Recent events in Ukraine have felt all too familiar, but not for the reasons that many would claim.
The spark that ignited a blaze of posturing and accusation from all parts of the globe was the replacement in Kiev of the incumbent pro-Russian government by a new Western-friendly interim leadership—a move that was welcomed by some and attacked by others.
Russia, disturbed by the sudden loss of a key ally, blocked the exit of a Ukrainian warship in the Black Sea, encouraged pro-Russian troops to move into Crimea—the strategically and historically important Black Sea peninsula—and, it was reported, issued similar orders for the Ukrainian mainland. The West responded by promising “serious consequences” and raising the prospect of economic sanctions should Russia refuse to stand down. The Crimean parliament has since adopted an independence declaration from Ukraine, in preparation for an upcoming referendum in which residents will vote on the action.
The West, led by the United States, had denounced what they call “unauthorized aggression” on the part of Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the Ukrainian change of government a “military seizure of government” and said his forces were doing what was necessary “to protect Russian citizens and compatriots.”
The situation is fiendishly difficult to parse and is far more nuanced than the cloaked proclamations of politicians and hysterical news reporting on both sides suggest. The conflict is formed on age-old fault lines and, as in many long-running conflicts, much of what people say is so polarized that it seems divorced from current realities. What is clear, however, is that it is in many ways driven by a search for identity.
Crimea has not always been Ukrainian. In fact, it is barely Ukrainian at all, being a 1954 gift from Nikita Khrushchev (motivated by familial loyalty) to what was then an internal province. Its people predominantly see themselves as Russian, so the inclination to cede their territory to their declared mother nation is not surprising.
The same applies to many people in Ukraine, who also see themselves as Russian. Ukraine itself was first united as a recognizable polity under the Soviet republic and has only existed as an independent nation since 1991.
There are other concerns, certainly: Crimea has enormous strategic importance, being Russia’s only warm-water port, and Ukraine is a significant buyer of Russian natural gas and oil. And, of course, a Western-friendly Ukraine is a permanent geopolitical headache for a Russia still asserting itself in a post–Cold War world. The West, on the other hand, appears keen to isolate Russia as much as possible. That said, identity remains at the heart of the difficulty.
A similar struggle happened in 2008, when Western-oriented Georgia moved against the Russian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia reacted with force to protect what they view as their territory and their people, despite unabashed Western support for Georgia.
Russia is not alone in identity challenges. The pursuit, proclamation and protection of identity fuels differences and disputes across the world. Later this year Scotland will vote on a referendum to determine whether to secede from the United Kingdom. Continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria and Palestine derive from similar motivations. One might argue that the West, in isolating Russia, is pursuing its own identity, reverting to the old Cold War model even as they attempt to offset Russia’s aggression.
The protection of human identity is a perennial pursuit, but one that the Bible recommends discarding. It advises us to reject our own ways and take on a completely different identity and way of thinking—the way of God.
Any identity that is dependent on changeable external factors—in the Ukraine’s case, economics, geopolitical position, loyalties of other people and nations—is fated to suffer periodic unpreventable traumas. It is human to self-protect in these situations but, without underlying spiritual change and in a world that tends toward decay, any such effort will eventually fail.
The Bible reveals our self-destructive nature and contrasts it with God’s alternative. As much as people would like to amend or elide or ignore it, the way of life expressed in the Bible is the missing link in solving conflict. And it offers people and nations an identity that is not only sustainable, but everlasting.
Russia’s struggle for national identity sheds light on our own need to know who we are and what’s expected of us. How does one form a sense of identity, whether as a nation or as an individual?