History provides significant perspective, especially regarding conflicts. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to professor and retired Marine Dr. Larry Parker about the war in Ukraine. Learn about the history of the region and hear why, from the Russian’s perspective, Ukraine is so desirable.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking with Dr. Larry Parker, Department Chair in the School of Business. And today our conversation is about the war in Ukraine. Welcome, Larry.
Dr. Larry Parker: Thank you, Bjorn.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: This is one in a series of different podcasts we’re talking about the war in Ukraine, Ukraine, and Russia. And so, let’s just jump into it and say, can this war be justified from the Russian perspective? It’s a difficult question for Americans to think about, but we’re really trying to think of from the Russian perspective here.
Dr. Larry Parker: And I know this may not be a popular place to be in the discussion, but I would tell you if you put yourselves in the mindset of Russians and being a history major, I would say, yes, from their perspective—and this gets beyond discussing what information they’re getting from their government—So, in short, and I know we’ll get into some of it, but, yes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I think for Americans who watch the news, they might be surprised by that because they see Russia invading a sovereign country without any what seems like legitimate pretext and saying like, “Why are they doing this? They’re being bad.” But one thing to think about is, as Americans, it’s hard to think of security and be concerned with security because here we live in America and there’s the Canadians to the north, Mexico to the south. And, as a country, we really haven’t been invaded since the War of 1812 by a foreign force, besides the Civil War, which was a civil war, us versus us.
And so, we don’t have to live in a neighborhood where literally we have historical conflicts with our neighbors or even recent conflicts with our neighbors. Versus if you’re in Poland, for example, Poland has been invaded by everyone around them for hundreds of years. And so, can you give an idea of what are some of the perspectives of the Russian government, specifically Putin’s government, about why this might have happened?
Dr. Larry Parker: Well, I like the way you led into that and really spoke first to our vulnerabilities and our mindset because we have a certain comfort here in the United States and we know easily who’s to north, who’s to the south. And, again, getting in the mindset of the Russian government and to the people, you’re dealing with a nation that has so many vulnerabilities and over history have been, I would say, exposed to so much over the years.
Let’s look at Russia’s geography first, and they’re going across 11 time zones, they have Norway to Northwest, they have North Korea to the Southeast. They cover most of Eurasia, I mean they’re huge. And so, any conflict that’s happened there, they have been exposed to. And what we don’t take into account, we’re able to look at the World Wars from a distance. We sent individuals off to fight in those wars. And that’s if we only just want to go back that far.
If you want to go back to the Napoleonic wars and start talking about what has happened over the years that have honed them to have this little concern, always a buffer of nations and geography. That’s really where we start. We just look at their geography and what that has exposed them to.
The last World War that cost them roughly just short of 30 million individual’s lives of Russian individuals. So out of a Russian population of roughly 200 million to lose almost 30 million individuals to a war, that’s a lot. And so, that causes individuals to be very cautious of the intent and their potential vulnerability.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And getting into the Russian perspective, the Cold War happened and the Soviet Union was our historic enemy and they were led by the Russians, specifically, of course. One of the things that happened after the fall of the Soviet Union. America was real proud, “Man, we beat them. We beat the Soviet Union.” Now we were very excited about that.
Now imagine the Russians they then thought and realized and lived, “we lost a decades long struggle and we lost.” Now there’s a lot to say, of course, about communism and the government of the USSR and inefficiencies in economics and freedoms, all these things, all legitimate.
But from a pure personal perspective and pride perspective, the Russians lost a huge multi-generational struggle. And then after that, they lost their buffer states, all those Warsaw Pact countries were like, “I’m out of here.” Rightfully so. And they became independent countries and then they started joining NATO. So, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, all started joining NATO, and those were all those buffer zones. And so now NATO is right up on the border of Russia. Which country is not part of NATO or the EU? And that’s Ukraine.
Dr. Larry Parker: Absolutely. And in Moscow, U.S. policies are all in Ukraine are largely seen as aimed at diminishing Russia and supporting Ukraine’s pursuit of membership in NATO. And again, that first part of that statement, diminishing Russia. And so, that narrative continues to play over as you alluded to and without Ukraine, the path to that greatness of the past, or that great power is through Ukraine. And once you start to think of it that way, when you start to back someone into a corner, then that really limits the options or the off ramps if you will.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Russia trying to regain that glory, that greatness, is, for some people, extraordinarily important. We see it here, we see it everywhere that certain peoples in certain countries want their country to be great. And I’ll make a statement: Every country’s great in some way.
