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A journalist's plea to the West: 'Pay attention to Ukraine and its fate'

Journalist Luke Harding began reporting from Ukraine in December 2021 and was in the country's capital of Kyiv on Feb. 23, the night before the Russian invasion began. He's been reporting from the war for the British newspaper The Guardian ever since.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Luke Harding, has been reporting from Ukraine for the British newspaper The Guardian. Earlier this month, he was in Kherson reporting on the liberation of the town Mylove and the death, destruction and landmines left behind by the Russians. He reported from Bucha about Russian atrocities after Russia retreated and was in Mariupol just before it was occupied by Russia. He interviewed one of the Ukrainian engineers who worked at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which the Russians turned into a military base and which Putin has used as a form of nuclear blackmail. Perhaps the most famous statement of Ukrainian defiance was when one of the border guards on Snake Island responded to a Russia warship's command to surrender by saying, Russian warship, go F yourself. Harding interviewed the commander of the Snake Island border guards and got the story behind that incident.

His new book, "Invasion," chronicles the war and his experiences covering it and analyzes the politics, strategies and delusions behind it. Harding is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and was its Moscow bureau chief from 2007 to 2011. The Kremlin didn't like what he was writing. He was spied on, harassed and finally expelled. But he continued to report on Russia, including Russian interference in the 2016 election, which was also the subject of one of his previous books, called "Collusion."

Luke Harding, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is so good to hear that you are safe.

LUKE HARDING: Thank you.

GROSS: You know, I've described how you were spied on while reporting from Russia, and you were expelled. Because of your experiences covering Russia and also your experiences covering Russian interference in the 2016 election and the poisoning of Russian defectors, I'm wondering if this war, this Russian invasion of Ukraine, has a kind of personal meaning for you.

HARDING: Yes. I mean, it's a good question. I mean, I think it does insofar as I or we - my family and I - we had four pretty tough years in Moscow between 2007 and 2011 with, as you said, break-ins at our family apartment and, from time to time, strange young men following me around the icy streets of Moscow in black leather jackets who were, I think, representatives of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, Putin's spy agency. And it was pretty clear to me and perhaps to a handful of other observers that not only was this a really nasty, thuggish regime that, as we know from pictures, would arrest demonstrators, cart them off in police vans, jail them often for very long periods, you know, that Vladimir Putin had basically squeezed the domestic opposition, and the country was lurching towards darkness. It was already authoritarian when I got there, but it was going towards totalitarianism. But that was what was happening at home.

But also, what I observed was that there was a dangerous, adventurous streak and that Putin and the people around him never really accepted the independence of post-Soviet states. When tanks were being sent to Ukraine's borders by the Kremlin in the autumn of 2021, I just knew where this was going. I did not think this was a bluff, as some people did. I thought we were hurtling towards a sort of terrible and big invasion.

GROSS: Well, I think it's great that Putin couldn't stop you from reporting on Russia even when he expelled you 'cause you are still reporting on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and you were not even intimidated by Putin's bombs. The night before the invasion, you had dinner with Ukraine's most famous novelist, who didn't think Putin was really going to invade. He thought it was a bluff. It was a lovely dinner - good food, good company. When you left, you got a call from a well-placed source saying that the invasion would start at 4 a.m. The source was off by about 30 minutes. What was the interval between finding out that the bombs were about to start falling and when they actually started falling? What was that interval like for you, knowing that war was going to happen within hours?

HARDING: I mean, Terry, it was surreal because you just have to - if you can sort of take yourself to the world of February the 23, Kyiv, where I've spent a lot of time, was normal. There were cafes open. There were couples having dinner. There were people walking their dogs. There was a busker outside my hotel in the center of Kyiv playing Edith Piaf numbers on the violin. There were old ladies selling tulips out of buckets. And it was - you know, Kyiv is not a faraway place. It's a modern European capital. And actually, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president, had really given a message that people should keep calm and carry on. And they did, despite the fact that events in Moscow seemed to be sort of hurtling towards some kind of violent moment.

