Sara Jolly reviews ‘Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival’ by Luke Harding

5 April 2024

by Sara Jolly

Sara Jolly reviews Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival by Luke Harding [Paperback £9.99 pp368 ISBN 9781783352777, Guardian Faber Publishing, London, 2023]

Books about  recent happenings are almost inevitably rapidly overtaken by events.  This is certainly the case with Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival.  The last chapter is dated August 2022, and the book was published three months later. During the period covered by the book Harding was reporting from Ukraine for The Guardian, and although the book brims with immediacy it certainly feels like something much more considered and reflective than a hasty cobbling together of journalistic reports.  A reflection of the book’s quality is that it was shortlisted for the 2023 Orwell Prize for Political Writing.   

It is a gripping read, a useful refresher course on the first months of the war, and a poignant reminder of a time before the optimism about a Spring counter-attack  evaporated;  before the prospect of a second Trump presidency threatened US support to Ukraine; before the on-going tragedy in the Middle East pushed Ukraine out of the headlines.

Each of the twelve chapters has a title, often metaphorical, as in  ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Thermopylae’,  but also has its own precise location ID and time signature – e.g. Siberia 2021, Chornobyl  February 24th, 2022, or Mariupol January 2022.  In practice, each chapter dots about, moving forwards and backwards in time, incorporating back stories drawn from of Harding’s extensive knowledge of the region  – (he was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent from 2007 to 2011, when he was expelled; in the summer of 2022 the Kremlin paid him the compliment of putting him on an official blacklist).  This time-shifting approach, in preference to a strictly chronological structure, helps to raise the content to something more nuanced and subtle than straightforward reportage. Harding manages to balance the immediacy of scenes witnessed at first hand with a depth of contextual material.  

Luke Harding is an astute observer – if he stops to chat to a fish vendor, we learn what sort of fish the man has on his stall: ‘Viacheslav sold silvery roach fish, large smoked whitefish, and mullet, which he caught himself’. When he borrows a flak jacket and body armour and follows Ukrainian fighters into their command post in an abandoned factory in the Donbas in December 2021 he notices that ‘Someone had hung a uniform on a mannequin and a blue and yellow flag’.  As they head to the outer front line via the ruins of a former textiles warehouse he has the presence of mind to note the ‘cavernous brick chambers [that] were decorated with graffiti: one message reminds those going on duty: FUCK UP AND YOU DIE; another reads OLIGARCHS! STOP PLAYING WITH WAR.’

He has a chapter on Putin , entitled ‘Lost Kingdom’, followed by one on Zelenskiy,’ Servant of the People’.  The chapter on Putin begins in spring 2021, when the Russian leader went on a short vacation in Siberia with Sergei Shoigu, the Tuvan- born Minister of Defence since 2012, and, according to Harding, ‘Putin’s regular hiking companion’.  Harding sets the scene, drawing on the press pictures released at the time, by describing the pair, dressed in matching sheepskin coats, in ‘a blue-skied wilderness of mountains and conifers’.  Harding posits that an extraordinary scheme was discussed in this ‘bucolic spot’, a scheme to reclaim the ‘lost kingdom’ of Ukraine.  Harding  admits that we unfortunately don’t know what was said, or who else they may have met, but nevertheless shares with the reader the story – (‘told to me by  Lviv’s ebullient mayor’)  that the sheepskin-clad pair consulted  a shaman, who delivered a prophecy that the president was destined to ‘redeem Russian lands. Banging a drum, he recommended a date for Putin to begin this great and historic task, one that had a mystical significance: 22/02/2022.’   

Whatever the truth of this story, Harding points out that after their return from Siberia, Shoigu  gave a series of orders that initiated the movement of a great deal of military hardware south and west, towards Ukraine. Meanwhile Putin became an amateur historian, working on a 5,000 word essay that was published on the president’s website on June 12th 2021, with the title ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. The essay apparently owed much to Solzhenitsyn …

In December 2021 Harding had a meeting with Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics whom he had first interviewed in 2014, when Haran played a leading role in the Maidan protests that had driven President Yanukovych from office. Now Harding was keen to know whether Haran thought that there would be an invasion, and what he made of Putin’s essay. Haran was sure there would be an invasion and noted that Putin’s essay harked back to Tsar Nicholas I’s imperial policies. Putin was rumoured to keep a bust of Nicholas I on his desk.  

