UNSPECIFIED, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 08: Russian soldiers return to Russia after a nocturnal exchange of prisoners of war on February 8, 2024 in Ukraine. A Russian man reads an "I WANT TO LIVE" business card from a project that will help him to be safely in captivity in case he is at the front again. About 100 soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were returned from Russian captivity. 3,110 Ukrainian soldiers were released from captivity during the entire period. Most of them are defenders of Mariupol and Azovstal.
Photo by Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Tuesday, February 13, 2024.

It’s Tuesday, February 13, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What is the Endgame in Ukraine? The Need for Ukraine to Set Its Real Terms — And for its Allies to Be Honest About the Situation As It Stands

Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, so we are coming up on the two-year anniversary of that invasion on the 24th of this month. And it’s high time we take stock of what is at stake, where we stand, where Ukraine stands, where Russia stands, what all of this means, and what American policies should be. Now that raises a host of issues, but as you look at it, you recognize eventually these questions are going to have to be answered. And so we’re looking at a pattern. If you go back to February of 2022, just about everyone understood exactly what was at stake, and exactly what was taking place. Russia had invaded Ukraine, a hostile force had invaded a sovereign nation and was threatening its very existence.

Russian sources at the time, were talking about a desire to re-add Ukraine to Mother Russia, not only in terms of some kind of alliance, but in terms of some kind of border. And they were particularly intent upon toppling and replacing the current government, and that is of course of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and instead putting in something like a puppet government that would be very subservient to Russia. The outrage around the world was almost immediate. There were very few that would speak up for Russia in light of that invasion. There was no doubt that it was an aggressive, intentional, premeditated invasion by one country of another in contravention of the border, of international law, and of human decency.

And so, just about everyone understood with moral clarity what was at stake. You go back two years almost to February of 2022, and most persons expected Ukraine to fall rather quickly. That’s what had happened just a few years earlier when Russia had invaded the Crimean Peninsula and basically annexed that from Ukraine. But against all odds, Ukraine has turned out to be a very tough defender of its territory. And so if you were to go back, say a year, there were those who were arguing that Ukraine might not only preserve itself and regain its territory, but be, in some internationally recognized sense, the military victor over Russia.

There was conversation about a year ago, about the fact that this was humiliating to Russia, that Russia’s leader, who after all operates as a totalitarian leader, Vladimir Putin, the argument was he had miscalculated. This was a reckless gamble driven by his personal ambition, and this is going to be humiliating to the point that it might cost him his job.

Now, fast-forward to where we are now in February of 2024, Ukraine in terms of its offensive, bogged down. It did not achieve its objectives. Russia, having gone through internal foment and a massive reorientation of its economy due to Western sanctions, has basically found a new stability. Vladimir Putin is clearly not intending to withdraw from Ukraine. And what had been a good deal of what was thought in the West to be public opposition to the war in Russia has largely melted away, or at least it has gone underground. Vladimir Putin has not emerged, at this point, weaker, but rather stronger.

So you had the invasion a year later, the calculation was Ukraine, that was the wronged party in this case, has responded with unusual patriotism and furthermore, with the unusual ability to thwart Russian military ambitions. But now another year later, the picture is very, very different. And that at least in part has a lot to do with the different disposition you see right now in the United States Congress towards military aid for Ukraine. The United States Congress has produced that military aid over, and over, and over again.

This entire story has unfolded during the years of the Biden administration. And from the very beginning, Biden indicated that he wanted the United States to support Ukraine, and he helped to bring about a coalition of allies that were also coming to the aid of Ukraine. And that aid, by the way, did a couple of things that no one had been able to do before, and that is it brought about increased military expenditures on the part of many of our Western allies, newly aware of the threat that Russia posed to them, not only to Ukraine. It brought about an extension of NATO, something that really wasn’t even contemplated shortly before all this took place. Finland is now a NATO member country that would’ve been unimaginable in terms of the Finns famous claims of neutrality, until all of a sudden Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, that changed the equation.

Militarily, you also have greater integration on the part of our European allies and generally just a greater realization, a greater realism of what is at stake and the dangers posed. And even as long-term promises sometimes don’t come after short time assurances, the reality is that Western Europe and our European allies in particular, they have to be aware that they’re going to have to shoulder an increased amount of defense spending if they’re going to survive.

