Yesterday, Russian lawmakers authorized President Vladimir Putin to use military force outside the country. This as Russian troops poured into the eastern region of Ukraine in what President Biden called “the beginning of a Russian invasion” of that country.
The president responded by announcing that the US would employ a variety of economic sanctions against Russian institutions and elites. Germany took steps to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. The UK sanctioned five Russian banks and predicted “pariah status” for Vladimir Putin if he takes further action. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced as “unacceptable” Russia’s decision to recognize breakaway eastern Ukrainian territories.
Why would Mr. Putin choose aggression against Ukraine in the face of such united and predictable opposition?
The “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century?
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Fidler explains “Putin’s endgame” by focusing on the “post-Cold War agreements that humiliated Russia.” He notes, “Mr. Putin has made clear he wants to redraw the post-Cold War security map of Europe.”
Accordingly, Putin wants to stop further enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose expansion he views as encroaching on Russia’s security. He alleges that NATO and the West broke promises in 1990 not to expand eastward beyond Germany, a claim Western leaders dispute. He therefore wants NATO to scale back its military reach to the 1990s, before it expanded east of Germany.
This would mean withdrawing Western support and protection from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, all part of a region that formed a western buffer zone for the USSR prior to its collapse. In sum, Mr. Putin seeks to undo many of the security consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, an event he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
This in addition to Mr. Putin’s repeated claim, made again in an address last Monday, that Ukraine “for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.” He added: “These are our comrades, relatives, among whom are not only colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties.”
“A riddle wrapped in a mystery”
As Tim Marshall notes in the Atlantic, the flatlands to Russia’s west have enabled several invasions from Europe over the last five centuries: the Poles in 1605, the Swedes in 1707, the French under Napoleon in 1812, and the Germans twice, in 1914 and 1941. Russians especially remember the devastation of World War II as European powers invaded their country, leading to the deaths of twenty-seven million of their people.
In Mr. Putin’s narrative, countering NATO’s “encroachment” is therefore vital to his nation’s security.
This is an issue that does not resonate with most Americans, as we are surrounded by oceans on the west and east, forests to the north, and deserts to the south. Except for a short-lived war with Mexico (1846–48), we have faced no military challenges from our neighbors.
As a result, we typically agree with Winston Churchill’s famous 1939 observation that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” However, Mr. Churchill continued: “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
“We have no eternal allies”
After recounting NATO’s post-Soviet expansion eastward and its attendant issues for Russia, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman notes, “None of this justifies Putin’s dismemberment of Ukraine.” Friedman explains that as Russia’s economy stagnated over the last decade, Mr. Putin has chosen to “double down on his corrupt crony capitalist kleptocracy.”
Now, as the 2024 Russian presidential election approaches, the Russian autocrat is using past grievances and present security claims to bolster his standing in a nation struggling mightily with post-pandemic economic challenges. To anticipate and counter his aggression, it’s important to know how and why he sees the world as he does.
British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1784–1865) famously noted, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” This is true in a geopolitical sense of the UK, Russia, and all other nations.
By contrast, Christians serve a higher authority. We are citizens of two countries, called to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). While we are to be good citizens of the nation we inhabit (cf. Romans 13:1–7) and to seek its welfare (Jeremiah 29:7), our highest allegiance is to our King and Lord. Jesus was clear: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
“He is more of a giver than a taker”
I’ll close by illustrating the transformative power of making Christ our king and living for his kingdom.
Jane Marczewski, who performed under the name Nightbirde, captured national attention last year when she sang on America’s Got Talent while battling terminal cancer. The depth and sincerity of her faith was a remarkable tribute to the hope she found in Christ.
Now Jane is with the One she loved, trusted, and served. News reports state that she died after a battle with cancer last Saturday at the age of thirty-one. But they’re wrong. Jesus’ promise to Martha is his promise to every one of his followers: “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26).
In the depth of her suffering, Jane discovered the life only Jesus can give. As a result, she wrote of her Lord, “He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near.
“So why do we believe that when we are in pain, it must mean God is far?”
NOTE: My wife Janet’s latest book release, A Great Calm, is a great balm for the weary, troubled soul. And, even if you’re not currently enduring the storms of life, we know that future storms await. Yet, we always have hope in Christ, and the devotionals within A Great Calm will remind you of Jesus’ great peace that calms even the wind and the waves. Please pre-order A Great Calm today. Copies are estimated to begin shipping April 15.