I am starting to see more neo-conservatives and Christians supporting NATO’s position on the situation between Russia and Ukraine. A foundational problem is that there is a misunderstanding of the conflict because of the way that news pundits spin it. Although Christians should be patriots and support their country, we should also try to understand the perspective of the patriots of other nations, especially those with a rich Christian history such as Russia and Ukraine. Besides having a majority of Orthodox Christians, the two countries have the first and second largest populations of evangelical Christians in all of Europe.
The Russian Federation has maintained they have legal standing for protecting their own borders from an encroaching NATO military presence – for recognizing the sovereignty of Russians separatists living on Ukraine’s border – for their claim on Crimea’s naval base and territory in 2014 – and for protecting ethnic minorities in disputed territories on the border of Georgia from a mafia-run government in 2008.
Likewise, the United States has made numerous incursions into Latin America throughout our history to protect our military and economic interests, and to liberate nations from oppressive governments. Since the 1950s, the United States has conducted covert operations in the cases of Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1961), Guyana (1961–64), Chile (1970–73), Nicaragua (1981–90), as well as outright military invasions of the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989).
The Monroe Doctrine tells us that the United States is responsible for order in the Americas. Cuba was the Soviet Union’s ally and now maintains that relationship with Russia. The United States has had troops in Cuba since the 1800s at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. There is a military base there and it is U.S. soil. It is perfectly right for the United States to control this base as a matter of security. The Russians have a similar notion that they are the protectors of the Slavic people.
How would we respond if Russia told the United States’ military to get out of Cuba?
How should the United States react if Russia placed military forces or supplied missile technology in Cuba or Venezuela?
Or how about a demand by Russia that the United States stop supporting national resistance to corrupt dictatorships throughout Latin America?
This is the closest analogy to Russian military actions after the Maidan coup in Kiev in 2014 when Crimea rejoined Russia and the present military support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In short, the United States should not be the policeman of the whole world, although we have an interest to protect what is in our own neighborhood. The situation is a lot more complicated than the news pundits make it out to be. Putin has maintained that Russia is not going to invade Ukraine with an occupying force, but that he is protecting Russian interests. He is leveraging muscle to get western concessions on the expansion of NATO military and weapons into nations that border Russia, such as Ukraine and the Baltics.
Russia’s Relationship with Ukraine
I’ve been to Russia and Ukraine 12 times. I’ve spent several months of my life living in the homes of Russian and Ukrainian nationals and traveling on trains, metros and buses of each city. Each time I visited – even if it was just a year apart – I witnessed huge changes and modernization of the countries’ infrastructure and businesses. Russia and Ukraine went from being a culture laboring through a 30-year depression to a slowly emerging modern economy. I also witnessed the strengthening of nationalist sentiments outside of the Moscow region among the many centuries-old ethnic groups.
Not only did 15 separate republics break away from the USSR in 1991, but there are also numerous autonomous regions that would have broken away from Russia if they had support. There are also many minority groups within these break-away republics (especially Christians in Muslim republics) who would gladly rejoin with Russia if given the opportunity to do so. I’ve visited some of these areas and talked to the people on both sides of these nationalistic movements.
For example, Tatarstan is divided between Russian Christians and Tatar Muslims. The capital city of Kazan has its own president and they are an autonomous region within Russia. Local cities in the Caucasus Region were ruled by mafia groups who made incursions into Russia to kidnap and ransom wealthy businessmen. I met and prayed with some families affected by these criminal cartels. There also have been numerous conflicts and civil wars in the largely Muslim central Asian republics in the past 30 years with huge numbers of refugees escaping to relatively stable Russia.
In the above video, at a teacher’s conference in western Ukraine in 2007, I talked to a Christian principal from eastern Ukraine. In the first few minutes of the video, he describes the animosity many western Ukrainians feel toward the Russian culture and language that was imposed on them during the time of the Soviet Union.
