I’ve seen some interesting suggestions for how the West should respond to Putin’s aggression into Ukraine and threats against NATO allies and unaligned countries such as Sweden and Finland. The primary response so far has been through
- Economic sanctions against Putin’s regime and his oligarch financiers
- Providing arms to the Ukrainians continuing to defend their homeland.
One ‘interesting’ suggestion was that the Conservative Party should return donations Russian supporters. I say ‘interesting’ because that seems to rather fly in the face of what we are trying to achieve. It seems odd to actually give money back to Russian oligarchs when our current aim is to starve them of finance so that Putin cannot access funds to buy weapons. Now, if it turns out that the money received by the Conservative Party has come from Putin’s supporters, then it seems to me that the wisest thing to do there would be for the Tories to set aside those funds and donate it to charities supporting Ukrainian refugees.
On Tuesday, Apple announced that due to the war, they would halt sales of their products into Russia. Now, it’s possible that due to the impact of sanctions that their products are in any case simply no longer affordable by ordinary Russians. However, I wonder whether they really thought things through. We know that this is Putin’s war, so why punish ordinary citizens? Rather, we want them to be emboldened to turn against the Kremlin and against this war. What we know at the moment is that Russian state media is presenting a narrative that NATO are the aggressors, that the Ukrainian government are a bunch of Neo-Nazi drug addicts and that troops are there as peace keepers, welcomed by a grateful population of what is really part of greater Russia. Younger Russians with access to outside news media and social media through their mobile phones are more opposed to Putin. Why? Because they have access to more knowledge. So the last thing we want to do is to remove access to the very technology which enables Russians to access the outside world.
Furthermore, what we surely want to do is to encourage Russians to identify culturally and socially with the wider world rather than with the narrow, backward-looking nationalism of Putin. This is important because other suggestions have included cutting off supply of things like Nike sports kit or sending Russians at UK schools and universities home. We need to be doing the opposite. The more that Russians identify with the EU, the UK and the US as friends, the more they are likely to see where the real threat is coming from. Think about how Putin already has a problem because many Russians have close ties with friends and family in Ukraine.
And here, we begin to see something of the complex challenge that the West has in responding to Putin’s aggression. It’s not simply that there is the threat of nuclear war hanging over us. There are other dangers with getting the response wrong too. The reality is that whether or not we like it, we are and have for some time been in conflict with Russia. It has been a cold war type conflict rather than a hot war one. However, an enemy doesn’t need to be shooting at you for you to be in conflict with them. For Britain, that should have been brought home by Putin’s willingness to carry out terrorist atrocities here with the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the Salisbury attack. So, the question is how do you respond?
To respond, you need to know two things. First, you need to know the enemy. What is their strategy, what is their end game? So, it’s important to remember that Putin is motivated not by economic gain but nationalistic and quasi-religious pride.
Second, you need to know yourself and your own strategy. What in fact is the end objective of Western Governments? It could be that it is simply about preserving peace in NATO countries and therefore accepting a level of stalemate similar to the Cold War. However, I suspect the strategy goes further and that there is hope for a day when we will partner with a free and democratic Russia. If so, then there have to be strategies and tactics in place that are working towards that.
Strategically, this means that we want to encourage people within Russia to get behind new leaders and a new vision for Russia, a vision that takes the country away from nationalistic aggression and dependence on a military completely out of proportion to its population and GDP. This means that we need to get the balance right in terms of measures that restrict Putin’s ability to fight a war, help Ukraine defend herself, deter aggression against other countries and cause the Oligarchs to doubt the benefits of supporting Putin. We want to do all of those things but at the same time, get the measures wrong and we risk uniting the Russian people, helping Putin to present the West as the enemy and creating a siege mentality.
Tactically, this matters for the local situation in Ukraine too. What is one of the best hopes for the Ukrainian people right now? It’s in the reports we are getting of demoralised, poorly equipped, badly trained soldiers realising that this isn’t what they signed up for. It’s in the images of civilians confronting soldiers and encouraging them to turn back. We want to see the soldiers refusing orders to shoot, commanders holding back from issuing strike orders and Generals deciding that if they don’t sound the retreat then they’ll have a mutiny on their hands. That’s the best hope for Ukraine right now. Is that easier or harder to achieve with a NATO enforced no fly zone or US and British troops on the ground? I would suggest harder.
What we’ve highlighted here is exactly how tricky it is to make the right judgement call in terms of when and how to confront an aggressor. Well intentioned actions may make the situation worse and sometimes it’s the counter-intuitive response that gets results.
AS I wrote yesterday, this is primarily a Christian/theological blog. I do however occasionally write articles that offer opinion beyond theology. This is one of those articles. One reason for doing this is to help us think by way of analogy about situations we face. There’s little we can do in terms of big geo-political issues. However, you may well face situations in church life where there is someone seeking to stir up trouble and behaving sinfully. They may be drawing others in with them. This article may well help us to begin to think further by way of analogy about how we act wisely for the Gospel in such situations. I’ll return to those thoughts in a later article.
In the meantime you might want to consider these questions
- Is there an example of someone who is causing problems or in sin within our church family? Is there a need to confront them?
- What holds me back from confrontation?
- What is the wisest way/place/time of confronting them?
- Who else is affected by the situation? How do we best protect them?