Perspective on Ukraine

In December 1989, under the first Pres. Bush, the United States invaded Panama and deposed the thuggish leader, Manuel Noriega. I was a reporter for the Miami Herald at the time and flew to Costa Rica to cover the invasion (flights to Panama were shut down during the invasion).

I crossed the border into Panama right before Christmas on a bus filled with other journalists. As we drove into the northwest Panamanian city of David, people surrounded our bus and cheered. They apparently thought we were part of the invasion force, and the people hated Noriega, and they were ecstatic to see the U.S. get rid of him. We watched as U.S. planes and helicopters landed in David and peacefully took control of the western part of the country. I went with a U.S. general to inspect a barn where Noriega allies had stored thousands of AK-47s.


I then took a taxi to Panama City, stopping along the way at one of Noriega’s homes, which had been attacked by U.S. special forces looking for Noriega. It was a massive mansion, left empty as Noriega fled. I roamed around the house, looking at pictures of Noriega skiing in the Alps with his family, riding horses and boating, an intimate portrait of a wealthy dictator in his personal moments.

Noriega found his way to the Vatican Embassy, where he holed up for several days. Eventually, he surrendered to the U.S. military. He has spent all of his time since then in jails, first in the U.S., then in France and finally back in Panama, where he is incarcerated today, a sad, sick aging tyrant.

I thought of Panama over the weekend as I considered the Russian invasion of Ukraine. U.S. Sect of State Kerry claimed that Russia was acting in a 19th century fashion, invading sovereign countries on trumped-up charges. The hypocrisy of Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq before voting against it, claiming that Russia is acting in a unique way, is absolutely laughable. The United States is launching drone strikes unilaterally in several Middle Eastern countries and is currently occupying Afghanistan. The United States has unilaterally invaded many countries over the years, including the invasion I witnessed with my own eyes, Panama. And by the way, at least 1,000 civilians were killed during the Panamanian invasion, many of them in the fire shown in the picture on this post, which took place in the slums of Panama City and may have been the result of a U.S. bomb.

The fact of the matter is that great powers will often act in ways that violate human rights. Great powers have spheres of influence. Panama, which is where Sen. John McCain was born and where the U.S. had a large military presence for many decades, clearly is in the U.S. sphere of influence. Russia understands this.

What we must consider is that the Ukraine, and certainly the Crimea, which the Russians just invaded, is in the Russian sphere of influence. The Crimea has a mostly Russian-speaking population and is the site of Russian military bases. It is not reasonable to expect the Russians to allow an unfriendly government to be installed in their direct sphere of influence. The Russians are reacting in the Ukraine in a manner very similar to the way the U.S. reacted in Panama. And, by the way, the people in the Crimea have greeted the Russians with open arms, just as the Panamanians cheered the U.S. invasion in 1989.

In a perfect world, big countries would not invade smaller countries. In a perfect world, people would be left alone to choose their own governments without foreign powers meddling. We do not live in a perfect world.

Let’s be clear: Panama is better off today than it was in 1989. Noriega was a violent thug who probably deserved what he got. He was a drug dealer and arms dealer who ordered his cronies to beat up and shoot literally hundreds of people. I was one of those people. In 1987, I was shot by Noriega’s thugs as I walked around the streets of Panama City. I was covering an anti-government protest as a journalist, and a group of uniformed thugs drove up in a pickup truck and started shooting people in the streets. I got hit by several shotgun pellets but was not seriously injured. I still have some of those pellets in my body.

(For the record, please consider that Noriega worked for the U.S. CIA for decades, including the time that President George H.W. Bush was CIA director. Noriega made a salary of $200k as a paid informant in Panama. History is always more complex than we would like it to be).

In 1990, the United States installed a leader who had been elected and then beaten up by Noriega thugs in 1989. There have been several free elections since then. Panama is relatively prosperous compared to many other countries in Latin America, and the people are generally happy with their governments since 1990.

I don’t think this will happen in the Ukraine. The people there are in for many rough years ahead. I would urge people to pray for the Ukraine and hope for a peaceful outcome.

But, beyond calling for a peaceful solution, I don’t think there is much the United States government can and should do about Russian actions in the Ukraine. Russia will do what it wants there, just as the United States did what it wants in Panama.

