An answer to questions about the war against Ukraine

This week, a friend asked me to speak to things he has heard recently about the war…asked for background he could share with others. Here’s my response. I think you may find it helpful.

Thanks for your questions based on what you are hearing friends and other sources say about the invasion of Ukraine.

I first worked in Ukraine in 1992 (right after independence), and have taught in Ukraine more intensely since 2012. At the same time, I was working on both a Masters and Doctorate in Worship Studies–an “action-research” approach that involved careful study of my ministry context–that nation. Ukrainian history, church history, current affairs, and their relationship to Russia since the disintegration of the USSR have been primary topics for reading and writing in preparing my projects for classroom and conference work there. As you know, we also started ServeUkraine to come alongside those friends, colleagues, students, and church leaders who are doing relief work and require aid since the Russian invasion in February.

All that to say, I’m involved, and pretty broadly informed. My reading and research involves relationships with national church and ministry leaders, multiple international news sources, foreign affairs think tanks, and long-time observers of the Ukrainian situation. I was recently part of the Nashville Consultation on Ukraine in early November which involved Ukrainian church, political, and ministry leaders as well as nearly 100 ministry leaders, academics, pastors, and donors from all over North America. The head of the Baptist Union of Ukraine (2000+ churches, largest in Europe), leader of the Pentecostal Union, an Archbishop of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (pay careful attention to that name), and an Auxiliary Bishop from the Roman Catholic Church were there. The only major Christian group not represented was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite Catholic) Church, whose leader had to drop at the last minute. There were members of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), a Member of the European Parliament, leaders of ministries currently doing work in the country, local pastors, as well as the Mayor of Irpin, one of the cities severely damaged in the earliest stages of the war (about 5 miles from our campus in northwest Kyiv–I was there in September).

Steven Brooks, Myroslava Smetaniuk, Bria Blessing Pohle, Jesse Pohle, and me at the consultation.

Am I infallible on these matters? Absolutely not. Have I done, and am I doing my homework? Absolutely. Am I current? Yes.

Your two issues: is Zelenskyy a dictator, and is he curbing religious freedom in Ukraine? Two quick answers: No, and no. Some background…

First issue: Ukraine is under martial law. Russia has been attacking Ukraine, illegally annexing and occupying Ukrainian territory and killing since 2014, and seeking to undermine its sovereignty for many years before that.

In 2013, then-president Victor Yanukovich turned from saying he would ally with Europe to switching to Putin practically overnight. The country was enraged, and took to the central square (Maidan) of Kyiv in protest, starting with students, then thousands of others joined them from November 2013 to February 2014. Religious and political leaders took part, praying and protesting, and being shot at by the government’s secret police. Over 100 were killed by snipers, and eventually Yanukovich fled to Russia by helicopter in the middle of the night. He was totally in Putin’s pocket, and many Russian sympathizers and plants were all across the country. Yanukovich was found to have skimmed off millions from the national coffers to line his pocket, build his dream estate and fill accounts in many banks. Ukrainians call the process of getting him out as the “Revolution of Dignity” and set out to make changes. They did NOT want further alliance with Russia, period.

The parliament at that point named a Baptist layman to be interim President, and a Jewish lawyer to be Prime Minister, by the way.

Putin took the opportunity to illegally annex Crimea, and then seize a large portion of eastern Ukraine with his forces in anonymous fatigues and local sympathizers under false pretenses.

Since then, there has been another elected President, Petro Poroshenko, followed by Zelenskyy, who defeated Poroshenko cleanly in the next election. (More about Poroshenko in a bit.)

When the new phase of invasion began this past February, Zelenskyy declared martial law, sought to weed out those cooperating with Russia, including a couple of political parties who were more than sympathetic to Russia and calling for re-unification, etc. Those are the groups that he has banned. They continue to root out sympathizers who are cooperating with the occupying forces. Zelenskyy and the Rada also called for “national mobilization” which declared that all men between 18-60 could not leave the country with out express special permission as they might be needed.

This is what happens in war time, in martial law. Things that wouldn’t normally happen are set in place to try and preserve the nation. That is what Zelenskyy has done. (Was FDR a dictator during WWII? Some may have thought so, but he had wartime powers that gave him a lot of latitude, and in hindsight, we are still here.)

Second issue: Up until 2018, Ukraine had three (3) separate Orthodox Churches, dating back to independence in late 1991. They were the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (answering to Moscow), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (answering to leadership in Kyiv), and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – autocephalous, or independent. Ukraine also has in its constitution and in its practice, the greatest religious freedom of any nation in eastern Europe, if not all of Europe. Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, other Protestant groups, even Jews and Muslims all meet together in an All-Ukraine Religious Council to advise the government.

The Moscow Patriarchate churches have always been an issue, hence the other two splits. Ukrainians wanted and deserved their official church. After all, back in 988, Christianity came to the east through Kyiv! Moscow or Russia did not exist. Back in 2018, after a good deal of lobbying from Poroshenko (a practicing Orthodox) and others with the Orthodox Church, international Orthodox leaders granted autonomy to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU, the KP and autocephalous churches primarily), and all parishes could make their own decisions where they would go. And go they went. The OCU Archbishop I spoke with here said that the number of parishes joining the OCU has increased exponentially since the invasion. I believe the majority have joined the OCU at this point, but UOC-MP holds a lot of sway in significant areas.

Interestingly, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, who the MP churches answer to, has been internationally sanctioned since the earliest days of the invasion. Kirill is totally in Putin’s pocket, spouting the same false histories about the “Russian world,” and blessing and supporting Putin’s “special military operation” to the utmost.

The churches that have been raided have been MP churches. Ukrainian security forces have found Russian passports, millions of dollars, pro-Russian propaganda, etc. Here are two great reports from the Religious Information Service of Ukraine that will give some more insight from the other religious leaders about the MP churches being searched – “SBU raids Moscow Patriarchate churches” and “In UOC dioceses SBU finds Russian passports.”

So, Zelensky has powers under martial law, and the churches being searched are really in collusion with Russian efforts to wipe out Ukraine.

For better, consistent information, I recommend the best English-language news source in Ukraine, the Kyiv Independent, and reporting from the BBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and the Washington Post. Use the Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert for in-depth commentary on all that is happening. I also have several Telegram groups that have info straight from the sources and up-to-date reporting on attacks in the nation. (You can download the Telegram app from the App Store for Mac, iPhone, etc.)

The best, most-readable, and reliable history of Ukraine is The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard. It is a pretty quick read, and will give you the best back-story. It was written after Maidan (2015), and will give you context for the fact Ukrainians and Russians are not brothers, and the history that Putin is twisting at best, totally fabricating in general.

I’ve also just read A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin by British Russian Studies expert, Mark Galeotti. written in 2020. It’s just over 200 pages, an informed and entertaining read that clarifies both history and myths about modern Russia and its relationship to Ukraine.

I didn’t intend a major epistle, but so many have asked the questions, I thought it good to put it down in a form that I could post myself and also send to others.

Thanks for checking in with me. I’ve heard so much rubbish and out-and-out lies repeated by Christians especially in the last month. I am more than glad to redress the balance, especially with some of the stories I heard from leaders last month, and in my 8-10 days in Ukraine in September. I’m happy to recommend other resources as well.


11 December 2022


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