Interview With Guardian Foreign Correspondent and Mafia State Author, Luke Harding

06/01/2015 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2016

Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent from the Guardian, with extensive experience in conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Georgia and Ukraine. He has also worked as a journalist out of Delhi, Berlin and Moscow. In 2011, after four years as Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, he became the first foreign journalist since the end of the Cold War to be deported from Russia. Harding is also the author of several books, including Mafia State which recounts his experiences with FSB surveillance in Russia; WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy and most recently, The Snowden Files. Harding agreed to sit down for an interview with me after his speech at the University of the Oxford on May 27, 2015. The script of our interview is below:

You were the first foreign journalist to be deported from Russia since the end of the Cold War. David Satter, the first American journalist to be expelled, has cited the Kremlin's fears of internal unrest diffusing from the Maidan revolt in Ukraine, as the main reason for his 2013 expulsion. But your deportation occurred in 2011, two years before Satter's. What explains the timing of your expulsion and why do you think you were particularly targeted at that time?

Luke Harding: Basically, I think my expulsion was primarily to do with my publication of the Boris Berezovsky story. Essentially, I fell into the Russian system fairly early on. I was bugged, followed and interrogated by the FSB in the Lefortovo Prison. I just couldn't get out of their system and I wrote about things the Russian authorities didn't like. I wrote about Putin's money and lots of stories about Alexander Litvinenko. I went to the North Caucasus. Basically, I did everything you would get yellow cards for, and I eventually completed the whole set of cards. And somehow the Russian authorities concluded that I was effectively a British spy working undercover as a journalist for the Guardian. I don't know what their fantasy was. I was not a spy. I was just a journalist trying to paint a real picture at a time when the official line was actively promoting disinformation. Then there was WikiLeaks. I was deported right after writing all of those stories about WikiLeaks, which embarrassed the Russian authorities. But I don't really know the entire story. You'll have to ask Putin for that.

Your expulsion and ban from entering Russia was only temporary though, as it was rescinded shortly afterwards. Why do you think the Russian authorities changed their mind?

Luke Harding: I think the massive outcry in Britain that followed my expulsion played a big part. Sergei Lavrov was going to visit Britain in February 2011, when my expulsion was announced, and there was speculation that my expulsion could motivate the British government to not invite Lavrov. My deportation occurred at a time when the British government's position towards Putin was changing as well. While Gordon Brown had shunned Putin (there had been no direct contact with Putin after 2007), David Cameron showed more willingness to normalize relations with Putin again.

Ultimately, I was offered a short-term visa but I did not accept the Russian government's offer. Returning to Russia with the Putin regime still in power would have resulted in even more intense surveillance and harassment from the FSB, which I did not want to experience.

You attributed your expulsion in part to your controversial take on the Boris Berezovsky. What is your opinion on Berezovsky's death- murder or suicide?

Luke Harding: I don't think we know conclusively. I have written a lot about it. Most of Berezovsky's friends claim he was murdered, but his private secretary and bodyguard both think he committed suicide. The coroner ultimately delivered an open verdict. So we do not know- its possible he was murdered and its possible that he killed himself. It is true however that he was under enormous and sustained pressure from the Kremlin over the years as Putin sought to destroy him. But alternatively, I guess you could say that he sought to destroy himself by launching that case against Roman Abramovich, which totally blew up.

You were also in Russia at the time Sergei Magnitsky was murdered in 2009. What are your thoughts on the Magnitsky case and how was it perceived in Russia at the time?

Luke Harding: I think the Magnitsky case got bigger as time went by. I think it became a really big thing just as I was being kicked out in 2011. It was then that the Magnitsky list gained more traction. But I think Bill Browder has found his calling. He was undoubtedly a great capitalist but I think he is an even better global campaigner. He is kind of like a virtuous Terminator, and a very effective one at that.

Another journalistic project that was definitely controversial to Russian authorities was your work in the North Caucasus in the aftermath of the 2008 war in South Ossetia. Do you believe that the deportations and human rights abuses that occurred in South Ossetia constitute war crimes under international law?

Luke Harding: I covered the war for the Guardian in 2008 and the course of the war was kind of tragic because you had South Ossetian paramilitaries, following on from the Russian army, doing the heavy lifting. There was ethnic cleansing of villages, shooting and killing of teenagers and boys. Obviously, its up to the International Criminal Court whether that constituted war crimes or not but there was obviously a lot of ethnic cleansing that went on and the borders were reshaped.

Having worked in both Georgia and Ukraine during crisis periods, did you perceive any major similarities in the narratives of both conflicts?

Luke Harding: The outcome from Georgia was particularly appalling, and I think that without Georgia, we wouldn't have had Ukraine. Essentially, the response from the international community and the Europeans was incredibly weak. There was an agreement that was never properly enforced; Sarkozy flew in and met with Putin, and so on.

After Georgia, Putin realized that he could use military force in a neighboring state to change dynamics and reshape borders at will, with little risk of a real, harsh response from the international community. Right after the war, I remember talking to pro-Russian groups in Crimea and writing pieces about the Mafia state. During those discussions, we talked about the possibility of a coup being staged in Crimea and Crimea becoming the next Georgia. And I wrote about this, as a journalist, you sometimes to have to depict your ideas hyperbolically. South Ossetia had been captured so easily and with so little bloodshed on the Russian side. Crimea is the size of Belgium; it was captured and annexed in less than 4 weeks. Quite astonishing. So the Georgian war was very important. The death toll was lower than in Ukraine and the campaign was shorter though, with basically 4 or 5 days of fighting.

Why do you think that the Western powers responded much less harshly to the 2008 Georgia War than to Russian aggression in Ukraine, which provoked sanctions and attempts to internationally isolate Russia?