Now, to be clear, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, even though it has aspired to be. There are other nations that border the former Soviet Union that are indeed now NATO member nations. But when it comes to Ukraine, you’re looking at a very complicated historical picture. The Ukrainian people are deeply patriotic and the Ukrainian nation clearly is a nation. Russia had no business, no moral right to invade it.

But this is where we come to understand a clash of worldviews that can turn deadly and can contest the map and sometimes change the map. The way Vladimir Putin and the many in Russia look at Ukraine, is that Ukraine, which after all is a word that means frontier, that it basically exists as a buffer between Europe and Mother Russia. That’s the way Russia has historically looked at it. And here you’re talking about a pattern of thought that goes back into medieval times and even further for that matter. But in terms of official Russian policy and war doctrine, Ukraine has been seen in this light for hundreds of years. There are other rather convoluted historical questions which a nation like the United States never has to consider. For one thing, where did Russian culture begin? Did it begin in Mother Russia or did it begin elsewhere?

And here’s where you understand that Kyiv inside Ukraine is actually the mother, or the source, of a lot of what is known as Russian culture. And that includes, by the way, the fact that the patriarch of Kyiv is considered the most historic leader of Russian orthodoxy. That’s a complicating factor.

So the political reality is that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has offered courageous, direct personal leadership of Ukraine, he’s done what many people didn’t think was possible. He has rallied Ukraine, but he also has just in the last few days, replaced the senior military leadership. And as military analysts will tell you, you don’t replace the senior military commander when things are going well. You replace the commander when things are not going well.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, Vladimir Putin who, immediately after the invasion of Ukraine was politically weaker than he had been in Russia, he is now apparently at full restored strength. And this is a part of what happens in a totalitarian system. Ukraine has a democratically elected president. Even though there are elections in Russia, no one with a straight face can say that it’s a democratic process. It’s a staged political game.

So almost immediately after the invasion, the United States and others understood that this is a crucial test. It’s a crucial test of western moral solidarity and the willingness to defend a nation that had been invaded by a hostile external force, in this case, Russia. But, even as the alliance began to come together and frankly seen in retrospect over the last two years, a remarkable alliance of remarkable strength has come together. And you had all these political leaders, including the heads of government and heads of state of nations allied with NATO, but even some other nations, that had indicated an unbreakable commitment to Ukraine. There’s always been something missing from the picture. And two years later, it’s graphically apparent that that something missing from the picture just has to be named. What’s missing from the picture is an end game.

So just to give you an example, President Joe Biden has said consistently from the beginning that it is Ukraine’s call, and exclusively the call of Ukraine, as to the terms that would end this military conflict. America’s given overwhelming support politically and morally, also financially and militarily. And the United States has been a catalyst of also cooperating with other European allies, allies elsewhere as well, but most importantly in Western Europe, in supporting Ukraine.

Now, as I often point out when it comes to foreign policy, these nations are not just acting out of benevolence, they’re acting out of their own perceived national self-interest. They understand that if Russia is able to basically annex Ukraine, or for that matter, a good deal of Ukrainian territory, then the vulnerability of all of Europe is made clear. So once again, this isn’t benevolence. States that survive, are states that act in their own perceived self-interest and do so successfully. So we understand that’s what’s going on here. That includes the United States. Yes, we are defending Ukraine’s right to existence and to defend itself, but we’re also defending against what would be a radical increase of Russian influence in the area, and a threat to direct allies that are absolutely crucial not only to the North American project, but even to the world economy including the American economy.

But the president’s declaration that Ukraine alone can name the endgame, it’s wearing very thin. And that explains for one thing, the radical decrease in Republican support. That is support from members of the Republican Party for the effort in Ukraine and in particular for continued and increased American military support. The question is, what is that endgame? Well, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine has responded that the endgame is nothing less than reclaiming all Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula taken in 2014.

Now, I don’t think there’s any credible military authority in the United States of America that thinks that’s going to happen. And so right now we have a game being played. Now, foreign policy in many ways is a game, say like a game like chess that is being played. But at least we need to name the game and understand it. The game is this: the Biden administration says Ukraine and Ukraine alone can determine the endgame and any final settlement. But you also have the fact that the United States Congress has to authorize continued spending.

