Journalist Luke Harding has an insider’s understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Harding served as Moscow bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian from 2007 until 2011. During his tenure, Russian agents followed him, tapped his phone and repeatedly broke into his home.
“I almost feel like I could write the KGB handbook, I lived it for quite a long time,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.
Harding was expelled from Russia after four years, in part due to his reporting on Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who defected to England and died in 2006 after drinking tea dosed with polonium-210, a radioactive poison. Litvinenko’s murder is the subject of Harding’s new book, A Very Expensive Poison.
Harding understands how Russia’s reach extends far beyond its borders, and he takes very seriously the issue of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election. “I don’t want to sound too hyperbolic, but it’s really an assault on the Western liberal order,” he says.
Harding adds that Putin’s aim is to disrupt the politics that have dominated America and Europe for the last 70 years. “[Putin] wants to turn the clock back to an age of great powers, to almost an imperial era of the 19th century, where strong sovereign nations didn’t talk about values or human rights or anything like that,” he says. “They cut deals, they had summits, they made grand bargains … and they divvied up, they divided the world into spheres of influence.”
On Putin’s tactics for creating false stories
This is one of Putin’s tactics that he first learnt as a junior spy in Leningrad when he joined the KGB — essentially lying, if you’re in the KGB. There’s nothing wrong about it. It’s simply a kind of tactic. It’s a kind of operational strategy. And what we’ve seen, essentially, is that the Kremlin has kind of perfected these postmodern techniques, first of all, by squashing domestic criticism and taking over TV inside Russia, but really, over the last seven or eight years, willing this out to an English language audience through things like Russia Today, the English-language propaganda channel of the Kremlin.
The goal is essentially to persuade some people that the Kremlin’s view of events is true, but also to kind of confuse and bamboozle everybody else by floating conspiracy theories, so there are 10 different explanations for an event, by doing fake news, by hiring armies of trolls. … And so it’s clever, it’s clever because it allows, actually, the Russian regime to get away with all sorts of things, and increasingly, I guess, exploiting the openness of Western societies and America in particular.
On how Russia tries to show that Western governments are no better than Russia’s
It’s an operation … designed internally for Russians. The message is that actually, if you look at the West, it looks a bit shinier than Russia, they’ve got better roads, better infrastructure, but essentially, everywhere is the same — all politicians are corrupt. All elections are fixed. The establishment will cheat if it can. You can hire any politician if the price is right.
And actually, Putin has been very successful at doing that, if you look at Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany who was on the Kremlin’s payroll, if you look at Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-prime minister of Italy. And in the U.S., I think the goal of this hacking operation was not primarily to get Donald Trump to win — although they’re delighted that he did win — but to sort of discredit American democracy and say that “Your democracy is no better than our democracy.”
On why Russia has given financial support to far-right European candidates
[Russia] wants sanctions imposed by France and other EU countries against Russia to be dropped. It wants [to help] Putin’s, sort of, friends who can no longer access their wine collections in Switzerland — I’ve heard that from one oligarch, who’s been complaining he can’t get to Switzerland anymore where his wine is stored and he’s very unhappy about that. He can’t go skiing in the French Alps or take their yachts to Sardinia. This is insulting. These are very rich people who can no longer kind of play in some of the world’s most beautiful spaces. So this is the key geopolitical goal.
On harassment Harding faced while Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian
We had a series of break-ins at our flat, where these agents would come in, obviously when we were away, and they would leave clues that any idiot could find. You didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes, it was completely obvious that they cut the central heating when it was -20 [degrees], that they deleted my screensaver showing my wife and kids. And most chillingly, we came back … to discover the window next to my 6-year-old son’s bed, which we always double-locked, because it was a huge drop to the courtyard below, had been bust open and propped open next to the bed. And it was a sort of chilling sign, if you like, that if you carry on writing the stuff you’re writing about, your son might just fall out the window.
And I took advice from the British Embassy in Moscow, they told me that this kind of harassment, psychological harassment, really, was meted out to British diplomats, to American diplomats as well, to their Russian staff, and that our apartment was now bugged and there was not much we could do about it. They also said the FSB [federal security service], the KGB, the spy agency, didn’t actually hurt kids, but this was kind of nasty stuff.
On Russian surveillance tactics
One thing puts me in mind of Donald Trump. There’s a whole conversation about what he did or didn’t do in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Moscow in 2013 — about whether there was sexual activity going on or not. But one thing I can tell you is that the FSB really are obsessed with sex, because I came home after one break-in, and I discovered a sex manual left by the side of my bed, the marital bed. Next to all of the middle-class novels that your listeners have in English, there was this bloody sex manual, and the FSB, the KGB, they had bookmarked it to page 181, and it was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
I opened this thing and I’m thinking, “What are they trying to tell me? Is there a frequency issue or some other kind of technical problem they’ve observed on their video?” And the page was on orgasms, how to have a better orgasm, and of course we kind of wave this thing around at dinner parties and we laughed at it, but actually it wasn’t so funny. It showed that the KGB has a dark sense of humor. But they were basically saying, “We’re watching you.”
On the dangers facing Russian dissidents
There’s a huge distinction between Americans working in Moscow, diplomats or otherwise, and Brits, and Russians. And the Russians are the real hero in this story, because the Putin assumption is that any American, any Brit in Moscow is a spy — that we’re all spies … why else would we be there? So you can hound a foreign spy, but you don’t kill foreign spies.
In my case, I was sort of deported. Whereas for Russians, it’s different. If you’re a traitor in the Kremlin’s eyes, like Alexander Litvinenko, then anything can happen — to you being fired three weeks before you’re due to get your state pension or your daughter losing her university place, to you being shot.
And we’ve seen some of the bravest and the brightest Russians been killed. I’m thinking of Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in 2006 in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment, who was a liberal journalist and a friend of Alexander Litvinenko’s. And I’m thinking of Boris Nemtsov, who was an opposition leader, shot dead in early 2015, 300 meters away from the Kremlin in the most secure part of town. So the Russians are the hero in this story, and if and when Russia does become a democracy or a semi-democracy, I hope that they can be honored.