UKRAINE – RUSSIA: Six Narratives To Consider
The conflict in Ukraine has brought the world to a standstill. The heart-breaking scenes of buildings destroyed, lives lost and dreams shattered remind us of Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and Afghanistan. But this time it is Europe, and the narratives are different.
In a war it is easier to try and find a scapegoat than it is to find the truth. And often our truths are not only determined by factual evidence but our position when receiving it.
As we imitate the Prince of Peace, we cannot afford to relinquish our mandate as peacemakers by choosing sides. We have to be discerning, wise and discover a non-manipulated truth that will assist all observers to see redemption and not retaliation.
This article is not an attempt to justify the actions of any role-players but a warning to find a balance in the narratives that we read.
Let us pray, but pray with hearts of reconciliation.
On Thursday morning, 24 February 2022, Russian troops launched a broad, three-pronged assault on Ukraine that brought explosions and set off air raid sirens in the country’s capital, Kyiv, and other cities, shattering any remaining hope that a military conflict would be avoided. “Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted at 5:58 a.m.
Ukraine’s leadership said at least 40 people had been killed in what it called a “full-scale war” targeting the country from the east, north and south. It said Russia’s intent was to destroy the state of Ukraine, a Western-looking democracy intent on escaping Moscow’s orbit.
As Ukrainian forces fought back and civilians piled into trains and cars to flee, NATO and European leaders rushed to respond with strong financial sanctions against Russia and moves to strengthen their own borders.
In a televised address as the attack commenced, Russian President Vladimir Putin said such action was needed to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting for almost eight years.
Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demands to block Ukraine from ever joining NATO and offer Moscow security guarantees. Putin said Russia does not intend to occupy Ukraine but plans to “demilitarize” it. He urged Ukrainian servicemen to “immediately put down arms and go home.” Soon after his address, explosions were heard in the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa.
Russia’s Defense Ministry reported hours later that the Russian military has destroyed 74 Ukrainian military facilities, including 11 airbases.
WHY THE AGGRESSION FROM RUSSIA?
From Putin’s perspective, the biggest threat comes in the form of an acronym – NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance of European countries (including the United States) that came together after the second world war and has never recognised Russia as an equal. In many ways, NATO sees Russia as the same old protagonist that threatened the world during the cold-war era. Putin sees it another way: that NATO encroaches its front door, and must be checked. According to Russian military experts, Putin is merely showing former Soviet states such as Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova (who all have sizable Russian-speaking populations), that the motherland has not forgotten them. Separatists in Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk) got the message loud and clear in 2014 and have since fought for independence from Ukraine.
Russia sees NATO’s expansion as a threat on its Western borders and will do whatever it deems necessary to make sure that Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia never gain membership. These countries form a buffer between Russia and the rest of NATO members. By constantly threatening the sovereignty of these countries, Russia is able to show NATO just how costly it would be if it accepted them as members. In a way, Putin has already achieved his goal of setting a red line for NATO and can, for all intents and purposes, withdraw his troops. But every strongman knows that actions speak louder than words, and Putin is, if nothing else, a strongman.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 a growing number of pro-Russian separatists have called for the independence of Eastern Ukraine. Their calls for independence were backed (and still are) by Russian military power that dragged Ukrainians into a civil war.
There is however another war at play. A war of narratives. And millions across the globe are becoming volunteer prisoners of war by choosing sides according to the narratives they believe. With subtle nuances, the media, on both sides, is once again manipulating news to create a schism between East and West. Sadly, the so-called “Christian world” has willfully submitted by choosing sides and relinquished their roles as peacemakers.
Here are SIX narratives to consider
1. THE NARRATIVE OF A NEW WAR
“The missile strikes rained down in parts of Ukraine on the second day of Russia’s war.”
The breaking news on Thursday morning at 05:58 was that Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine and fears arose that this could translate into a Third World War. But this narrative neglected to mention that the conflict in Ukraine started eight years ago. The only new development is that both Europe and America now recognised the seriousness of the conflict. The facts is that before the first missile was fired on Thursday morning, the conflict had already claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people, and displaced more than 1.5 million.
Ukraine, which was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic, became independent as the USSR broke up in 1991. Since the cessation from the USSR, Ukraine moved increasingly closer to forge ties with the West.