Furthermore, you have American military analysts who are speaking realistically about the fact that it is now increasingly unlikely, given Ukraine’s failed offensive against Russia, pushing back, that it is going to, in military terms, recapture all the terrain, especially in the eastern border of the nation, the region that is closest to Russia, that it will regain it by military force from the Russian army. The Russian army is now entrenched. And by the way, it’s rather brilliantly entrenched in terms of Russia’s land defenses. And Russia has new military leadership and the political solidarity there is also very clear.

Vladimir Putin has a great deal to lose. If he were to withdraw after a very costly invasion, that would actually be a very clear threat to the continued existence of his regime. And if you look at dictatorial rulers throughout history, a threat to the continuation of their regime, ends up being a threat to the continuation of their lives. I think Vladimir Putin understands exactly what is at stake, so do honest American and European military analysts. There’s simply no way that this is truly going to be settled on entirely Ukrainian terms. That’s impossible, and it’s at least a matter of honesty to state out loud now that someone in terms of this chess game, which is a matter of life and death, needs to speak up and say, “We now know at least one way this game is not going to end.”

So at this point, it is unhelpful for President Biden and his administration to continue to say Ukraine gets to name the end game, and yet we’re going to continue to prop up Ukraine with massive American military support. I’m not calling for an end to the support. I’m calling for a fact that the end game has to be agreed upon, understood, and that has to inform what is and is not a wise investment of American military funds, and frankly, a wise stewardship of our responsibility with and our responsibility to Ukraine.

Now, as if the headlines weren’t complicated and daunting enough, in recent days, you’ve had front page news stories in the international press about the fact that Ukraine is having a very difficult time now replacing its troops. And as you look at this, you just have to acknowledge this isn’t a small problem. This is a massive problem. And this gets down to something that is very much on my mind as I am at church right now teaching through the Book of Numbers verse by verse. Because as you look at the opening of the Book of Numbers, which by the way is a fascinating study, you’ll recall that it begins with a census of the young men in Israel who could be warriors for the nation, and that means tribe by tribe, a listing of the population of young men who are between the ages of 20 and 60.

Now, just to state the obvious, you can’t snap your fingers and create 20-year-olds. The problem for a nation like Ukraine, which had been already suffering from a decreased birthrate, by the way, they’re not alone. The United States is in a similar position, but not at the rate that you see in Ukraine and in other European nations by and large. And you just realize this is a long-term problem and we need to acknowledge that there is a very low likelihood, in all honesty, that Ukraine is somehow going to now be able to prevail over Russia, which is a much larger nation. We’re not just talking about two nations. We’re talking about Russia against Ukraine, which means frontier. And Russia has always seen it that way.

Now, that leads to another issue. A lot of controversy of course, about former Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewing Vladimir Putin, it wasn’t that interesting an interview in many ways. Vladimir Putin decided to bog the entire thing down in his own understanding of Russian history. And there were many viewers of that interview who think, “Oh, this is just a distraction.” No, it actually is what Vladimir Putin thinks. It’s what he thought he ought to talk about in that interview, a rare interview given with someone from the Western Press.

Now, you can talk about who was using whom in terms of that interview, but the point is this, Vladimir Putin lives out his vision of Russian history, that is what drives him. And in that sense, he harkens back to someone like Peter the Great seeing himself as something like a new modern Russian Tsar protecting mother Russia and putting together the military picture that is necessary for that preservation. That’s the way he thinks.

I am not at all defending Vladimir Putin’s view of history, much less his invasion of Ukraine. That was an immoral, wrongful, act. It was an aggressive military act, without moral justification. But it’s also important that we understand what drives a nation to do this. And as you’re looking at Russia, just to remember Russian history, Russia sees itself as exposed on its western flank to enemies in Europe and beyond, because as you come from the West in Europe to Russia, there are few natural impediments to a marching army.

Now, Russia has other advantages, just ask Hitler or Napoleon, and that includes its vast terrain and of course its winters. Oddly enough, winter turns out to be a major Russian defense. But Russia wants Ukraine. Russia, it’s important to note, has always wanted Ukraine. And that doesn’t mean that we decrease our support for Ukraine’s right to exist. It does mean that we understand that this Russian preoccupation is not going to go away.

