Cover image of "Moscow X," a novel about a CIA plot to destabilize the Russian government

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

You don’t need a career in the CIA or MI6 to write a great spy novel, but it helps. And former CIA analyst David McCloskey put his expertise on display two years ago in Damascus Station, his terrific debut in the genre. Now he’s done it again with a dramatic new story about a CIA operation to destabilize the Russian government. It’s a sequel of sorts in Moscow X. The venue changes from the Middle East to Russia, and the cast of characters is mostly new. But it’s a sequel because the former Chief of the CIA’s Damascus Station, Artemis Aphrodite Procter, plays a central role again.

The pugnacious spymaster is all of five feet tall. But she’s gone head to head with monsters—and she has the scars to prove it. Now, in Moscow X, Artemis bullies her way into a plum job in Langley. As head of “the new backroom shop running all the spooky Russia ops. Moscow X,” Artemis is now in a position to wreak havoc on the Kremlin. And so the scene is set for one of the most spectacular CIA operations ever to grace the pages of serious espionage fiction.

One Russian oligarch steals gold from another

As Artemis leaves her last overseas post in disgrace and takes up the reins in Moscow X, high-level drama is unfolding in Russia. The former director of the FSB, Vassily Platonovich Gusev, known to all as Goose, has set out to destroy a rival. Goose is currently Secretary of the Security Council, one of Putin’s closest advisers. His target is the former chairman of the KGB, Andrei Agapov, now chairman of Bank Rossiya, where Putin and his cronies stash some of the money they’ve stolen. In launching his war against Agapov, Goose has grabbed more than $200 million in gold bullion from Bank Rossiya—but it’s only the beginning. Goose intends to dismantle Agapov’s empire. And this opens up the first crack in the facade of the nomenklatura, creating an opening for mischief directed from abroad.

Moscow X by David McCloskey (2023) 464 pages ★★★★★

Photo of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin home and office, the ultimate target in this novel about a plot to destabilize the Russian government
Most images of the Kremlin in Western media show the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the broad expanse of Red Square, with the outer wall of the Kremlin off to the side. But this photo shows where most of the real action takes place. It’s the Grand Kremlin Palace, former home of the tsars and now the official working residence of Russia’s president. Here, it’s viewed from across the Moskva River. Image: Wikipedia

A diverse cast of characters

In addition to Artemis Procter, five other individuals play instrumental roles in Moscow X:

  • Anna Andreevna Agapova, the former KGB chairman’s tough and capable daughter. She’s secretly an officer of the SVR.
  • Agapova’s brutal and faithless husband, Vadim Kovalchuk. Her father had forced her to marry Vadim to cement an alliance between their two powerful families. And now Bank Rossiya, formerly the Kovalchuks’, is the centerpiece of Andrei Agapov’s sprawling, multi-billion-dollar empire.
  • Hortensia (“never-call-me-that, I’m Sia) Fox, a lawyer in London. She works for the crooked law firm that hides money for the oligarchs closest to Vladimir Putin—and for Putin himself. But she’s also a CIA officer working under non-official cover (NOC).
  • Maximiliano (Max) Castillo owns and manages an immense hacienda near Monterrey, Mexico, that houses a world-class racehorse-breeding operation. But he is the third generation of Castillos to work under contract for the CIA, because his work regularly takes him into contact with many of the world’s most corrupt, ultra-wealthy movers and shakers. Of great interest to the Agency, one and all.
  • FSB Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Konstantinovich Chernov is Goose’s right-hand man. His enforcer, really. It’s Chernov who pulls off the theft of Agapov’s gold from Bank Rossiya.

Others surface in the story from time to time. Artemis’s boss at the CIA and members of her large team at Moscow X. The President of the United States and his National Security Advisor. The managing director of Sia Fox’s London law firm. And, in a climactic scene, the khozayin, the ultimate boss himself, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. (He appears in one of the book’s most dramatic scenes. It’s not to be missed.)

An elaborate plot to destabilize the Russian government

For Artemis Procter, the war between the oligarchs is a target too tempting to ignore. And it soon provides her with an opportunity to meddle. Sia Fox reports from London that Anna Agapova has reached out to her, having discovered that she was the legal mastermind in burying the stolen gold overseas. Anna’s goal, we know, is to find out where the funds are stashed. She hopes to gather evidence that Goose had stolen the money without Putin’s knowledge and doesn’t intend to share it with him. If she can find that evidence and bring it to the khozayin’s attention, she can save her father from Goose.

Of course, for Sia, Anna’s approach represents the chance to penetrate the Russian oligarchy at the highest possible level. Because Anna “was swimming in a pool of Russian fish, targets of clear and immediate interest to Moscow X. These were the varietal of Russian scalp—moneyed, corrupt, connected—that might pave the way for her promotion to GS-14.” And Artemis gleefully gives Sia the green light to go to work to recruit Anna as an agent. However, for her to do so, Artemis turns to another of her agents, Max Castillo. She teams him up with Sia and contrives for the pair to visit the Agapovs’ horse farm outside St. Petersburg, where Sia can work her wiles on Anna. Unaware, of course, that Anna intends to recruit Sia for the SVR.

If all this sounds unlikely, it is. But McCloskey does a brilliant job putting all the pieces together in a thoroughly convincing way. In Moscow X, he tells a tale with all the ambiguity and uncertainty of life as we live it. The novel is a superior example of contemporary espionage fiction.

About the author

Photo of David McCloskey, author of this novel about a CIA plot to destabilize the Russian government
David McCloskey. Image: Ben Torres – Dallas Morning News

David McCloskey is a former CIA analyst and former consultant at McKinsey & Company. While at the CIA, he wrote regularly for the President’s Daily Brief, delivered classified testimony to Congressional oversight committees, and briefed senior White House officials, Ambassadors, military officials, and Arab royalty.

“He worked in CIA field stations across the Middle East throughout the Arab Spring and conducted a rotation in the Counterterrorism Center focused on the jihad in Syria and Iraq. During his time at McKinsey, David advised national security, aerospace, and transportation clients on a range of strategic and operational issues.

“David holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, where he specialized in energy policy and the Middle East. He lives in Texas with his wife and three children.”

Previously, I reviewed the author’s terrific debut thriller, Damascus Station (A spellbinding novel about espionage in Syria).

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