, hangings, gulags, and massacres during the era of Stalin.

Why is the West apparently so riled? Today, the energy war between two power blocks led by America and Russia is at its peak. Under Putin, Russia became overactive in terms of foreign policy. Its disagreements with Georgia had led to war in August 2008 and its relationship with both the United States and the European Union became tense.

In a war for which Russia was remarkably well prepared, the Fifty-Eighth Army, with the support of the Russian navy and air force, made an accelerated advance and rapidly destroyed or occupied all the strategically significant points of its tiny neighbour.

Russia’s imperial intentions were all too evident. For the first time since 1991, Russian troops carried out military operations outside the borders of their territory, setting a dangerous precedent, with the world helplessly watching.

The West became wary of its renewed military ties with Cuba, a developing relationship with Chavez in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua, and recognition of the break-away republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and of the long-delayed military reform undertaken at Putin’s behest.

The perception is that Russia, under Putin, is threatening to be a brute force once again. Russia’s objective to forge an anti-western alliance with China has perhaps influenced Western reservations as such moves rekindle its fear of re-emergence of a Russia with all the trappings of the dark and insidious Soviet Union.

That said, somehow the expulsion of Russian agents and the scale of the action seem to be a throwback to the days of the Cold War, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Screaming headlines declaring the exposure of yet another nest of Communist spies or saboteurs who had infiltrated American laboratories or labour unions or government agencies were fairly common, and the wider perception was that a Communist “fifth column,” more loyal to the Soviet Union than to the United States, had “burrowed” into their institutions and had to be exposed and removed.

The consensus began to ebb away in the 1960s, no less significantly, among other factors, due to the use of anti-communism for partisan purposes by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Many now wonder if the entire threat had been imaginary, to the point of being recklessly exaggerated, or real.

In America, for instance, foreign policy disasters like the Vietnam War and violation of civil liberties were attributed to obsessive anti-communism. The idea that internal security had been a serious problem was challenged and government officials had been accused of “cynically and deliberately” orchestrating public fear about the issue to advance narrow political and ideological interests and to justify a war economy.

More than hundred alleged agents working under diplomatic cover were ordered out by 21 governments, a collective measure of solidarity and touted as a British diplomatic victory, compared to which even the spying during the Cold War looks mild.

The aversion of the West towards Russia is nothing new. But what is interesting is that though the Western press has by and large dubbed Putin as authoritarian and almost never tired of reminding people of his KGB past, his popularity ratings among Russians climbed steadily. The people saw him as one who pulled Russia out of a morass of misery and disorder.

The new war in Chechnya became popular with public opinion turning against terrorism. Even the FSB was well-regarded, thanks partly to a public-relations propaganda blitz that presented it as Russia’s shield against its foreign enemies.

Handpicked by the new avatar of the KGB, the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) ~ which FSB agents themselves often call the kontora, the “organisation” ~ Putin, according to the Western perception, was pulled into the “system” that got President Yeltsin and the Russian oligarchs to appoint him as Yeltsin’s successor.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues