Wednesday, February 9, 2022
It's Wednesday, February 9, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
From Peter the Great to Putin the Bully — A Briefing on the Ukraine Crisis and the Russian Threat: History, Empire, Kiev, Moscow, Religion and Worldview
These days, almost every major news report, almost every major newspaper, almost every source, begins with the nation of Ukraine and with the fact that something between 75,000 and 100,000 Russian troops are masked on the Russian border with Ukraine. And Vladimir Putin, the autocratic president of Russia appears to be making demands that he knows cannot be met, and he wants to use that as a pretext in order to invade Ukraine, Russia's historic neighbor to the west.
Ukraine has been the major nation, and to that, you can sometimes add Poland, the major nation between the Eastern and the Western portions of Europe. And as you're looking at Russia, remember that Russia is a nation that is included in both Europe and Asia. Now, I want to speak honestly to listeners of The Briefing. A part of what is assumed about, especially American evangelicals, is that there is far less interest in foreign affairs than in domestic affairs. That's probably true, by the way, for most Americans. You could also probably generalize that that's probably true for people living in almost every country. The temptation, the pattern is for domestic issues, issues right at home, to be considered far more important and urgent than matters elsewhere in the world.
But here's where Christians need to understand, and American Christians particularly need to understand, a good deal of the safety of the entire world, a large portion of the question of the future structure of the world order comes down to Russia and Ukraine right now because this is not just a looming conflict between two nations over a shared border, this is a question about the future of the world. So, at the very least, this should have Christian attention. But as Christians think about this kind of issue, we have to be on the front lines of those who understand that history really is essential in understanding what's taking place here.
And Christians have to understand, we have a moral responsibility to understand what's at stake here, and that means we have a moral responsibility to understand the history of this question and of this conflict, and I think Christians will find this genuinely fascinating. So, let's just remind ourselves of what Russia faces as a challenge, just in terms of geography. The big problem for Russia is that it has a disadvantageous geography, it always has. It does straddle Europe and Asia, but it is extremely vulnerable. It's vulnerable in the south and to the southeast because of the so-called stans, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, you go down the list, and also because of Japan and China. And both Japan and China have loomed large as challenges to Russia going back for centuries.
But Russia also fears military action coming from the West, coming particularly from Europe, and Russia has been an enduring problem for Europe. Not alone, you could say that Germany and France have also been problems for Europe, to that could be added the volatile powder keg historically of the Balkan states. But what we need to recognize is that Russia is very exposed, its disadvantageous geography, means that it doesn't have transverse rivers in order to transport food and stuffs. It simply is in a very difficult position. And as you look both to the east and to the south, and then you turn to look to the west, Russia feels very exposed.
Just think about the invasions that have come from the West to Russia, think about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, think about the Nazi invasion of Russia. All you have to do is look to Russia's west and understand it is a vast plain. It's an open invitation to land invasion. Just think about Napoleon's forces invading Russia, think about just a matter of more than a hundred years later, the Nazi forces and that meant not only caissons and cannons, but tanks invading Russia. You understand that Russia feels very vulnerable. Going back to the age of the Russian empire, Russia has sought to define the world in terms of the far abroad and the near abroad. That's a very crucial distinction.
In the far abroad are countries in terrain and peoples of the world that Russia doesn't believe it can directly influence. It's not germane to Russia's ongoing daily security, but the near abroad is. And for Russia, the near abroad is indeed a very dangerous place. Russia sometimes bears full responsibility for making it dangerous. But the point is this, Russia always feels insecure. But that's geography. When it comes to morality and history, politics, and the regional picture, Russia feels even more insecure. First of all, it's insecure about its own history and about its own definition of nationhood, because Russia has often been a state when it really hasn't been a nation. There's been no national ideal that has held Russia together.
And then, when you press back and look at the history, you come to understand something that makes Russia even more vulnerable. And that is the fact that the origins of the Rus' people are not found in Moscow or even in Russia, they are found in what is now called Ukraine, they are found in the ancient city of Kyiv, sometimes referred to by Westerners as Kiev. The original Russian ideal, the Russian people, were the Kievan Rus' as they were known, Kiev or Kyiv was their capital, their very point of origin, and the first great Rus' leader was Vladimir the Great, and you can date his time as the ruler between about the year 980 and 1015. You'll notice that's right at the turn from the first millennium of Western history to the second millennium.
The rule of the Kievan Rus' lasted for only about three centuries, and that was due to the Mongol invasion. The Mongol invasion and the so-called Golden Horde came into the area, and for centuries, the Mongols were the primary political power there in the area. Although, as was the case in so many empires, they basically created vassal states. That means that you would have like say, Herod in Judea in the time of Jesus, someone who was put in power by the reigning foreign empire in order to maintain order in a semblance of local control. So, there was some sense in which the nation now known as Ukraine can point back to that period, even under the rule of the Mongols, as at least the beginnings of their national history.
But laid over this, we have to understand the rise of the Muscovy, and that means the rise of the Russian people in what we now recognize as Russia with Moscow, as we know it, as their capital. And again, this was a nation that emerged, it identified itself clearly as Rus' or as Russian, and since Russia as a land mass is much larger and had a larger population than what we would now know as the Kievan Rus' or what we would now call Ukraine, the fact is that Russia referred to itself as Greater Russia and Ukraine, as we now know it was referred to as Lesser Russia. The point is that in the Russian mind, both Ukraine, as we now know it, and Russia were a part of the Russian peoples.
The Bloodlands of Europe: Ukraine Between the Nazis and the Soviets, and Death from Every Direction
But here, history just never is actually very far from us.
Just consider the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is, after all, the nation that has Kyiv, it's very capital. And Kyiv is the origin of the Rus' people and the origin of Rus' national identity, and also the place where the Rus', the Russian Orthodox Church became such a powerful influence. The conversion of the Rus' people to Orthodox Christianity as it was known, really began in Kyiv. And thus, the seat of orthodoxy there in Kyiv is far older in a church that has a high priority on older, much older than say, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. That means huge tensions, because after all, who owns the history, is it Kyiv or is it Moscow?
We're going to fast forward here just for a second and say, Vladimir Putin understands that his goal of a Great Russia cannot be accomplished the very origin of Great Russia isn't now in Russia but is in Ukraine. I do hope that evangelical Christians find this kind of history really interesting because after all, this is the story of humanity, and we do need to come to terms with history and its moral demands, the lessons we learned from history. But the big story after the events related to the Mongol invasion and the years of Mongol rule, the big story is the rise of Russia as an imperial power. And you can't have that without the Romanov dynasty.
That dynasty came to rule in Russia in the year 1614, and by the way, the first Russian czar or leader under the Romanovs was a 16-year-old boy by the name of Mikhail Romanov. The Romanov dynasty continued all the way into the first two decades of the 20th century. And Russia seemed to understand that it could not exist unless it turned itself into a massive territorial and imperial power just to hold together national identity. And Russia, so fearful of outside invasion and so troubled by internal turmoils, always had to have an external enemy, it has always had to try, at least by its own ambitions, to create borderlands, to give Russia safety, and the imperial dynasty demanded an imperial myth, and that myth must include Kyiv.
So, when you had rulers such as Peter the Great, who ruled between 1682 and 1725, and then, not too long after Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, whose reign began in 1762, you had massively powerful Russian imperial leaders who sought to bring all the Russian people, first of all, within the confines of Mother Russia and then to create a near abroad a belt of safe borderlands, and by the way, that even explains the name Ukraine, as in borderlands, in order to give Russia safety. The Russian Empire was formally declared in the year 1721. Now, by the way, there are all kinds of problems with Russian datings because of the Russian calendar, but in our years, that means 1721.
Now, what's key during this era is to understand that one of the problems of Russia is that Ukraine was filled with people who consider themselves not so much Russians, but Ukrainians, and Ukrainians had their own language, Ukrainian, and so beginning especially in the 19th century, the Russian empire sought to eradicate Ukrainian identity and that meant forcing an end to the teaching in the public schools, in the government schools, and in much government conversation, outlawing Ukrainian, mandating Russian. This was the Russification of the Ukrainian people, not just the Ukrainians, but the Belarusians and many others in the area.
Again, the near abroad had to be made like Russia. It had to speak Russian, the inhabitants had to think of themselves as part of the Russian Empire. But there were huge problems with this because you can tell people they're supposed to see themselves that way, that doesn't mean that they do see themselves that way. That has been a problem for Russia from the very beginnings of its imperial ambitions in the 1720s. By the end of the 19th century, Russian czar Alexander II, would hand down what was known as the edict of Ems, declaring that there must be an end to the speaking of Ukrainian or the teaching of schools in the Ukrainian language. There must be a Russification, and that meant a de-Ukrainization.
