The conflict in Ukraine is not yet one year old, but it has already challenged many basic assumptions about war. At the same time, it offers a brutal reminder as to why the democratic values underpinning our societies matter. This unprovoked invasion has justly snapped many western countries out of their complacency.
It has forced us to look back at the relative inaction of our governments when faced with Russia’s violations of laws and norms, whether they be military incursions in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 or Syria in 2015, the use of chemical and radiological weapons against its own citizens at home and overseas, or meddling in democratic elections. The list is long, and our response has been underwhelming.
For those of us living in the west, watching the war unfold, it has been heartening to see the support offered by so many non-governmental actors, whether civilians or corporations. Thousands of volunteers worldwide have been countering Russian cyber attacks, shipping generators into Ukraine, helping people evacuate, and welcoming Ukrainians into their homes.
In the case of the private sector, we have witnessed big businesses rapidly divesting from Russia. We have also been impressed by European and transatlantic unity, including Finland and Sweden opting to join Nato.
At the same time, we have been distressed by the negative impact this conflict has had at the global level. North Americans and Europeans have been confronting significant increases in the basic cost of living, yet the spillover has been far worse in the countries of the global south.
Here, too, we have also learned — again, to our distress — that many of the countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia bearing the brunt of food and energy shortages appear to be more aligned with the Russian and Chinese narratives and world view than with the west’s.
Luke Harding’s book Invasion, while reflecting on many of these macro themes, rightly places the Ukrainian people at the heart of this saga. He describes, in elegant and compelling prose, not just the brutality of war, but also the tenacity, resilience, bravery and humour of the Ukrainian people.
I particularly liked the behind-the-scenes description — based on his own experience and extensive networks built up over years of reporting for the Guardian from Ukraine and Russia — of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s evolution from a marginal and slightly diminished political figure in the early days of his presidency to the international icon he has become, embodying leadership skills in a world seemingly devoid of them. Zelenskyy and his team’s mastery of storytelling, along with their command of social media, have helped them to control the narrative to a degree not seen in decades, outgunning Putin, a man many thought was a tactical (albeit evil) genius in this arena.
Harding recounts how the war started years before Russian tanks rolled into the country on February 24 2022, years even before the Russians invaded Crimea and the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. Putin was never comfortable with Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, but took time to forge his irredentist ambitions. Russian claims on the territory go back still further, and Harding delves into many of the historical debates. I am reminded of my maternal grandmother’s panicked flight from Lviv (then Lemberg) in western Ukraine in 1914, just days before another group of marauding Russians invaded.
Harding also reviews many of the significant issues and battles that have defined the first year of the conflict, such as the perilous Russian takeover of the Zaporizhzhia civilian nuclear power station (recklessly putting not just Russian soldiers at risk, but also the entire region, if another Chernobyl-like disaster were to occur), the horrific events in Bucha and Mariupol, the absurdity and humour of the Snake Island incident, and how increasingly advanced US weapons have been a game changer for the adaptable and agile Ukrainian military (in sharp contrast to the rigid, highly centralised Russian forces).
Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield, in cyber space and in the information war have inspired many around the world, and have accelerated our learning about how to execute future wars. Students at military academies are assiduously taking notes.
While it is never easy to write about a continuing conflict, especially in the early days, when it is far from clear whether it will end in two months, two years or two decades, Invasion will become an important part of the historical record. This book should be of interest even for those who follow the war closely, and most definitely for the educated lay public. It is extremely well written, a fast read, and offers an excellent balance between personal encounters and the broader sequence of events. Whatever the eventual outcome, in so many ways, as Harding reminds us, the Ukrainians have already won.
Karin von Hippel is the director-general, Royal United Services Institute
Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival by Luke Harding Faber £20, 336 pages
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