Showdown in Ukraine: A path to peace and Europe’s future

IDENTITY CRISIS. Ukrainian armed forces ride on armored personnel carriers near Debaltseve, Ukraine, Feb. 12.

The undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine cannot be contained in the same way other recent Russian expansionist conflicts—Transnistria since 1990 and South Ossetia and Abkhazia since 2008—have been isolated. Unlike these contested regions, Ukraine is a much more significant country, with a population of 45 million. A conflict between the largest country in the world and the largest country of Europe cannot pass unnoticed. Moreover, the Russia-Ukraine conflict concerns all countries of the world, because international law has been openly violated by the annexation of Crimea.

A global consensus may finally understand that the very future of the European model is being threatened by the destabilization of Ukraine. In a violently anti-American speech given in October 2014 at Sochi, President Putin did not hide the fact that other conflicts will follow everywhere “Russian interests” are at stake, beginning, of course, with the regions bordering Russia. Indeed, since September 2014, the Baltic countries, Poland and even Sweden have already endured provocations from Russia. These military feints should be taken seriously. In her excellent book Putin’s Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha describes how Russia has become a mafia state grounded in terror. The recent murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, gunned down on a bridge in Moscow near the Kremlin on Feb. 27, only seems to confirm her analysis.

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Mr. Putin’s Intentions

Western democracies will not be able to find a way to peace in this conflict unless they take seriously the challenges posed by the new reactionary elite taking shape in Russia and even in parts of Western Europe, sociopolitical clusters that can become radical in their rejection of the core values of modern civilization—freedom of conscience, participatory democracy and human dignity. Mr. Putin does not just challenge international law by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine’s Donbass region; he undermines the philosophical foundation of contemporary international law.

In many of his interventions, he seeks to demonstrate that his only philosophy is that might makes right. It turns out that in many Western departments of political science, that is exactly what is taught. Everyone knows that for Thomas Hobbes the modern state exists only as it can curb the violence inherent to human beings and between religions, and political science students today hear the liberal dogma of John Rawls’s separation between the righteous and the good, but they are unable to quote Nikolai Berdyaev or Michael Sandel, who argue that a just society cannot separate individual virtue and social peace.

This path to a just society is possible only through the recognition of common values together with the organization of inter-convictional and interfaith dialogues at all levels of society. Only in this way will the pluralist Western world free itself from the cancer of nihilism that Mr. Putin promotes today. If Western democracies do not reconsider the question of their values, the necessary pedagogy of virtues and the spiritual foundations of their constitutional systems, they could let themselves be led into the black holes of secularism—that is, radical individualism and reckless populism.

It is clear that violence in our world is only growing year by year. The summer of 2014 was marked not only by the Russia-Ukraine war but also by the resurgence of open warfare between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza by the increasing conflict between Sunni and Shiite states in the Near East, by the entry of the United States along with an important coalition of states in the war against the Islamic State and by a number of other conflicts elsewhere in the world.

Everything is happening as if the elites of the planet had not learned the principal lesson of the fever of ideologies in the 20th century. For the last 25 years, the discourse of the elites has been content to affirm that political power must be separated from religious power in order to construct a lawful state. That premise is not false, but it is insufficient.

In fact the origins of the deadly ideologies of the 20th century can be found in the effective exclusion (although not always declared) by the modern state of the religious aspirations of peoples and in the censure by the power of the university of the interpretation of these aspirations offered by theological entities. (In France theology and religious studies are generally banned from universities). The self-licensed critics of theological-political rationality, intellectuals both in France and in the United States, prefer to invent new beliefs such as “the end of history,” which will come about with the triumph of democratic consensus. New prophets announce the time of a post-Christian secular order.

Nationalist Dead-Enders

Europe can help Ukraine and Russia emerge from their mutual crisis by encouraging new national identities that detour around the violent dead-end of extreme nationalism. But it can be such a guide only if it is able to recreate a secure and confident sense of its own identity, and it cannot do that without first acknowledging the Christian heritage buried within European identity, Christianity’s historic contribution to crafting that identity and the sustaining, invigorating role Christianity still offers European culture.

