Wars and Rumors of Wars

We live in turbulent times. With Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, Europe is now embroiled in the most significant armed conflict since World War II. It is being fought in Eastern Europe but threatens to engulf the West as well.

When the Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 according to the Budapest Memorandum, the Russian Federation reaffirmed its obligation “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine…” Clearly, Russia is the aggressor. But is it totally without reason?

The former Cold War military alliance (NATO-North Atlantic Treaty Organization) expanded into former Warsaw Pact (the former Soviet military alliance) countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Several countries that directly border Russia have become full members (Estonia and Latvia in 2004).

The Partnership for Peace (PFP) was launched after the 1994 NATO summit to establish strong links between NATO, the fledgling democratic countries in the former Soviet bloc, and some of Europe’s traditionally neutral countries to enhance European security. It provided a framework for multilateral political and military cooperation. In September 2020, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy, which pursued the partnership with NATO and the aim of full membership in NATO. In October 2021, Russia suspended its mission to NATO and closed NATO’s office in Moscow. Is this in part a crisis of our own making?

Effectively, Russia is surrounded by countries affiliated with the Western Alliance. How would America react if Central America was aligned with China and Mexico was an affiliate? In 1823, we declared the Monroe Doctrine which stated, “The United States …should consider any attempt on their (European powers) part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” In effect, America declared the Western Hemisphere within our sphere of influence, and we would oppose (by force if necessary) any foreign power’s attempt to enter this space. Does Russia likewise have a “sphere of influence” in its bordering countries?

We went to war with Spain in 1898. During the Cold War through clandestine activity the US overthrew leftist regimes in Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and a host of other countries in the region. We supported an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs then “quarantined” them when the Soviet Union attempted to emplace missiles in Cuba. We supported the “Contras” in Nicaragua (again) in the 1980s. Reactionary violence to promote national interests is no stranger to geopolitics.

As a precursor to the current conflict, Putin stated in 2008 that the expansion of NATO into the Ukraine constituted an “existential threat.” Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula (which was then part of the Ukraine) in 2014. A Russian Black Sea fleet had been stationed in Sevastopol since the 18th Century. Subsequently, they built a 12-mile-long road and rail bridge link to the Russian mainland; however, the only land-bridge to that critical military installation is connected to the Ukraine proper. What would America do if the Pacific Fleet was located in the Baja Peninsula and Mexico began to align itself with Russia?

The nation-state (consisting of an autonomous country inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language) has long been the accepted organizing principal in international relations. Irridentism has spurred border wars in regions of mixed ethnicity for centuries. Countries have long sought to reunite territory historically or culturally related but not under their political control. Russia has been supporting an ongoing rebellion in the eastern portion of the Ukraine which is largely populated by ethnic Russian.

And then there is Putin. Is he an unstable megalomaniac or simply a reflection of the ruling oligarchy that controls Russia today? Certainly, he is backward looking. His point of reference is the past, the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – in which the Ukraine was incorporated) and the previous Russian Imperial Empire. What we do not know for certain is what other internal bureaucratic forces are pressuring him to act.

So how should we view the Russian invasion of the Ukraine? Is this simply power politics as usual, an attempt to reinstate an old paradigm, or is this raw unprovoked aggression? Should this be met by force to arrest the slippery slope to a wider conflict, as we saw prior to World War II when Hitler “annexed” the Sudetenland (where ethnic Germans lived) and ultimately the rest of Czechoslovakia prior to their invasion of Poland? Do we need to reprise the Cold War policy of “Containment” to prevent the dominos from falling to a resurgent and expansionist Russia?

Appeasement will likely not provide “Peace for our time,” as British Prime Minister Chamberland declared after ceding another sovereign country to Hitler in 1938. Direct confrontation with Russia would likely lead to a widening conflict which could engulf Europe and potentially create a global crisis. Like Odysseus trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis (the mythical beasts guarding the straits he had to traverse),we are caught between two equally unpleasant alternatives.

So far, the Ukrainians are putting up stiff resistance and the West is now funneling significant military weaponry into the country. Sanctions are building and because of the vulnerability of the ruling oligarchs to financial pressures, they appear to be having an effect (on the global economy as well as Russia). There is an apocryphal story related by Putin about his youth. They used to chase rats in the tenement in which he lived. On one occasion a rodent trapped in the corner turned and lashed out at the boys, chasing them behind a locked door. Perhaps we should be as wary of Russian failure as of Russia’s success.

Regardless of Russian motivations and the West’s response, the Ukrainians are paying the price in destruction, death and ruined lives as the Great Powers play out their mortal dance. Such has always been the case in a depraved world where flawed beings express the worst characteristics of humanity. Despite our earnest desires to see world peace, our leaders seem intent on filling the void and rebuilding hegemony when opportunity arises.

Hope is not a strategy. We must act but pray that God gives us the wisdom to find a solution that minimizes current and future suffering. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. These things must happen…” (Matthew 24:6). We have moved from “rumors” to actuality, and this will not be the last of war.

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