Part II

The Truth About the Situation in Ukraine: Putin’s Preoccupation with Ukraine is Not Going Away, and Ukraine Cannot Defeat Russia Anytime in the Near Future

So I must bring this to conclusion in worldview terms by just underlining the fact that the Christian worldview emphasizes that human sinfulness extends to what will show up in wars as border disputes. This is no small border dispute. This is a matter of international consequence. And even as there has been wide-scale, very widespread, organized, outrage towards Russia, and even as Western nations have basically turned off the faucet wherever possible and brought about as much damage and pain in Russia by economic terms as is feasible, the reality is that Russia can always play the long game. That’s what it’s doing.

And here’s where Russia thinks it understands history in a way that it thinks we in the West do not. We in the West look at politics and all the rest in four year cycles. Vladimir Putin doesn’t care about a four-year cycle. That’s a mere footnote in terms of his experience. He’s thinking of centuries of Russian history and centuries of Russian resentments.

Now, I don’t know where the funding bill in the Senate is going to go, although decreasing Republican support is a part of the picture, but it’s also clear that there is overwhelming question in the House of Representatives under Republican leadership as to where in the world this kind of future military aid for Ukraine will go. But at the very least, you’re likely to see absolute pressure on the Biden administration to define its terms and be honest about its understanding of the end game. And I think it’s very fair to say that the only real way for Ukraine to prevail in its war against Russia is for there to be direct military involvement by other Western nations. And that’s the one thing I think we already know isn’t going to happen under these terms.

By and large, in moral terms, Americans understand the situation in Ukraine. They’re sympathetic with Ukraine, love the people of Ukraine, want to support the people of Ukraine, but that does not mean that Americans are willing to send American troops right up to the Russian border in order to regain territory that the Russian invaders have taken from Ukraine.

It’s also complicated by the fact that the closer you get to that border, the more there is public sentiment for Russian identity and the use of the Russian language. That doesn’t settle the issue. It doesn’t in any sense morally justify the Russian aggression and the Russian invasion. But sometimes in a fallen world, you just have to take an account of where things stand. And committed to the future existence of Ukraine as a functioning and self-defending nation, you have to get to the point that it’s going to be able to survive and you’re going to have to get to the point of honesty about the fact that the end game has to be a part of the consideration because the end game has to inform what Congress does, what the administration does, how the Pentagon thinks, and how we relate to the people of Ukraine.

I have friends in Ukraine including pastors in Ukraine, and my heart goes out to them and to their churches and to their cause. And as we look at this, I understand that there is so much at stake and there’s so much tragedy that we in the West could not name and cannot understand. There are examples of heroism and courage coming from Ukraine that should inspire us all. But love of neighbor, and in this case, love of Ukraine, also requires us to take account of exactly where we stand, and how we can help Ukraine to stand long-term as an independent nation.

Part III

The Dangerous Embrace of Gambling: Super Bowl 58 Highlights the Normalization of Gambling in Athletics

But next, well, you know where we have to go. We have to go to the Super Bowl, which means we have to go to Las Vegas. You were betting on that. That’s actually the point. 

It turns out, that one of the most interesting worldview aspects of the most recent Super Bowl is the amount of money spent on gambling and the fact that the normalization of commercial gambling has never been more graphically exemplified, than by the fact that the NFL has put a team in Las Vegas and the Super Bowl. The ultimate seal of National Football League acceptance, certification, was put on the city of Las Vegas, which is the heart of international gambling, at least from an American perspective. And the normalization of gambling is just the biggest part of this story in worldview consequence.

Final numbers aren’t in, but The Guardian in London is reporting that Americans would gamble $23 billion on Super Bowl LVIII. Now, the fact that we’re talking about legal gambling in this sense, that’s something fairly new. And it’s new because of a 2018 Supreme Court decision. And that Supreme Court decision wasn’t pro gambling. It simply struck down the constitutionality of legislation that would offer preference for the states of Nevada and New Jersey when it comes to commercial gambling. That particular arrangement they said is unconstitutional in a nation of 50 states.

