When I speak with Boris Leostrin, our partner in Russia and the hard-working Stake President of St. Petersburg, we only talk shop – about his struggles to run his tourism business that the Ukraine war has shut down, our joint work in taking Americans on a Croatian cruise, and the great task he has of coordinating the Church’s work and inspiring the Saints in his area. We do NOT talk politics or the international relations issues that make us both quite sad.

Boris loves his country and the people he serves. It is good to remember during this latest tumult that the Russian people are a proud people, with much to be proud about. Russia is a beautiful country. They love to support their government as they’ve done for centuries with a few minor exceptions such as the one in 1917. Okay, it wasn’t minor. But it was rare. They take a licking and keep on ticking. Public descent is not common.  One cannot compare Russians with the crazies picketing Supreme Court justices’ homes. Today in Russia you can get 15 years in prison for speaking ill of the war in Ukraine.

How did Russia get to this point that makes us so desperately sad?  I’ve loved going to Russia and taking thousands of Americans over the years to meet the wonderful Russian people. Tragically, Russia’s long history has been one of leaders who oppress, and dissent is strongly squelched so the chances of a thug like Vladimir Putin becoming dictator for life under the ruse of an election 20 plus years ago is high. For Russians, they try their best to go about their business of making a living and raising their families and have a deep love for Rodina – the Russian heartfelt patriotic feeling for the “motherland.” So of course, their first reaction to any negative news like a war with Ukraine is to support their leaders.

To understand how Russia has gotten to the point where their vaunted military cannot subjugate Ukraine in a war no one predicted would last more than a few days, it’s important to remember we are all products of decisions made years ago –by us or others. Russia follows that rule.

Mark after consultations with the mayor of Saratov, 1991.

To start, a little relevant personal background. In 1991, when the US launched Operation Desert Storm, decision clusters for the USA and the USSR met on the battlefield and the results were decisive.  My brother and I sat in a vacation spa hotel in Balakovo, USSR with four of the Soviet Union’s top generals and got to see the results through their eyes as they watched in disbelief to the live reports from CNN and their own version of CNN. The video results were telling. The USSR was technologically far behind the USA. The idea of two equal superpowers was shattered.

It all began in the early 1950’s, the space race ramped up in the USA and the USSR. In the policy rooms, decisions were made on development philosophies. The USSR leadership chose muscle, meaning, to develop rockets with maximum thrust. Powerful beasts to get the heaviest payloads into space. Yes, the USSR had a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons but one of the generals confided in me that they worried if they aimed for Washington, DC, the bomb could land in Cuba.

The USA leadership specifically focused engineering skills on precision guidance so their payloads could be delivered to a precise location.

 The USSR captured the world’s attention by being the first into space and launching the Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin into space from Star City, Russia. The USA followed eventually. NASA found it a bit embarrassing to come in second place but didn’t worry because despite having many rockets blow up upon launch, the kinks were worked out and the needed thrust was found.

Another decision made centuries ago made an impact about the same time. Namely, the military chain of command in the USSR focused upon generals being the most important people in the chain of command. The USA had a long history of the sergeant being the focal point of training.

 Back to the generals. We had spent the evening dining with them and talking nebulous “shop talk” of no importance. Lots of phatic communication. Then we sat down in their lounge to watch the USA battle Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait. The Soviet generals had a personal stake in the match up because they had not only trained the Iraqi forces in Soviet style tactics and leadership but supplied Iraq with Soviet military hardware. This was a proxy war to end all proxy wars.

As CNN showed one communication building after another being blown up by precision guided missiles, the general’s once jovial mood became somber. One remarked, “This looks like American propaganda movies. Disneyland. It isn’t real.” 

Why did they all react this way? Because American munitions had the ability to find a target, “paint” it as a target with electronics, and send in a missile for one direct hit after another. Extremely efficient. The Soviet-backed Iraqis had no answer.

To make matters worse, we began seeing images of Iraqi soldiers coming out of their frontline bunkers waving the white flag of surrender. Not a few reluctant soldiers with their hands up, but hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers. The cause: a decision long ago regarding their military chain of command.

The first targets attacked by US precision bombs were communication centers. The US knew that the most important people in the Soviet-style chain of command were the general and his colonels. They decided what the troops should do. The troops await their commands. When the communications went black, the troops had no idea what to do next. They knew the long history of Soviet soldiers who failed to do precisely what the generals ordered. So, they surrendered. In droves.

 In the American military model, the generals work up a plan with the colonels, give it to the captains and lieutenants who work with the sergeants to train the troops. In that chain of command, it is explicitly planned that should the sergeant be cut off from his captain, he is trained to “adapt, improvise and overcome.” Period. And our sergeants take that seriously with great aggression and success.

Today we’re seeing all of this play out again in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia had all the advantages of nearly 200,000 troops amassed on the Ukrainian border. They had thousands of pro-Russia people who lived in Ukraine ready to help them out. Winter had made the ground hard so the great Russian tank corps could roll through Ukraine to 1) Capture Kiev, 2) Capture Kharkiv, 3) Land troops from ships in the Black Sea to storm Odessa, and 4) Overwhelm Ukrainian forces in the Donbas regions of eastern Ukraine. By all accounts, it was a two- or three-day exercise in steamrolling.