Now, everything begins to change once again with the advent of the 20th century and in particular two World Wars, and of course, the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian revolutions of the year 1917. Even before World War I and even before the Russian revolutions, you had a period of instability in which Ukraine had been combined, at least in part with Poland, you had the kind of instability that took place in the borderlands between East and West Germany, you had the rise of people like Wilhelm Habsburg who was the Red Prince, another fascinating figure throughout Ukrainian and world history. But then you had Russia undergoing the revolutions of 1917 including, of course, the October Bolshevik revolution that brought the communist to power.
And the communists, under then the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, came to the conclusion that they had to end the war with Germany, and so they signed a pact. It became known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and it was adopted on March the 3rd of 1918, establishing peace between Russia and what will become the Soviet Union, and the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, very fascinating little picture of world history here. But of course, it was Germany that was to lose the war, but Russia lost a great deal of its territory, or at least the Russian Empire did, the Soviet Union that emerged. Because of the weakness of the Russian army and the fall of the Romanov dynasty and all the changes brought by the Bolshevik revolution, it had to give up.
But it always assumed temporarily, claim over much of the territory that had been in the Russian Empire. So, Ukraine became a nation, but not really for long. A Ukrainian independence movement, a Ukrainian cultural movement, a resurgence of the Ukrainian language, all of this was considered a threat by the Soviet Union. And Lenin, and later Stalin, did their very best to bring Ukraine as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic into the Soviet Union and under the control of Moscow, and that was basically accomplished by force by the 1920s. And make no mistake, it was brought about by force.
But it was also brought about because, already at that point, in what had been known as Ukraine, you're looking at millions of Russian speaking people consider themselves Russian, you were also looking at a smaller version of the Leninist revolution, and before long, Ukraine was simply a part of the Soviet Union.
The West Will Merely Protest? Putin’s Strategy for Supremacy in Ukraine and the Lessons of History
But there are some fascinating worldview issues in play here. For one thing, the communist ideology held that nations would disappear with the emergence of true communism. And so, national differences, national borders, national entities would all disappear.
So Lenin, who after all was the leader of the Bolsheviks and what became the early government of the Communist Party, they're in control in the Soviet Union, Lenin, after all, being a communist, being a Leninist, he believed that national divisions would inevitably disappear in the unfolding dialectic of history, that he wasn't all that concerned about a national identity in Ukraine or Russia or anywhere else for that matter because he believed that the communist revolution would actually sweep the world and there would be the emergence of a new communist man under a communist utopia, all it was going to take was a matter of time.
But after you had the transition from Lenin to Stalin, Joseph Stalin took a very different approach, and he took a far more repressive approach. Lenin killed by the millions, Stalin would kill by the tens of millions. And one of the most regrettable events in the entire history of this region was what was known as the Holodomor. That was the political starvation of millions of people in Ukraine as Russia was seeking to use starvation, the starvation of millions and millions of people by political action, in order to force the Sovietization, the collectivization, of the entire farming workforce in Ukraine. Now keep in mind, Ukraine is the bread basket.
The collectivization by communist force of the entire agrarian, agricultural sector in Ukraine was key, not only to feeding Russia, but also it was key to the unfolding communist ideology. Before and especially after the Second World War, known by the Soviets as the Great Patriotic War, Joseph Stalin sought to define himself as the father of a family of peoples. He referred to the Soviet Union as family of peoples. He began to understand that it was necessary to have absolute political control, but Stalin was really concerned with remaining himself in control, keeping the Communist Party in control. You could have a Ukrainian identity only insofar and in whatever season might not be considered out of step with Moscow.
But then, we have to bring ourselves to the horrors of World War II, that great scar of human history, is most commonly in the West associated with genocide against the Jews. And indeed, you're talking about the intentional effort to try to eliminate the entire Jewish people, all Jewish people, from the face of the earth, an effort that was horrifyingly successful, not only in Germany where actually there was always a very small percentage of Jewish people in the population, but in what Timothy Snyder, the historian, calls the bloodlands, the places where there were tens of millions of people considered lives, unworthy of life, by the Nazis.
But one of the key insights of historian Timothy Snyder is that in these bloodlands, between say Western and Eastern Europe, where most of the killing took place during the Second World War, most of the deaths took place in these borderlands, in these bloodlands as he says. These were people who found themselves between the deadly vice of Nazi Germany and the deadly vice of the Soviet Union. Here's something crucial to understand. The Nazi's Adolph Hitler especially demanded Lebensraum, that is living room. He anticipated eliminating the Ukrainian people from the planet of the Earth in order that Germans may move into this agricultural wonderland in Ukraine and produce the food that was going to be needed in order to feed the expanding Nazi empire.