And, you know, I left the dinner. It was interesting. Andrey Kurkov is - he's a wonderful, bonhomous - I mean, he's very famous. But he's a friendly, approachable, bearlike individual. And I gave him a big hug and hugged his British wife, Elizabeth and walked into the street, took this call and was looking at the sky, a sort of dark velvet sky and, of course, went back to the hotel and couldn't sleep. I mean, how could one sleep in that situation? And shared the news with colleagues in London, with other colleagues reporting on the ground. And then, of course, at sort of 4 a.m., 4:30 a.m., my phone rang. Someone alerted me to the fact that the war had started. And it just felt unreal. I mean, I threw on my boots and my coat and, like everybody else, descended to the hotel's underground garage to the minus-second floor.

And, you know, my mind was whirring. It was going very, very fast. And I was thinking about what I might write, analysis about what this meant for geopolitics. And then about 6 a.m., this mom walked in with two small kids who'd obviously been woken from their beds and dragged out. And they were clutching coloring books, and they both sat down on adult chairs that their feet didn't quite touch the ground. And I could feel myself tearing up because, actually, for all of the analysis, for all of the secret cables, for all of the sort of diplomatic conversation, what became clear to me at that moment was that, you know, as Russian bombs are falling and the first tank columns were trundling towards the Ukrainian capital, that civilians were going to be killed - I mean, perhaps not these kids but other kids. And in fact, more than 400 children have been killed.

GROSS: You were in Kherson after it was liberated. You were in Bucha after Russians retreated. President Zelenskyy has accused the Russians of genocide. Have you seen evidence of what you would call genocide?

HARDING: I mean, Terry, I've seen so much evidence, you know, we couldn't sort of - we couldn't pack it into an even longer conversation. I mean, there are a couple of things that haunt me. One is Bucha. I arrived in Bucha in early April, days after the Russians pulled out chaotically and abandoned their attempt to reach Kyiv. And I went to go see a woman called Tania (ph), whose 26-year-old son Volodya (ph) had been arrested by the Russians earlier on. He'd been out and taken a photo of a destroyed Russian tank, which the soldiers had found on his phone when they went house to house. And Tania told me that the soldiers took him away, that about an hour later, she found out where he was being interrogated, shinned up an apple tree, peeked over a picket fence to discover that her nephew - that they'd broken his arm. He was covered in blood. He was sobbing, saying, I don't know anything. I don't know anything. And then they took him off. Mother was crying, aunt was crying. And they promised to return him.

And so for three weeks, this family thought Volodya was alive. And basically, Tania showed me what had happened. When they left, the day they left, neighbors reported a body had been found about 300 meters away from their house. And we went to this abandoned house and climbed down the stairs to a dank, dismal cellar, where there was a small, purple toy and a bloodstained mattress. And it turned out that they had kept him there for some time. And then, one night, they had come down, made him kneel, and shot him in the side of the head.

And on that street, 13 people were executed in similar fashion. I mean, across the Kyiv region, 1,600 people - 1,600 bodies, mostly men, but some women - had been killed as well - civilians. And when I was reporting from a Zoom in the Northeast, it was the same story, where there was a huge mass grave. And I think what's happening - I mean, Zelenskyy says this. I think it's probably true. I think what's happening in Ukraine essentially is genocide.

GROSS: There have been so many deaths. Twenty-two thousand people have been killed in Mariupol. You were there before the Russian occupation, but you've been to Bucha and Kherson after the Russians left. What have people been doing with the bodies in those places after the Russians retreated?

HARDING: I mean, Mariupol, which I visited in late January of this year, it's - really, it's a horror show. I mean, it's hard to be definitive about what's happened because, obviously, this is now under Russian control. But we know from people who are there, from eyewitnesses, from people who've subsequently escaped, that thousands of civilians were killed by Russian bombing, by Russian aviation, by an airstrike on a theater where 600 women and children were sheltering.

I talked to one of them who escaped, who said she was in one half of the building, and the other half was obliterated including the wing where pregnant women were living. So it's absolutely awful. I mean, some bodies were buried in school playgrounds, in front yards, by the side of the road. Others were taken to a mass gravesite outside town. Some people, I think, are still entombed under the rubble. But it was - I mean, it's almost impossible to process. You go and see a flourishing city of half a million people with a port, with restaurants, with live music, with culture, coffee. And now, it's a ghostly ruin. I mean, really, Terry, there's been nothing like this since Guernica or since the Second World War. It's just a throwback to the darkest parts of the 20th century.