A month later (January 2022) Harding has a Sunday afternoon meeting with the director of  Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service, (FISU), the ‘bearded, congenial, English-speaking’ Oleksandr Lytvynenko. In an office with an old-fashioned globe in one corner, they discuss Putin’s state of mind and body. Lytvynenko is not sure whether the Russian president is ‘sick or deranged’. He believes that Putin is living in an alternative reality and regards Ukrainians as ‘rural Russians’. He states that the FSB are ‘complicit in this fantasy’, apparently informing the president that a Russian takeover of Ukraine would enjoy popular support. Russian soldiers would be welcomed with the bread and salt traditionally offered to visitors. 

In the following chapter Harding gives a matching portrait of the one man who was then apparently standing in the way of Putin’s plans – Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Seeing him for the first time in the flesh at a press briefing for foreign journalists in late January 2022, Harding wonders where Holoborodko, the President’s fictional alter ego from the satirical comedy series Servant of the People ends, and where the real Zelenskiy begins.  

I found  this pair of chapters on Putin and Zelenskiy riveting. Reading of these utterly contrasting characters, I was reminded irresistibly of Mozart and Salieri. Compare Putin’s effortful, contrived image construction (the bare-torsoed he-man of earlier years, the recent ostentatiously pious appearances in the company of important Orthodox priests) with Zelenskiy’s apparently instinctive and effortlessly intuitive costume change, from presidential suit and tie to the modest uniform of olive green fatigues he donned the day after the outbreak of war and has worn ever since. 

Compare Putin’s cowardly paranoia about catching Covid  – those images of the leader conducting meetings in splendid isolation at the end of an absurdly long table – with Zelenskiy’s almost cheekily defiant and unquestionably brave response to the invasion, ‘Я тут’  (I’m here), shot on his iPhone against the unmistakable background of  the House with Chimaeras, in Kyiv.  

One can even find a parallel between Mozart’s careless buffoonery (so memorably portrayed by Tom Hulce in the film Amadeus) and the physical comedy of Zelenskiy’s alter ego, Holoborodko, in Servant of the People.  

I would dearly love to believe that Putin lies awake at night, tormented by a Salieri-like envy of Zelenskiy’s  personal magnetism, his brilliant ability to communicate, his popularity in the West as a much admired hero figure. Alas, this is no doubt my own wishful thinking. But Putin may well lie awake thinking up ways to poison his latest opponent.

In the weeks before the invasion Zelenskiy played down the likelihood of its actually happening, to the frustration of the US government. Harding himself thought that at this stage Zelenskiy seemed to be ‘somewhat behind the curve of history’ although he clearly became a genuine admirer once Zelenskiy so convincingly stepped into the role of war-time leader.

Fast forward to spring 2024.  Zelenskiy delivers an Easter message in English on X, ‘…We defend ourselves, we resist, our spirit does not give up … Life can prevail’. He spends Easter Sunday in Bucha to mark the 2nd anniversary of the its liberation. It is ten years since the invasion and annexation of Crimea…  

A few weeks earlier Luke Harding filed a gloomy report for The Guardian from the village of Zhelanne, in the east of the country where Russia is rapidly advancing, having captured Avdiivka. Harding writes that ‘Zhelanne is now paying the price for the west’s collective hesitancy. While Berlin has dithered, and Washington has bickered, Moscow has ruthlessly adapted’.  

While Ukraine’s situation has worsened considerably since Harding wrote the book under review, the moving final words of his concluding chapter, ‘A Proven State’, may still come to pass, although the prospect of a happy ending seems much more fragile today than when they were written: ‘Ukraine had not yet perished, as the words of the national anthem put it. The hope lived on: of a free people living happily in their land’. 

 It is to be hoped that Harding is at work on a follow up volume, having already more than proved himself as a gifted chronicler of this ongoing fight for Ukraine’s survival.