And so, I’ll just throw out an example, this is a non-political statement, but let’s think of that slogan from a few years ago: “Make America great again.” Now America is one of the largest countries in the world, I think third by population, still the largest economy in the world, has the largest military in the world. So, why are we not great already?
If we’re just going to take certain stats like that. But to use rhetoric and say, “Let’s make America great again,” says, “Well, we got to do something. We got to do something to make America great.” Even though the truth on the ground is that, “You know what, we’re pretty great, but we could be greater than some mysterious past when things were better.” And, of course, I would also question what past they were pointing back to because the past is not always that great, especially not for all people.
Dr. Larry Parker: It’s all about perspective and you hit on something that was very key that “Make America Great Again,” if we use that same approach to Russia/Soviet Union, it’s very hard to take something away from someone and still say they’re as great as they were.
To take something away and say, “You’re still as powerful or respected.” And to be one of the larger powers in the world and to lose such a great deal of their mass—we’ll talk land mass, and then we’ll talk about resources. Then it really runs counter post to that statement and it’s like, “Okay, we got to get something back.” And people just don’t recognize that, “Hey, you’re already economically still one of the greatest powers,” but yet that doesn’t seem to ring true to them because even in this whole scenario, as you see how much the rest of the world is working to still engage with Russia economically, because they’re that interwoven.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And there’s so much to talk about. I mean, with the economic ties and globalism that has occurred, which is a good thing to appoint, but then also showing the fragility of globalism in which countries are really tied together economically. And we’re seeing how those interconnected logistics will recover soon or not recover. It’s very, very fascinating.
But one thing I was thinking of is “Making Russia great again,” there’s interesting polls where they poll like, “What’s your opinion of Stalin.” And I’m not going to say a lot, I’m not going to say the stats, but there’s a certain percentage of Russians who are like, “You know what, he was a monster, but he got us through a really tough time.”
It’s weird because they acknowledge the butchery and how he killed millions of people and the Great Purges in the ’30s. But all these horrible things, but then they’re still like, “You know what? He was the man for the time.” I got to question he’s not the man for the time, if he helps facilitate and order the deaths of millions of people.
Dr. Larry Parker: You’re 100% correct. And acknowledging that the same thing could be said for a number of leaders across the world, in some places and doing some things that we would not condone here in the United States. But, often said, they were the people, in some cases, for the time and that for what little rule and order, law and order that those nations may have had and prosperity that those nations had, that personality needed to be there.
Well, all that aside, it still gets back to what you said, perspective. Who’s benefiting within that nation at that time? And then, what information do they have access to? And we can point to other countries that some people would say that period of time, that was great, wasn’t so great for so many others, and that goes beyond race. If you talk about gender, if you talked about age, there’s a number of things, you go back a certain number of years and you ask that same question. So, it’s the same way there. If they only knew the things that you highlighted, what were happening in order for them to have that pride, that access to resources, they probably wouldn’t say it was as great. But here we are, it’s a matter of perspective. And then information flowed differently back then.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Yeah, and information did flow differently. And what the state, especially in the former Soviet Union, what the state said, that was the official line. Nobody could question it. I mean, of course there’s the gulags. I mean, one of the things that people should read is the Archipelago Gulag, which really helped guide, I guess you could say American policy towards the Soviet Union, because of just the horrendous experience of the Russian people.
And that’s the thing, I think of “The Great Man Theory” by Thomas Carlisle, where history is guided by “great men.” And I say great men because that’s what he called it back in the day. But, in the most part, the great men that he talks about are really butchers. Now one person’s butcher is also another person’s national hero. So, like we were talking about, it’s perspective. But, today when we look back at history and we can have open eyes and really look at perspectives, multiple perspectives, we have to really analyze these people and the events honestly and frankly, without trying to say, from a nationalistic pride perspective, “Yes, we won this war.”