And so, the Ukrainians as we now know them, found themselves threatened basically by genocide, from both the East and the West, from the Nazis and from the Stalinists there in Russia. At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin out-maneuvered the allied leaders in order to gain control over much of Eastern Europe and adding insult to injury when the United Nations was formed. Stalin basically forced three seats, three different nations, holding membership in the United Nations that included Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. But Belarus and Ukraine were actually part of the USSR. Again, here you see the triumph of the Soviets at the end of World War II.
Okay, now we have to speed things up in order to slow them down at the conclusion. Nikita Krushchev, who followed Joseph Stalin, had himself been something like the viceroy of the Ukraine as a Soviet leader and a member of the Communist Party. He had been effectively the territorial governor of Ukraine. He became the general secretary of the Communist Party and thus, the ruler in the Soviet Union, and he saw the Ukrainians as a very important part of Mother Russia and of the Soviet Union, and he actually transferred the Crimean peninsula into being part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the expense of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic.
They did not foresee what a problem that was going to present Russia. The Soviet leader who followed Nikita Krushchev was Leonid Brezhnev. And his mother was actually Ukrainian, but he insisted on Russian national identity, the Russification of the Ukrainian people, and the continued communist goal of having Moscow as the unquestioned center of the entire Russian movement within the Soviet family of peoples. But then, we're fast forwarding here, came the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992, and that meant you also had the collapse of the Russian military in so many ways that led to the establishment of Russia as an independent nation.
But that meant there were other independent nations that came as a part of that picture and that included Ukraine. And that troubled all of those who had a vision of Russian greatness. And that included not only the former communist, it included people like KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, but it also included one of the great moral voices of the 20th century, the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn, a hero to so many in the West and deservedly so, had this vision of greater Russia and that's why he returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union from his exile in the United States, and he turned his voice to the opposition to Ukrainian independence.
He eventually relented believing that the political pressure meant that the Ukrainians must be given the opportunity to be independent, but only insofar is that by that attempt, they would learn their mistake and rejoin Russia. It is often just not remembered in the West that Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia and what became known as the Russian Federation, considered the loss of Ukraine to be a personal failure. He also did not want to see Ukraine become independent from Russia, but he had no choice. But by the way, that raised huge problems in the breakup of the Soviet Union because Ukraine, being the borderland within the USSR to the West had so many of the nuclear weapons.
Just think about the Russian nuclear forces that had been after all aimed mostly at Western Europe and at the United States, they were in the West, they had been in Russia, in a matter of just the stroke of an hour, they became part of a foreign nation. And that led to the effort undertaken by the Western allies, including the United States, to promise protection to Ukraine if it would forfeit its nuclear weapons. Now, many Ukrainians now consider that to have been a categorical mistake. Because as it turns out, NATO, and Western Europe, and the United States are defenders of Ukraine but not, and at least this appears to be a part of the picture right now, but not including military force.
Meanwhile, military force, overwhelming military force, is exactly what Ukraine is now facing from Russia in the East. In the year 1999, we're told that the vast majority of the Ukrainian people, over 90%, voted for independence. But that was immediately contested in Moscow. We need to understand that was contested from the very beginning. And one of the persons who was most offended by all of this is the man who since the year 2000 has been what is basically the autocrat Russia, Vladimir Putin, that KGB agent who was so horrified by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet communism, he was never reconciled to the world picture that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union.
His State of the Nation Address on the 25th of April in 2005, Putin said this, "The collapse of this Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it has been a general drama. It became a genuine drama." He said, "Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory." Now, again, he sees that as an unacceptable insult to the Russian people, and he began to change the language of Russia referring to, especially those who consider themselves Russian or spoke Russian. But then, this is extended by the Russian imagination to anyone who basically can spell Russian, they're declared to be Russian rather than Ukrainian.
And so, much like Hitler looking at the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia in the early years of what became World War II, Putin says, "Hey, they're Russians. They're basically being held captive by Ukraine and Ukraine has become a tool of the West, Western efforts to subvert Russia." Now remember, under Nikita Krushchev, Ukraine had been given Crimea, the Crimean peninsula, which are the deep water ports in the Black Sea, Vladimir Putin and Russia one of those, so they took them in 2014 using much of the same techniques they are using right now by amassing these troops in Russia. And here is the lesson that Vladimir Putin learned in 2014, the West will protest but it will not pay a price to resist.