A Brief History of Ukraine
First, the original Russia from the High Middle Ages known was known as Kievan Rus, a loose alliance of Slavic, Baltic and Scandinavian peoples. When the Mongols, Tatars and Turks invaded what is now modern Ukraine, the capital was moved from Kiev to the Russian city of Vladimir and then Moscow. Russia won back the territory in later centuries. It was then called Ukraine from a Slavic word that means “the borderland.” Over the years several languages developed out of Old East Slavic: Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, as well as other eastern European languages. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukraine declared its independence very briefly for a period of about a year and then was absorbed into the Soviet Union. The territory of Crimea was part of Russia until it was added to the Ukrainian Socialist Republic after World War II.
Ukraine was never a truly independent country and was only recognized by the west for the first time after the 1991. Within Ukraine, there are a large number of Russians. In eastern Ukraine, and in the central area surrounding Kiev most consider themselves Ukrainian, but many prefer to speak Russian. However, some consider themselves Russian, especially along the south eastern border. In the south, there are the Crimean Tatars who once ruled a kingdom stretching north into Russia. In the west and northwest, Russia took lands from Poland and Hungary and added them to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. There are also ethic nationalists among all those groups who would prefer to return those territories to their homeland. The largest Church is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but there are also many Russian Orthodox, so-called “Greek Catholics” (Eastern Rite Catholics), as well as many smaller Protestant groups and Turkish and Tatar Muslims. Ukraine is a complex multi-cultural nation of competing ethnic groups and religions.
The rest of the former Soviet republics also have a complicated existence. The above video explains that various economic and political realignments of the 15 former Soviet republics between 1991 and 2019.
Analyzing the Russian “Invasions” of Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia
In the western press, it is customary to refer to the Russian “invasions” of Georgia and Crimea. This is a one-sided view that does not take into account the history and reasons behind the realignments of these borders.
First, there was never a military invasion of Georgia proper. Although the western media has portrayed this conflict as between Russia and Georgia, in reality the conflict was between Georgia and two small independent republics on the Russian border, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These tiny nations are isolated by the Caucasus, the tallest mountain range in Europe. These are people who have been aligned with Russia for centuries, but were joined with the Soviet Republic of Georgia for administrative reasons in the 20th century. After the break-up of the Soviet Union they declared their independence. Although most of the west refuses to recognize them as sovereign nations, Russia provided military assistance in 2008 to force out Georgian armies, whom they accused of attempted genocide. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now considered autonomous republics under Russian protection. The “invasion” of Georgia was western propaganda. It was rather an aided secession of isolated ethnic populations who wanted to be free from a corrupt Georgian government. The conflict caused about 2000 casualties, many of them civilians, although this number has been disputed. However, prior to the Russian “invasion,” many claimed that a genocide of these two people groups by Georgian forces was an ongoing threat. From Russia’s perspective, the military action was necessary to preserve peace and stability in these small regions. Similar counter-claims are made by the Georgian government.
You might know the Abkhazians from the 1970s Dannon yogurt commercial featuring this mountainous region where more people live to be over 100-years-old than anywhere else in the world. The commercial presented these centenarians as ethnic “Georgians,” but in reality they were Abkhazians. From a biblical perspective, it is vital that the Abkhazians and Ossetians survive as ethnic groups as they add their own cultural color and ethic knowledge to the kingdom of God.
Second, the supposed “invasion” of Crimea is more complex than is told by western media and politics. Sevastopol was the location of a naval base used by Imperial Russia and then the Soviet Union for hundreds of years. It was joined to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia continued to use the base in Crimea in a much less controlled manner by paying rent to Ukraine. In reality, Crimea wanted to rejoin Russia since 1992 and even had their own president for a limited time as a self-declared autonomous region (few people know this even in the Ukraine). So the referendum in 2014 was a quick and effective method of respecting the opinion of the Crimean people. Support for reunification with Russia in Crimea has only increased since 2014, even among the Crimean Tatars who were an oppressed group during the Soviet era.
