It has been impossible for me not to recall my visits to Ukraine during recent months. In all, I made six or seven trips there between 1989 and 2008, all but one of them for consulting gigs, as I call them. The other one was with my wife and parents, because my father and mother wanted to see their homeland 50 years after leaving it. Although legally they had been Polish at the time (Lviv was then part of Poland), they considered themselves Ukrainian.
When we reached Lviv, after a tiring night train ride from Kyiv, and I saw its architectural beauty, I asked my parents why they had never mentioned this. They shrugged. It was, after all, what they had seen every day, so was not unusual for them. Now, billions around the world are seeing Lviv in the background of journalists’ reports on TV.
Sadly, so much death and destruction had to transpire, including the recent bombing of Lviv, before it came to the world’s attention. How, then, to change what is happening? I will try to explain, but first I will discuss what I learned along the way.
Lessons from consulting gigs
My trips to Ukraine were mainly to Kyiv, where I worked on four separate consulting cases. They were for Eutelsat, a satellite company, for SATURN, an R&D center, for the World Bank, and for UMC, which was then Ukraine’s largest mobile operator. All were eye-opening.
Of the four, helping Eutelsat secure landing rights in Ukraine was the easiest in retrospect, though it was by no means straightforward. It involved intricate negotiations. After some months, Eutelsat’s proposed satellite station was approved by the government.
In contrast, advising SATURN on selling its defense technology to the West was an uphill task. Like other state entities, SATURN’s managers saw the world in top-down terms. They received purchase orders through the central Gosplan structure and so now expected orders from the West, the new “Gos,” to replace them.
There was no sense of the entrepreneurial resolve the ongoing changes called for. Only in western Ukraine did I find an entrepreneurial sixth sense, all because it had lived under the Soviet system for a shorter time.
My close associate, Dr Wes Vivian, who previously led an R&D firm in Michigan and also served in the US Congress, assured me that SATURN’s technology was good—but not built to western technical standards. And I could see that a number of redesigns of its products would be needed.
I also learned how the Soviet Union depended on Ukraine’s technology, including space rockets from Dnipro, the very large cargo airplanes from Kyiv’s Antonov factory, and the rear-engine mini cars produced in Zaporizhzhia.
China’s unknown presence
Only recently, under President Zelensky, has Ukraine completely stopped supplying Russia with military technology. This is one of the reasons Putin is trying to take over the country and its tech centers. China is now Ukraine’s main weapons buyer and trading partner. This is overlooked in most pro-Russia portrayals of China’s position on Putin’s war, with little attention also going to Ukraine’s role as the world’s largest source of neon gas—critical in making semiconductor chips. Ukraine is as much a producer of tech as of corn, wheat and sunflower oil.
As for the World Bank, my job was to set up a meeting with Ukraine’s communications minister at a gathering of post-Soviet officials in Yalta. The minister’s gatekeeper (aptly named “key holder” in Ukrainian) blocked this until the very last minute, when we learned that there was no plan to privatize the state telephone company. However, as a first step, 49 per cent of the company’s mobile service business was sold to a group of European companies. The latter then hired my firm to help instil a competitive culture. Only UMC did not follow our advice, and the company soon lost its leadership position.
Lviv opera to Kyiv TV show
My work in Ukraine was combined with dinners with the National Security Council, a chance encounter with then-President Viktor Yushchenko, and a performance at Lviv’s opera, where my mother used to sing. Yet the most memorable moment was with a young woman I ran into at a Kyiv office I was visiting. I was trying to copy a document and somehow we started talking about Russians, whom I had been raised to treat with suspicion. This suspicion intensified when I ended up in jail within two hours of my first visit to Moscow.
Catching my drift, she said: “It is not the Russian people. They have suffered as much as we have. It’s the leaders in Moscow.” It’s one of the few times I did not respond, as consultants are supposed to, by pointing out a wrinkle in the argument or an example of its validity. I didn’t say anything. And I mulled over her words on my trip home. They helped me to have Russian friends, something I had previously considered unthinkable. That said, I am now mulling over these words again as I hear of Russian military atrocities in Mariupol and elsewhere. How to reconcile horror with humanity?
For some help with all this, try watching Volodymyr Zelensky’s comedy TV series, Servant of the People, on Netflix. It offers some balance, between the slapstick humor and the impossibility of a high school history teacher being elected President (even though the person acting the part has been). In Servant of the People, as in recent weeks, Zelensky fosters a new Ukraine—one that accepts diversity, rejects cronyism and unites people like few countries ever have before. It’s quite a preview of the TV series we are all now watching on the news channels.
How will history end?
Let me end with a bit of history. The big picture is that invaders have not fared well against the Russian Empire, from Charles XII of Sweden and Mazeppa’s Cossacks in the 18th century to Napoleon in the 19th and Hitler in the 20th. No, only the Russian and Ukrainian people changed things in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s disastrous handling of Chernobyl and its retreat from Afghanistan, fostered by US backing for the Mujahideen. The next US contribution was not as helpful. Its pushing of crash capitalism in the 1990s only led to state-sponsored crash oligarchy.
How then to have the Russian people change their system now as they managed to do in the early 1990s? Given their few media options and the reprisals they face, it is no easy task. In addition, Putin is not subject to a Politburo that, after Stalin left, usually had two factions, one of which supported reforms in the post-Chernobyl and post-Afghanistan period. Hopefully, the Russian people will again find the courage, aided by an inner faction from the military or the oligarchs, to shift their leader’s path away from genocide. Slava Ukraine•
Kas Kalba is an international consultant specializing in broadband development, regulatory issues and spectrum auctions