Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival
By LUKE HARDING
(Guardian Faber – £14.99)
ISBN 978 1 783 35276 0
Luke Harding has long experience living in and writing about Russia; the former cut short when he was thrown out of the country in 2011. His personal investment in the subject is manifest in this powerful account of both the first six months of Russia’s assault on its neighbour and some of the history of the relationship of the two warring nations.
The book is a blend of reportage and history, drawing largely on Harding’s personal accounts of meeting both political and military leaders, as well as civilians and soldiers on the front lines. Those stories are haunting and intense, including his time in the village of Bucha, site of some of the war’s earliest atrocities against civilians, and the experiences of the Ukrainian forces engaged in the ultimately futile defence of Mariupol. They have the precision of the professional journalist in terms of people, dates and location; amidst a conflict strewn with lies and misinformation, it is clear that he seeks to set down records. But they also have an emotional depth to them, which whilst not detracting from the necessary detachment of a factual account, offers something more than a more purist historical account.
His experience in and around Ukraine and Russia prior to the outbreak of the most recent conflict – he is at pains to remind the reader that the war didn’t really start in 2022 – allows him to provide context to what comes afterwards. He visited the Donbas and Kherson Oblasts in early 2022 and late 2021 respectively, and in each case unpicks the very different experiences of those regions which were already in semi-active conflict and those that were more naive to the coming threat. Having seen Kherson in December 2021, he revisits the region to give an unflinching account of the failure of Ukrainian defence plans there and the consequences for the population.
What elevates this book from ‘just’ a collection of war stories, valuable though it would be for that, is that he intersperses his reportage with a wider look at the Russian state’s relationship with Ukraine, how the war fits into Russia’s evolution since the end of the Cold War and what it has done for the NATO alliance. In this he can clearly draw on decades of his own work, but it doesn’t feel like a regurgitation of his previous writing, as it is tightly presented and anchored in the reality of what transpired. It doesn’t have the depth to constitute a full analysis of the origins of the war, or the nature of the Russian state – there are other books for that – but what he does brilliantly is situate his micro-stories in the macro-narrative, thus letting each inform the other.
There is an interesting debate to be had about bias and impartiality in a book such as this. Harding is probably not well disposed to the Russian state that has harassed him in the past and eventually declined to let him work there. Most of his readers will be instinctively pro-Ukrainian, but it never feels like a hatchet-job, and his attention to sources and detail, plus a willingness to identify Ukrainian failings and retaliation, provide reassurance that he still seeks objectivity, in some much as that is possible.
Overall, this is a compelling book, from someone deeply immersed in the region, who has captured insights and horrors whilst they were fresh in people’s minds. It deserves to be read for that alone.
Cover image, original design by Alex Kirby