Thursday, December 8, 2022

John Sung Kim: What Elon Musk and others in Silicon Valley get wrong about Ukraine

by John Sung KimOctober 7, 2022 1:40 pm
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John Sung Kim: What Elon Musk and others in Silicon Valley get wrong about Ukraine

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

I’ve spent most of my career in Silicon Valley, creating three startups totaling billions of dollars in market cap thanks to my brilliant engineers. I’ve been very fortunate.

But it wasn’t until my engineers suggested we visit Ukraine that I found true happiness. 

I lived in Kyiv for three years, made an incredible group of friends, and met my wife, who blessed us with twins. So yes, I have a vested interest in Ukraine.

It hurts me greatly that a growing number of Silicon Valley elites espouse appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin by forgiving the mass murder of Ukrainians and ceding of lands that do not belong to Russia. 

Everyone knows Elon Musk, but perhaps lesser known is Naval Ravikant, who has been hugely influential in my life and someone I refer to as the “Buddha of Silicon Valley.”

David Sacks is a well-respected venture investor and co-host on Jason Calacanis’ All In podcast. He sold his B2B product Yammer to Microsoft for $1 billion. 

Many of us in the tech industry have oceans of respect for these three individuals. Still, I believe their misunderstanding of the current situation might be related to three common misconceptions many in the West have about Ukraine and Russia’s full-scale war. 

Let’s break them down.

Misconception #1

The first misconception is that there are numerous Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens who want to join Russia, especially in the country’s eastern regions. 

Elon Musk has said he wants “the will of the people” who live in Donbas and Crimea to decide whether to remain in Ukraine or join Russia. 

My wife’s family lives in Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine, which is still being shelled by Russia. While many in the city speak Russian, nobody in Mykolaiv wants to join Russia. 

David Sacks has claimed that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donbas want to join Russia and has used this as justification for the West to stay out of a so-called “family quarrel.”

This argument doesn’t make any sense when we zoom out globally. David and I both speak English – does this mean we want to join the British Empire?

Ukrainians have their own distinct language, which sounds nothing like Russian, and, while many speak Russian like in many former Soviet countries, Ukrainians love Ukrainian culture and, as the world has witnessed, are willing to fight and die for it. 

The few Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the fast-dwindling occupied territories that claim to “want to join Russia” are often coerced. 

Who wants to give up their democratic freedoms to live under a dictator who sends soldiers into your lands and conscripts your children to fight to their deaths?

The language we speak does not indicate our allegiance to any specific country. Just ask the Brazilians if they want to return to being a Portuguese colony.

Misconception #2

A second misconception is that Ukraine is wrought with so much corruption that the West should not be providing support to the extent it does now. 

American political pundit Tucker Carlson has frequently repeated this misconception. 

It’s true that there is corruption in Ukraine – I’ve witnessed it while living there. But I’ve also seen it in my hometown of San Francisco and through American businesspeople who seem to have an almost clairvoyant “knack” for predicting the stock market.

There is corruption everywhere. 

Although I imagine that if the Russian military were to roll through San Francisco the politicians and wealthy elite would be the first to skip town in their private jets. 

They would be soon followed by people, including myself, crowding business class flights to distant Four Seasons hotels, where they would air their miserable plights on Twitter. 

Political corruption does not mean that a country’s citizens do not deserve aid.

Note that Ukraine has given rise to multiple tech unicorns like Grammarly, Ring, People.ai, Preply, Gitlab, Firefly, and Genesis.

If you want to see your money go far, either as an investor or a philanthropist, give it to a Ukrainian. 

Misconception #3

A third misconception is that Russia’s full-scale war is a regional conflict that the West is escalating into a World War – and a nuclear war if Putin becomes too desperate.

“We can still be pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia, and still acknowledge that NATO should not risk a global thermonuclear war to defend a non-NATO country,” Naval wrote on Twitter. 

Here’s my issue with this statement:

Putin has always claimed he’s fighting against NATO, and yet Ukraine is the only one physically fighting against him for NATO.

By Aristotlean logic, doesn’t this mean Ukraine is effectively part of NATO?

Naval’s argument sounds like a schoolyard scrap in which a kid pays a smaller one to fight the bully but wants no part in the transaction if the scrapper loses. We can’t have it both ways.

“The Neocons and the Woke Left are joining hands and leading us to Woke War III,” wrote David Sacks for Newsweek. 

While I generally agree with David on many things, there are many moderates who aren’t “woke” – they just believe that acquiescing to Putin will create multiple mini-Putins.

And that Xi Jinping will invade Taiwan within a few years. And that Putin will then invade Moldova, then Georgia, then Serbia, and let’s not forget Kazakhstan, with some of the largest oil reserves of the post-Soviet states. 

North Korea, where my family is originally from, and many other countries, will scramble for nuclear weapons.

This is not a regional conflict.

The West promised Ukraine protection for giving up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s. Europe made a bargain with Putin for cheap energy for nearly two decades. We’ve all played our part in giving rise to a tyrant who makes a Bond villain look second-rate.

And now we’re putting it all on the Ukrainians?

I know the wealthy have a lot to lose, but their children stand to inherit more than their parents' money. They could end up living in a post-Putin world where everyone from rogue nations to gangsters can threaten to go nuclear. 

Now is the time to be brave.

Now is the time to be Ukrainian. 


John Sung Kim
John Sung Kim

John Sung Kim is the current CEO of JetBridge and the founding CEO of Five9, U.S.-based global software companies.

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