A number of my family members and friends who know about my involvement in Russia and Ukraine have called me to discuss what is going on in our broken world. I have been encouraged to share some thoughts on the complex issues at stake in this conflict, which I was initially hesitant to do but decided this may be helpful for those who need some advice on how to understand what is happening.
Let me explain how I got so involved in the crisis in Ukraine. From 1995 to 2014, I served as President of the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) in Moscow. When Vladimir Putin’s cronies in the Kremlin decided to close down RACU in 2014, we were able to sell our brand-new campus facility and transfer the net assets to the States. RACU’s Trustees decided to use the assets to support Christian educational ministries in Russia and Ukraine beginning in 2015. Then, when a law was passed in Russia labeling foreign organizations that were supporting institutions in the country as “foreign agencies” and their leaders “foreign agents,” request for grants to Russia from our new private investment fund quickly dried.
The Board of Trustees then decided to focus more of our resources in Ukraine, which was always viewed as the “Bible Belt” in the Soviet Union. Our investments expanded significantly, and we established many partnerships in Ukraine with Christian leaders in educational institutions and in church leadership. I visited numerous campuses, met the top leadership of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, and fell in love with this amazing country and its vibrant young people. I am getting multiple direct reports from Ukraine every day, and they give me much to celebrate and much to weep about. Joy and pain in equal doses.
The issues involved in this war between Russia and Ukraine are complex and it is easy to get discouraged. There are so many different opinions being thrown around and the domestic politics in our country make a thoughtful discussion even more difficult. My beginning recommendation, if you want to dig into the issues at stake, is to read a diversity of sources and not rely on any one news source. Even if you only want updates or high-level snapshots, I encourage you to use different news sources – right, left, and moderate. I do not get my information from TV or radio sources, but instead use the internet to access commentary by top scholars from a wide range of political perspectives, which includes various think-tanks and academic centers. I do this because I know people who are involved in these countries, and I care deeply about them and their families. I am not suggesting everyone needs to do this kind of deep research, but it is from these kinds of sources that I will share what I am learning.
Democracy is a fragile system and it requires checks and balances – and compromise (which is not a bad word). Our system of governance involves finding solutions to tough issues through vigorous and honest debate, and this is not easy in a country which has become polarized between Right and Left. It is easy to see how alluring authoritarian governments can be, because under these regimes citizens simply do and believe what their dictator tells them. There are no debates – just follow the leader, especially if he provides a reasonable economy, while often stealing enormous amounts for him and his friends. This is the case with Russia.
Putin is a serious threat to world peace because he has limited accountability and has built a personalized autocracy which is essentially based on him – not on any ideology, or political party. Unlike previous Soviet leaders, who had at least some accountability to the Politburo (presidential council) of top government leaders, Putin has created a deep state populated by national security and military leaders whom he has made very wealthy – beyond their wildest imagination – and who are as anti-Western and greedy as he is. What is his goal? In short, it is to rebuild Russian power, redo the political structure created after World War II, and make Russia the major power in Europe and Eurasia.
Putin is a pathological liar and has been spitting out a series of false charges against Ukraine to justify Russia’s attack. He has called Ukraine a “junta,” which stole power under the influence of the West, despite the fact that President Voldymyr Zelensky was democratically elected in 2019 after defeating 38 other candidates, something Putin has never done. Putin also claims Ukraine is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, when the reality is that it gave up all the nuclear weapons located in the country after the Soviet Union collapsed. Putin also claims Ukraine is not a real country but simply an appendage of Russia. A quick reminder: Ukraine was one of the fifteen republics that the Communist Party formed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from Moscow, a decision supported by 92% of its citizens.
It should be clear to Western leaders that Putin’s attack on Ukraine’s democracy will be for him a “forever war,” as long as he is in power in Moscow. He will use Russian military forces, sabotage, disinformation, cyberattacks and bribery, if needed, to prevent Ukraine from existing on Russia’s border as a legitimate independent state. The attack on Ukraine is not about Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO. Putin is threatened by a successful democracy in Ukraine, and he will do whatever it takes to prevent Ukraine from flourishing as a democratic nation on Russia’s border. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, is correct: “The Kremlin will remain committed to undermining Ukrainian (and Georgian, Moldovan, Armenian, etc.) democracy and sovereignty for as long as Putin remains in power and maybe longer if Russian autocracy continues.”
Journalists and analysts have reported that Putin expected the victory over Ukraine’s forces would be swift and devastating. Some claim that Russian intelligence sources indicated that Putin thought the battle would be over in two days. This partially explains why there was a significant delay in the initial invasion aimed at Kiev, because supply lines were not adequate.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that there are two types of wars. The first are wars of necessity, when a country fears that their vital interests are being threatened and their leaders use military force as a last resort. The second are wars of choice, which involve armed interventions in the absence of vital interests or other options. Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine is obviously a war of choice.
Putin’s arguments justifying the attack are based on lies and a false historic narrative. Protecting the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine is one of these ludicrous lies, since Russian speakers in Ukraine are much freer than in Russia. For a leader who has an interest in his country’s history and who appears to view himself as “Vladimir the Great,” Putin should know that wars of choice often start well but end badly. Aggressors who invade another country frequently underestimate what it takes to win or how success on the battlefield will result in improvements in the leader’s regime.
Russian history is quite clear on this subject. Military setbacks for Russian forces lead to regime change – and this is what Putin fears the most. Defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 resulted in the new tsar, Alexander II, instituting major reforms and freeing the serfs. The loss to Japan in 1903-1905 forced Nicholas II to give in and form a constitutional monarchy, only to be replaced in 1917. The setbacks in World War I set up the opportunity for the Bolshevik coup in 1917. Russia’s disastrous war in Afghanistan opened the door for Gorbachev’s reforms and the collapse of Communist Party rule. Apparently, Putin skipped over these lessons from his country’s own history.