Russia president Vladimir Putin’s reasons for attacking Ukraine have failed to resonate with anyone but a few lackies like Belarus and Iran. China isn’t even buying the initial reasoning for so many troops on the border was for military training. He failed to heed Josef Goebbels Nazi maxim that in propaganda, if you’re going to lie, you’ve got to make it a big, bold lie; so big everyone begins to think it’s credible. Other reasons Putin slowly began to give to justify his “special military operations” were that Russia was protecting the interests of Russian born people living in Ukraine that Putin said were being persecuted. Not even the Chinese are buying that. Then he stated there were Nazi’s everywhere in Ukraine and it was his duty to get rid of them. The Russian Orthodox leader or patriarch, Kiril, agreed with him. Putin could now use his pretense as a sacred duty. Then word came about supposed “secret” bioweapons labs in Ukraine and Putin needed to save the world from them. Of course, Ukraine’s request to join the European Union and NATO was floated as another justification for amassing troops.

None of these texts fit in the context of a potential impending battle and were just pretext for other reasons found in Putin’s earlier speeches about wanting to restore the lands of the former USSR. Keep in mind, none of the reasons given pass simple tests of logic made sense. Here is why:

Putin’s 1st Reason: Military training. Results show it wasn’t for training although the results show these troops needed a great deal of training.

Putin’s 2nd Reason:   Saving Russians in Ukraine: Nations have borders. Unless you’re invited in, stay out. It’s none of your business. Imagine if the Mormon Colonies where many American saints went to live in the late 1800’s were persecuted by Poncho Villa (they were) or his counterpart today, would we feel justified in sending in 200,000 troops to Mexico to right the wrongs and slaughter civilians? No.   

3rd:  Nazi’s everywhere. I doubt that few people who use that moniker know it originally meant National Socialism. Putin has committed verbal taxidermy and stuffed new meanings into that incendiary word. While the Ukrainian government has corruption, and they have some socialism, it is led by a Jewish president duly elected recently by a great majority of Ukrainians. So said the person he defeated for the office.

4th:   Secret bioweapons labs. I’ve asked several who floated that theory how they knew about these secret labs if they were secret, and they quoted someone else. I just heard Fox News host Tucker Carlson denigrate anyone not believing there are “secret biolabs.” Ugh. Boring, because, YES, there are bio labs owned by American companies in Ukraine and a whole lot of other countries. That’s not a secret and the reason we have them is Ukrainians are educated and work cheap. Testing and development of antibacterial and antiviral medications – biolab work – take years of experimentation. However, there is NO proof any of the research was for weaponizing these drugs or medications or the viruses they create so they can destroy them with the medicines. It’s a canard.

5th:   Joining the EU and NATO. This one makes sense. Russia should fear Ukraine joining and being able to grow financially from the EU and allowing NATO to build bases on the front porch of Russia. Russia has been invaded so many times, the paranoia is natural. But attacking Ukraine and killing thousands of innocent men, women and children has never been a great recipe for any other country’s actions. Granted, Russia did it with Groznyy, Georgia, and Syria as well. But the “black eye” they got for doing those brutal invasions is nothing compared to the political leprosy they are catching now.

The 2-day “special military operation” as Putin has called it, could go on and on. However, I agree with those who predict the only way this war can end gracefully for Russia, is a benevolent sounding cease-fire that results in Russia slowly pulling out of the Donbas area and the area between Donets and Odessa. They’ll stay in Crimea as a face-saving move but given the world’s short attention span and desire for cheaper oil, all will be forgiven and forgotten by the world. Ukrainians will not forgive the devastation so quickly and will play that to get enormous non-military aid from NATO countries as well as the continuous resupplying of Ukrainian forces.

What may precipitate the cease fire is the likelihood that Russia will suffer even more casualties. And that too is a tragedy. They’ve lost more than 1,000 tanks in Ukraine from a tank armory that once vaunted more than 10,000 vehicles although it is estimated only 5,000 tanks are active. Of course, many of those are inoperable due to poor maintenance. That’s nothing new from the USSR days. In the 1980s when I met with Viktor Bilenko, the famed MiG-25 pilot who escaped the USSR in 1976, he said his only fear in flying was “would I have brakes when I landed.” Why? Because the flight mechanics loved to steal the brake fluid and drink it because of the alcohol. Such wholesale delinquency in maintenance afflicts the air force and tank corps alike. 

What should the USA do?

We should do what we didn’t do in 1991. People in the US State Department in 1990 told me that our strategy was to hold Russia responsible for the mess they’d created. I said, “That sounds like Treaty of Versailles reasoning. And that led to World War II.” They agreed but said that was the course.

We should have gone into Russia in a similar manner to what we did at the end of World War II in Germany. Helped them rebuild and help them with their legitimate desires to do, as Dr. Andre Safirov often told our visiting Americans in the 90’s, “Let’s not dwell on communism but instead, just know that Russia is now focused on returning to civilization.” He and others like him, such as Mr. Gorbachev, Dr. Viktor Kikov (who wrote the new Russian constitution and showed me drafts), and Pavel Palazhchenko urged the USA to provide very friendly relations. Become an ally. Instead we stood by and watched as their fledgling democracy was swallowed up by the same oligarchs that we’re now hitting with sanctions.

I suspect “normalcy” could begin to take place this summer as the growing season is salvaged. The world needs Ukrainian wheat and fertilizer. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil will return without the lessons of history being learned. Peace will prevail.

If so, Elizabeth and I are headed to Russia again. And we are taking any Americans who would like to get the people-to-people diplomacy restarted. It’s vital for the sake of both countries and the world.

In the meantime, we’re keeping our travel skills honed by taking groups to Croatia on a “surf and turf” experience – half cruising by yacht and some bus tours to essential spots.

Our prayers are for the people of Russia and Ukraine. We’ve been to both countries dozens of times and the death and destruction for both countries is unbearable. It’s heartbreaking.