But, it’s similar in a sense, World War II a great patriotic war from the Russian perspective, it was a horrible event, but it also has reduced good versus evil conflicts in such a simplistic way, because I think a lot of Americans think war is evil. And then when we fight a war it’s against evil. Even the War on Terror, it’s against Islamic extremist or whatever term people might want to use, people whom cannot be reasoned with. And then here comes a war, which is like an old 18th, 19th century-style war. There’s an enemy, I’ve got a beef with them. We’re going to go fight it, people die, I don’t care. This is about positioning and resources and national pride.
Dr. Larry Parker: Absolutely. With those factors that you just named, those last three there, anything short of protecting at least the status quo. Now, we’ll start there first. The status quo Ukraine is not part of NATO. I guess the best way to say it is going back to that point of when you back someone into a corner. I can still have a reasonable conversation with you when I know that there’s still a path for me to possibly achieve my end goal. So we can be cordial, we can have negotiations if the door hasn’t been closed. So once you start seeing the nations start falling off Georgia, do you start seeing Ukraine. Okay, now hold up, you’re starting to close the door.
And that creates an issue for even the novice historian. The world is open enough and because of the culture of Russia, people go back and forth, which we’re seeing in this conflict. There are a number of Ukrainians there in Russia and Russia has family members over in Ukraine. And when this all happens, you’re now back to that point of, “Okay, what perspective are we looking at?” And you close this door, now I only have to have this little room to move around in this only this small little space, politically and economically.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, Larry, this brings me to the next question as what is a probable end state to the war and what would be reasonable for both sides to accept?
Dr. Larry Parker: It really comes down to not immediately diminishing that hope. Because a person or a national organization without hope of things getting better or returning to what they perceive as being a fortunate end state, all discussions are shut down. So, I likely see that just as we’re starting to see NATO not giving immediate answer, that there is a path to Ukraine’s membership, that is likely to be the first factor in that. There won’t be a definitive answer on Ukraine joining NATO, okay? Now that will get Russia to the table.
After that, the question is how do you get someone to take an off ramp and still save face? Because again, we go back to one of your earlier statements, it’s about pride, it’s about national pride. We’ve gone through all this, and now if the numbers are accurate where we’re over 15,000 soldiers from Russia that have lost their lives, not to mention all the human loss on the Ukrainian side, that’s hard to walk away with and say, “Hey, we’re okay.”
So, I do see pushing off on NATO and there’s likely to be more confirmation on that land that was already in the East that was seen to be working as separatists or use the best term, not fully Ukrainian territory, that would likely be more solidified as the gain for Russia.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense because NATO membership obviously is off the table. From the Russian respective, you could see why they wouldn’t want that. So, that basically only leaves Ukraine and Ukraine’s a huge country. I mean, it is absolutely massive. When we think of countries like Denmark, okay, it’s small. It’s a cute little small country and it’s in Northern Europe and the Danes are always happy. But the Ukraine is huge, a huge population. And just the number of refugees is huge. And so, for Americans who haven’t been paying attention, there’s essentially been a civil war in Ukraine since 2014. And that means that there’s an active conflict with people dying weekly since 2014.
Now, I would say from a practical perspective though, separatists in the Donbas, I’m like, “Has it been worth it that you’ve completely destroyed your province? And you’ve forced people out?” And anytime there’s something like that and you see it in every conflict, especially Syria—recent conflicts—especially Yemen, it’s not the best of us who go fight in those wars it’s usually people who are extraordinarily focused on one perspective. And, “It’s my perspective that’s correct.” And so, I could see Ukraine giving up the Donbas. I don’t know if I could see them giving up a land bridge over to Crimea although I don’t know if they’ll have that choice.
Dr. Larry Parker: And that would be the ultimate win, I would say, for Russia, if they didn’t get everything else, they’d done enough damage where it would likely be politically spun as we were able to push back the aggression and we achieved all these things and everyone could walk away with a certain level of pride of what was done and justify, now here’s the human element, justify the loss of loved ones to that extent, 15,000 to 16,000, that dwarfs a number of conflicts that have happened in some cases where there’s small flare ups. This is large enough now that you’re going to have some kind of significant win or tangible, not just a something that’s, “Okay. Hey, it’s all these intangibles that we feel that we’ve proved a point. We’re going to have to walk away with something tangible.” And that’s from the perspective of the Russians.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And their losses, again, coming from the Russian perspective, you can see why they would’ve thought that “We’re going to walk in and we’ll take things, there won’t be much resistance, it’s Ukraine, used to be part of the Soviet Union, ethnically, we’re kind of the same people, linguistically, we speak of very similar language. They’re our brothers, they’re our sisters over there.”