And so Congress could have responded with national legislation to outlaw gambling nationwide or to establish limitations. But basically all of that isn’t going to happen. And what you see happening in Las Vegas, and furthermore in other stratifications of American sport, it’s just an indication of what has happened when our culture has decided that gambling is now going to be normalized, but not without problems. For example, the headline in that article in The Guardian, which is a left-wing paper, is, “The Super Bowl and gambling are locked in a tight and dangerous embrace.”

So let’s just review this for a few moments. So as you look at professional sport, just remember that some of the biggest scandals in sport historically, have had to do with gambling. Now, you had a league like the National Football League that was adamantly opposed to any involvement in gambling. And you also had the same thing in baseball and in other major professional sports. You’d have to add collegiate sports at one level as well. But when you understand this from a Christian worldview, the first thing is to understand that the Christian worldview is definitely not normalized when it comes to gambling. Gambling is presented in the scripture and throughout the Christian tradition as that which is morally wrong, primarily because of what it puts at risk.

Anyone who’s been close to the gambling industry can tell you about the cost. And even the states that have been benefiting through lotteries and other forms of institutionalized gambling all the way up to casinos, and furthermore, even other things that weren’t contemplated years ago, even those states are aware of the damage. And that’s why they’ve made themselves feel better by putting together legislation to deal with the problem of “gambling addiction.” But we have to understand that from a biblical perspective, the problem isn’t gambling addiction, the problem is gambling.

But here’s where we also understand complicity in terms of social authorities, because you have people who are saying, “Look, this is going to bring in tax revenue. This is going to be good for the economy. We actually need to invest in these gaming interests in our stock portfolio, in our retirement plan. Look at the growth because there is no doubt this industry is poised for remarkable growth.” Here’s where we also need to understand the cost.

The Bible’s also clear about the fact that one of the problems with gambling and of sin in general is that it lies. So you have people who think, “I am just so close to winning.” Indeed, if you take out certain parts of the equation, gamblers might be closer to winning than they actually are. The reality is, it’s stacked against those who participate in legalized gambling.

Christopher Caldwell makes that point brilliantly when he points out that the house always wins. Now, what do you mean by that? Well, the house always wins because the house runs the game and the house takes a take. And so he says, “Let’s take a game, a gambling situation in which there are two people who are putting $10 each into the pot.” As he describes the situation, “The house is the gambling establishment, which takes a cut. If you and your friend Joe are betting $10 each over who’s going to win the Mets-Braves game, you have a pool of $20, and the right guesser wins it. As long as you aren’t betting all your money, you can gamble with your friend Joe forever. It can be your hobby. But if you’re betting in a casino or on an online sports book, the house must take something for its pains. Let’s say it’s a dollar on a $10 bet. Now you and Joe are each betting $10 over a pool of $18.”

As Caldwell says, “This is a totally different kind of transaction. Now, you can’t win over the long term. Carried out with sufficient frequency, this is an activity capable of bankrupting both of you.”

This situation in the United States is radically complicated, when the government itself becomes the house. That’s what happens in a lot of state lotteries and in other systems. It requires the state, which is supposed to be for the flourishing and defense of the people, to prey on its own citizens, to entice them into a game–longterm–they can’t win.

By the way, finally, there’s something else that also plays in here, and this has to do with the demographic composition of the people who are most likely to be involved in sports betting. And so as you think about the entire situation with sports, you’re talking about an inclination towards the male side of the population, and towards the younger distribution of the male population. And so one of the most vulnerable groups, it turns out, to this kind of sports betting, are teenagers and young men who get engaged in this kind of thing because once you get into it, it’s very hard to stop, and it is very hard to add up exactly how much you have lost.

And so, you’re talking about something that is often packaged as just a bunch of guys having a little bit of fun. And maybe it’s just that. On the other hand, you’re not going to have the radical expansion of the gambling industry if that’s really what’s happening. And at least Christians need to recognize it’s part of our job to call that out.

But finally, speaking about calling it out, how about the price tag for the Super Bowl itself? The average priced ticket was over $8,000, the median price. That’s an awful lot of money for a football game. And as you look at this, you recognize, evidently, given the waiting list, there were thousands of people who were frustrated they couldn’t pay it, in order to be there.

So while you’re talking about all kinds of other facts and figures in our economy, it turns out the Super Bowl ticket price is at least interesting and informative.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 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’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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