Ukraine: roots and consequences of the crisis

Ucraina: radici e conseguenze della crisi

Will the media “show” between Biden and Putin result in a real war between Russia and Ukraine, destined to involve Europe as well? Everything is possible, in the era of the unforeseeable. In this case it would be a matter not of a civil war within Ukraine but of an international conflict that would see Russia face off against the West. However, the two contenders have no interest in a military confrontation of this kind, unless the overdone bluster gives way to an unexpected event that changes strategies on the ground.

The name Ukraine (Ukraïna) is etymologically related to the Slavic term «kraj» (limit, border), which indicates a «borderland.» Ukraine is in fact a vast plain with uncertain borders, densely populated, rich in agricultural and mineral resources. The historical origins of this land are ancient: it was called Scythia by the Greeks and Sarmatia by the Romans. From the Middle Ages until the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was known in the West as Ruthenia, while in Russia it was called “Little Russia,” to convey its inclusion in the Empire of the Tsars

Ukraine is in fact the cradle of Russia, the birth of which dates back to the conversion to Christianity of Prince Vladimir I (980-1015), called the Saint. The Kingdom of Kiev that he founded was the oldest Christian Slavic state, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all the way to the Carpathians, constituting one of the most important confederations in medieval Europe. However, in 1240 this vast kingdom was almost completely destroyed by the Mongols, whose domination lasted for over 250 years.

The kingdom of Kiev, while adhering to the schism of the East (1054), had been part of Western Christianity. After the liberation from the Mongols, the Muscovite state established in the 16th century  cultivated the legacy of Byzantium in an anti-European vein. Although with Peter the Great Russia had become part of the system of European states, the tsarist empire was always perceived as a threat by the other states of the old continent due to its Asian connotation and its autocratic character.

Over the centuries, Ukraine was repeatedly dismembered and subjected in turn to the Lithuanian Grand Dukes and the kings of Poland, to the Russian Empire and that of Austria, but it remained culturally connected to the West and its inhabitants always rejected the terms ‘little Russia’ or ‘new Russia’ (‘Novorossija’), used by the Tsars and now proposed again by Putin.

After the collapse of the Tsarist Empire during the First World War, the Central Powers, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 3 1918, forced the Bolsheviks to recognize an independent Ukraine. The Red Army, in its intent to export the Revolution to the West, attacked Poland, but in August of 1920 it was defeated on the Vistula by General Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), who then led a counterattack aimed at taking back the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Treaty of Riga, signed on March 18 1921 by Poland on one side and by Russia and Ukraine on the other, marked the failure of Piłsudski’s plan and, as Count Emmanuel Malinsky (1875-1938) writes, can be considered the true birthday of the Bolshevik state (Les Problèmes de l’Est et la Petite-Entente, Librairie Cervantes, Paris 1931, p. 300). In 1922 Ukraine officially became part of the USSR, with the exception of Galicia and Volhynia, which were assigned to Poland. Since then, if one disregards the National Socialist occupation of 1941-1943, it remained Soviet until the independence proclamation of December 8 1991.

Post-Soviet Ukraine is seeking to join NATO and the European Union in order to defend itself from Russian hegemony, while Moscow wants to preserve its influence over a nation with which it shares more than a thousand miles of border. The conflict underway is also a “gas war” in which Europe’s energy future is at stake. On one side is Russia, which is our continent’s main supplier; on the other, the United States, which wants to enter the European market with its LNG (Liquid Natural Gas), which is transported on ships and costs more than that of Russia, which comes by pipeline.

But the problem is not only economic. Putin intends to restore a new imperial mindset to Russia and is determined not to tolerate further NATO expansion to the east after the admission of the Baltic Republics and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. As the political scientist Alexandre Del Valle observes, “Vladimir Putin’s entire foreign policy is situated within this strong trend of Russian geopolitics traditionally oriented toward the territorial conquest of the areas surrounding its historical central European core. In this system, Ukraine obviously represents the fulcrum making possible Russia’s return as a Eurasian power, because from this country Russia can project itself on both the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, on Central Europe and the Balkans. This is why the American strategy  in Ukraine, as in Georgia and elsewhere, supports political forces hostile to Moscow” (La mondialisation dangereuse, L’Artilleur, Paris 2021, p. 99).

Prof. Massimo de Leonardis recalls the words of Zbigniew Brzesinski (1928-2017) that summarize the substance of the problem. “Without Ukraine Russia ceases to be an Empire, but if it subjects Ukraine it automatically becomes an Empire” (Preface to Giorgio Cella, Storia e geopolitica della crisi ucraina, Carocci, Rome 2021, p. 12). In this perspective, Russia is moving its troops to the border with Ukraine so as not to be encircled by NATO, while NATO is putting its soldiers on alert to defend Ukraine from encirclement by Russia.

For those who see things with the eyes of faith, beyond the opposing geopolitical interests of Biden and Putin the first question to ask concerns the good of souls. Under this aspect, which for us is the most important, we cannot forget that Ukraine is the center of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, of the Byzantine rite, based in Kiev, where Archbishop Svyatoslav Ševčuk now occupies the archbishopric that once belonged to the intrepid cardinal Josyf Slipyj (1892-1984), who spent 18 years in communist concentration camps. There is also in the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia the Byzantine-rite Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, which counts among its martyrs the eparch Theodore Romža, assassinated by order of Nikita Khrushchev on November 1 1947 and beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 27 2001. Today it constitutes the eparchy of Mukačevo, which reports directly to the Holy See.

Russian expansionism is not limited to Putin’s geopolitical ambitions but also includes the aims of the Patriarchate of Moscow to exercise its religious authority throughout the former Soviet space, against what it calls the undue interference of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and above all of the Vatican. Putin, for his part, is aware that Russia cannot do without its ties to the Orthodox Church, which gives the regime moral legitimacy and support in terms of consensus.

Putin’s annexation of Ukraine, or a part of it, would represent a Russification of the country that would strengthen the role of the Russian Orthodox Church at the expense of the Byzantine-rite Catholic. The political interests of Catholics do not coincide with those of Putin or Biden, but on the religious level, which is the highest, one must reject any form of expansion of the Moscow Patriarchate into Slavic lands and perhaps tomorrow into the West. The Catholic Church today is going through a serious internal crisis, but the solution to this crisis can come only from the word of Truth of the Church of Rome, certainly not from the “Drang nach Westen,” the Westward drive of Orthodox autocephaly.