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Five Questions with John Smith

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Learn more about Kevin Sullivan.
Kevin Sullivan
Senior Advisor
George W. Bush Presidential Center

John Smith has dedicated his life to strengthening American institutions that advance freedom, the rule of law, and human flourishing – at home and abroad. This month, we are pleased to offer Smith’s take on what’s happening in Ukraine.

John Smith has dedicated his life to strengthening American institutions that advance freedom, the rule of law, and human flourishing – at home and abroad.  In the last three decades, Smith has developed a rare, multi-dimensional expertise in Ukraine, thanks to a rich combination of in-country, hands-on experiences that encompass scholarship, military service, and legal practice, along with Christian and humanitarian missions. Smith, who served a decade as a U.S. Army reservist and is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, was decorated for service in training Ukrainian soldiers in a NATO Partnership for Peace mission. He practiced law for several matters in Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia and advised a delegation of election monitors (U.S. Congress & EU Parliament ex-members) in observing the presidential re-vote in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution. In the early post-Soviet years, Smith served two years as a missionary, building The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine and Russia; and was among the first missionaries to establish the Church in the five largest cities of western Ukraine. He volunteered as the first American in-country intern for the Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund, assessing needs and delivering medical equipment across Ukraine.

Smith served as Associate Counsel to President Bush and primary legal advisor to the White House Homeland Security Council staff.  Today, John leads the law department of Dallas-based Ryan LLC, the world’s largest tax services & technology company dedicated to businesses.  This month, we are pleased to offer Smith’s take on what’s happening in Ukraine.  He highlights the Ukrainian people’s love of freedom, a will to fight unmatched by the Russians and predicts that while Russian is inflicting massive suffering and damage, they cannot win.

Q: We know Ukrainians are freedom-loving people.  Based on your experience there, what else do you wish more people understood about them?

The free world now sees daily the bravery, virtue, spirit, and teamwork that has long characterized the Ukrainian people.  Capably and calmy countering the terror and tragedy of a barbaric invasion, they have paradoxically produced Ukraine’s finest hour.  Their achievement caps 30 years of intentional nation-building.  After Ukraine voted for independence in 1991, its people chose to embrace Western values: self-government, freedom, the rule of law, and human dignity.  It welcomed in thousands of free world volunteers, including many of Ukrainian heritage, to help them develop that society in various ways.  In diverse roles there, I have seen free Ukraine grow up.  Now this founding generation of the largest democracy in a thousand years of Slavic history has come of age. 

Q:  Based on your military experience, including training Ukrainian soldiers to operate with NATO allies, how do you explain Ukraine’s strong performance in resisting Russia’s invasion?

The main reasons are (1) a much stronger will to fight; (2) better leadership, from the president down to the military squad leaders; (3) NATO weapons and training; and (4) an engaged and organized population.

The Ukrainian soldiers that my unit helped to train years ago (at the Yariv military base, which Russia bombed on March 13) were thrilled to learn how to “interoperate” with NATO forces and equipment.  Even if not in the NATO club, they finally could prepare with powerful allies, and no longer felt alone against an abusive neighbor.  That training and enthusiasm there has continued, including for Javelin anti-tank missiles (made by Raytheon and Lockheed), which have helped to stymie the ground invasion.

A vast and deep civilian network multiplies Ukraine’s defensive force.  Everyone should read about the townspeople of Voznesenski calling in artillery strikes to destroy a Russian tank column via a smartphone app.  Having learned English, mastered technology and social media, and created resilient civil-society organizations, the Ukrainian population has shown what a free people can do in a righteous cause.  In a month, they have halted an invasion by Europe’s largest army; lifted European self-doubt about its enlightened values; revived NATO’s mission; and rallied the free world to take sides openly in a fight between good and evil.  Not bad for a nation that Putin, during the Bush Administration and since, publicly denigrated as “not a real country.”

Q: How should we think about the humanitarian response needed from the U.S. and all allies?

The great generosity of the American people and the spontaneous hospitality of Ukraine’s neighbors have Europe shining at its best: humane and united.  A dozen of my Ukrainian distant cousins (women and children) report receiving a warm reception in Poland, while my male relatives stay to fight.  The speed at scale of this Ukrainian exodus is unprecedented, but the pattern is not.  As Soviet Russia invaded their homeland in World War II, my maternal grandparents fled along one of these same westward escape routes.  For the rest of their lives in the United States, my grandparents gratefully recounted the kind strangers, brave relief organizations, and glorious Allied tanks that saved them from capture and death.  Likewise, today’s refugees will forever remember who fed and protected them.

Once Putin runs out of bombs and bullets, Ukrainians will need a larger surge of U.S. generosity.  Money, volunteers, and expertise can rebuild the homes, schools, hospitals, and civilian infrastructure Russia has intentionally destroyed.  Ironically, Putin has accelerated the very thing he finds intolerable: Ukraine’s integration with Europe.  Now millions of Ukraine’s most enterprising citizens are temporarily integrating as refugees deep into Europe.  There they will learn new skills, earn new respect and wages, and gain new allies – all helpful once they return home to rebuild.

Q: You also have a deep understanding of Russia from the inside. What do you see as the endgame and how this plays out?

Ukraine wins, because of its superior will and faster adaptations.  Russia’s military can and will inflict massive suffering and destruction but cannot win.  A whole generation of Ukrainians have experienced freedom, and they will not be slaves again.  This is a fight to the death.  Given Ukraine’s effective resistance, this war probably widens and lengthens if Putin remains in power; conquering Ukraine is the crux of Putin’s top lifetime goal: to restore the Imperial Russia of the tsars.  For two decades, Putin has tried ways short of war to control Ukraine, and they have all failed.  See the Orange Revolution of 2004, which inspired President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, and the Dignity Revolution of 2014. 

Q: Thinking back on your time in the Administration, is there a leadership lesson that continues to serve you well in your work and humanitarian endeavors today?

One day in the Oval Office, I remember President Bush observing to our White House Counsel team that one of his hardest and most important duties as a leader was to create, especially in that room, an environment where all meeting participants feel relaxed and free to express what they really think — and not what they think the boss wants to hear.  As a leader in business and service activities, I have seen that wisdom in action repeatedly.  Facing opposing views can be hard, but I have found the alternative far harder.

That wisdom also explains in part how post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine diverged so widely as to be at war today.  I served in both Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s and naturally came to care about the people in both countries.  In that first decade after Communism’s collapse, I witnessed the initial gusher of openness in both countries, including exchanges of difficult feedback between locals and Western partners.  But the discussion space in Russia and Ukraine diverged after Putin’s rise.  His regime gradually silenced unwelcome words, persons, and organizations, depriving him of quality, current information.  Meanwhile, Ukraine’s messy democracy kept dialoguing through difficulty.  Keeping it real enabled adjustment to hard truths, including how weak its military proved to be when Russia first invaded in 2014.  This time?  Lessons learned.