Fortunately, there are signs of a political-theological renewal. The Rev. Armand Puig i Tàrrech, dean at the Faculty of Theology of Catalonia in Barcelona and a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, has said: “The process of globalization should take into account a fundamental difference between ‘strategic’ peace and ‘preventive’ peace. Peace cannot be the fruit of a globalization which links everything to economic calculations; it should become a ‘preventive’ peace within a globalization which seriously envisages the dream of a world peace and the end of all wars.” It cannot remain, he says, “a notion of peace which limits itself [merely] to...an absence of conflict.”

According to this theologian, global order will not endure “unless justice is globalized.” And peace, “the great gift of God,” is derived from justice, especially in a world where powerful interests can neglect the needs of the poor and politically powerless. Father Puig suggests that state ministers of peace should be created to bring about preventive peace alongside the ministers of defense, who are responsible for strategic peace.

This lack of connection between dialectical reasoning on the one hand, which produces a strategy of checks and balances, and open reasoning on the other, which understands authentic peace as a spiritual gift, has marked the reflection of the philosophical current known as radical orthodoxy. The English philosopher and theologian John Milbank rediscovered the Christian vision of the relational being from a meditation on the three persons of the Trinity. His participative ontology is based on the contingency of the created world, on the fact that this creation is fully realized only in God and on the idea of the unity in the difference. This is why only Christianity can go beyond the contradictions of classical thinking about polis and oikos, polis and psyche or unity and difference.

Thus, if the international community wants to attain an order of justice and peace without having to fully “convert” to Christian dogma, it must rediscover the meaning Christianity has given to the notion of peace. For that it must free itself from stale theologies that confuse the merciful Pantocrator with Jupiter or reduce the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to a great watchmaker. It will then find an understanding of the Creator as a just God who acts in the world in the service of a just order. This involves serious work on the theology of politics.

The Rediscovery Of Europe

At a colloquium in October 2014, at the College of the Bernardins on “The Ukraine and Europe: New Challenges,” The Rev. Philippe Capelle-Dumont, president of the French Catholic Academy, spoke in this spirit. He believes the Russian people are torn between two visions, equally mythical and wrong-headed. One presses an understanding of Russia as a “utopic” state, the inevitable outcome of modern European history and the progress of historical materialism; the other vision is radically nostalgic, harkening back to an imagined trans-European unity awaiting rediscovery.

That is why, according to Father Capelle, contemporary Russian leaders seek to revive ancient myths such as “pan-Slavism” and the “Slavic brotherhood” or the “Third Rome,” “myths which have absolutely nothing to do with present historical reality, but whose activation reveals the deep fear of seeing a Ukraine which is not just autonomous, but powerful.” Today Ukraine is defining itself as a bicultural, bilingual and ecumenical nation state—precisely the opposite of how Russians imagine a nation state should be (one territory, one language, one religion).

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine reflects a rejection by the Ukrainians of Russian radical nationalism “and a tenacious struggle against its destructive effects.” Ukraine can create its own sustainable paradigm of otherness, a “paradigm which is both the cornerstone of democracies and their point of vulnerability. Cornerstone because it offers a speech which is both differentiated and regulated; vulnerability because it can provoke an insane cultural fragmentation.”

Father Capelle adds, “It is here that the European experience and tradition, which is precisely a spiritual experience and tradition of otherness, has a historical and ethical responsibility towards Ukraine.” He concludes that the European nations, simultaneously marked by Christian culture and less and less faithful to that Christian heritage, should first undertake a project of self-criticism. They might then find themselves on the wide road of a European renaissance.

A European “self-examination” should lead to a period of optimism and self-confidence founded on what is perhaps Europe’s greatest 20th-century cultural achievement, what Martin Luther King Jr. and Gaston Fessard, S.J., called personalism. It is a doctrine grounded in the defense of human dignity, on the natural rights of human beings but also on the responsibilities of each person in society. A new narrative of Europe has to be told by multiple voices in an open, plural and democratic manner, but with the clear consciousness that there is truly a European identity. This identity is founded on common values inspired by Christian revelation, from habeas corpus of 1215 through the dissident movements of more recent times.

