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Journalist Luke Harding saw firsthand the nature of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, while serving as Moscow Bureau Chief for The Guardian from 2007 until 2011. The Kremlin didn’t like what he was writing, Harding says, and, consequently, his apartment was broken into, he was spied on, harassed and, finally, expelled from Russia.
“The country was lurching towards darkness,” Harding says. “It was already authoritarian when I got there, but it was going towards totalitarianism.”
Harding says it was clear that Putin had never really accepted the independence of post-Soviet republics. In 2014, Russia occupied parts of eastern Ukraine, and annexed Crimea. So when Russia sent tanks to the Ukrainian border in autumn 2021, he knew it wasn’t a bluff. Instead, Harding says, “I thought we were hurtling towards a terrible and big invasion.”
Harding began reporting from Ukraine in December 2021 and was in the country’s capital of Kyiv on Feb. 23, the night before the Russian invasion began. That night, he recalls, the city was a portrait of normalcy: A busker played Édith Piaf songs outside his hotel, while couples dined at cafes and women sold tulips out of buckets. Just hours later, at 4 or 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, Harding’s phone rang, and he learned that war had begun.
“I threw on my boots and my coat and, like everybody else, descended to the hotel’s underground garage,” he recalls. “My mind was whirring. It was going very, very fast.”
As a foreign correspondent, Harding was initially focused on the geopolitical fallout of the invasion. But then a mother arrived at the shelter with two small children who were clutching coloring books, and a different reality set in: “What became clear to me at that moment was that as Russian bombs are falling and the first tank columns were trundling towards the Ukrainian capital, that civilians were going to be killed. Perhaps not these kids, but other kids,” he says. “And, in fact, more than 400 children have been killed.”
Harding has continued to report from Ukraine throughout the year. In the spring, he reported from Bucha and from Mariupol. More recently, he was in Kherson, covering the liberation of the city and the death, destruction and landmines left behind by the Russians.
“When you do these things, you are somewhat rolling the dice,” he says of reporting from a war zone. “You don’t want to hang around, but at the same time, unless you go to the front line, how can you report on the lives of people who live there?”
Harding’s new book, Invasion, chronicles the war and his experiences covering it, and analyzes the politics, strategies and delusions behind it.
“This is a terrible story,” he says of the war. “I guess my plea, if I have a plea, is that we continue to pay attention to Ukraine and its fate. And we continue to read the news to think about it with kindness and with empathy.”
On the destruction and mass graves in Russia-controlled Mariupol
Mariupol, which I visited in late January of this year, it’s a horror show. I mean, it’s hard to be definitive about what’s happened, because obviously, this is now under Russian control. But we know from people who are there, from eyewitnesses, from people who’ve subsequently escaped, that thousands of civilians were killed by it, by Russian bombing, by Russian aviation, by an airstrike on a theater where 600 women and children were sheltering. I talked to one of them who escaped, who said she was in one half of the building and the other half was obliterated, including the wing where pregnant women were living. So it’s absolutely awful. Some bodies were buried in school playgrounds, in front yards, by the side of the road. Others were taken to a mass grave site outside town. Some people, I think, are still entombed under the rubble.
But it’s almost impossible to process. You can see a flourishing city of half a million people with ports, with restaurants, with live music, with culture, coffee — and now it’s a ghostly ruin. I mean, really, there’s been nothing like this since Guernica, or since the Second World War. It’s just a throwback to the darkest parts of the 20th century.
On Russia destroying the country it seeks to take
I think Putin doesn’t much care. He just wants territory. And he views Ukraine as a lost Russian kingdom. I mean, he wrote an essay, if you can call it that, in the summer of 2021, which was published on the Kremlin website, where he said that Russians and Ukrainians were single people. He kind of romped through Ukrainian history to suggest that there’s always been a sort of spiritual and cultural unity. I think his view is that basically either Ukrainians can be turned into good Russians or they can be destroyed. And he really doesn’t care what the price is, if that is what we’ve seen in these pulverized cities, people cooking on open fires amid the ruins. If that means that tens of thousands of his own soldiers are killed in the process, he doesn’t much mind. He’s a sort of dictator in his late stage. He’s in a strange and messianic realm where what you would consider reason or logic or even sort of Russian self-interest plays no role at all.
