Christians don’t have to be foreign policy experts, but they should at least understand what gave rise to the war in Ukraine.
With the invasion of Ukraine, I’ve found myself reflecting on the sons of Issachar. They understood the times. Do we understand what gave rise to the war in Ukraine? I don’t get that impression reading four Opinion writers for the New York Times. It’s astonishing how often they say they’re astonished at Putin’s actions.
We shouldn’t be. Nor should Christians who ought to do better than this. We don’t have to be foreign policy experts, but we can at least be familiar with Hedrick Smith’s The Russians. I read it before visiting the USSR in 1989, a year before the Berlin Wall fell.
Smith writes how the Rus, the Russian people, feel a deep sense of inferiority toward the West. I witnessed this when our tour guide kept discouraging us from buying Russian-made goods. “They’re crap,” she said. “Buy goods made by Poles.” This feeling of inferiority drives Russian leaders to seek secure borders against the West.
We see inferiority and insecurity in George Kennan’s Long Telegram, written in 1946. I encourage Christians to be familiar with this as well. Kennan was convinced that President Roosevelt’s optimism in cooperating with Joseph Stalin was completely misplaced. He warned how the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” would drive a “patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power.”
Kennan had a solution. Although the Soviet Union was “impervious to logic of reason,” it was “highly sensitive to logic of force.” Therefore, it would back down “when strong resistance is encountered at any point.” The US and its allies would have to offer that resistance. Kennan’s Long Telegram became a policy known as containment.
It worked. The West contained Soviet aggression, beginning with the Berlin Airlift of 1947. In the 1950s and 60s, the USSR became mired in an arms race with the US. It couldn’t keep up. President Ronald Reagan recognized this. June 12, 1987: Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall! Gorbachev didn’t. The Germans did. Gorbachev followed suit, dismantling the USSR.
This marked the end of history. The Cold War was over. The West looked to the future with optimism. At least that was the reigning theory, and more than one US Administration, as well as numerous Christian organizations, bought it. The results were not so good.
Take the Clinton Administration and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. The US, Great Britain and Russia offered security assurances to Ukraine, including a pledge to “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance” in the event of an “act of aggression” against Ukraine. In response, Ukraine promised to return all of its nuclear weapons to Russia, effectively giving away its best deterrent against Russia.
Nine years later, in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the nation that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He sought to rectify this. US Administrations didn’t seem to hear this. George W. Bush said he looked into Putin’s eyes and found him trustworthy. Barack Obama dismissed Putin’s Russia as a “regional power” threatening its neighbors out of weakness. Donald Trump admired Putin. President Biden sought to build a “stable, predictable” relationship with Putin.
Where have you gone, George Kennan?
It seems only Mitt Romney remembered Kennan. During a 2012 presidential debate, Romney labeled Russia America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Clinton, disagreed. She said Romney’s views were “out of date” and “just wrong.” President Obama mocked Romney’s views. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Credit Albright for admitting in 2019 that she personally owes Romney an apology for having “underestimated” the Russian threat. Nothing yet from Obama.
Again, Christians don’t have to be foreign policy experts. But they should at least recognize decisions that give rise to Putin’s aggression. Like cutting and running from Afghanistan. It exposed an American distaste for war, reminding me of Fannie Hurst’s famous line at a “Freedom Day” rally in Cleveland in 1941 as Hitler’s war machine revved up: “We may not be interested in this war, but it is interested in us.”
Christians who understand the times recognize war is always interested in us. Lucifer started the first war in eternity past. War broke out again in the Garden. War intensified in the birth of Christ, enraging Lucifer who wages war against Jesus’ followers (Rev.12). A large majority of Ukraine’s population is Orthodox, with a significant minority Catholic.
I’m not sure how many Americans recognize this. I attribute this to a comment Francis Schaeffer made years ago. He said personal peace and affluence define the West. Thousands might be dying in Ukraine, but most folks I talk to, including Christians, seem more concerned about gas and grocery prices. Inflation—not invasion—is on our minds.
A final reflection. In his 1943 sermon, The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis warned that we are all under “the strongest spell that can be found.” It’s evil and over 100 years old. It goes by “names like Nostalgia.” I recommend Christians read Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven to understand why Lasch defines Nostalgia as “The Abdication of Memory.” It’s where, having cut and run from Afghanistan, we choose to forget that as the Afghan economy collapses, Afghan women are selling their daughters into marriage to make ends meet. We don’t like to think about that sort of ugly reality. We’re optimists, upbeat.
My sense is Putin recognizes this. Americans, as well as the West, lack the resolve to contain Russian aggression. The show trials, murders, genocide, and suffering likely to follow as Ukraine likely (but hopefully not) falls will probably be forgotten in a few months. We’ll get back to Build Back Better.
But we’d have to understand the times to remember what we’ll likely forget.