The Ukrainians did not roll over and lay down their weapons – they are putting up a heroic resistance, which has unified their country in ways never experienced before. The invasion has also helped to unify the 30 NATO countries, who are working together in close cooperation to assist the Ukrainians by supplying them with weapons, intelligence reports, food, and badly needed medical supplies. NATO and the European Union are demonstrating a unity that I am sure Putin never expected. Neither did he expect President Biden to be able to bring these partnerships together.
Putin also miscalculated what it will take, even if he is able to completely occupy Ukraine.
Ukraine, with its population of 43 million, is roughly the size of Texas and will be very difficult to control militarily and politically. The Ukrainian government organized reservists and provided weapons to civilians who have been trained to fight urban and guerrilla warfare. This will result in substantial casualties for both Ukrainians and Russians. Putin fears that a large number of Russia’s sons brought home in caskets could undermine his regime. He blocked information about the death of many soldiers after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, but he will not be able to hide these deaths from the global media sources tracking this aggression.
In the earliest stages of this conflict, two Christian educational institutions were quickly vacated as Russian forces entered the country from its eastern region, which is controlled by pro-Russian supporters. Back in 2014, one of the premier Christian educational institutions in Ukraine was taken over by pro-Russian troops and made into their military base. Significant investments in Ukraine were quickly lost at the point of Russian bayonets, and now it is happening again.
When the attack on Ukraine was launched at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 24, many Ukrainians were unprepared because they did not believe it would happen. Their hope was based on high-level discussions between Putin and Western leaders, and so it was a shock when the invasion occurred. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were required to register for military service. The younger men, ages 18 to 40, were enlisted in active military service, while the rest were assigned to either active or reserved forces. As the men headed off to combat areas, their wives took their families to the western borders where NATO neighbors allowed them to move in. The pictures of these young mothers, with their kids clinging to them as they kiss their husbands goodbye, are painful to take in.
A friend in Poland wrote that the line of cars to get through the border was more than six miles long, and that people had to wait in their cars for a day or two with no access to stores, restaurants, sanitary facilities, or places to sleep. You can imagine what this must have been like for a young mother with several little children, navigating mobs of people. This was true at other border entries points as well.
The heroes are the young soldiers who were quickly trained to fight an overwhelming attack by Russians. But the other heroes are the young female students at the various Christian educational institutions who stayed to help the elderly, the homeless, the hungry, and the confused, who had no idea where to go. I will not name these schools for their own safety, but their stories are incredible. At one school, the students, faculty, and staff moved into the basement of their building. After a day or two, the women and children were packed into vans and driven to western Ukraine, leaving only ten people on campus. The school was turned into a humanitarian aid center where people could hide during air raids and get food from the kitchen staff, who refused to be evacuated and continued to provide meals for anyone in need.
At another school, more than 1000 people were supported as the educational facility was converted to a refugee center. The young female students reported that one morning 92 people arrived on campus, most of whom were children from foster families. They were fed, provided housing, given spiritual support, and then helped to get across the border. They told a story of a 95-year-old woman and her 73-year-old daughter who suffers from seizures. The older woman had survived the famine created by Soviet leaders during World War II and now had to flee her country again; these young students took care of them and got them to safety. The students had not been trained for this, but they had been taught to serve those in need and did so without hesitation. Other reports from Ukraine tell of students helping African university students who were having a difficult time getting through border checks, even in friendly NATO countries. The students stepped in, translated for the Africans, and became their advocates, which is what they needed.
Anne Applebaum, an astute observer of this region of the world, reported that “Ukraine itself will never be the same again. . . thousands of people are making choices that they too could not have imagined two weeks ago. Ukrainian sociologists, baristas, rappers, and bakers are joining the territorial army. Villagers are standing in front of Russian tanks, shouting ‘occupiers’ and ‘murderers’ at Russian soldiers firing into the air. Construction workers on lucrative contracts in Poland are dropping their tools and taking the train back home to join the resistance. A decade’s worth of experience fighting Russian propaganda is finally paying off, as Ukrainians created their own counter narrative on social media. They post videos telling Russians soldiers to go home to their mothers. They interview captured teenage Russian conscripts and put video clips online. . . every Ukrainian who lived through this moment will always remember what it felt like to resist – and that too will matter, for decades to come.”
There are difficult days ahead for Ukrainians, and the West must not back off from full support of their struggle against the Russians. As Pete Wehner has noted, in this terrible human drama, we are witnessing “ordinary people – including the young and the elderly – acting in extraordinary ways to defend the country they love, against overwhelming odds.” There are lessons here for us.
Thank you for sharing your awareness & perspective. Very helpful. May grace & stamina keep Ukrainian folks company in infinite measure.
Thank you so much, John, for this timely and comprehensive overview of the Ukrainian crisis. Your closing sentence—“There are lessons here for us”—is profound, indeed! For those RJ readers who are interested in your own “real life” experiences in (and understanding of) Russian life under Putin’s radical authoritarianism, a glimpse of your recent book (OPENING THE RED DOOR) could also be helpful.
Please keep us “tuned in” on your perspectives on the Ukrainian crisis going forward.
Thank you, John, for this balanced yet moving report on the Ukraine situation. Many tears are being shed over this nation. I hope you continue to spread the truth about what is really going on, especially contradicting the continuous lying of Putin. May God have mercy.
Thank you so much for this illuminating and emotional account.
One excellent source of information on Ukraine, and other timely topics, is the daily article posted by Dr. Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College.
Thank you very much for sharing and interpreting the crisis so clearly and astutely. It is hard for us in the expansive world to sort through all the information that floods us these days, and this piece is ever so helpful.