CIVIL war has been raging in the Donbas region of Ukraine since 2014, when the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk began to seek autonomy from Ukraine. These Russian-speaking separatists resisted the Ukrainian government in response to the Euromaidan uprising of the same year, in which President Yanukovych was removed. A major reason behind the action of these eastern provinces was the new Ukrainian government’s decree in 2014 that Russian should no longer be an official language of the country.
The German-based anti-corruption group, Transparency International, named Yanukovych ‘the top example of corruption in the world’ and, in accordance with this, the received wisdom in the West is that this popular uprising of 2014 rightly removed a corrupt, pro-Russian government and installed a more enlightened regime, which looks favourably on closer integration with the West and which adheres to Western values.
It is further argued that Russia has exacerbated the situation by its unlawful annexation of Crimea, also in 2014, and by its backing of the separatists in the East. Indeed, it is claimed that even back in 2014 Russia ‘began a conventional invasion of the Donbas’. Therefore, the invasion of Ukraine in February this year was but a continuation of Moscow’s long-manifested policies of aggressively seeking to expand its influence.
Here in the UK town halls and even churches are happy to fly Ukrainian flags in support of the underdog Ukrainians, who are valiantly trying to defend their homeland from a bully-boy neighbour. To engage in this yellow-and-blue flag-waving is seen as showing how caring and compassionate we are in the face of the obvious injustice of Russian aggression.
However, as a Christian minister, endeavouring to apply Biblical principles and so come to a right understanding of the conflict in Ukraine, I feel uneasy about the one-sided approach adopted by our politicians and the media.
The Prime Minister at the recent Tory conference received a standing ovation for saying that the struggle in Ukraine must continue, and it will of course do so with the generous support of British taxpayers’ money. I am constrained to ask, however: Is this severely anti-Russian stance of my government morally right before God? Yes, the invasion of a sovereign nation is of course wrong, but it must also be acknowledged that the Russia/Ukraine conflict is far more complex than simply being an act of aggression by a powerful nation towards a weaker nation. In some respects this conflict can legitimately be called a civil war.
This brings me to ask the question whether Britain should so readily take sides in someone else’s civil war? Do we really understand why one section of the Ukrainian populace wants to look westward, whilst the other feels at home with its Russian identity? Are UK politicians really capable of delving into the complexities of the nationalistic, identity and cultural issues which run deep in the Ukrainian psyche? The origins of the war have been developing over decades, and even centuries, but are we in Britain immediately able to understand all these issues as being clear-cut and without any nuance?
Let us pose the question another way. Would a politician from any foreign nation one cares to mention be right in assuming that ‘the Troubles’ which for so many years afflicted Northern Ireland were simply a case of insensitive British imperialists riding roughshod over an oppressed people? Would such a viewpoint not be dismissed as a meddling in our affairs by others without sufficient knowledge of all the historical and cultural ramifications concerning the Ulster situation?
A Bible verse which is relevant in this context is: ‘He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears’ (Proverbs 26:17). Could it not be argued that Britain is meddling in a conflict which is simply not ours to meddle in?
I am also concerned bythe British Government’s complete failure to recognise that there are always two sides to any argument. The UK political establishment behave as if the Russians are simply not entitled to a viewpoint, and have no right to protect their own national interests. It is a plain fact that Russia sees Nato’s eastward expansion as impinging upon its security. Whether these Russian fears are reasonable or unfounded, it is neither immoral nor imperialistic for President Putin to conclude that Ukraine could be used as a springboard for the West to pursue a distinctly anti-Russian agenda.
This is again where some Biblical theology must surely be applied. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we read: ‘Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory . . . Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others’ (Philippians 2:3–4). Here is laid down a principle of conduct which applies as much to nations as to personal relationships. It is morally wrong to ignore the perspective and motivation of a potential opponent as being of no significance. Conflict resolution cannot be achieved by one side saying that the other side is simply not entitled to an opinion. For Biblical reasons, therefore, western governments should not be crudely dismissive of Russia’s concerns about Nato’s eastward advancement.
We read in Romans 12:18, ‘If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men’. Whether it be interaction between individuals or between nations, the word of God states that if peace be at all attainable, then conflict should not be unnecessarily pursued (and to assert that is in no way to advocate any kind of immoral appeasement). The West, however, has made little effort to allay genuinely held Russian fears in respect of Nato’s sphere of influence moving in a distinctly easterly direction.
We might also mention in this context the fact that the West actually began training the Ukrainian military back in 2014, and since then some 10,000 service men and women each year have received this training. In July 2021 Ukraine took part in a Nato exercise in the Black Sea. This was in Russia’s back yard. Furthermore, Ukraine joining Nato has been openly on the table since 2008. These developments have inevitably been viewed as threatening by Moscow.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of Ukraine joining Nato, my point is that our Government should not be engaging in unnecessary provocation. This is a plain Biblical principle – to avoid strife where strife is not inevitable. Since the end of the Cold War there has been no necessity that enmity with Russia should be maintained for ever. Yes, where we disagree with Moscow we vigorously say so and oppose, but let us not be so anti-Russian that we stubbornly deny it the right to exercise any national interest of its own.
We urgently need an open discussion about the rights and wrongs of the actions of both protagonists in this tragic conflict. What we have at the moment is nothing but a crudely one-sided explanation of the origins of the war, and we are allowed no room for debate. I contend that the best course for the UK is to be a broker for peace, working for a rapid end to further killing and suffering. What is more, we should not – by a hopelessly one-sided anti-Russian perspective – be making more likely the possibility of a tragic nuclear confrontation.