Reflections on the War in Ukraine

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.

 

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14 Comments

  1. Mike, the 1st and 2nd Century, the New Testament and Old Testament writers are calling, asking for their perspective on human nature back.

    Great post, amazingly concise given the amount of substance.

  2. All excellent points. Although I pray there will never be a time when I am not astonished by the sort of thing we’ve seen over the past week.

  3. I have noticed in many contexts that when individuals feel a deep inferiority to others it quickly translates to fear that often prompts uncontrolled aggression. Hedrick Smith’s insights about the Russian mindset is helpful to me to understand how Putin is so ably manipulating his country. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion and it cuts both ways. Putin is nostalgic for the USSR and its mythical power. Republicans long for the “good old days” of the cold war. When we see something that triggers nostalgia we tend to think that history is repeating itself. However, you can’t go back to those previous times. Putin will regret his efforts to reinvent the USSR. He is the last Czar.

    For 20 years, the west gambled that inclusive policies would break the old inferiority complex. It is easy to say that it failed but it failed mostly because Putin derailed the west’s efforts. This is one reason Putin wants to nullify Ukraine’s fledgling democracy. It rebuts Putin’s claims.

    If you want to really understand what is going on, read Matthew 24.
    “6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.”

  5. Tom: You make some good points but I recall what I’ve heard many historians say about the Russians: They’re notorious for throwing off one Czar for another. I’m not sure Putin is the last Czar.

  6. Nice work Mike- you nailed it. You might share some more of your personal insights having been there and seen the Soviet union as it appears Putin would like to return to

  7. Hank: That would be a lengthy article. But if I highlighted a few of the lowlights, it was the thin veneer of a “developed nation” (mostly the military and Red Square) masking a tragically undeveloped and impoverished country (drive a few miles out of Moscow and you’re in the 19th century). I visited both cities and the countryside. In Moscow, cab drivers would remove their windshield wipers when they parked (otherwise the wipers would be stolen). I also remember women carrying old bags, most of them empty. I discovered why when one day, as we were walking about, a truck pulled into an alley, opened the rear gate, and started selling toilet paper. Women flocked to the truck. In two minutes, the truck was empty and roared away.

    I also remember the grotesque injustice of the Soviet system, still largely intact today. In the USSR, Soviet elites could shop at State stores. I visited one. Our cab driver took us to a grimy-looking store with its windows papered over. I entered the store and found out why. It was like Nordstroms inside. I’m not exaggerating. Clothing, furniture, everything… including brand-new tires and refrigerators. I asked our guide What’s up with this? She told me this is how Soviet leaders get western currency into the country. Tourists are allowed in the State stores. Many tourists were relatives of citizens living in the USSR. They’d buy appliances and car parts for their relatives in country using western currencies (no rubles exchanged in State stores).

    Finally, I saw firsthand the unjust treatment of Jews in the USSR. We visited with a family in their tiny apartment (which had four deadbolts on the door, as did all the other apartments in this Soviet-build, butt-ugly whitewashed highrise). As we entered, I noticed the TV, VCR, remotes, etc were all wrapped in shrink wrap. Why? “We bribe Soviet officials with these in order to buy our way out” (had to keep them looking shiny new). At the Moscow Airport, as I departed, I walked through the main terminal lined floor-to-ceiling with luggage. Jews receive permission to leave, then go to the airport to wait… and wait… and wait… for the next available flight. It reminded me of Ellis Island.

    Then I passed through security… but paused as I straddled two worlds. I looked back to the terminal. I looked toward the gates… toward a luxurious Duty-Free shopping mall just beyond the view of those in the terminal. It was surreal. It was disgusting.

    I recognize some of this has changed since I visited, but most of the material benefits have been reaped by a thin layer of former Soviet elites, many of them now Russian elites. They’ve mostly benefited by recognizing Russian history, how Russians tend to throw off one czar for another.

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