Dear Partners in Thought,
I wanted to introduce you to a great book that is perhaps one of the best concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine today—even while the subject matter is still unfolding before us.
“Invasion” is a timely book and also, indeed, great reportage for its quality and that of its author, Luke Harding. I met Luke in February at an event of the Prague Center for Transatlantic Relations, an excellent think tank in Prague whose focus and location vividly reflects our times and indeed geography. Luke Harding is a seasoned journalist from The Guardian with a longstanding focus on Russia and its society for years. As a sign of the new Russian times to come he had been The Guardian Moscow correspondent as of 2007 and was expelled in 2011, already being a nuisance to the Kremlin at a time when only the dreadful Litvinenko murder and the unexpected old-style invasion of South Ossetia had happened and made public news. At the time, the West was rather silent with only “limited and conventional responses” to gradual Russian aggressive moves as a prelude to its relatively mild positions when Crimea would be taken and eastern Ukraine occupied in 2014. Putin felt the West was weak and irresolute, thus fuelling his ambitions for a Russian imperial return that would be skilfully sold within Russia via now state-controlled media and an only too willing “captive” audience—the latter being expertly addressed in the book.
In its opening, Harding addresses the many events led by Putin that announced the invasion, while relating many comments of Russians about them. He starts by exploring how Putin tried to “rationalise” (a word that is admittedly hard to apply to the Russian leader) the non-existence of Ukraine as an independent country, stressing its inherent belonging to Mother Russia. This was clearly demonstrated in Putin’s two-hour historical tirade on Russia and Ukraine in June 2021, that left scholars around the world puzzled, where he tried to give a quasi-academic justification for events to come eight months later. Harding reminds us of the war against neo-Nazis and the liberation of Ukrainian brothers well before stressing that the war (or “special operation”) was essentially a pre-emptive strike against NATO and the West who were about to attack Russia. Putin’s statements that left the West speechless were only a prelude to comments, such as Sergei Lavrov’s at a conference in India one year into the invasion, stating the West had actually attacked Russia, thus triggering a massive laughter from the audience, even if from the rather neutral and (for many) too accommodating Global South. As the war turned out to be challenging for Russia, Harding provides insights as to Putin’s leadership style, micro-management and martial tendencies combined with utter ignorance about military matters (not unlike Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu) in a reminiscence of his admired Nicholas I and his failed Crimean war, Nicholas II and the regime-changing WW1 (or a Stalin who did not want to listen to Russian intelligence about a forthcoming massive Nazi offensive, as he knew better). In stark contrast to someone now also under Hague ICC warrant for the forced transfer of children, Harding projects Zelenskyy and how a great local actor, who played President in the famed “Servant of the People” and was an early proponent of dialogue with Russia, became a new Churchill and the most admired leader on earth—or at least in the West.
Harding was on the ground in Ukraine immediately before and during the invasion, giving us both a reminder of events most of us saw on our screen and read about—as if it were a distant story or a movie that could not be real in our day and age. He sensed that the invasion was coming in February 2022, an event that US and British intelligence had repeatedly stressed, but might have been dismissed by too many as unrealistic in 2022, 77 years after the end of WW2 and all the more at the heart of Europe. Harding’s connections with many key individuals in not only Ukraine but also Russia, provide us with a very personal perspective of all these events. Names like Kherson oblast, Mariupol, the Donbas region and even the small city of Bucha, where the first known war crimes occurred, all covered by specific chapters, are coming back to us. His book is a “first rough draft of history” as it infolded in front of us. He also gives us a better understanding for Ukraine through a number of poets and political thinkers from both Russia and Ukraine, while stressing the tolerance of the West for all the exactions of the Kremlin ranging from the killings of dissidents outside Russia to the annexation of Crimea in 2014—eight years before the full-scale invasion. He stresses the incredible failure of Russian forces to seize Kyiv in a week as planned, and the impact on the image of the Russian military, due to its many weak features reminiscent of a history most had forgotten. Russian soldiers and their “Z”-marked vehicles did not know where they were going, expected a short trip with no resistance, and had been told they would be welcome as liberators from the neo-Nazis by the Slavic brothers. Supply lines broke, food disappeared and looting started. Harding stresses the reckless approach of the Russian military command in its seizure of the forbidden area of Chornobyl, putting the lives of its own troops in clear danger with likely future health consequences. Then Kharkiv, home to Russian speakers and nationals, and its residential buildings starting to be the target of missiles and drones in a derailed Russian war scenario. We remember the long convoy of Russian tanks and trucks on their way to Kyiv ultimately going nowhere. He witnesses for us the awakening of a nation and its indomitable fighting spirit. Harding naturally addresses the Kremlin-unexpected resilience of the West and strengthening of NATO as a result of the invasion from another age.
