Ukraine has been embroiled in a civil war for nearly a year. The conflict that began in earnest last April traces its origins back to the fall of 2013. At this time, then president Viktor Yanukovych chose to make a trade agreement with Russia rather than follow through on a more popular agreement with the European Union. During the protests that ensued, government security forces responded with violence, even firing live ammunition into the crowds. By late February, Yanukovych had fled to Russia and Petro Poroshenko had ushered in a more pro-Europe government. However, not everyone was happy with the direction of the new government. To voice their displeasure, the pro-Russian population in the eastern part of the country began protests of their own that eventually escalated into rebellion when Crimean separatists took over Ukrainian government buildings seeking independence. A brief armistice was reached last September following peace talks, but the conflict resumed quickly. Meanwhile, the question of the appropriate Western involvement has been complicated by Russia’s role in providing equipment and troops to the separatists, though Russian leadership has denied such direct involvement.
However, new developments in the nearly year-long conflict in Ukraine came to light Thursday morning. Nearly 17 hours of conversations have resulted in a new peace agreement that will go into effect on February 15th. The agreement calls for both sides to pull back their heavy weapons in order to create a ceasefire zone of around 31 miles. It is not a fully demilitarized zone but will hopefully allow for peace to exist between the Ukrainian government and the separatist forces. Other conditions include new local elections and special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, though the Ukrainian government is quite resolute about keeping them within the larger framework of the nation. Also, while the government will not regain control of the eastern border until after the elections, all foreign troops and military equipment must begin to be withdrawn as soon as possible. All hostages and illegally held prisoners on both sides of the conflict will be released as well.
Ultimately, it would seem that progress has been made, though the process is far from over. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and one of the key mediators in the process, characterized the talks, saying “What we have on the table today gives us hope” but “We have no illusions…A great, great deal of work still needs to be done. But there is a real chance to turn things around toward the better.”1 In the end, whether this agreement proves to be more effective than the truce agreed to last September remains to be seen. It is a better outcome than the alternative of further escalated conflict but, by itself, is unlikely to bring about lasting peace.
So how can Christians respond?
For now, it would seem that our primary response should be to pray. Perhaps a time will come where it is possible to help those who are suffering in a more direct, material way but, for now, prayer is our greatest weapon against this violence. Pray for this peace to last, for humility among the leaders involved, and for perspective to see what further conflict would cost. Pray for the estimated 1.5 million people that have been displaced and for the families of the more than 5,000 who have lost their lives. Pray that God would redeem the violence in this area to draw more people to himself. And, perhaps most importantly, pray with the confidence that God can actually bring about all those things.
So often we heed the call to prayer without any expectation that what we ask for will actually come to pass. We pray because we feel as though it is right thing to do but without any real hope that it will make a difference. That is not how the Bible teaches us to pray and it speaks volumes about the way we see God’s ability and/or desire to influence our world (1 John 5:14-15). While our prayers do not obligate God to act according to our wishes, nor do they change the respect he has for free will, they do make a difference. While they do not guarantee that peace in the Ukraine will last, do not make the mistake of offering your prayers to the Lord of the Universe with the expectation that it won’t.
This side of heaven, we may never fully understand how our prayers make an impact on the world around us. But the great thing about our God is that we don’t have to understand prayer to know that we are right to pray. Our prayers are powerful not because of the ones offering them but because of the one they are offered to. Our prayers are powerful because they are given to the omnipotent God of the universe. So the next time you pray, whether it be for the Ukraine or some other issue, remember who you’re talking to and speak with the confidence that can only come from the knowledge that the one listening is able to accomplish things larger than you could ever imagine.