Luke Harding: I think it was in part because the fighting stopped more quickly. Also, the territorial dynamics did not change that much in Georgia. South Ossetia got bigger; I was there and I watched it happen. Abkhazia also got slightly bigger. Essentially, these were entities that had already seceded from Georgia proper though. Ukraine by contrast is such a headache, because Putin does not know what he really wants from Novorossiya. He wants to keep a military presence in Ukraine but not formally annex it. The pseudo-states he has created are kind of rubbish. People get killed and Putin can blame whomever he wants, but these new entities cannot function as actual states- too many people have left. Putin really does not know what to do in Ukraine. The Kremlin claims the sanctions have not been effective, but I think they have been effective, and have had a very strong deterrent effect. No one is talking anymore about Novorossiya stretching all the way to beyond Odessa; that is a plan that has basically been shelved.

You were in Ukraine as well in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of war. Why do you think Putin decided to annex Crimea? Was it motivated by geopolitical expansion or as some like David Satter have argued, Putin's fear of being toppled from power like Yanukovych was?

Luke Harding: I think Putin's invasion was pique. For a start, Putin did not believe the revolution in Maidan was real. He thought it was fake, inspired by the CIA and the State Department. Putin used military force to show that he was a kind of Hosiah, a boss or landlord. I think the annexation of Crimea was pre-planned, though some aspects appeared improvisational. I watched what happened in Eastern Ukraine. It was a classic Russian intelligence operation. Soldiers, paramilitaries and Spetsnaz (special forces) were sent in and set this whole thing off.

Far-right factions feature very prominently in the official Putin regime narrative of the Ukraine conflict. From your experience there, how prominent a role have far-right factions played in shaping the dynamics of the Ukraine conflict?

Luke Harding: The Ukrainian far right has definitely had a presence. I have met and talked to members of the Azov Battalion. The point is that the far right was an element in the Maidan, but a relatively smell element. And it is an element in the post-Maidan conflict, but it is not the dominant element. In other words, it has been wildly exaggerated by Russia for propaganda purposes and actually there are as many, if not more, ultranationalists in Moscow and St. Petersburg as in Kiev. It is a theme in the big symphony of the conflict, but it is far from the dominant theme.

I spent a week in Kiev talking to people involved in the Maidan protests, and they were a heterodox bunch. There were all sorts of people there: atheists, Christians, socialists, students, IT workers and a few skinheads. But I talked to the chief rabbi in Kiev, who pointed out that the main Jewish synagogue in Kiev was situated three hundred meters away from where Maidan was happening. The synagogue was not damaged or touched at all by the protests. One of the protesters killed in Maidan was a Jewish man from western Ukraine. The idea that they are predominantly fascists just does not add up.

The Ukrainian media, based on many Western sources, is described as deeply polarized on the conflict between Russian propaganda and extreme anti-Russian propaganda coming from organizations such as Poroshenko's Ministry of Truth. Is this characterization accurate in your view? And if not, to what extent has there been an independent media presence in the Ukraine conflict?

Luke Harding: Ukraine's media is definitely more plural than most other post-Soviet countries. Sure, you have the Ministry of Truth but you also have Hromadzke TV, which a fantastic independent media source. It has English language and Ukrainian language programs. There are a lot of real journalists doing stories. Despite everything I am way more optimistic about Ukraine than I am about Russia. In Russia, independent news media is much more restricted: Moscow News is defunct now; and the Moscow Times, while still a good independent source is gradually declining in its impact. Russia is in kind of a dark vortex, but Ukraine gives me some hope.

In addition to all your work in the post-Soviet region, you have also spent considerable time as a journalist in Libya. Why do you think Libya descended into a cycle of prolonged political instability after the removal of Gaddafi in 2011?

Luke Harding: I have not been back since the election. Gaddafi was ousted but where were the West afterwards? There was very little support or capacity building by Western powers, to help turn Libya into a normal country. The support was there internally for creating a stable country though. I have met many Libyans who can attest to that. The strange thing was that many Libyans did not support the NATO campaign but also wanted Gaddafi gone. But now, Libya has turned into a terrible maelstrom. It did not have to be this way. Libya does not have the kind of sectarian problems that other Middle Eastern countries do. It is homogenous and has large oil reserves. But it is failed or at least failing.

You mention Libya was homogenous. Do you think that regionalism in Libya is exaggerated in traditional analyses of the conflict?

Luke Harding: No, there were definitely sharp regional divides in Libya. There was Sirte, Tripoli, Benghazi, and southern Libya. But there was not a kind of toxic sectarianism that was chewing up other parts of the region. So in theory, there could have been some kind of agreement but there was not. But whose fault is that? Is it NATO's fault? I think Western countries have a lot of responsibility, but Libya is a country with 40 years of dictatorship as well, which definitely played a role.

Finally, I have a question about a recent event that you have been following closely. What is your opinion on the Boris Nemtsov murder? Do you think it was directly ordered by the Kremlin and if so, why?

Luke Harding: I have written about Nemtsov. Though I was not there, I think the Kremlin had real-time intelligence about Boris Nemtsov's movements. We know that Nemtsov was under surveillance by the FSB. They would have had a clear idea of what he was doing. It is inconceivable that the FSB was not involved in some way, either directly or not, and if the FSB was involved at all, the trail inevitably goes back to the presidential administration. One does not know; it may have been simply a Kadyrov operation. But he was either killed by the state or rogue elements associated with the state in my view. I think that the state's order to kill him would have been likely due to the information he planned to release about Ukraine that depicted Putin's master plan to annex Crimea.