Over the past several years, Russia has tried to invade Ukraine by other means, for instance, handing out Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. And you have this incredible area in the east of Ukraine where there are so many Russians located, and especially in places like Donetsk, you have the Russians saying, "Hey, they're actually Russians. This should be Russian territory." When Kyiv opposes that, you see the danger to the entire nation of Ukraine, because the entire nation is within that very near abroad that Russia says is either Russian or needed by Russia.
The Ultimate End of Vladimir Putin: Russian Glory Restored and the End of Western Influence in the World
In conclusion, a few things we need to think about.
History matters, and that matters for the United States. That's why a battle over our history is an absolutely crucial battle. Is the 1619 Project right? I believe it's devastatingly wrong. But the understanding is that if you change the history, you change the argument, you're going to change the reality, you're going to change the national identity, you're going to change the future. Here's something else you need to understand. The Russian people have a longing for Russian greatness, whatever that means, because there is no clear understanding of what that would mean but Vladimir Putin's promise of a greater Russian glory, a return of Russia, which is now simply a failing petrostate, returning it to the center of world history that has wild appeal to the Russian people.
That's why everything Vladimir Putin does and saber-rattling in Ukraine supports his efforts there in Russia to build up his own regime, that makes him even more popular with the Russians. And furthermore, there are many people who are living in these borderlands who frankly are also attracted to the idea of Russian glory at the expense of the West. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin has been stunningly successful in blaming all opposition to for instance, an annexation of Ukraine, to efforts by the United States and Western Europe to rob Russia of Russians, to rob Russia of Russian greatness, to rob the Russian people of Russian identity, and to rob Russians of their national destiny, which according to Vladimir Putin and even the ancient idea or the very old idea of the Russian empire, must include the borderlands as a part of Russia.
The fact is that Vladimir Putin and the Russian people behind him by their popular support are a far more powerful force, not only on the ground, but in ideology right now than what is coming from Western Europe and from the United States. Now, make no mistake, Russia is the malign force here. Russia is making itself once again into the evil empire, that's what it intends. Russia has very rarely, in all of world history, been a constructive force when it comes to the community of nations. It is such a fragile state internally it becomes increasingly aggressive externally. And Russia will not be satisfied with Ukraine because what you do in imperial reach is that you create a new border and then thus a new borderland that presses the territorial claims even further out.
And Russia's ultimate aim, make no mistake, Vladimir Putin's ultimate aim is to end American influence in the world but also to say a devastating nyet, no, to the very idea of representative democracy and Western constitutionalism and the Western-dominated understanding of a democratic and peaceful world order. That is not the world Vladimir Putin wants. But as time is escaping us, I want to mention one final issue and that is theological. The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church as basically a servant of the Russian state, giving legitimacy to the Russian state, this has also been fueled by the fact that the Russian Orthodox patriarch has basically become a partner with Vladimir Putin in this idea of a recovered Russian greatness.
But there's more to this, and it's pretty sinister, because in 2018, Eastern Orthodoxy recognized a patriarch in Kyiv, in Kiev. And remember, that is where Russian Orthodoxy began. That's unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox Church because it wants to make very clear the primacy of Moscow. So yes, insidiously enough, and with political corruption very much a part of the picture, the Russian Orthodox Church is a force allied with Vladimir Putin. Sometimes, theology matters in an extremely dangerous way. I will conclude this edition of The Briefing with words from Anne Applebaum, a veteran observer of Russia who wrote in the Atlantic in recent days. "Putin is preparing to invade Ukraine again or pretending he will invade Ukraine again for the same reason. He wants to destabilize Ukraine, frighten Ukraine. He wants Ukrainian democracy to fail."
"He wants the Ukrainian economy to collapse. He wants foreign investors to flee. He wants his neighbors in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and even Poland and Hungary, to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable in the longer term, in their countries too. Farther abroad, he wants to put so much strain on Western and democratic institutions, especially the European Union and NATO, that they break up. He wants to keep dictators in power wherever he can, in Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. He wants to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America." She concludes, "He wants America itself to fail," a reminder to us that even though these headlines are coming from thousands and thousands of miles away, the ultimate target is very much closer to home.
Years ago, I began The Briefing as a daily effort to try to provide Christians with a briefing on the big events of the day and how we as Christians should think about them, according to a Christian worldview. That's taken some time today. It's taken the entire episode of The Briefing. I genuinely hope Christians find this helpful.
Thanks for listening.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Dallas, Texas, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.