But the Ukrainians have a very different perspective than the Russians. And also, just the political instability, the Ukraine over the last years, again, you can see how the Russians would be like, “You know what? They’re not going to fight back.” Tom Kelly talked about transparency.org the other day and he was saying that the Ukraine and Russia are too extraordinarily corrupt countries in the sense that the most transparent, the most fair, the most honest governments in the world are typically Nordic countries. The U.S. is like I think 30-something, we’ve done better. But then Russian and Ukraine’s were in the 130s.
And what I mean by corrupt countries is like the roads actually don’t get built or good tires don’t actually get put on your military vehicles. So, when you’re a corrupt country, it means that if you think your army is effective, well, it might not be because of just corruption.
And so, it’s really interesting to see all these things being played out and even the invasion stats, like you said, that’s a lot of people dying, that’s a lot of Russians dying. And I think of these poor young kids, obviously, anybody who signs up the military know that this might happen, but they also didn’t probably sign and up to say, “Invade Ukraine,” one of their closest ethnic, linguistic neighbors.
Dr. Larry Parker: And just the globalized economy today, the access of information on the internet, it takes us to a different place where you view the world being much smaller. And, just like we saw the economic sanctions and all the things that are happening right now, I doubt if Russian government considered this was likely going to be the take, because we are so connected.
So, you look at the leaders that are in place now that have been in place for so long, they remember the time when we weren’t as connected and it would not have resulted in this chain of events that have happened. And so, this is one of those things that even those of us who have served in the military for years have never seen where we’re conducting a partial war, in a sense, where you’re engaged in armed conflict in one side, and yet you’re still economically actually trading on another side.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s confusing. I don’t know what other word to say. And also just the, I’ll say transparency of the conflict on the ground. I said this before, people should be very careful of being influenced by the war porn that is going on. Because every time you see one of these videos, that means somebody’s dying, and great Ukraine is defending themselves we support that, but at the same time, there’s deaths on the ground, horrible, violent deaths.
And also, I don’t know if Russia really quite realized, just like you said, the interconnectedness because we haven’t seen this type of instant coverage from Syria. We don’t see it from Yemen, which is an active conflict. I’m assuming, because Yemen isn’t as technologically advanced so then there’s not as many people who just have a cell phone or the infrastructure of that. But in Ukraine, there’s plenty of structure and it seems like people have helped bolster that infrastructure to make sure that doesn’t turn off.
Dr. Larry Parker: Yeah, actually what they’re finding. And we see this in a number of things, even in our society here in the United States, technology has turned out to be, although it’s one of the tools that we really turn to use, the average person now in Ukraine sees that’s a powerful weapon, it’s a defense mechanism. To be able to turn on the camera and show some of these things that are happening and be able to give the world a perspective on it. And I’m quite certain, and it’s likely changed some actions that would likely have been taken to know that, “Hey, this will be caught on camera the instant that it happens and shown around the world.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. One other question I have is, does this war finally tell the death knell of the tank?
Dr. Larry Parker: To answer your question, yes. We’ve finally seen the evolution of warfare to the point that tanks, although they’ve been heralded and celebrated over the years, and we can point to a number of great historical leaders. But, now, to have a tool that costs a fraction of what that costs without persons in involved, the loss of life, and to be able to have that loiter over a section and then decide, “Okay, I’m going to go take that out,” yeah, the tank should likely leave the inventory of a number of services just because of the new tools that are out there. And then, and I’ll just say, even my beloved Marine Corps, we’ve now started to sunset all our tanks because we can’t see the same use as the army. We’re leaving that to them. But we’re divesting from that for some of the very reasons that you mentioned.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And it totally makes sense because who would want to get into a wonderful tank, a very modern tank and then be like, well, a $10,000 rocket could kill my $30 million tank. I’m totally throwing out numbers here, but the cost just dollars, just money costs is just so egregious. I’m not even talking about the lives that would be lost, of course.