GROSS: I keep thinking, like, if Russia wins and manages to take over Ukraine, they're going to be inheriting a destroyed country.

HARDING: Yes. And I think Putin doesn't much care. I mean, he just wants territory, and he views Ukraine as a lost Russian kingdom. I mean, he wrote a essay, if you can call it that, in the summer of 2021, which is published on the Kremlin website, where he said that Russians and Ukrainians were a single people. And he kind of romped through Ukrainian history to suggest that there'd always been a sort of spiritual and cultural unity. And I think his view is that, basically, either Ukrainians can be turned into good Russians or they can be destroyed.

And he really doesn't care what the price is, if that is - what we've seen in the East - pulverized cities, people cooking on open fires amid the ruins. If that means that tens of thousands of his own soldiers are killed in the process, he doesn't much mind. I mean, he isn't a - he's a sort of dictator in his late stage, who's in this strange and messianic realm where what you would consider reason or logic or even sort of Russian self-interest plays no role at all.

GROSS: What have you heard about rape and looting by Russians during the occupation of the cities that you visited?

HARDING: There's pretty compelling evidence that rape has happened on a large scale. It's a difficult story to report because, obviously, a lot of women are reluctant to come forward. The Ukrainian authorities have said, certainly in Bucha, that there was a house where women were kept - about 30 of them - where they were serially raped. The New York Times has reported on a woman found in a fur coat who appears to be kept as a sex slave who'd been shot in the head. And sexual violence is definitely a part of this. So it's a tough story to do.

Looting is an easier story to report because it's everywhere. I mean, you drive through these areas that Russia has vacated. And it's like there's been some sort of crazy car crash every 500 meters. You see cars marked with a zed, the symbol of Putin's invasion, which have been crushed or wrecked or shot. You see debris by the side of the road. And you also see abandoned washing machines. I mean, what's astonishing is many of the soldiers who are looting come from very, very poor rural areas of Russia. And they have - I've talked to Ukrainians who say, they stole my frying pan. They stole my cutlery. They stole, yes, my laptop and my jewelry, but, really, everyday things. But washing machines seem particularly prized. I mean, one village I went to, they're all piled up in the house of culture. The Russians have been unable to get them out.

But there's been looting, theft on a absolutely extraordinary scale. And one thing that was also stolen, which is just astonishing, is - the Russians, when they abandoned Kherson in November, they looted the contents not only of the art museum, but the zoo. And there's video of a Russian officer stealing the zoo's raccoon and taking it to Crimea.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. And he's been covering Ukraine and based in Ukraine since December of 2021, weeks before the Russian invasion. His new book is called "Invasion." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. He's been covering Ukraine basically for about 15 years. He's the paper's former Moscow bureau chief. But he's been solidly based in Ukraine since December of 2021, just weeks before the war started. He left Ukraine to return to London in mid-November after covering the newly liberated area of Kherson.

You have spoken to so many people, civilians who have lost family, lost their homes. They were injured seriously or, you know, attacked. And then you have to say, I'm so sorry and move on. And I'm wondering what that's been like for you, to see so much tragedy and to just have to, you know, move on to the next tragedy.

HARDING: Yeah. I mean, first of all, the story isn't about me. It's about Ukrainians and their fight for survival. But there were a couple of moments which I think about with regret, I mean, certainly in Mariupol. When I went there in January, I met the commander of the Ukrainian navy, which turned out to be 2 1/2 very small ships. And I went to the front line with what was territory controlled by Russian proxies about 15 kilometers out of town. And the person who took me there was a young pro-Ukrainian activist called Anatoly Lazaar (ph). And he was friendly, interesting, bright. We talked about Dostoevsky. We talked about Russian literature. We talked about the madness of Vladimir Putin.

