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When a madman at the top of the Russian hierarchy cares more about his ego than the people he supposedly leads, innocent people pay the price.

Like billions of people around the world, I watched a madman direct the Russian military to crush Ukraine on Wednesday evening, Feb. 22, 2022. As I compose this on Friday morning, Feb. 25 US Central time, Russian soldiers are fighting across Ukraine while millions of Ukrainians huddle in bomb shelters or anywhere they can find to escape the devastation. Of course it’s horrifying. But it’s also personal. Even for me, an American thousands of miles away.

But to Putin, it’s just geopolitics. And lies.

We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.

Vladimir Putin’s Televised Address on Ukraine, February 24, 2022, 6:07 AM CST, English translation by Bloomberg News,

Even while Putin delivered that speech, his rockets and missiles blasted targets all over Ukraine and Russian paratroopers battled the Ukrainian army to control strategic locations. Putin claims he’s defending Russia from NATO and the United States. That’s why he directed his military to commit murder across Ukraine.

Putin is a madman. So far, seventeen hundred Russians endured arrest for antiwar protests. I hope more Russians join them. And I hope Russians find a way to get rid of him.

The picture at the top of this blog post is from 2003, when my buddy, Ihor, and I got lost in a village about 84 km southeast of Kyiv named Stovepiagi one evening and we turned it into an impromptu stroll across town. We ran across these babushkas (grandmothers) and struck up a conversation with them. We talked about meat. Because meat at meals was a luxury, and they couldn’t figure out how our host, Galina Michaelovna Sholomeatskiya offered us meat at our meals.

Galina and others on market day in Stovepiagi in 2005.
I wanted to buy Galina a chicken, but the chicken guy didn’t come that morning.

Ihor and I, toting my laptop bag, looked about as much out of place as anyone could be in this village where people raised crops to survive. When we finally made it back to Galina’s house, she gave me an earful. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I understood everything she said. I said, “boy, am I glad to see you,” and gave her a hug.

Galina must have been in her 70s, but she walked faster than me and was strong as an ox. She had a dog named Rex who lived in her back yard, chained next to an outhouse. I tried to make friends with Rex, but every time I came close, Rex went ballistic. I guess I would also go ballistic if I lived my life chained next to an outhouse.

I met Ihor in 2001 at a cell phone store in Uzhgorod, on the west side of the country. Ihor was 22 years old. I was 44. Ihor stood out because a generation of communism had not broken his spirit, and he wanted to build a computer operating system. Of course we bonded. I do technology for a living. We’ve stayed in touch since then. He translated for me on my 2003 trip. He also helped secure my website in 2017.

I just realized, Ihor is about as old now as I was then. We chatted a few days before the Russians invaded. He was scared. And shocked. I wish I had something to offer him.

Pastor Vasili in 2005
My buddy, Ihor, 2017

I met Pastor Vasili in 2003 in Stovepiagi. After his family survived the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet government scooped up his family and nearby villagers and plopped them into this village in the middle of nowhere and forgot about them. Because that’s what happens when people at the top of the hierarchy make decisions about everyone else.

In 2005, our group and Pastor Vasili’s young adult son, Sergiy, visited the Chernobyl museum in Kiev. One hallway had signs for every village abandoned after the disaster. Sergiy needed a minute to compose himself when he saw the sign for the village where he was born.

Pastor Vasili started a church and over time, attracted help from westerners. That’s how we met, via a group named Tomorrow Clubs, who brought the message of Christ to groups of kids and parents hungry for hope.

One time, Pastor Vasili let me try to milk his goat. Let’s just say that that goat didn’t like a rookie American trying to take her milk.

Бог нас любит. Это круто! Pastor Vasili and his family taught me that phrase. God loves us. It’s cool! Okay, the literal translation is, God us loves. English puts objects after verbs. Other languages are different. But the meaning is universal.

Memories flood my brain as I compose this. And I fight tears. Because some madman from Moscow wants to destroy it all. In the name of geopolitics. For a lie.

And there’s more.

Here at home, in the middle of this crisis, Trump called Putin a genius. Trump and his cronies still scream that the 2020 US election was rigged, and that if Trump were in charge, Putin would not behave like a madman because Trump and Putin have a great relationship. Here is a 32 second excerpt. Here is the whole Trump podcast interview.

Adding another Trump sideshow to Putin’s rampage is poor timing and poor taste. But Republicans still listen to Trump. I want to scream. I want to hit someone.

But maybe the pen really is mightier than the sword. I can’t do anything about the madman from Moscow. But maybe I can persuade a few American Republicans to see Trump for the madman he really is. Because what’s happening in Ukraine right now will spread if we let it. And I don’t like to think about a world with a madman in charge of our nuclear arsenal.