The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new book on the war in Ukraine tries to tell a story in progress

If journalism is the first draft of history, Luke Harding’s ‘Invasion’ feels something like a first revision

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky participates via video during the 68th NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Madrid on Nov. 21. (Chema Moya/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Of all the millions of horrifying, heartbreaking and sometimes inspiring images that have emerged from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion nine months ago, one that has stood out for me is a photo of “Wolf_68” graffitied on the wall of a home in Bucha, a city where Russian troops carried out a grisly massacre of Ukrainian civilians in March. Reuters reporters quickly determined that “Wolf_68” was the handle, on several social media networks, of a Russian soldier from the northwestern city of Pskov.

Wolf_68 stands out not only because it’s unusual for war criminals to sign their work. The moment also exemplifies a war shaped by its participants’ use of social media networks — particularly, Twitter, Instagram and the Russian-developed app Telegram. Media technologies often define wars in popular memory, from Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War to the grainy televised images of Vietnam to the cable coverage of the Persian Gulf War, which seemed so carefully choreographed that it prompted the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to make the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the war hadn’t actually happened.

The imagery streaming from Ukraine functions as a very different tool for its participants. It’s a conflict whose participants themselves are sharing images from the battlefields, in which the easy availability of such imagery has spawned a cottage industry of open-source analysis around the world, and in which it’s no longer surprising to see the president of Ukraine sparring with Elon Musk on Twitter or some of Vladimir Putin’s top political allies criticizing the Russian military’s performance on Telegram.

The abundance of firsthand accounts would seem to make the job of a traditional war correspondent both easier — there’s no shortage of compelling material to compile — and harder: What can a journalist say about the war that its participants aren’t already saying?

Stepping up to that challenge is the veteran Guardian correspondent Luke Harding, whose new book, “Invasion: The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival,” is part of the first wave of book-length accounts of the war. It’s been an astonishingly busy decade for Harding: He’s written eight books in the last 11 years (including this one) on topics including Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the investigation of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Kremlin, and the assassination of Russian spy-turned-Putin-critic Alexander Litvinenko. Often, as in this case, he tells stories that are still unfolding. “Invasion” ends with Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv in early September. My review copy arrived in early November. If newspaper reporting is the “first draft of history,” this feels something like a first revision.

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Having been based in Moscow until 2011, when he was expelled by the Kremlin for his critical coverage, and boasting a deep bench of sources in Russia and Ukraine, Harding is uniquely qualified to tell this story. He was in Kyiv when the invasion began and has spent much of the last year in the country. He’s a gifted storyteller, and his moment-by-moment reconstructions of the events in Bucha, and of the last stand of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, stand out as almost excruciatingly harrowing.

Still, when I approached this book, my first question was who exactly it was for. Anyone following the war closely enough to want to buy this book is already familiar with most of the stories it tells. Those events are still too recent, and their outcome too unsettled, for the author to reach any broad conclusions about their significance. But the book does leave a few indelible impressions.

Harding returns repeatedly to the role of social media. The war in Ukraine may be the first Twitter war — and given the state of things at Twitter, perhaps the last one. Though its battlefield performance has been surprisingly effective, Ukraine’s most overwhelming victory has been in the information space, and Harding makes the case that this storytelling is an effort by the whole of society. As the blue-and-yellow flags still fluttering from houses throughout the West attest, this is a country that is astonishingly good at telling its story to the world. “As soon as the first enemy tank rolled into view,” Harding writes, Ukrainian citizens “surreptitiously reached for their phones.”

Of course, no one exemplifies Ukraine’s mastery of the information space more than its comedian turned president. On the eve of the war, when he was consistently downplaying or dismissing Western governments’ warnings of an imminent invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky was viewed by many in Ukraine and abroad as dangerously out of his depth, “always two or three steps behind what is happening,” as one former Ukrainian official quoted by Harding puts it.

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But as it turned out, once the war began, what Ukraine needed in its darkest moment was not a master battlefield strategist — by all accounts, Zelensky leaves most key military decisions to his generals — but a man who is very, very good at playing the president on TV, as he did for years on his fictional TV show.

Harding describes how Zelensky puts together his “master class in messaging and emotional outreach,” personally choosing the camera angles and locations for his videos — often to the frustration of his security aides who would prefer he stay in a well-guarded bunker. He is helped by a close team of aides, many of whom are “showrunners” — veterans of Zelensky’s TV production company. The contrast with Russia’s tightly controlled and censored media environment and its increasingly withdrawn and erratic president is glaring. The war is unlikely to end soon, and Russia still has enormous military advantages, but today it is Zelensky’s nemesis Putin — once thought of on the world stage as a master tactician and something of a showman in his own right — who looks two or three steps behind the curve.

Harding’s most convincing argument may be his contention that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014 and even more so in the past year has “consolidated Ukrainian nationhood and identity.” Putin has spent recent years on what appears to be an isolated and deranged dive into the history books in search of evidence that Ukraine is “not a country.” That argument didn’t hold water before, but through his own actions, he has ironically done as much as anyone to make Ukraine’s nationhood “real.”

Harding provocatively claims that Ukraine’s secret weapon in the war is not any U.S.-supplied rocket or air defense system but a “mode of social organization.” While Russia’s current society is “vertical in their thinking, always looking feudally upward,” Ukrainians are “horizontal — a collective or superorganism.” He quotes a friend, the acclaimed Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, describing his nation as an “organized anarchy” of freedom-loving individualists. In this context, the supposed weakness of Ukraine’s prewar polity — its corrupt politicians and feeble central state — are recast as strengths. The Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko is quoted expanding on the idea, arguing that “a leitmotif of Ukrainian literature, historiography, and philosophy is opposition to the centralized idea of state and universe.” This makes it a society that’s very difficult to govern in normal times, but very effective at overthrowing bad governments or resisting an invasion launched by the power-mad dictator next door.

Sociologists may quibble with the generalization, but this is a book that — to an unusual extent for a work of journalism — makes no apologies for its full-throated celebration of the Ukrainian cause. The works of dispassionate analysis will come once the guns fall silent.

For all that Harding is inspired — as his readers probably will be, too — by the stories of Ukrainian resistance he tells, he never loses sight of the sickening tragedy that makes the sacrifices necessary. As one Ukrainian serviceman puts it ruefully when Harding asks if Ukraine will win: “After fifty thousand people have died there is no victory. War is absolute madness.”

Invasion

The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival

By Luke Harding

Vintage. 312 pp. $18

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