On Russians raping Ukrainian women during the occupation
There’s pretty compelling evidence that rape has happened on a large scale. It’s a difficult story to report because obviously a lot of women are reluctant to come forward. The Ukrainian authorities have said, certainly in Bucha, that there was a house where women were kept, about 30 of them, where they were serially raped. … Sexual violence is definitely a part of this.
On mass looting
Looting is an easier story to report because it’s everywhere. I mean, you drive to these areas that Russia has vacated and it’s like there’s been some sort of crazy car crash. Every 500 meters, you see cars marked with a “Z,” the symbol of Putin’s invasion, which have been crushed or wrecked or shot. You see debris by the side of the road and you also see abandoned washing machines. What’s astonishing is many of the soldiers who were looting come from very, very poor rural areas of Russia. And I’ve talked to Ukrainians who say, “They stole my frying pan, they stole my cutlery, … my laptop and my jewelry.” Really, everyday things, but the washing machines seem particularly prized. … There’s been looting, theft on an absolutely extraordinary scale. And one thing that was also stolen, which is just astonishing, is the Russians, when they abandoned Kherson in November, they looted the contents not only of the art museum, but the zoo. And there’s video of a Russian officer stealing the zoo’s raccoon and taking it to Crimea.
These soldiers are very young. They’re 19, 20, 21, 22, 23. They’re young guys with no education from very poor backgrounds. And actually, the thing about Ukraine, certainly about Kyiv and the satellite towns around, it’s quite affluent. Ukrainians generally live better than Russians and as well as this intense hatred of Ukraine — which Vladimir Putin has pushed and Russian state channels have promoted on TV for a long, long time — I think that there’s an element of envy that actually Ukrainians have been living better than Russians, and that seems to be kind of driving a lot of the mayhem and the thieving that we’ve seen.
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On Putin’s messaging to Russians
[Russia’s] whole thinking, the whole cosmic philosophy, is that they are merely responding to hostile deeds committed by the Evil West and America in particular. There’s a phrase in Russian for it … which means “a mirror answer.”
And so Russians are not being told that Vladimir Putin unleashed an extraordinary war of aggression on Feb. 24 and is basically trying to conquer a sovereign state and to wipe it from the map. Russians are told that despite negotiations, despite overtures, despite a willingness to compromise, that the Kremlin has reluctantly been forced to defend its security interests in Ukraine because of American bullying, hegemony, because of NATO, and because the Americans and their Nazi allies were basically about to attack Russia. It’s upside-down land, if you like.
On how the war in Ukraine might end
Ukraine has proved itself as a state. It’s a country. It’s a nation. It’s an astonishing superorganism or collective of citizens who are all working towards victory. It’s not just the soldiers on the front line, but it’s old ladies making camouflage nets or students volunteering or making Molotov cocktails. You sense that the whole country is fighting against Russia, and also that the Russian plan, which was to take Kyiv in a matter of days, replace the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a puppet administration, and to rule Ukraine as a colony from which “Ukrainianess” — the language, the culture, the symbols and memorials — were removed. That project has failed. …
I think we’ve really reached the stage where it has to be a military victory. Too many Ukrainians have died. Too many people have been widowed. Too many kids have lost their parents. There is no mood inside Ukrainian society to yield or even to give up any territory whatsoever. So the Ukrainian position now, after nine months of horrible war, is maximalist. Zelenskyy wants everything back, all his territory. He wants reparations from Russia and he wants those who prosecuted this war, who launched it. Putin, the people around him, he wants them to stand justice, to be tried. And of course, Putin, by contrast, I think, still thinks he can win. He thinks the West is weak, irresolute, that sooner or later the U.S. will flake and its allies maybe as well. And that if he carries on with this kind of grinding volume that we’ve seen, he will either win completely or have quite a lot of Ukrainian territory which he can sell as victory to his domestic population.
So unfortunately, the corollary to all of that is that that I don’t see peace. … Unfortunately the war will go on and therefore that means that the Western world has to support and arm the Ukrainians until they reach victory. And that could be a while.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nishant Dahiya adapted it for the web.