And then when the city was besieged in early March, he called me and said defenses were holding, that spirits were good and morale was OK. And I quoted him in my article for The Guardian. And then he rang back about five or six days later with a different tone of voice. And he said, can you get my wife and kids out of Mariupol? I know that - you know, I was a thousand kilometers away on the other side of the country. And I said, look; I'm really sorry, Anatoly. I don't think I can. But I can write about it, you know? Tell me what's going on.

And four or five days after that, he rang again. And the line was terrible. It was about midnight. And I could just hear the sound of wind, a sort of metallic sound. And that was the last contact. And he disappeared. I mean, like thousands of people in Mariupol, he was lost. He was lost in the vortex, lost in the whirlwind. And he was not among the list of the living. And he was not among the list of the dead. I don't know what happened to him. I don't know what happened to him. And I feel guilty, if I'm honest, that I could not do more for him. I don't know what I could have done.

GROSS: What do you wish you had done?

HARDING: I keep thinking about it. What could I have done? I mean, it was impossible. I mean, the city was besieged. It was encircled. Clearly, if I were to drive to a Russian checkpoint, nothing good would happen to me because, well, I mean, the Kremlin don't like me. They even put me on an official list of people banned forever from the Russian Federation this summer. So it's not just my imagination. I don't know what we could have done. And I think, actually, it's a question not just for me. It's a question for Western governments as well.

I mean, they have assisted. I mean, the United States, the Biden administration, has been brilliant in providing almost $20 billion worth of military and economic assistance to Ukraine, without which Ukraine would have fallen. It would have sunk. I mean, the U.K. as well has been good and the European Union and many other democratic countries. And yet, actually, when you think about it, you think about the number of people who have died and continue to die, whose lives are shattered - you know, kids who lose their fathers or their mothers or have their legs blown off - I mean, this is a terrible story. And I guess my plea, if I have a plea, is that we continue to pay attention to Ukraine and its fate and we continue to read the news, to think about it with kindness and with empathy.

GROSS: So you've literally been on the front lines, literally in the trenches. You must have had some very close calls while covering the war in Ukraine.

HARDING: Yes. I mean, I have. And it all happens rather quickly. I mean, there was another village I went to called Mala Olexandrivka. And I got to know a poet from Kherson who fled. And as the Russians were retreating, I said, do you know anyone who lives on the front line? And she said, yeah. There's a friend of mine called Nikolai. So I went to go and see Nikolai. Nikolai was showing me his home, the wall, which had been demolished by a Ukrainian missile while the Russians were occupying the village, the chicken shed wall. His chickens had been killed because of another missile.

And most spectacularly, just across the road, a 5-meter-deep crater which had been caused by a Russian missile as the Russians retreated, which had blown a tractor, flipped it surreally across the road. And it had landed in Nikolai's potato patch. And it was a tranquil scene. There was - he actually lived next to the graveyard and was sort of saying, look; you know, I'm not going to leave. If I'm killed, I can just go over there.

And then suddenly, two Russian missiles came screaming over our heads. And my photographer flung himself to the ground. And I kind of flinched. And Nikolai completely ignored it, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. And the missiles landed about 400 meters away. One of them exploded harmlessly, the other didn't. But you do sort of think when you do these things, you are somewhat rolling the dice. I mean, you don't want to hang around. But at the same time, unless you go to the front line, how can you report on the lives of people who live that, very often old people who, for whatever reason, refuse to move, even when common sense would tell you it's time to get out?

GROSS: We need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. His new book chronicling the war in Ukraine and talking about what it was like, what it's been like for him to cover it, is called "Invasion." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Luke Harding. His new book, "Invasion," is about covering the war in Ukraine. He's actually been covering Ukraine for the better part of 15 years. He's a former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, where he's now a foreign correspondent. And while he was reporting from Russia, he was spied on and harassed and eventually expelled.

The incident that has become perhaps the incident most symbolic of Ukrainian defiance is when the Ukrainian border guard told a Russian warship - when the warship said to surrender, the response from one of the border guards was, Russian warship, go F yourself. It's a great story because it's not only an act of defiance, it has a really snappy punchline. But until I read what you wrote about it, I didn't really understand the backstory or what happened afterwards. You interviewed the commander of that border service, who was - he was commanding a force of 28 men. So tell us, like, how that now-famous phrase came to be.

