I recently had occasion to travel to Kiev to give a series of talks on space exploration. I had not been in Kiev since 1969, and the changes were not only remarkable but unexpected. On the basis of the general impression conveyed by the media, I had anticipated encountering a piece of post-Soviet wreckage filled with people motivated primarily by tribal animosities. Instead I found a real European city, filled with people who very much want to be part of the western cosmopolitan world. My talks everywhere were packed — in a way that reminded me greatly of the atmosphere when I toured Poland in 1997 — with young people enthusiastic with hope that they could join in building the human future. While the battle with Moscow was not far from peoples’ minds, contrary to Kremlin propaganda, most Ukrainians I met did not see it as an ethnolinguistic conflict between Ukrainian speakers and Russophones. My own shaky Russian was quite welcome everywhere. Indeed, most of the people I dealt with in Kiev spoke Russian as their first language themselves, but all, without exception, supported Ukraine against Putin’s aggression.
The claim that the war in Ukraine is an ethnic civil war is a lie. Rather, the war is a political conflict with a foreign aggressor. The issue is whether Ukraine will be kept, like Belarus, as a Kremlin-dominated satellite tyranny, or be able to escape and join the free world. We need to help the Ukrainians.
While military assistance is doubtless required to deal with the current emergency, that is not enough. Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the average income in Ukraine is still only about $5,000 per year. To be stabilized, the country needs serious economic help. How can this best be rendered?
Direct cash aid would be of limited value, as much of it would probably be stolen by local oligarchs. But there is a better way. We need to help Ukraine develop its extensive native talent. In short, I propose that the U.S. government — with cooperation from Ukrainian officials and academics — establish and fund an American University in Kiev.
There is a partial model for this. That is Skolkovo University, near Moscow, which was founded in 2011 as a partnership between MIT and the Russian Federation with a goal of teaching science, engineering, and technological entrepreneurship. This venture has proven very successful, in that a first-class university was created whose graduates have, in fact, launched many tech startups.
Hard-pressed Ukraine lacks the funds to launch such an operation right now, but it would be easily within the means of the U.S. State Department. I discussed the matter with a number of academic leaders from several universities when I was in Kiev, and they were enthusiastic about collaborating in such a venture. If the U.S. government put funds on the line, many American universities would no doubt bid to lead our part of the effort — including several, such as Stanford (which also bid on Skolkovo), with a tech-venture-creating track record quite comparable to that of MIT.
Such an approach could work well in Ukraine, which has a large population with a solid background in the technical basics yet needing an update in the most modern methods of engineering and entrepreneurship.
If it were up to me, though, I would go beyond the Skolkovo model and include history and principles of constitutional law in the curriculum. Ukrainians, like Russians, know how to overthrow tyrannies but are not very good at preventing new ones from emerging after the revolution. In my view, this is because certain fundamental western political concepts are not really well understood in that part of the world. These include that the purpose of government is to protect the individual rights of the people, that to this end its power must be limited, and that the law needs to stand above the government. Instead, since the time of the Mongol conquest, it has been accepted that — as Lenin clearly explained in The State and Revolution — the purpose of government is to provide a tool for those in power to enforce their will on everyone else. This pernicious doctrine is inimical to the liberty under law necessary for full economic and social development. Consequently a new generation of political leaders and jurists need to be educated to put it rest.
Ukrainians and Russians have many links, including family ties on both sides of the border. If Ukraine becomes a free and prosperous country, Russians will hear about it and demand no less for themselves. That is what Putin fears most. We should help make those fears come true.
It would be a very good investment, not just for sake of Ukraine, but our own national security. America will not be safe until Russia is free.