This might sound a bit hollow as we digest the news that war has returned to Europe and Ukraine is being invaded by the Russian bear from next door. Ukrainians have vowed to defend their country, to shed their blood if they have to, and to defend their identity as well as their territory. Vladimir Putin will learn that simply declaring a state to be invalid or ‘fake’ does not render it so.
Ukrainians are no strangers to conflict or sacrifice. This is a land which saw millions killed under the jackboot of a dictator who, to echo Putin’s line, had no greater obligation than to “defend the security interests of our own people”. Of course, the false pretexts of Hitler were no more convincing then than are the pretexts of the Russian dictator today.
Yet, his false prospectus, built on lies, fabrication and propaganda/disinformation, has been trailed for more than two decades. In contrast with many leaders in the West, Putin took a long term view decades ago and has strategically worked up to today.
Conceived in shame (at the meek collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) and born in ruthlessness, his imperial drive has been observed by Russia-watchers with increasing concern, but little action. The West has watched, sometimes colluded, often ignored what was before our eyes.
A small cameo: I recently met the Russian ambassador in a couple of meetings in the House of Lords. It was obvious that he was subject to a different reality from the rest of us. Watching the humiliation of Putin’s security council as they had, one at a time, to stand and unequivocally agree with him, it became clear that the behaviours displayed in the film The Death of Stalin are not merely satirical. They certainly aren’t funny.
There are many tragedies at play here. One is that, contrary to the words used by our own Prime Minister just a few days ago, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was never to come as a “shock” to anyone. You don’t move half your military to the border of a neighbouring country without intent.
Threats to apply sanctions against Putin’s people and his economy do not stand up as powerful when the memory of 20 million dead in the Second World War is kept alive every day. Sacrifice flows through Russian veins like an oligarch’s money through London. This invasion is not a shock and politicians should not pretend it is.
A second tragedy is that Ukraine stands alone. The country is not in NATO, so cannot invoke the obligation of NATO partners to defend each other militarily. So, as President Zelensky has made absolutely clear in his recent dignified and powerful speeches, defending his people and country with words and sanctions will not save the lives of the people who will soon be too dead to defend. We are watching with our own eyes what we thought had been consigned to bloody history in the 1930s when Hitler used similar language and pretexts to occupy other countries; think Poland and the Sudetenland for starters.
History never repeats itself, but echoes can be felt for generations. Think of the children of Ukraine and the conflicts of the future that are being born in them today.
So, what to do while western governments think about stopping individuals from shopping in London or New York or Paris - or banking processes are curtailed, causing an as yet unknown impact on the world and its markets (which ultimately means ‘ordinary people’s lives’)? What to do while Putin sheds blood in a country that is not his and knows that Ukraine will not be defended militarily by its wordy neighbours?
Two things come to mind. First, we must put pressure on our own government to defend Ukraine and shut off completely the wholly immoral flood of corrupt money that flows through London. And that includes money paid to political parties here “by people registered to vote”. It has been evident for more than two decades that economic sanctions alone will not move Vladimir Putin.
Secondly, we can join with those in Ukraine itself in praying with and for those standing alone in fear and suffering an indescribable fate. I am not stupid: some people will describe prayer as pointless wordiness that achieves nothing. Well, prayer is not just about bringing our fears and hopes and dreads and concerns to God, but it is also about learning to look through the eyes of God who loves justice, condemns lying and misrepresentation, and abhors the violence of the powerful. (If you don’t believe me, read the book.) Prayer changes us before it changes anything else. Common prayer shuts us up, opens us up, reframes our priorities and calls us to a practical solidarity with those who suffer.
Christians across Europe - including in the Anglican community in Kyiv itself - will be joining in prayer on Tuesday at 18.00 GMT and this will be streamed.
These are dangerous times. The invasion, though not remotely surprising, is evil. “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom.” But the suffering is real.