Andrei Zubov, the great Russian historian, banned from the Institute for International Relations of Moscow after he publicly denounced the annexation of Crimea by Putin in March 2014, said there is a wide distance between the Russian and the Western understanding of civil society—the relationship between nation, state and the individual. In Zubov’s eyes, in the 1930s “Europe thought of the nation as an organism, but after 1945, Western Europe arrived at a completely different idea of the nation. From the person seen as a cell in the national organism, the Europeans arrived at the vision of the person as the central value of the national body. This mentality, absolutely new and different, enabled the construction of the new democratic Europe.” It offered an escape from the historical complex of inferiority, paranoia and revenge that drove Europe into two world wars and accepted the spiritual potential of openness to others, mutual support and cooperation.

The Ukrainian End Game

The most striking aspect of the post-Soviet collective consciousness is the absence of a political sense of a common good, the absence of a sense of mutual responsibilities. Now the political stakes are formidable—a question of restoring to Ukrainians and Russians of the 21st century a consciousness of their political responsibilities as citizens and the hope that they can, each in its own place, contribute to transforming society towards more decency and justice.

In European history it has been the church and the philosophers inspired by Christian doctrine, from Jean Bodin to Emmanuel Kant, that defined this consciousness of responsibility, this idea that rights are not only given, they also create mutual obligations for human beings created in the image of God. But the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine are themselves in conflict. This is why an ecumenical mission aimed at helping these churches find new ways to deal with modernity becomes necessary.

It is important today to help the people of Ukraine and Russia to understand that otherness is not contradictory to identity, to remember that the church is both one and diverse. That understanding would help the Orthodox Church play a leading role in the restoration of democracy in Russia and Ukraine while actively promoting unity among Christians.

The church has not yet built the kingdom, but it has a mission that tends toward it. Every act of justice is essential to its accomplishment. The church asks every man and every woman to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God on earth in the spirit of the Gospel and of the reconciled ecclesial tradition.

Perhaps deploying a restored vision of a Christian narrative can help in this task of creating an identity within Europe for Ukraine and Russia. In being faithful to the baptism of the Rus and the heritage of the holy princes Boris and Gleb, the sons of Vladimir I, the Russians and Ukrainians of today might be able to work toward peace. We know that these two princes freely accepted upon themselves the violence that racked the ruling family in the 11th century in order to make peace and public welfare possible.

But the political heritage of Boris and Gleb is not of passivity in the face of evil. The kind of peace expressed by the holy princes Boris and Gleb is, on the contrary, that each one should assume his own responsibilities at the risk of his own life. Public power has meaning and legitimacy only in the measure to which it places itself—risking all—at the service of peace and justice. The murdered Boris Nemtsov, a liberal politician who defied Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine, and the late Rev. Gleb Yakunin, a Russian priest and dissident who died on Christmas Day last year, have done their part. It is now the responsibility of their spiritual children on the international level to continue their common task.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Charles Erlinger
3 years 4 months ago
I think that this is an important essay in many respects. I am particularly interested in the author's thought in the following quoted paragraph: "It is important today to help the people of Ukraine and Russia to understand that otherness is not contradictory to identity, to remember that the church is both one and diverse. That understanding would help the Orthodox Church play a leading role in the restoration of democracy in Russia and Ukraine while actively promoting unity among Christians." Is there evidence that the Orthodox Church is in any way interested in the restoration of democracy in Russia and Ukraine? I would be interested in reviewing such evidence. Thanks.
ed gleason
3 years 4 months ago
There are two obstacles in rescuing the Ukraine. . Putin's popularity and the danger of accidental nuclear war. I am guessing that the US is encouraging the Saudis to keep the low price of oil going low lower and lowest. The monetary hurt will be on Russia the most..The fall of the US dollar value overseas also helps. These will reduce Putin popularity and a wake up for the Russian people. A socialist economy responds to its internal failures eventually

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