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…acting in extraordinary ways to defend the country they love, against overwhelming odds.”
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.”