A decision by Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow led to mass protests that saw him removed as the leader in 2014.
From the beginning of March 2014, in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the Euromaidan movement, protests by pro-Russian, anti-government separatist groups took place in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, collectively called the Donbas region. These demonstrations, which followed the February–March 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and which were part of a wider group of concurrent protests across southern and eastern Ukraine, escalated into an armed conflict between the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR, respectively), and the Ukrainian government.
Ukraine launched a military counter-offensive against pro-Russian forces in April 2014, called the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) from 2014 until 2018, when it was renamed the “Joint Forces Operation” (JFO). The conflict has been ongoing since with more than 20 peace treaties signed and broken in-between.
Russia announced recognition of the DPR and LPR on 21 February 2022 and moved its military into the respective regions in an attempt, according to Putin, to try and end the eight-year war.
2. THE NARRATIVE OF PERSONALISING EVIL
“Diplomatically, politically, economically and – eventually – militarily, this hideous and barbaric venture of Vladimir Putin must end in failure.”
The narrative created by Western powers is that the current conflict in Ukraine is a war between Mr. Vladimir Putin and Europe. Not Russia against Ukraine or Vladimir Putin against Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but Vladimir Putin against the rest of the world. For evil to prevail, the enemy needs to be personified. It is far easier to gain support for a cause when you can put a face next to your enemy and for Europe and the USA, that person is Vladimir Putin. Political leaders in Western Nations prefer to point to Mr. Vladimir Putin as the aggressor against Ukraine, rather than referring to the nation of Russia.
Mr. Putin is by no ways innocent in this narrative and has provoked enough, threatened enough, and simply forced his way on others too many times not to be regarded by the west as public enemy number one. But with a global war looming this narrative will not achieve the ultimate goal of peace. Rather than securing a border, the West is poking the bear.
This narrative is not new in global warfare. The war in Syria was portrayed as “liberation forces” (including ISIS and Al Nusra) fighting against the evil dictator Bashar Al-Asaad, the war in Iraq was described as fighting for democracy against the oppressor Sadam Husain and the war in Afghanistan was fighting for freedom against the terrorist Osama Bin Ladin… The list goes on.
3. THE NARRATIVE THAT PUTIN IS THE SOLE DECISIONMAKER
“Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.”
U.S. President Joe Biden
This narrative is false. Mr. Putin is simply the head of the 628-member Russian parliament, termed the Federal Assembly, which consists of two chambers, the 450-member State Duma (the lower house) and the 178-member Federation Council (the upper house).
The jurisdiction of the Council of the Federation includes: approval of changes in borders between subjects of the Russian Federation, approval of the decree of the President on the introduction of martial law or on the introduction of a state of emergency, deciding on the possibility of using the Armed Forces of Russia outside the territory of Russia.
Even though Mr. Putin has enormous power within the Federal Assembly, his decision is still subject to the approval of its members. Before the country’s military can be deployed abroad President Vladimir Putin needs to request permission from the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
The Russian parliament, the Duma, voted on 15 February 2022 to ask Putin to recognise the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine as independent nations. Only a week later did Putin sign an official document recognising their independence. Russian troops entered Ukraine three days later. Putin could certainly have ordered Russian troops into Ukraine without approval from his parliament, but in doing so he would have forfeited their long-term support. Knowing this, Putin chose to work in conjunction with the Duma.
4. THE NARRATIVE OF AN INCOMPLETE CONTEXT
“Putin baselessly claims Ukraine is committing genocide against ethnic Russians”
Business Insider South Africa
Context is critical, because it tells us what importance to place on the events, what assumptions to draw (or not) about what is being communicated, and most importantly, it puts meaning into the message.
The false narrative of the current situation in Ukraine is quite evident. Through Western media we are made to believe that the conflict is current, Russia and its allies (Cuba, Iran and China) the aggressors, Ukraine the victim and the Western world the saviours. These all contain elements of legitimacy but are contextually incomplete and will not enhance any true dialogue.
The conflict can only be understood in the context of Russia’s concerns. In January last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged US President Joe Biden to let Ukraine join NATO. In response, Russia has demanded that the West gives a legally binding guarantee that NATO will not grant Ukraine NATO status or hold any military activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Russia needs Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and NATO countries. If Ukraine was perceived as a stable peaceful nation, the conflict could have been avoided. But Russia has legitimate fears in this regard. These fears do not justify the invasion of Ukraine but do provide a reason.