The biggest mistake we could make is to ignore history as we consider Ukraine today. There is a precedent for what the Russians are doing today, both in Russian history and in U.S. history. This does not make it morally right for one country to invade another, but it does make it understandable. Consider Panama and Iraq when thinking about the Russians and Ukraine.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

20 thoughts on “Perspective on Ukraine

  1. You misunderstood Kerry, if Putin had put up drones to “guard Crimea’s ethnic Russians from terrorists”, THAT would have been the 21st century way of doing things. Ground troops are just so passé.

  2. Not all the M* contributors share your feelings on this Geoff. I have tried to stay away from disagreeing with you publicly, but I will just say this, the US does have an interest in the Ukraine, and in Europe. We need to act, at least diplomatically, for right now. Putin is trying to reestablish the USSR in some form. I’m all for less war mongering, but the Ukraine is important, they have been oppressed and used by the Russians and Putin’s power and land grabs have got to stop. I’m not trying to convince you of my point, nor do I want an argument, but I just disagree with you on this is all. Carry on.

  3. Joyce, polite disagreement is a wonderful thing. Sometimes you can even change peoples’ minds, so there is nothing wrong with disagreement, and I encourage you to share your points of disagreement with me. “We need to act, at least diplomatically, for right now.” Definitely agree. We should speak out for peace, for self-determination of the Ukrainian people and for human rights. Should we go to the U.N.? Yes. What else should we do, in your opinion?

  4. Thank you for this account of your experience of an American invasion. I served part of my mission in Cyprus twenty-five years after the Turkish invasion there. One lesson from Cyprus that seems to be applicable to Ukraine is that there are times when distinct groups of peoples who inhabit a small geographic area have strong desires to live in completely different and even contradictory manners (Nephites and Lamanites, anyone?) They can espouse irreconcilably different philosophies, politics, religions, etc. The divergence of interests – of the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus and the Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine, makes talking about human rights violations complicated. The protesters in Kiev chose a government that was completely unacceptable to Russians living in the country. In Cyprus, the Greeks attempted unification with Greece against the wishes of the Turkish minority. Did these actions violate the human rights of Russians and Turks? They did for Moscow and Ankara and so they mounted invasions of sovereign countries to attempt to restore human rights to their populations. Did these invasions then violate the human rights of Greeks and Ukrainians? Well, that is what we hear from Greeks and Ukrainians and I can’t argue with either.
    Human rights can’t be our guide because, and this is the problem with universals, everybody has them. In Ukraine, we can support the rights of the Russians or those of the Ukrainians. We can favor the Maidan protesters who overthrew the constitutionally elected government or the Russians who see this act as a threat to their homes, culture, and families. They’re all human but we can’t make them all happy.

  5. Respectfully, I would point out that it is never our right or responsibility to invade a country and accomplish a coup/regime change. Such dealings almost always leave a vacuum filled by even more brutal “thugs” (Iraq, Iran, and every other CIA-initiated coup you could name). The Founders and prophets have warned against such. The real tragedy in this is the very real possibility that the unrest in Ukraine was brought on by US meddling, allowing Russia, which certainly feels threatened by our Ballistic Missile Defense posturing, to fill the void. There’s a faction of our government that wants no part in diplomacy, only hegemony. I think what we’re seeing now is the result of their handiwork. F. William Engdahl’s articles on the conflict are worth a read.

    And almost every “conflict”/war we’ve been in has been because of “interests.” Ukraine is prime real estate for pipelines, etc, and now that we’ve destabilized it and tried to install someone that will throw it to the IMF dogs, we’re seeing what we didn’t anticipate, an aggressive stance from Russia. Heaven help them, and us.

  6. I totally agree with you, Geoff. The national media in the US is not giving the full story. Especially the part about the Russian-speaking people in the Crimea welcoming the Russian military with open arms.

    What the US media is also not saying is that the anti-Yanukovich and anti-Russia factions in Ukraine are essentially Nazis. Not just neo-Nazis, but descendents of WWII era Ukranians who sided with Hitler. And they are the most violent of the anti-Yanukovich factions. They are taking the lead in the anti-Russia outbreak.

    Ukraine is essentiall two countries. The western part is pro-European (and pretty much controlled by the Nazi faction), and the Eastern and Southern portions are pro-Russian, and have a majority of Russian people, actual Russian citizens with Russian passports, and people married to Russians.

