Luke Harding is a reporter for British newspaper The Guardian and has written extensively about the former Soviet Union for many years. He was The Guardian’s bureau chief in Moscow between 2007 and 2011, until he was expelled for his accurate reporting about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s misdeeds. He is a prolific writer and has just written his ninth book: “Invasion: The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival.”
Harding’s latest book is largely a travelogue about the war in Ukraine. Its lively narrative is based on scores of interviews with Ukrainians across the country, mainly from Dec. 2021 until Sept. 2022. Clearly understanding that a Russian invasion was likely, Harding traveled to various parts of Ukraine before the war broke out and was in Kyiv when it began. The book is a true eyewitness account, and one of the first.
Harding demonstrates considerable bravery as the threat of war loomed large. “In December 2021, I traveled to the Donbas amid predictions by the White House that Russian divisions parked on Ukraine’s borders were preparing to go in” (p. 206).
His travels before and during the war took him to Kyiv, Lviv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and other places. The strength of the book is its many contemporary impressions from the whole of Ukraine.
The great hero in this drama is President Volodymyr Zelensky, for whom Harding is full of appreciation: “If Moscow was closed – a state built on secrecy and lies – Kyiv was open and transparent. Its story was democratic and contemporary, progressive and digital” (p. 58).
“As the world soon discovered, Zelensky was a superlative communicator” (p. 59). Harding talks to a good selection of his advisors and officials, while he stays out of Ukrainian domestic politics.
The reader cannot help being struck by the uniformity of thinking among interviewed Ukrainians. While traveling around Ukraine and talking to very different people, some Russian speakers and some Ukrainian speakers, Harding receives strikingly similar reactions everywhere: “Some 80 percent of Ukrainians believed their homeland could repel Russian aggression” (p. 69).
The book reflects how the Ukrainian nation has grown and become more unified because of Putin’s war. Harding quotes a woman from south-eastern Mariupol: “I’m a Russian speaker. No one was oppressing me in Mariupol. You could choose whether to send your kids to Russian or Ukrainian language school. I didn’t need saving.” (p. 126).
Foreign policy observations
Harding reflects an Anglo-American understanding of foreign policy. He emphasizes that in the run-up to the war, the White House and Downing Street publicized sensitive intelligence and that “Biden repeatedly warned that Putin was about to invade” (p. 150). While the Americans and the British were right about the Russian invasion, he adds:
“The French and the Germans were skeptical. Senior government figures in Paris insisted the Anglo-American view was wrong, that a full-scale invasion was unlikely, and more time for diplomacy was needed. Macron subsequently sacked his military intelligence chief, General Eric Vidaud, for his failure to ‘master the issues.’ Germany’s foreign intelligence boss, Bruno Kahl, was in Kyiv when Russia’s attack began. Kahl had to scramble out of the country by car…” (p. 151)
Harding rightly hangs these harmful amateurs out to dry. Let us hope that France and Germany realize that they have to reform their substandard intelligence services, but, unfortunately, they have shown themselves to be late and slow learners.
The Western coalition is divided into two camps. The “justice” party wants Ukraine to restore all the territory it had lost since 2014. It comprises the U.K., the U.S., Canada and the eastern Europeans, but also the Scandinavians, Spain and Portugal, while the “peace” camp consists of Germany, France and perhaps Italy.
The author’s foreign policy analysis is clear and sensible. He praises the Biden administration for its deft handling of intelligence from late 2021 to early 2022, which enhanced U.S. credibility. Yet, the U.S. wrongly expected Russia to swiftly seize Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Harding advocates more Western deliveries to Ukraine of more potent arms. He does not believe in the Washington view that Putin could go nuclear, arguing “My own view was that Putin was unlikely to use a tactical nuclear weapon” (p. 173).
Telling it like it is
Harding’s perspective is Western and Ukrainian. He does not try to explain Putin or the warring Russians. He just tells us what they are doing.
A woman in Nikopol in the heavily bombed south-east of Ukraine delivers the essence of the book: The Russian soldiers “can’t handle the fact that we live better than they do. We are free people and they are slaves. They want to make us that way, too” (p. 293).
Only one out of the book’s twelve chapters is devoted to Russia, using the heading “The Captive Mind” in reference to a book by the Nobel Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz. The chapter covers the brave members of the Russian opposition – Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexey Kovalyov, Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan, and Ilya Ponomarev. In doing so, Harding sticks to the people he knows and who talk to him.
Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is to show what various parts of Ukraine looked like in the midst of the war and how Ukrainians were thinking. It discusses foreign policy, but not domestic politics. It does not venture to suggest how the war will end or what should be done afterwards. Not does it discuss the horrendous economic costs of the war or how badly the Ukrainian economy has been damaged. There are plenty of issues for future authors of books about Ukraine to elaborate upon, but Harding has done a valuable early service that is likely to stand uncontested.
“Invasion: The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival” by Luke Harding is available now.
Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum. His latest book is “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”
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