HARDING: Yeah. I mean, what you have to understand is that Snake Island is a strategic mini-territory in the Black Sea. You control Snake Island, you practically control access to the Black Sea, to the northern part. So it had military significance. And I went to go and see someone called Bohdan Hotskiy, who is a 28-year-old pretty inarticulate officer. It's one of the harder interviews I did. But gradually, sitting on a park bench in the summer sunshine, I coaxed the story from him.

And essentially he was in the room when - in the radio transmission station when the invasion started. And first one warship, the Vasily Bykov, and then another one, the Moskva, started bombarding the island. And the intercom, which was set to a public channel, crackled into life. And there was this loud, booming, portentous voice speaking in Russian, which basically said, surrender or we will destroy you. You know, lay down your arms. Surrender, surrender. And Bohdan sort of said that for the first few hours they ignored this, then the bombardment became more intense. And then about late morning, the Russian voice was back again, saying, surrender, surrender, surrender.

And by this point, one of Bohdan's colleagues just said, in a really weary matter-of-fact tone - there was a bit of discussion - what should we do? - said, Russian warship, go F yourself. And Bohdan sort of said he didn't think anything more of it because later that afternoon they were forced to basically give up their weapons. They were completely encircled, and they were taken off into Russian captivity. And actually, the astonishing thing about the story is that Zelenskyy gave Bohdan and the other warriors a posthumous award. The assumption was they were all dead. They weren't. But this phrase - Russian warship, go F yourself - became a meme. It became a symbol of Ukrainian defiance in the face of Russian arrogance and presumption and aggression. And you see it everywhere.

GROSS: What happened to Hotskiy, the commander, after he was taken captive by the Russians?

HARDING: He wouldn't tell me what had happened to him. But I mean, I'm no psychologist, but there was certainly a kind of melancholy to him and a sadness. I mean, possibly it was just that he was shy. And actually, subsequent to writing the book, I talked to someone else, a priest called Vasyl, who had gone to try and rescue Bohdan as part of a humanitarian mission. He had set off the next day to - he was told to retrieve the bodies of the fallen soldiers. And Russian special forces intercepted his boat just off Snake Island.

They tied him up, confiscated his phone, and he was taken back to Crimea by boat for interrogation and then subsequently transported to Russia, where he was tortured. I mean, he was crying when he told me this. But initially they cut his hair, got rid of his priest's robes, put him in a black prison uniform. And they would ask him a question, and then they would prod him with an electric stunner and shock him. He would collapse. They would pick him up. They would ask him another question, and they would prod him again.

And at one point in late spring, they put him in an isolation cell, stripped naked, and left him there. They didn't feed him. He - by day two, he was hallucinating. And he told me he was ready for death. And he was swapped in May. I mean, he survived. He lost an awful lot of weight. He was practically starved. But I think that was standard. I think probably that happened to Bohdan and almost certainly happened to everybody else who was kept in Russian captivity.

GROSS: You write about the Russians using the threat of nuclear blackmail and how Putin basically has done something unknown in history, which is stealing a civil nuclear power plant from another state. He transformed it into a military base. Talk a little bit about how unprecedented this is and how dangerous.

HARDING: It's incredibly dangerous. Over the summer, I saw this nuclear power plant. It's called Zaporizhzhia Atomic Station, and it's on one side of the Dnieper River. And I went to a Ukrainian town called Nikopol on the other side and gazed across it. Sort of shimmering in the distance, you could see these atomic reactors lined up like little solemn gods. And the Russians swept in and took it and the next-door city of Enerhodar early on in spring.

And for reasons which are a little mysterious, in summer, they then started using it to bombard the Ukrainian-held towns on the other side of the river - so Zaporizhzhia, but also these frontline towns as well. And the morning that I turned up, Nikopol had been hit by about 40 or 50 Grad missiles. And I toured through town and looked at the damage. Several people had been killed, including an elderly man who was asleep in bed when one of the missiles landed on him and encased him in concrete. And you could see that they basically landed in about a 800-meter radius. One of them had fallen on the Soviet War Memorial, ironically enough, commemorating Red Army soldiers who perished in the Second World War.

