Luke Harding, correspondent expelled by the Kremlin: “Russia is a rogue state and the war will not end soon”

Luke Harding

“In kyiv basically everything is fine until it is not.” It’s a Sunday afternoon and Luke Harding he is in a hotel room in kyiv. Two weeks ago the correspondent for Guardian is back, after spending most of 2022 covering the war from the front. Life seems to take its course in the capital, she says. He shows a kindergarten playground through the window and says that it is usually full of children. But silence can also be a relief, in a place where a siren can anticipate the worst.

kyiv went through many iterations in just over a year. Harding counts to infobae that most people in the city, and indeed in Ukraine, did not want to believe that there was going to be a Russian invasion: “There was a kind of state of denial that came from above, actually from Zelensky and the people around him. around that basically, despite very clear warnings from British American intelligence, everything was going to be okay.” The vice ministry of defense had even said to take it easy, not to worry.

On February 23, 2022, the day before Russian troops invaded Ukrainian territory, Harding went out to dinner with Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov and a couple of friends. Everything was open, there were no sandbags in the streets. “I think there were probably some military preparations, but not that many.”

After that dinner, he received a call from a contact who had worked at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. The invasion, he warned, would begin at 4:00 a.m.

As Harding recounts in his new book, Invasion. The bloody war in Ukraine and the struggle of a people for their survival (Deusto), Vladimir Putin’s troops marched on their neighboring country almost at the scheduled time, only half an hour late. At that time, kyiv changed practically from one day to the next. “The city was marked by tension, gloomy and besieged. The war came very close. I could get in a taxi and it would take me about 20 minutes in a car to get there. It looked like the city would fall, and of course it didn’t, but even for several months after that it was bleak. There was a curfew at 8 pm, but slowly, despite everything, despite the war, despite the missile attacks, kyiv has come back to life.”

Luke Harding
The new book by Luke Harding (Deusto)

The front line of combat is another story. “It is extremely noisy. There’s incoming artillery, there’s small arms fire, there’s missiles, and there’s kind of random killing, because really what the Russians are doing is just trying to crush and terrorize the population so they don’t even worry too much about shooting at military targets.”

It is a huge war that is still going on in the heart of Europe on a front line that stretches over a thousand kilometres. “I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon,” she laments.

How much longer do you think it will last?

-The general picture is that Ukraine is struggling to survive. If she stops fighting, then the country goes under and Russia takes over and they become slaves. After Bucha and Mariupol, the mood in Ukraine is very determining. People want to win, they believe in victory. There was a poll this week, which said that 95% of Ukrainians believe in victory. Now we can discuss what victory means, but they believe in victory and have confidence in the forces. In other words, the whole country is consolidated: survive and drive out the Russians.

At the same time, if you look at Moscow, this is a pretty dangerous time because basically the war didn’t work out the way it Vladimir Putin advance. She genuinely believed that she could take care of the Ukraine in a few days. One of his perhaps most delusional fantasies was to think that there were many Ukrainians waiting to rise up and welcome the Russian troops, because that is what his intelligence services had told him. The war for him has been the biggest strategic mistake of his time as president.

His calculation implies two things. The first is that the Russian army will eventually crush the Ukrainian forces using sheer volume alone. It’s like a giant monster, which may be stupid and clumsy, not very smart, but it will keep on smashing. And the other calculation is that the West will eventually fall apart and lose interest and stop supplying weapons, and maybe Trump will come back in 2024 and so on so that the political cycle works in his favor. He just needs to hold on. So if you put those two things together, Ukraine is fighting for survival, while Russia is playing the long game. So we’re looking at a wall that I think will stretch well into next year and probably well beyond.

Luke Harding
Luke Harding at a party in Ukraine with Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova

-You wrote in your book that Ukraine is using ammunition faster than the West can produce it. So realistically, how long can they keep fighting?

I hope they prevail. A year ago, no one was talking about giving supplies to Ukraine, since it was considered an escalation and a mistake, and now they will send tanks, and there is talk of combat aircraft. For now everyone says no, but I suspect that sooner or later it will happen. The big question is whether Ukraine can successfully launch another successful counteroffensive in April, perhaps early May. And I think that for moral and psychological reasons it is very important for Ukrainians.

-A Ukrainian victory will come at what cost?

-Realistically, I think it is easier to recover Crimea than Donbas. From a military strategic point of view, it would be easier. I think that getting Donbas back will be very difficult, but Zelensky said that he wants everything; he wants reparations, he wants justice; accountability for war crimes; security guarantees from the West, and it probably won’t get all of that. But at the same time, which is why I think it’s going to be a long war, there also wouldn’t be a president of Ukraine who could sign an agreement with Russia in which Russia is rewarded for its invasion with a large amount of territory because it would be immediately removed from office. There would be massive demonstrations. People are vehement because they have lost a lot. Women have lost husbands, children their parents, elderly parents have lost their children… So many civilians have died and so many women have been raped, and so many mass graves have been discovered in areas that have been occupied that there is no will to no kind of agreement on the part of Ukraine.