    Russia’s invastion of Crimea seems to me to be a legitamate move to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine.

    Drawing the parallel to Panama is pretty good.

    I would also draw a parallel to Grenada. We invaded that country to protect Americans too.

    And to your example of Afganistan, don’t forget to to add Iraq, another country we recently invaded with the ultimate goal of protecting Americans.

    An interesting tidbit I learned on the John Batchelor Show podcast (google it, and you can subscribe to podcast), is that the Soviet Union “gave” Crimea to Ukraine (from Russia) during the Kruschev years. So it was actually part of Russia not that long ago. That’s why there are so many Russians there.

    This is not a simple matter of “The Russians have invaded Ukraine!” It’s a lot more complicated than that. Urkaine has essentially fallen apart, and the Russian “invasion” of Crimea is a _stabilizing_ influence, if anything, to prevent fuirther bloodshed that is going on in the rest of Ukraine between those who lean to the EU (the Nazi-led group), and those wnho lean to Russia (Russian speaking people and their spouses/families).

    I think Ukraine will likely split in two and form two countries.

  7. Thank you Geoff for your insights. I’ll admit that as of late I haven’t had as much time to be more informed on the details of this conflict, but in general I am knowledgeable and very interested in world affairs. I was born in France the same year the Berlin Wall went up, was in the French military (national service, draft) in Berlin in 1981-1982 at the height of the Cold War (one of the heights…) with Pershing vs. SS-20 missiles. People in America rejoiced at the end of the Cold War, but you can imagine what a thorn in our side the Soviet Union and its satellite countries were, and what great joy and excitement we felt as Western Europeans from 1989 to 1991! Three years before the fall of the Wall, I was baptized in Berlin where I was living as a civilian. I am indeed surprised that the media only portrayed the Ukrainian side as the “good” side throughout the protests, basically saying again that it was a continuation of the end of the Cold War. They want to be with us, with the West, with freedom and prosperity (who doesn’t want that?), with the Eurozone. Certainly there is some truth to it. But to ignore the complexities until this week was idiotic. I get my news from the internet and not until last week did I see a map of the last presidential election’s results in the Ukraine. It clearly shows a regional split. And I was aware of the Russian military bases there. Russia could not simply pack up and leave its military bases in the region and its space center in Kazakhstan, etc. As Geoff said, we can’t say that we (the US, I say we because it is my adopted country) are a major player but that the other major players need to yield to our every wish–because, don’t forget, we are the righteous ones. God works in mysterious ways. I listen to conservative radio, think of myself as a conservative and America being a special land, a land of promise, I get it. It is true even if it offends non-US converts to the Church s bit, at least for a little while after they receive a testimony. America, a beacon of hope, democracy, and righteousness. Not trying to be sarcastic here. I love America and I love all of God’s children. Mitt Romney did not get elected. Joseph Smith was assassinated. America exports tobacco, junk food, junk entertainment, pornography, same-sex marriage (even though more liberal countries adopted it sooner, now the US is also showing an example)… Vladimir Putin may be a dictator (like our ally in Egypt Hosni Mubarak was), but Russian children are protected from homosexual propaganda. I was looking at Russian media (in English) and it was full of references to Christianity and pilgrimages. OK, so the Pravda used to be the UNtrue (Pravda means the truth) Soviet newspaper, and now it caters to Putin’s party. Is Putin using his religious Orthodox base for his purposes? Probably. Does power corrupt? Often. Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Yes, unless you are God. Is Putin better than Stalin? I think so. Is Obama’s America awesome? No. It is naive to think that other countries will not assert themselves or that they are all 100% evil because, after all… they are not American! And Heavenly Father has often used other nations to whip his chosen people back into shape, good and bad foreign leaders. Sometimes the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites.

  8. Caveat: I am not sure I agree with my own comment that Putin qualifies as a “dictator”. There are degrees, I know it sounds cruel to those living under any kind. There are and have been far worse leaders. He’s not perfect and we can’t expect him to be. At times countries need a strong hand. Think of where they were in 1991 and before. I wish we had some comments by Russian and Ukrainian members of the church. Anybody reading M* out there?