And what Putin has done is he's basically elided - he's blurred the sort of military nuclear threat and the civilian threat because the Russians have parked tanks in this power station. The electricity cables have been shut. It's being shelled pretty regularly. It's an incredibly dangerous situation now. I'm not saying that I think Putin will blow it up deliberately and cause a catastrophe in Europe, but I'm just saying that the Russians have an absolute record of recklessness. And if you look at Chernobyl, the other famous nuclear power plant, which is still functioning or was still functioning, that was also occupied, intended for a military base, in February and March by Russia with troops digging trenches in the radioactive red zone, the most toxic place. And I think Putin is basically saying, give me what I want or I will unleash havoc on the world. It's part of his game of brinkmanship and of challenging Washington and trying to get the U.S. essentially to yield.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting that you describe Putin as a coward because he's so brazen in his tactics against dissidents and other countries. So what makes you describe him as a coward?

HARDING: Well, I mean, think of the defining symbol of Vladimir Putin over the past two, 2 1/2 years. It's of a small man with puffy cheeks and a rather sort of round face sitting about 50 meters away across a very long white table, decorated in gilt, from Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, or his chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov. And it's clear that he's been absolutely terrified of catching COVID. I mean, look - I mean, I've had it twice. I mean, no one wants COVID. It's unpleasant. But there's a degree of sort of paranoia there, which - I mean, he's the planet's, you know, foremost exponent of extreme social distancing. And also there are question marks swirling about his health. There was a lot of speculation earlier this year that he might be about to die. It hasn't happened. Sources I talk to say he's fine, actually, so we can't rely on that as a way of solving this war or this problem.

But I think he's very obsessed with the question of personal survival. And we see that in the sanitary measures he takes. But we also see it in the unprecedented crackdown on dissent at home with anti-war protesters being carted off and jailed, with people being beaten over the head, with critics facing long, long stints in gulags and with Putin really turning the clock back not just to the Leonid Brezhnev era of the 1970s, but I would say increasingly to the dark 1930s.

He is following a sort of special trajectory. We know he's obsessed with history. He seems to be thinking about legacy, wondering how he matches up to Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible or Stalin or other, you know, major, massive world historical Russian figures. And, yeah, I mean, he may not be dying, but I think he's sort of pondering and also feeling that only he can solve the Ukraine problem, as he sees it, that any successor would lack the vision and the determination to see it through, which means that we are left with this bloody and terrible war with no obvious end, for now, in sight.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. His new book, "Invasion," is a chronicle of the war and the story of his experiences covering it. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Luke Harding. He's a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. He's been covering Ukraine basically for more than a decade, dating back to when he was the Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian. But he's been intensively covering Ukraine during the war. His new book about the war is called "Invasion."

You had to figure out how to end your book, "Invasion," before the war was over. The war is not over yet - far from it. I want to read the opening sentence of the final paragraph of the book. Ukraine had not won the war or not yet. Can you talk a little bit about figuring out how to end this book with so much uncertainty about the future?

HARDING: Well, I mean, I think there are two options as a writer, as a correspondent, as someone who has done successful nonfiction books before. I mean, you could wait until it's finished, that it's emphatically finished. And you can have a sort of telescopic view or a kind of aerial view of what's going on. But I wanted to do something quicker. And I also thought the direction of travel was clear, even though the end destination is, for now, murkier.

I mean, what I argue in the book in the final chapter, which was written as Ukraine was liberating territory in the east and in the south, was that Ukraine has proved itself as a state. It's a country. It's a nation. It's an astonishing superorganism or collective of citizens who are all working towards victory. I mean, it's not just the soldiers on the front line, but it's old ladies making camouflage nets or students volunteering or making Molotov cocktails. I mean, you sense that the whole country is fighting against Russia and also that the Russian plan, which was to take Kyiv in a matter of days, replace the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a puppet administration and to rule Ukraine as a colony from which Ukrainianess (ph) - the language, the culture, the symbols and memorials - were removed, that project has failed.