While the war in Ukraine still rages—now at times with days without major news (short of missile strikes launched against residential buildings) likely triggered by a lack of ammunitions on both sides but mainly Russia’s—Harding’s earlier conclusion is that “Russia had basically lost”. This sentiment, which is rooted in the fact that war is still on after one year is definitely correct, but Ukraine needs support so it wins the war—not only for itself but also for all of us and for the heart of Europe to go back to a stable peace where old-fashioned warmonger and existentially-lost states are kept at bay. Harding’s book may be the first chapter of a redefinition of the world order as we have seen it since WW2 and then the end of the Cold War. The West, while its societies suffer from too much social media-focused individualism, vote-grabbing incompetent populism, and capitalism at times losing its soul, is still predominant worldwide, with an uncertain American leadership weakened by many domestic challenges and a Europe (still going through existential changes) that was weakened by an illusory Brexit. While China is still searching for ways to assert its global ascension, it seems to be hesitating between being a peacemaker (as seen with the Saudi-Iran rapprochement) and belonging to an anti-Western front, through an unclear Kremlin visit and military exercises together with an imperial—if not imperious—Russia and an outcasted self-searching Iranian follower (even if an erratic North Korea is not sought as a partner yet in this opportunistic construct). There is an odd and opportunistic alliance in the making based on “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend” that, if unclear and not based on solid foundations, also carries its own set of problems—not only for the West but for the world. To borrow from Mao’s prescient 1957 words, as the FT’s Gideon Rachman reminded us this week, there is a possible risk that the East wind might indeed be stronger than the West wind just now. This world order redefinition takes place as the now newly-defined Global South is increasingly taking neutral or tactical stances in the rising “great new rivalry” (if not yet conflict) when not actually taking sides with the China-led coalition in the potential making. The new world as it is redefined clearly pins democracy against autocracy, the latter of all flavours. It is not clear that democracy as we know it, a still young historical construct, will survive if it is not ready to stand firm and eventually fight through its many means. One clear lesson to be drawn for all European nations, including those that made past world history, is that “the power of the bloc”, such as with the EU and the critical need for it to go beyond its main trade focus, is now essential.
Democratic survival is why the West (and many in the Global South) should support Ukraine so it wins and Russia is squarely defeated—thus prompting regime change in Moscow along traditional historical lines (even if never a guarantee of a return to more Kremlin rationality). The time, which is clearly tougher for Western citizens with higher energy and food prices though not lethal, is not for weak and slow support of Ukraine, which will be self-hurting later for the West. The Ukraine conflict is not simply about territory, even if Estonian PM Kaja Kallas might rightfully be more nuanced on the point, while by the same token, President Zelenskyy should adopt a sensible and wise approach to Crimea today. It is also about the world as it should be, according to the sound rules of law and values the West has promoted since the last global conflict, however imperfect they may be. Once Russia is squarely defeated (but not before), our times may oddly be back to those of George Kennan and his containment approach found in his famed February 1946 “long telegram,” already dealing with an expansionist Kremlin. We should all hope for the likes of Donald Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis to get the message regarding support for Ukraine beyond sheer electoral tactics sadly fitting our current Western political era. While Russia may have lost, Ukraine, now “a proven state” as stressed in the last chapter of the book, has not won yet, this with few end game scenarios being offered (my very point to Harding at the think tank) short of getting ready for a long conflict. We should make sure Luke Harding’s next and tenth book will tell us how Ukraine and the right values finally won. Today we are all Ukrainians.