  9. I have mixed feelings about this. When it first broke out I thought both sides were equally bad, especially as the news seemed to portray this as an occupy wall street kind of of movement vs. government thugs. Since I don’t like either I could care less. The narrative shifted and it seemed more like liberty loving people vs. dictator regime. Once more it has shifted and for conservative commentators seems like faithful religious tea party protestants vs. Communist satellite invaders. Reading your view it seems North and South like civil war as if England and France were the main instigators. Bookslinger is portraying it as WWII breaking out again in one country.

    Who am I to believe? Why should I believe anything? I don’t think we have any clue what is going on or who is involved for what reasons. This much I personally do believe. As much as I respect Putin for his strengths and whimsical dismissals of Obama, he does come off as a strong armed dictator at times and this is one of those. Forces with no identification (as reported by CNN with video proof) who back Russia show shenanigans that have nothing to do with protecting the Russian minorities. There is not going to be a peaceful resolution of this even if a calm before the storm exists.

    Finally Geoff, I wouldn’t worry from your perspective that any other nations will get involved. The Obama regime and the European powers have been very weak and cowardly recently. They talk a big talk at times, but don’t carry any sticks unless wars that have already been started. Remember how the U.S. flirted with involvement in Egypt and Syria, but ultimately and thankfully (even from my perspective) did nothing? Expect lots more big talk with no or trifle actions. This will play out on its own.

  10. I agree with many of the things posted so far. Bill, interesting article on the Ukraine, very enlightening.

    I guess I return to my original point: things are often much more complex than they seem. The Panama invasion was both bad and good. It is bad that a bigger country invades a smaller one, but Panama is better off today than it was in 1989, so was the invasion all bad?

    When it comes to the Ukraine, it is a shame that the Ukrainians are being pushed around by a bigger, more powerful power. But a sizable minority of people in the Ukraine want greater Russian influence. And we should have no illusions that the protesters are all good, or that the new government will be all good or that anybody involved is an angel of light.

    Like many foreign conflicts, the results will be very messy. The only firm lesson I can get is: let us call for peace and for self-determination, but let’s not let ourselves (as the United States) get dragged into another military conflict.

  11. I’ve heard it repeated that many Ukranians were Nazi sympathizers. What is not repeated is their WWII alternative: contunued brutality by the equally murderous and tyrannical Stalin. Talk about a Hobbes choice. Sure the Nazis were evil incarnate but so was Stalin. The choice for WWII Ukranians was not a bargain with the devil, but which devil to bargain with.

    It continually surprises me how Stalin gets a pass viz-a-viz the Nazis/Germany. He murdered scores more millions of people compared to Hitler and the Nazis. To suggest the WWII Ukranians abandoned a good situation to ally with Nazis is ignorant of history and Stalin.

    As to the OP, you make a valid comparison. I fail to see an American interest in a wholly corrupt Ukraine, no matter who controls the country and or the Crimea. Ukranian corruption is off the charts and it does not really matter to American interests who controls Ukraine. At least until the President foolishly asserted we have an interest and asked Russia to stand down only to be shown up the very next day by President Putin and his crypto invasion. Now we have put American prestige at stake and with our empire stretched across the globe we are forced to do something to protect our prestige across the empire.

    Ukraine foolishly abandoned their nuclear weapons and even dismantled their ability to make more nuclear weapons. Apart from President Obama’s foolish (what else, really?) declarations, why should we be so concerned about their country?

  12. Wow, what a lot of drastically contrasting views in this thread. I’m a total ignoramus about this whole situation, so it’s been interesting and enlightening. I’m glad to have some ideas at least to consider as an alternative to the very alarming and depressing MSM narrative.

  13. Bill, the Neo-Nazi faction may not be in total control, but they are mainly the ones being violent on the anti-soviet side of things.

    Some analysts say that Ukrainians had a chance to peacefully oust Yanukovich, but the violence of the neo-nazis precluded that.

  14. Your blog fails to recognize that Panama was part of the sovereign state of Colombia until its senate refuse to accept the terms being offered to permit a canal to be constructed across its northern most isthmus. Supported by the USA a new state “Panama” was created so that US interests could build their canal.
    It is interesting to note that the new state of Panama benefited little from the canal and its people lived in abject poverty until they started to riot in 1978 threatening to close the canal.

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