Now, whether Ukraine can deoccupy all of its territory, get the whole lot back from from the east to Crimea to the rest of the south is not clear. I mean, I think they can take some more back for sure. But what is clear is that Russia has basically lost and this project of subjugation has failed. So, I mean, I wanted to end the book on an optimistic note, not because I'm naive, but I think Ukraine, in some sense, will prevail and that actually this is such a kind of crucial moment of history that we need a version now rather than later.

GROSS: Among the possibilities of how this war will end, one is there's peace talks and both sides reach an agreement. And the other is war continues until one side has a military victory. And, you know, the allies are divided about which path should be pursued. From your perspective, what do you think the odds are of it being peace talks versus military victory?

HARDING: I think we've really reached the stage where it has to be military victory. Too many Ukrainians have died. Too many people have been widowed. Too many kids have lost their parents. There is no mood inside Ukrainian society to yield or even to give up any territory whatsoever. So the Ukrainian position now, after nine months of horrible war, is maximalist. Zelenskyy wants everything back, all his territory. He wants reparations from Russia, and he wants those who prosecuted this war, who launched it - Putin, the people around him - he wants them to stand justice, to be tried. And, of course, Putin, by contrast, I think still thinks he can win. He thinks the West is weak, irresolute, that sooner or later the U.S. will flake and its allies maybe as well, and that if he carries on with this kind of grinding volume that we've seen, he will either win completely or have quite a lot of Ukrainian territory which he can sell as victory to his domestic population.

So unfortunately, the corollary to all of that is that I don't see peace, and I don't really see how - let's say hypothetically - I mean, the Biden administration has been very staunch in its support for Zelenskyy. But let's say they were to change their minds and call up and suggest that he negotiates with Putin. I cannot see that happening. Any Ukrainian president who signed a bad peace with Russia would be immediately deposed. So unfortunately, the war will go on. And therefore that means that the Western world has to support and arm the Ukrainians until they reach victory, and that could be a while.

GROSS: Then there's a question of, can the Western world afford to keep doing that?

HARDING: Well, I mean, look at what the alternative is. I mean, if the Western world does give up, what that means is that big states can devour smaller states, that the rules-based order that has - we have to acknowledge - imperfectly governed international relations for most of the post-Second World War period has failed and that we're in a place of nihilism, where any powerful country can do what they want, whether it's China or India or Russia again. Because Ukrainians think they would sign a peace deal with Moscow and then Russia would renege on it, whether two months later, six months later, 12 months later, and so on. So - and so actually, strangely, I agree to some extent with Putin. I mean, he sees this war as a civilizational struggle, and I think it is that. I think it's a big test for the West.

GROSS: Let me take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. And his new book "Invasion" is about covering the war in Ukraine. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the British paper The Guardian. His new book "Invasion: The Inside Story Of Russia's Bloody War And Ukraine's Fight For Survival" is based on his reporting throughout the war in Ukraine so far.

You've written a lot about Russian interference in the 2016 election, including in your book "Collusion." Knowing what you know now about Russia's - you know, how Russia had planned to invade Ukraine - and I don't know if those plans date back to 2016 or not - do you think that one of the reasons why Putin wanted Trump in office because he knew Hillary Clinton would be an opponent of Russia and that it might be easier to get around the Trump White House without consequences?

HARDING: I think broadly, yes. I mean, I think Donald Trump in the White House essentially gave Russia a free hand in international affairs. And certainly, as I write in "Collusion," I mean, the Kremlin was all in for Donald Trump. They had a spy at the heart of Donald Trump's campaign in 2016 and launched a major online kind of troll and impersonation exercise to try and game it, to try and push Donald Trump and to kneecap - you know, chop the legs off Hillary Clinton. And definitely there was a sort of foreign policy element to this.

And one thing that bewilders me still - I mean, after everything that we know, after my books, of other people's excellent books, after a very good bipartisan Senate investigation into what happened in 2016 - is why Donald Trump even now still repeats Kremlin foreign policy talking points. I mean, recently he was tweeting about the fact that a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile landed in Poland, killing two people, saying so why do we bother arming the Ukrainians? I mean, it's remarkable. I mean, if he's not a Kremlin asset - and we can talk about that - he certainly behaves as if he is one.

