On February 24 we read the headlines that Russia had invaded Ukraine. For more than half a year, Russian troops had been moving into positions at the borders of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin denied that Russia had any plans to invade its neighbor. He claimed that Western countries were stirring up trouble and trying to make Russia look bad. As I write this article a number of Ukrainian cities are being heavily shelled by Russian forces while putting up a stiff resistance. Why is this happening? Why does it matter to us?
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe after Russia itself. It borders Russia to its east, Belarus to its north, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the west, Romania and Moldova to the south, and has a coastline on the Black Sea. The capital of Ukraine is Kyiv, which sits on both sides of the Dnieper river. The culture that grew up here is considered an ancestor to modern Russian culture. There are many cultural, linguistic, and religious similarities between Ukraine and Russia.
The president of Russia seems to want Ukraine to be like Belarus. Both Ukraine and Belarus were part of the USSR and both gained their independence when the USSR collapsed in 1990. Since 1994, Belarus has been ruled by the same president, Alexander Lukashenko. He keeps a firm hand on power and a firm control over the state. His rule is unpopular and he depends on support from Moscow. In turn, Belarus falls in line with the politics of Moscow. Ukraine was tending this same direction until 2014 when the “Orange Revolution” forced Viktor Yanukovych out of power. Viktor was widely seen as corrupt and under the thumb of Putin. The Ukrainians, by and large, wanted to be more like a European democracy and less like a vassal state of Russia. Russia swiftly invaded and annexed a region of Ukraine called Crimea. They also began sponsoring armed separatists in the Russian-speaking regions along the border between Ukraine and Russia. Putin characterized the Ukrainian government as run by drug-addicts and Nazis. He seemed to believe that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian army as liberators. He turned out to be very wrong.
So what can we learn from this situation? Vladimir Putin has slowly closed, banned, and arrested independent journalists. The only message most Russians hear now is the official message of state media. Only 15% of Russians hold a passport, meaning that 85% of them have never traveled outside their country; they don’t know any different. A healthy state requires free and independent journalism. Good journalists unearth the truth and provide valuable alternate perspectives. We should all support the work of good journalists.
Second, peace requires all of us, but war only requires one of us. Any one country can start a war with its neighbors, but we all have to work together for peace. NATO was precisely founded as a way to make it hard for little countries to be invaded by banding them together to defend each other. An attack against one would be considered an attack on all. Ukraine is not in NATO and so cannot count on other countries coming to its aid. Western Democracies have responded by putting economic sanctions on Russia and important Russian leaders. The hope is to put economic pressure on Russia to make the war unfeasible. Russia is a big supplier of energy and fertilizer, and Ukraine produces a lot of wheat. War and sanctions together will cause a rise in prices around the world. We are all in this together. We may experience economic hardships but we can hope that our sacrifices help defend freedom and democracy abroad.
Finally, we can see that none of us is an island. We often think in terms of individualism and self-determination. However the human race is inherently social. We depend on each other, and we are more interconnected than ever: economically, politically, socially, technologically, and above all, spiritually. We need to see other humans as brothers and sisters in the human family. Are my words and actions helping to build up or tear down others? Am I making war on others or working with others to build peaceful solutions? It only takes one to start a war, but it takes all of us to make peace.
Fr. Joel Sember serves as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church and Saints Mary & Hyacinth Catholic Church, Antigo, and Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church, Neva. You can find him online at www.PilgrimPriest.us and on the Antigo Area Catholic Churches YouTube channel.