Ukraine is an amazing country with – in contrast to the revisionist version recently espoused by Vladimir Putin - a long history. It is the second largest country in terms of area in Europe – Russia being the first. At over 600,000 sq km it is 30 times the size of Wales (apparently Wales is now the standard by which we measure any country!).
A nation of 43 million people, it has been declining for some time – losing over 300,000 people per year due to emigration and a low birth rate. In 1995 there were 52 million people. The poverty rate has been increasing rapidly and currently stands at around 45 per cent. The median salary is only $775 a month.
Ukraine is generally regarded as being the spiritual mother of Russia, with the Rus coming from Kyiv during the 10th and 11th centuries – hence Putin, the great Russian nationalist, being so interested in it. The mass baptism of Vladimir the Rus and his people at Kyiv in the Dnieper in 988 is regarded as the foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church, and indeed the foundation of Russia.
Kyiv is central to the Orthodox Russians – and therefore to Russian nationalism. Putin seems to be a genuine believer in that. If you don't grasp the almost religious significance of Ukraine to many Russians (who also make up 18% of the population) then you will not understand why Putin is so desperate to keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence, and away from the West.
Whether the Mongols, Poles, Lithuanians, Ottomans, Germans or Russians, Ukraine's history is one of invasion and domination by its neighbours. Now this invasion has been added to the list.
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, Ukraine has not found it easy. Widespread political and economic corruption has weakened the country – and arguably made it easier for Russia to invade.
The history of Ukrainian Christianity is as complex as its political history. Sixty-seven per cent of the population declare themselves to be Orthodox believers, 2.2 per cent Protestant, 9.4 per cent Byzantine Rite Catholic, 2.5 per cent Islam and 0.4 per cent Jewish. Only three per cent of the population profess to be atheist.
It is against this background that this week's events are unfolding, and we are asked to pray.
As always in the age of the internet, it is far too easy for people to suddenly become experts on the subject of the day. Twitter soundbites, TikTok videos and Facebook memes turn many of us into 'know it alls'. But, as is usually the case, things are much more complex.
I am not an expert in Ukrainian history, and I don't pretend to understand everything that is going on; but as someone who has preached in the country, my heart sank when I saw the news.
In the midst of all the confusion there are some basic lessons for us:
1. War is normal for human societies
These past couple of years after almost a century without a major plague in the West, we have reverted to the norm of having plagues. In the same way, after 70 years without a major war in Europe, we have now returned to the 'norm' of the past centuries.
2. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is showing up the weakness and instability of the West
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 some in the West assumed it was 'the end of history' and that mankind had evolved to the extent that 'superior' Western values now reigned supreme. Now we know that is not true. The Russians know that no Western power will send troops to fight for Ukraine. And they will have factored in the economic sanctions and they have built up a reserve of over $600 billion.
After Russia's defeat in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was fatally wounded. The embarrassing, hasty retreat of the US from Afghanistan told Putin that the West was weak. There are many things I would disagree with the former President Trump about, but in this area, he was correct – the over reliance of European nations on the US for defence has resulted in a weaker Europe and as a result when the US weakens, the chickens come home to roost.
Only France has any significant military resources. The Chief of Germany' Army tweeted this week: "The Bundeswehr, and the Army that I have the privilege to lead, is more or less stripped bare. The options that we can offer politicians to support the alliance are extremely limited."
3. Virtue signalling and progressive culture wars don't protect nations or people
Indeed, they aid the destruction. The self-professed cultural superiority of the 'progressive' West blinded us to the extent that, just as we could not understand why every Iraqi would not want to be like us, so we did not believe that Putin would do what he had promised.
Our governing elites have become obsessed with the culture wars. For example, on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine there was a tweet from the Ministry of Defence celebrating LGBT Day and asking staff to name their favourite LGBT books! Lessons in gender queer theory in Afghanistan did not stop the Taliban.
NATO's new advertising slogan 'diversity is our strength' and celebrating 'pronouns' was hardly going to deter Putin. And illuminating buildings in the colours of the Ukrainian flag will not stop the missiles raining down on Kyiv. Hashtags are no answer to bullets.
As another example of this self-obsessive cultural blindness, consider this – the White's House's international climate envoy, John Kerry, told the BBC that he hoped that Russia would not lose sight of 'the bigger picture' and remain committed to the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions!
4. Pride comes before a fall
When Biden was a presidential candidate, he tweeted: "Vladimir Putin doesn't want me to be President. If you're wondering why – it's because I'm the only person in this field who's ever gone toe-to toe with him."
In 2019 he also stated that "Putin knows that if I am president of the United States his days of tyranny and trying to intimidate those in the United States and Eastern Europe are over". Precisely the opposite happened. Perhaps it will be the case that Putin will experience the same hubristic fall.
5. Short-term (and short-sighted) policies have long-term consequences
For example, the Germans got rid of their nuclear stations and coal, and so are even more reliant on the Russians for gas. They weakened their army and became even more dependent on the US for military protection. The German economic minister Habeck recently stated that 50 per cent of Germany's coal comes from Russia, 55 per cent of its gas and 35 per cent of its oil. Germany, and thus the EU, cannot afford to really hurt Russia economically.
Another example is when the Soviet Union fell, the neo-cons thought that they could take quick advantage and expand NATO as far as Ukraine. Ukraine becoming a NATO state would be as welcome to the Russians as Mexico becoming a Communist one! The inability to recognise the long-term effects of this policy was myopic.
6. China is watching and waiting
Taiwan better watch out. China has opposed sanctions on Russia and has just agreed to take more Russian wheat. It also recently signed a deal for a second massive gas pipeline from Russia. The reason that Russia was able to amass almost 200,000 troops on the Ukrainian border is because they were able to reduce to the lowest level for 100 years their troops on the Chinese border. If Putin gets away with this China will believe it has the green light to invade Taiwan.
7. War is hellish
Ukrainian President Zelensky said that on Thursday, 137 Ukrainian citizens had died - both soldiers and civilians. Many more may follow. I've just received a message from a Ukrainian pastor friend whose children will be in the line of fire if the Russians attack Kyiv from the West. The personal cost is real.
There is a viral video appearing to show a Ukrainian man weeping as he kisses his children goodbye as he heads off to fight the Russians. The man kisses his daughter and send his family away on a bus. It is heartrending.
8. Wars are real
They are not fought on social media or video games. Although on social media you will soon find that it brings out the worst in people – especially at the start. There will be fear, exaggeration, hyperbole, and bellicose, angry name calling. Everyone will have their own facts. And everyone knows. But real wars are complex, messy, bloody and made worse by the certainty of the shouters. Everyone has their say and no one has the answers.
There was a message on Harry and a Meghan's Archewell website stating that they "stand with the people of Ukraine" and calling Putin's actions a "breach of international and humanitarian law". They "encourage the global community and its leaders to do the same". The Duke and Duchess of Woke struggle to face the reality that their 'calling and encouraging' will do nothing – not least because the people they are calling to, are not listening.
The Christian, however, does have someone else to call to. Someone who does answer. And someone who has the power to make wars cease. Jesus told us that there will be wars and rumours of war. He also told us that his people are to be salt and light in a tasteless and dark world. We must continue to be informed, pray and offer whatever help we can. One day wars will cease. Even so, come soon Lord Jesus.
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia, where he runs the ASK Project. He blogs at The Wee Flea.