And it's clear to me that if he runs, when he runs, the Russians will be very, very keen to see Trump II because probably they imagine that U.S. military support to Kyiv will stop the next day, within a matter of hours from a Trump administration Mark II, possibly the U.S. will withdraw from NATO. But basically, with Trump back, he stands a much better prospect of winning on the battlefield because without American assistance, I think Ukraine would struggle to hold the line, and advancing would be almost impossible.

GROSS: As I said, you've written about Russian interference in the 2016 election including in your book "Collusion." And that book was, in part, about the now-infamous dossier that claimed that the Russians had compromising video and information about Trump and could use that to blackmail him. That dossier has been discredited. And I'm wondering your thoughts about that, if you think that maybe some of that is actually true even though the source might have been sketchy. Like, where do you stand on that now, knowing what you know?

HARDING: Yeah, I mean, I don't quite accept that it's been completely discredited. I mean, I think it's interesting that a lot of people forget about the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which went far further than Robert Mueller and said, among other things, that the FSB spy agency effectively ran the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where Donald Trump stayed in November 2013, had surveillance in guest rooms, had access to rosters. And, you know, we know also that the FSB runs a prostitution network.

Now, I mean, it's a long story, but I can tell you - we've talked about this before - that my family apartment in Moscow was bugged. The British embassy told us there's not much we could do about it and also said that there was video clearly in the bedroom. So the FSB spies on foreign guests, especially high-profile ones. We know that Donald Trump has been going to Moscow since the late 1980s, since the summer of 1987. We know as well and - as we discussed, that everything he says, when it comes to foreign policy, is basically supportive of the Putin world, we know as well.

So I think it's not clear-cut. I mean, was the dossier an immaculate document? No, it wasn't. Did it - was it the first sort of piece of paper to raise an alarm and to say that the Russians were trying to kind of encourage and promote Donald Trump? Yes, it was. So I think we shouldn't be too - kind of too hasty. Let's see where we end up in a few years' time. I mean, I'd be very intrigued to see the Donald Trump file, if it exists, in the Moscow archives. If there's another Russian revolution and we can get hold of it, I think it might tell us one or two things.

GROSS: Can you talk about the role of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in terms of influence on Putin's thinking and on the war and Putin's stance toward the West as being, you know, against Russian civilization?

HARDING: One thing I tried to explain in my book is that there's also a spiritual, a religious, dimension to this war from Russia's perspective. And the key figure here is Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. And Kirill - interesting career. He's a former KGB agent, I kid you not. Generally, Russian patriarchs during the Soviet period were all KGB agents. He certainly was one.

He's described Vladimir Putin as a miracle sent by God - this is entirely without irony - and has also said that Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine will have their sins washed clean before ascending to heaven. And so there's been a sort of strong merger between the state, in the form of the Kremlin, ostensibly, a secular organization, and the church. And Putin appears to have become increasingly religious in recent years. He crosses himself. He goes to services. His defense minister interestingly, Sergei Shoigu, crosses himself as well.

And this struggle against Ukraine is being portrayed by Russian state television not just as a military struggle, but also a metaphysical struggle against the evils of the West, the decadent West. And recently - I'm not exaggerating - Russian state media has been talking about de-Satanizing (ph) Ukraine. In other words, Ukraine is full of godless satanists, America and, I guess, the U.K. as well. And probably, that means you and I, Terry, are also satanists on some level. But this is how it's being pitched, as a kind of religious crusade, almost more like the medieval period than the 21st century.

GROSS: Luke Harding, thank you so much for talking with us. And please stay safe. I wish you good health and safety when you return to Ukraine.

HARDING: Thank you.

GROSS: Luke Harding is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian who's been covering the war in Ukraine. His new book is called "Invasion." Our interview was recorded yesterday. He spoke to us from the BBC during a brief trip back to London. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Filipino journalist Maria Ressa. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what the committee called her courageous fight for freedom of expression. Ressa faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news organization's reporting angered government officials. She has a new memoir called "How To Stand Up To A Dictator." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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