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Interview: Luke Harding

I meet Luke Harding in Blackwells’ first floor café on a muggy May afternoon. His sitting position (jaunty, legs hooked over arm of leather chair) is reminiscent of a supply teacher a good decade younger than his Twitter handle ‘@lukeharding1968’ – would suggest. His choice of refreshment, a box of organic apple juice drunk through a straw, completes the look of an irreverent thirty-something.

Harding is in Oxford to give a talk on Edward Snowden for the International Relations Society in the wake of his book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. He is an Oxford alumnus himself, having read English at University College, and edited Cherwell.

His third book, Mafia State, was an account of the monitoring and intimidation he sufferered over the course of his stint as The Guardian’s Russia correspondent, which culminated in his expulsion from Moscow in 2011, in the most extreme example of aggression towards the Western press since the Cold War. Harding has been home for just three days after a three week stint in Donetsk, where he witnessed the chaotic inception of the ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’ in a pro-Russian pocket of Ukraine which looks set to follow in Crimea’s footsteps as Putin’s latest acquisition.

When I ask Harding about the situation in Ukraine, his response is unequivocal. “There’s nothing good to report. Essentially, what’s happening in Ukraine is not civil war; it’s a multifaceted Kremlin operation to create mayhem.”

His analogies span the bulk of the 20th century and his predictions for the future are equally far-reaching. “This is the biggest crisis in Europe since the Cold War. It’s not the break-up of Yugoslavia, but the strategic consensus since 1945 has been ripped up. We now have an authoritarian state, with armies on the march.” What next?

“It’s clear to me that Putin intends to dismember Ukraine and join it up with Transnistria, then perhaps he’ll go as far as Moldova in one way or another,” Harding says. This is part of what he deems Putin’s over-arching project: an expansionist attempt to gather Russo-phones together under one yoke, which he terms ‘scary and Eurasian-ist’, and which he notes is darkly reminiscent of “another dictator of short stature” who concocted “a similarly irredentist projecting the 1930s”.

Comment pages have been filled with pieces linking Putin’s annexation of the Crimea to Hitler’s 1938 Anschluss for months, and the impact of such comparisons – as well as their validity– is wavering. Harding checks himself, saying “I think we should avoid these 1930s analogies because they aren’t very helpful”, but the temptation to see a pattern, and to make predictions for the future based on analogies of the past, permeates our conversation.

Another dictator crops up, again predictably: according to Harding, the techniques used by Stalin to consolidate power in Soviet states are now being implemented across Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “Sham referendums, local clone dictators, eliminating political competition – all these methods were rolled out across the USSR after World War II. The Crimean Tartar parliament is currently being rounded up on the grounds of extremism and their leader’s been banned. In Donetsk, Russian forces are working with local criminals, the mafia, and the unemployed, creating this kind of orc army”.

In a situation as fraught and pivotal as Ukraine, a foreign correspondent is expected to consult a crystal ball to give the press the predictions that they crave. Harding’s references to the past and future are tied together with conviction and assured rhetoric, but he admits that the situation is both unique and difficult for anyone to get a handle on. “When there’s a bunch of foreign correspondents sitting around in Donetsk trying to work out what the hell’s going on, these analogies help to make sense of it all. They’re going around Donetsk with baseball bats and rods and they’re beating up anyone carrying a Ukrainian flag until they’re on the verge of death.”

It’s these scenes that sparked the Anschluss comparison, but analogies to the past imply that there is a method to Putin’s madness. In fact, remarks Harding, when it comes to Putin, the surest way to predict the future is to abandon reason entirely. “If you want to predict what he’s going to do next, and you’ve got a sane option or an insane option, pick the crazy one and you’ll never be disappointed.”

The only certainty is uncertainty, and his voice shifts up an octave to impersonate a UK diplomat despairing at the Russian psyche: “They don’t think the way we think they should think.” At one point, at the end of a fairly damning indictment of Cameron’s mercantile foreign policy, Harding sums up the differences between the Russian Duma and the British Parliament. “The British system works, and the politics are all about how to best manage rather than ideology. Russia doesn’t work — it’s crime-ridden and dysfunctional, so life there is more vivid. It’s a wonderful place to be an intellectual or a writer – the arts have been constrained in many senses, and they’re all the richer for it.”

This vivifying of life, especially in the face of illiberalism, seems to be one of Harding’s preoccupations. The breathless prose of The Snowden Files has been picked up on by critics of the book as both one of its strongest and weakest points, since fast-paced excitement frequently takes over from dispassionate analysis. Mafia State and The Snowden Files share a common theme, namely, a narrative that places one man against a giant and relatively faceless governmental machine.

The two books also dovetailed perfectly in April, when Snowden appeared on Putin’s weekly Q&A session on state television to ask the Russian president how Russian surveillance of private citizens compared to that of the UK or USA. Putin’s answer was classic of the man, and the episode reflected badly on Snowden, who went from a freedom-fighter to a puppet of the Kremlin in the eyes of many. The incident spawned conspiracy theories (supported by circumstantial rather than concrete evidence) which paint Snowden as a double agent working for the Russians, rather than the solo agent he has always claimed to be. I ask Harding whether the trajectory of The Snowden Files would have changed, had all this happened while he was still writing. “Well, we’re releasing an updated version later this year” .

And what about Snowden’s credibility? Some have criticized Snowden for claiming asylum in a country with such a poor human rights record; not to mention, a lack of freedom of the press. “Well, it would have been better if he’d gone to Iceland, or Ecuador, or anywhere but Russia, really. The TV appearance wouldn’t have been his idea; it would have been his lawyer’s.

 “You have to remember this is a regime which is adept at video propaganda, and Snowden popping up during a bladder-testing four hour broadcast makes for great TV.” We part ways. He is off to Quod, to wine and dine members of the International Relations Society. However, before we go, the conversation turns to journalism. The doom-and-gloom of Putin’s stranglehold on Ukraine, of Britain’s inaction, of the NSA – all this is temporally forgotten as Harding talks in effusive terms about his career as a correspondent so far. “It’s been great. I’ve been round the world, I write books. I honestly can’t think of any of my contemporaries who have had more fun than me.”

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