The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival

From a Wall Street Journal review by Andrew Stuttaford of the book by Luke Harding titled “Invasion: The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival”:

Walking home after dinner in Kyiv on Feb. 23, British journalist Luke Harding answers his phone: The Russian attack, he is told, is expected within hours. “Invasion” is his account of the war that ensued. Gripping and often moving, the book is primarily journalistic but goes beyond mere reportage as Mr. Harding draws on his knowledge of the region and a background that includes serving as head of the Guardian’s Moscow bureau.

Thus he provides a useful introduction to Vladimir Putin’s motives, even if he takes too seriously the claims by Russia’s cynical and kleptocratic leadership of “a civilizational struggle” against “decadent liberalism.”

But that’s a rare slip. Mr. Harding is on firmer ground when citing “the threat of example” posed to Mr. Putin by the establishment of a successful democracy in a neighboring country with so much shared history and a large Russian-speaking minority. Then there is the idea “that without Ukraine, Russia could never be . . . a great power”—plausible enough given Ukraine’s resources, Ukraine’s location and (considering Russia’s deteriorating demographics) the size of Ukraine’s population.

Mr. Harding regards the invasion as part of a broader Kremlin attempt to recast the global order in a way that reduces America’s pre-eminence. This seems right. Mr. Putin’s notion of a “multipolar” world would resemble the system built by the great powers in the 19th century, one in which Russia could extend its reach westward while consolidating its sphere of influence within the boundaries of the former Soviet imperium. This plan would include reconstituting, either de jure or de facto, the U.S.S.R.’s Slavic core: today’s Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Whether inspired by nostalgic fantasy or by the recognition that unapologetic imperialism is a tough sell nowadays, Mr. Putin insists that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are one “triune” people, an argument stretching back to the czars. Mr. Harding dwells on a 2021 essay by Mr. Putin, in which he sets out a supposedly historical basis for this thesis. This “manifesto for upheaval and revisionism” has, as Mr. Harding puts it, “myriad flaws.” So it has, but the logical outcome of denying an authentic, distinctively Ukrainian identity was—once the war was under way—for Mr. Putin to set about destroying any evidence to the contrary. The predictable consequence of that was slaughter.

“They want to kill us and our history,” one student tells Mr. Harding, and that goal has been made easier for the invaders by Russian media labeling Ukrainians “Nazis,” “ne liudi—unpeople—as well as vermin, rats, and diseased.” There are many other examples of such language to choose from. When proof was discovered of mass killings in Bucha, a city briefly occupied by the Russians last March, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky talked of genocide. It was, Mr. Harding notes, “hard to think of a better description.” Countless atrocities since then have only confirmed this view. Mr. Harding has written a book that clearly takes Ukraine’s side, and it is difficult to quarrel with his reasons for doing so.

Much of “Invasion” is, naturally, dedicated to describing the course of the conflict. It benefits both from Mr. Harding’s firsthand reporting (including on the immediate prewar period) and from his discussion of the years after 2014, during which the Donbas existed, to borrow Trotsky’s phrase, in a state of neither war nor peace: “For long stretches, not much happened,” Mr. Harding writes. “All was quiet until it wasn’t.” Almost any account of a war, with all its misery and its loss, is bound to be disturbing. But many events Mr. Harding chronicles—systematic torture, deportations, abductions and, significantly, the Russification of school curricula in occupied territory—are reminders that Moscow wants more than a military victory.

Ironically, the invasion has bolstered the unity of a nation that, according to Mr. Putin, is based on a divisive illusion. In no small part, that’s due to Mr. Zelensky’s leadership. He had not been a particularly effective president before the invasion, but cometh the hour, cometh the (transformed) man. Mr. Harding stresses the courage Mr. Zelensky showed in early 2022, turning down offers of safe passage out, instead deciding to stay in Kyiv. Public reassurance flowed from his message, from an iPhone: “I’m here.”

Mr. Harding analyzes the prowess with which Mr. Zelensky, a popular comedian whose television role as a fictional Ukrainian president had swept him into the top job, engages with his beleaguered people. A warm, natural and sympathetic performer, Mr. Zelensky is, explains Mr. Harding, “at ease in front of a camera; he took everything he knew from TV and applied it to the conversational idiom of social media.” That Mr. Zelensky manifestly believes what he says, and that he shares bad news as well as good, adds to the strength of his message, “delivered not from above, but . . . citizen to citizen . . . The contrast with Mr. Putin could hardly be greater.” This was reinforced by Mr. Zelensky’s abandonment of suit and tie in favor of “a dark green T-shirt and zip-up fleece jacket,” the costume of an everyman commander-in-chief.

Mr. Zelensky’s communication skills, supplemented by the extraordinary work of a gifted speech writer (whom Mr. Harding meets) also played a vital part in securing essential Western support. Fierce Ukrainian resistance and Russian blunders crushed the Kremlin’s hopes of a lightning knockout blow, hopes that had been bolstered by Mr. Putin’s conviction that there was no “real” Ukraine to defend. (As Mr. Harding points out, who in Russia would dare contradict him?) But Kyiv did not have the materiel and the money it needed to hold off Russia alone.

The nature of a book written during a war is that some of it will be quickly overtaken by events. When Mr. Harding visited the city of Bakhmut, the fighting was still a few miles off, and its buildings still stood. Now it has been torn apart, the site of a ferocious battle. When “Invasion” went to print, Kherson was still in Russian hands; those forces were driven out in early November.

Meanwhile, Russia slides deeper into dictatorship, with scant prospect that this descent will reverse soon—and some prospect that, if faced with a perceived existential threat, it will resort to nuclear weapons. Mr. Harding believes such concerns are exaggerated, but Moscow shows little sign of wanting peace, and none whatsoever of accepting the terms that Ukraine would demand: the return of all territory occupied by Russia, whether in 2022 or 2014, a settlement that would restore Crimea to Ukraine.

For their part, Ukraine’s backers in the West have remained broadly united. But this will be challenged in Europe by the mounting energy crisis that has accompanied the cutoff of Russian natural gas and, in America, by worries over making commitments to a country fighting a war with no obvious end, and the risk of triggering a nuclear escalation. Mr. Harding concludes, on a cautiously optimistic note, with Ukraine resurgent, but what will happen next is highly, and unnervingly, unpredictable.

Andrew Stuttaford is the editor of National Review’s Capital Matters.

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