Time magazine’s new cover describes the current conflict between Russia and the West as “Cold War II.” Could it get even worse? As the world remembers the beginning of World War I a century ago, some warn that another world war could start in Ukraine. For instance, the British Prime Minister made headlines this week with his claim that Russia’s encroachment in Eastern Europe is eerily similar to actions that led to World War I and World War II.
Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin supporting insurgents in Ukraine? Consider five facts.
The first is demographic. Russian is the native tongue for most people living in eastern Ukraine. They supported former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian policies. To Putin, these people deserve to decide whether they want to be part of Russia or part of Ukraine.
The second is cultural. From the 18th century to 1918, Ukraine was a formal part of Russia. In 1922 it became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and remained part of the U.S.S.R. until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. Most Ukrainians in the east have maintained cultural and emotional ties to Russia.
The third is political. Putin claims that the revolt leading to Yanukovych’s fall in February 2014 was illegal, and refuses to recognize new president Poroshenko.
The fourth is economic. Putin is working to establish a Eurasian Economic Union to counter NATO and the European Union. He wants Ukraine to be part of this new economic order.
The fifth is military. Russia has been invaded repeatedly on its western border. Examples include Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century, Napoleon’s armies in 1812, and Hitler and the Third Reich during World War II. Many in the West forget that more Russians than Jews died during the second World War. To Putin, the territory of Ukraine is crucial to defending Russia.
Here’s a tragic irony: both sides of this conflict are purportedly Christian. Europe has historically been part of Christendom, while 90 percent of the Russian population now identifies with the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet churches in Ukraine and Russia are stoking the nationalistic fervor that fuels this conflict. How can Christians wage war against each other? Here’s one answer: less than 10 percent of the Russian population actually attends services, while the percentage in most of Europe is even less.
Claiming to follow the Prince of Peace is not the same thing as following him. In John 17, Jesus prayed for believers “that they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (v. 21). Would you join him in that prayer for Ukrainian and Russian Christians, and for the conflicts in your life today?