A further legitimate concern from Russia’s perspective is the fact that the United States provided Ukraine with lethal aid in December 2017, in the form of Javelin antitank missiles. Initially, these were to be kept away from the front, but after the second delivery of similar weapon systems, they were cleared for use anywhere. In September 2021, Kyiv commanded military drills in a common exercise with US and NATO partners. The use of Javelins on the front line was reported in November 2021.
Mr. Putin might therefore be accused of using excessive force but in the context of an infringing NATO force, moving through the buffer zone on its way to the Russian border, his fears could be justified. It is not less contextual than Israel facing the constant threat of hostile neighbouring countries and responding by attacking military bases in Syria, Lebanon and Iran.
5. THE NARRATIVE OF BIASED COMPASSION
“Countries that have for years resisted taking in refugees from wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are now opening their doors to Ukrainians as Russian forces carry out a nationwide military assault.”
The leaders of the Group of Seven have strongly condemned “the large-scale military aggression by the Russian Federation against the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
This concern is legitimate if applied non-biasedly. It is true that we all judge others by their actions but ourselves by our motives. The USA and its Western Allies felt justified to get involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Vietnam, amongst many, and showed justified aggression against the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of these nations. But, as Russia act with similar aggression, for similar reasons, it is threatened with international legal action.
This selective compassion has further consequences for the victims of war. The head of the U.N. refugee agency called on neighbouring countries to keep their borders open for Ukrainians fleeing the fighting. When refugees from Syria tried to escape the brutal consequences of daily shelling, Europe closed their borders and the USA cancelled visas. The call by the UN should be applauded and European nations have already indicated that they will support Ukrainians seeking safety, but sadly for those from the Middle East and Africa seeking the same treatment, the doors will remain shut
6. THE NARRATIVE OF DUALISM
Sadly, as Mr Zelensky put it, “24 February 2022 was the day the iron curtain dropped again”.
Once again the world is divided between East and West – “us” and “them” – a narrative of dualism that separates the world in a mindset of ‘they’ are evil and ‘we’ are good – regardless of on what side of the fence you are standing. The sad reality is that the Western media has clearly drawn the line and made people believe that if you are not “for” us, as Western Citizens, then you are “against” us and part of evil.
Observing Social Media posts by well-meaning Christians confirm this misguided narrative. Demonising Mr. Putin and villainising Russia will not bring about peace. It creates anger and produces suspicion, two narratives that are powerful tools in the hands of the enemy.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Our hearts ache for those who are suffering the hardship of war. We need to pray with all our hearts that sanity will prevail in the words, attitudes and hearts of political powers. But as we pray for peace, we need to become instruments of peace in a similar fashion.
James 3:17 (KJV) But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. .
Wisdom from above (divine, not earthly) is closely connected to impartiality. We can only respect, and be respected when we remain impartial. It is simply impossible to fulfil the mandate as peacemakers when we are partial and choose sides.
The challenge with modern-day Christianity is that we tend to see ourselves as the defenders of faith and protectors of truth. We see it as a spiritual duty and a Godly virtue to observe conflicts, and then defend the side that represents our interpretation of truth. We become partial, intolerant, and demonstrate noble convictions in barbaric ways. We demonize the opposition, speak up for what is right and then encourage intolerance towards those who think differently. We believe that Scripture hates compromise and that tolerance is a sign of weakness. After all, isn’t it true that courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval?
Please understand this correctly. This principle is not about compromising our convictions or even tolerating evil. The principle is about representing an impartial platform for two fighting parties to reconcile, regardless of what we hold as truth.
Sadly, party politics have hijacked the impartiality of many believers. We became judge, accuser, and defender all at once while we were only called to be witnesses. Without impartiality there can be no reconciliation, no peace and no hope.
Being impartial does not mean you can’t have an opinion or stand up for the truth. What it means is that when you have an opinion, you base it on a non-biased foundation, taking context (on both sides) into consideration. And when you do stand up for the truth, to stand up in such a way that the truth of Christ shines brightest.