-There has been much speculation about Putin’s mental state, and his health in general. What is his opinion based on what he has seen and the people he has talked to, and does he think that at some point it is possible for him to back down?

-No. His weird KGB brain is programmed to believe that bargaining equals weakness and weakness carries his own existential risks of being executed, imprisoned, assassinated. He’s about a man terrified of being murdered, so I don’t see how he can ever negotiate. There has been much speculation about his health, but a year later he is still alive. He may or may not be using doubles, I don’t know, I’m not a scientist or facial recognition expert, but from what I hear from my Western intelligence sources not based in London but in other European countries, Putin has the best healthcare in the world. ; he has a permanent team of doctors. Therefore, the hope or fever dream that Putin might suddenly die unhappily is a fantasy.

Russian propaganda against the West is ongoing, says Harding. “According to Putin, in the UK we are all satanic and we celebrate gay pride all the time. That’s all we basically do according to Russian propaganda. It’s partly like the war of civilizations; he sees it as going against Western liberalism and the lack of God and a non-traditional family.”

“And most Russians support the war and the numbers are very strong. Is difficult to take reliable sociological information from what is happening inside Russia, but I think it is fair to say that the war enjoys popular support despite the fact that many Russian soldiers died suddenly. I think there’s a small minority that’s against it, and there’s a small minority that’s passionately for it, but I think the majority accept it. They don’t personally want to fight but they don’t oppose or really feel that they as individuals can’t protest. That’s partly a kind of stoicism, a kind of lethargy and fatalism, because you know that a person can’t do anything and also that if you hold a sign that says something against the war, you’re arrested in about 18 seconds and then you’re confronted. to 5 or 10 years in jail.”

Harding is one of the Western journalists who is most familiar with Russian society. Between 2007 and 2011, he was head of the office of Guardian in Moscow. The Kremlin expelled him from the country in the first such case since the Cold Warand in the summer of 2022 put him on an official blacklist. “Basically, they don’t like me, and I don’t think it’s my British imagination,” he says with a laugh. “I was there for four years and I wrote about things the Kremlin didn’t want me to write about, and I asked questions like how much money Vladimir Putin has. I investigated the FSB – the spy agency he used to run before he became prime minister and president – which had carried out the 2006 assassination of a Russian civilian dissident named Alexander Litvinenko. I spent a lot of time with that case.”

Luke Harding
Luke Harding in Kromatorsk (Isobel Koshiw/The Guardian)

As a consequence, he suffered episodes that followed the classic KGB modus operandi, such as several robberies in his family apartment. He was eventually deported in 2011. “I thought for a long time that Russia wasn’t just internally oppressive, which you could see because every time there was a demonstration, they would hit people over the head, put them in a van and drive them away. , but it was also internationally dangerous. For a long time many thought this vision was a bit hysterical. I think most people and Western governments now understand that Russia is a rogue state”.

It is curious that the Kremlin has not yet shaken off this Cold War mentality. I mean the paranoia of reacting without prior action…

-Yeah, that’s actually a good point. There is a phrase in Russian that is zerkal’nyy otveteither mirror answer. Basically all Russian political, doctrinal or strategic thought is always reacting to the evil West; it is an idea of ​​eternal victimhood. There’s something quite adolescent there. It’s like the angry 14-year-old who feels like everyone is against him. In Putin’s universe, Russia did not invade Ukraine, rather Russia was forced to invade to defend Russian interests by launching a special military operation in Ukraine. Obviously that is a lie. Russia invaded the Ukraine and I was here when it happened, but that’s how they think, or how they pretend to think.

-When this war ends, how do you think the world will have changed?

-If Russia wins, we will live in a very unpredictable and dangerous place. There would be a precedent that any country that has a territorial grudge can use it as a pretext to launch some kind of land grab or imperial war if they can get away with it. I think it would be a very dark place. Conversely, if Ukraine wins or at least hangs on and maybe gets something back, then it is more of a repudiation of Putin’s thesis that the West is not decadent or corrupt, but also on its last legs. The coalition has been very strong and successful. Surprisingly successful: NATO has been reinvigorated; the Swedes and the Finns are coming together; The US has found a leadership role again after the Trump disaster; the UK is talking to its European neighbors and indeed it seems that The West is much more durable and coherent politically and in values. You can call me sentimental or old-fashioned, but values ​​still mean something to me. That you can’t just go to a place like Bucha and kill, rape, leave bodies on the street and get away with it. I think that if Ukraine wins, it means that this century is not as dark, regressive and hopeless as it sometimes seems.

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