And it also makes me think like, how can we still be building aircraft carriers? How can we still be building these large ships with one rocket kills 5,000 people. And it really, it makes me frustrated with the military industrial complex here in the U.S. where we continue to do this stuff that is counterproductive. We’re still fighting a World War II conflict in our minds. And when the world is peaceful and we need some airplanes to go over there and nobody’s going to actually attack our aircraft carriers. Okay, great. But what happens if they do? That’s a lot of people, it’s billions of dollars. I mean, what is it? $13 billion I think for the last aircraft carrier, it’s an incredible cost.
Dr. Larry Parker: And to that end, again, we’re still dealing with individuals who remember yester-year. Now, of course we don’t have certain policy makers that fought in World War II, but then you still have that generation that parents did. Other family fought in Vietnam or things of that nature and relied on the resources or the, as we would say, the hundreds of tons of sovereign U.S. territory floating into the area. And that’s not always, again, the same discussion that we just had with the tank, is that the best use of our resources? And now that we’ve created these arrangements with these NATO allies, because really it was about having a base, it was about having some place that when we withdrew or we were setting up our strategic objective, we could have a place to launch from.
But now with the work that we’ve done over the years, it starts to really diminish the relevance of those aircraft carriers. But then, it goes back to what you said, the defense business, economic phenomenon, it took, I would say a decade to get it approved and paid for and another decade to build. So, those things, when we point to aircraft carrier rolling out, that thing had been in works for at least 20 years.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It had, and thousands of jobs here in the U.S., which of course is very difficult. But, I think there are smarter ways to allocate that money such as small aircraft carriers, full drones, and that could be much more cost effective. And honestly, war going forward is going to be, I’m just throwing out a make-belief percentage here, 30% human, 70% per drones.
Dr. Larry Parker: And that’s likely to be the case. I think we still hold to yesteryear for a number of things. I actually served at headquarters Marine Corps at the time when our first drone pilots were really starting to go through training. And you can imagine the difference in how old pilots, the ones that still wore the leather jackets, the flight wings, had a problem with the new specialty that’s coming on board. And so, again, wrapping it back into our conversation that we started with today, the face of the world has changed, both how we fight wars and how we approach them, economically. And I think that’s probably one of the bigger things.
As I think back, and it’s funny how this conversation has gone, if I think back to how this is going to be justified, the off-ramp, everything is heavily influenced that we are now such a global, connected economy, that it will be hard for us to have these type conflicts and everybody feel the pain. And at certain points, everyone goes home with their wounds and try to find a common ground where they could say, “Hey, I got a win out of it. That’s enough for me to at least take it home with some face.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly, I agree. Because the Ukrainian war with Russia, it is a typical old-fashioned land war in Eastern Europe. That’s something we’ve seen for hundreds of years and here it is in 2022.
Dr. Larry Parker: And I saw a news reporting not long ago, and a young lady actually said that she was just shocked. She says, “We’re in 2022, and this is actually happening.” But that’s because they’ve grown up in a world where we’re all connected. I will just say, after serving seven years overseas in the military, I would go to some of these countries and I would just be surprised to see what changed.
And I’ll just give example for China. I went to China, I was surprised that I stayed in Hiltons, I stayed in, or just other American hotels. And I ran into young people from California that were there for a conference for some kind of internet or some kind of coding conference and it just reminded me how the world had changed. And I believe the basketball player Yao Ming was large at the time, and it just changed how I saw the world interacting, knowing, as I’m serving in the military, this is a country that’s another superpower, but yet we’re enjoying a lot of the things that I would enjoy back in the states.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly, and very well stated. And so, absolutely wonderful conversations today, Larry. Any final words?
Dr. Larry Parker: Well, what I would just say is it’s been a pleasure to be here to have this discussion. And if I would say, if you took anything away from what we mentioned here today is just to be well informed and then really to look at the historical perspective. And this is my way of nerding out, go back and look in the history books and see why someone might have an opposing opinion to you. And in this case, not saying that they’re right, but you just get to understand their perspective. And that’s the one thing that would say history oftentimes gives perspective.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And absolutely wonderful. And today we’re talking with Dr. Larry Parker about the war in Ukraine. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thanks for listening.