This could be compared to the United States controlling the eastern shore of Cuba, although the Castro-led communists decry it as an illegal occupation.
In the wake of the anti-Russian Maiden Revolution in 2014, the Crimeans overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia. There was no violent military invasion. Russia took back Crimea once Ukraine began to lobby for NATO and EU membership. The military base was taken to protect Russia. In all, there were a total of six casualties during the month-long transition, three of them protesters.
Similarly, in eastern Ukraine many people consider themselves Russian nationalists. What many Americans don’t realize is that in the Donbas region, which comprises the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, there has been a civil war of sorts since 2014 and a total of 14,000 people have been killed. The economy of the region has suffered greatly. This war has been mainly in the form of skirmishes between militant factions. It is an extremely complicated situation. Both sides have a valid point of view, but the western press dumbs it down into anti-Russian sound bites. Western media sources have claimed that Russian troops have been present in the region since 2014, so NATO press conferences have been careful to use the words “further invade Ukraine” to speak of the present military presence.
On a personal note, although I have never visited the Donbas Region, our Russian language newspaper, Predvestnik, was distributed by churches in that area and we received letters from Christians who were impacted by our ministry. Obviously, the fomenting of division in Ukraine does great harm to Christian unity. On the other side, I have a Ukrainian nationalist friend who was forced to leave Russia because his outspoken support of Ukraine.
In short, the United States should stay out of it. It’s a political issue between Russia and Ukraine to decide how much western military and economic influence is going to be invited into the region. The interference of NATO and the EU in Ukraine has worsened the problem.
Clearing the Western Media Smoke Screens
When I first began to visit the former Soviet Union in 1991, then still a unified country, I immediately noticed the huge difference in the people and culture from the way they have been portrayed by the western media. I also noticed that the news often portrayed current events as the polar opposite from reality.
In the time of perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s and early 1990s, a popular narrative was that this was a ploy for a short term “openness” designed to stoke the Soviet Union’s failing economy with the long term goal of returning to Stalinist totalitarianism.
In the early days of Christian missionary endeavors, I constantly heard missionary groups cry for fudding “before the door slams shut again.” Part of these fears lay in the mistaken notion that Russia is the Gog and Magog of Ezekiel 38, 39.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, we heard about “draconian” laws passed by the Russian government restricting Christianity. In reality, these laws were directed at dangerous cults – including a suicide cult called the Great White Brotherhood that gained a national following in the early 1990s. Most evangelical Protestant denominations have continued to grow although they are forced to register with official denominations. Evangelical churches have gained a measure of respect in society as a permanent subculture.
Another lie was the frequent mantra that Putin had turned Russia’s economy into shambles. In fact, the Russia’s economy was the fastest growing in the world under Putin until the last seven or eight years when oil prices dropped.
When Putin was voted in as the Russian president, we often heard that he was a former KGB director, a Russian oligarch, a thug and a bully – who came to power through riches at the people’s expense. In fact, the key to Putin’s continued popularity was his lack of corruption and the fact that he did not use his position to gain wealth for himself – at least initially. We hear that Putin is a billionaire who owns all the wealth in Russia as though he is a 21st century Czar. In reality, Putin did far more than his predecessors to break up mafia groups and an oligarchy that overtook Russia when the communist system was turned over to an elite few.
This isn’t to whitewash the corruption in Russia that has continued under Putin. The basic first amendments rights enjoyed by American’s do not yet exist in Russia. This is a socialist country with strict controls over everyday life, yet it has made huge progress from the time of the Soviet Union.
Putin is far from the perfect leader, but there is no doubt that he has brought reformation to Russia and has elevated the Church – including the Russian Orthodox, Catholics and a smaller number of Protestant denominations – to be a cultural force in the society. Western Christians ought to recognize this and pray for Russia and Ukraine in the current crisis.