Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Prayer for Ukraine. What in the World is Going On There?

by Oleg Turlac

Ukraine made world news headlines once again after a devastating catastrophe in Chernobyl in 1986 when an explosion of the nuclear reactor left a 30-miles zone within a close proximity of Ukrainian capital virtually dead, forcing thousands to run for their lives.

This time it was not an explosion but invasion by none else than Ukraine’s neighbor, Russia. At the command of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Russian Parliament, troops dressed in camouflage took control of all strategic military and command posts (as well as frontiers and highways) in Crimean peninsula, Ukraine.

Events began to unfold quite fast, so much that world leaders did not have time to blink. Just days earlier, millions watched spectacular Olympic games in Sochi. The world was horrified to learn of new developments in Ukraine.

Why in the world did Russia need to invade Crimea? Crimea, which once belonged to the Ottomans and for a short white maintained its independence as Crimean Khanat, became a Russian territory in 1783, during reign of Catherine the Great. In 1952, Crimea was given to Ukraine (which was at the time a part of the USSR) as a gift by Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet communist prime-minister, an unwise act, which since 1991, began to cause considerable tension between newly independent Russia and Ukraine.

Crimean Peninsula
Crimea was always considered a “Hawaii” of the Soviet Union. People from all over the USSR loved to go to various Black Sea resorts located on Crimean Peninsula. It was the most popular destination for thousands of Soviet children, who longed to attend a well-known ‘Artek’ young communist league's camp.

For Russia, Crimea always had a strategic significance. For years, port of Sevastopol in Crimea served as a base of the Russian Black Sea Navy, the major naval force in the region. Until now, Russia paid to Ukraine millions of dollars yearly for permission to hold its fleet in Crimea.

Since Crimea is one of the nicest areas in the former USSR, it was a popular destination for settlement for thousands of Soviet citizens. Crimea is populated mostly by Russian-speaking population and by ethnic Crimean Tatars, descendants of Genghis Khan. In 1944, thousands of them were exiled to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin for (as he thought) “cooperation with Nazis.” They were able to return to their historical homeland only in late 1980s-1990s.

Russian occupation of Crimea came about so unexpectedly also because both Russians and Ukrainians belong to the Slavic family of languages. Russians can easily understand Ukrainian, and most Ukrainians speak Russian without any difficulty. Both countries share a common Soviet past. Many of those living in both nations, have mixed families, where one spouse is Russian, and another Ukrainian. Cultures of the two people groups are quite similar.

My generation (35-40-year olds) and the generation of my parents were born and raised in the Soviet Union. Many still do not consider Russia and Ukraine to be different countries. So close are connections between them and their people. I was born in the Soviet Union, in the land that is now called Republic of Moldova but my grandparents and parents were born in Ukraine. Every summer, as a child and later teenager, I would spend summer breaks in 1980s with my grandparents that lived in Southern Ukraine. But back then we lived in one huge country, which was called the USSR. After its collapse, it still took time for me to adjust to the fact that now I have to cross the border into another country to visit my grandmother (now the only living grandparent who is 93 years old).

Recent tensions in Ukrainian capital Kiev that started in Nov.2013, were fueled by unwise decisions of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich who promised Ukrainians that the country would soon become a member of the European Union, and at the last moment broke his promise, instead turning toward Russia, which promised to Ukraine 15 billion dollars in credits and lower natural has prices. Younger Ukrainians looked with hope at prospects of free travel and a possibility of finding work in Europe, which they did not have before. But, unfortunately for them, this did not happen.

Once Ukrainians realized that their hopes were fading away, they took to the streets, organizing three-months long mass protests in the capital. Protests resulted in heavy clashes of demonstrators with police As a result, more than 100 people on both sides were killed. All this led to a violent uprising, during which Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Yanukovich was ousted and fled to Russia. Ukrainian opposition led by Vitali Kitschko (a famous former heavy-weight boxer) and several other parliament members (mainly anti-Russian and pro-Western in their ideology) came to power.

Interestingly enough, after triumph of pro-Western parties, Ukrainian Parliament elected Alexander Turchinov, a Ukrainian Baptist, to the office of speaker of the Parliament and, in absence of Yanukovich, acting president. By doing this, Ukrainians made history. Turchinov became one of only few Baptists in the world, which have been elected to presidency.

Now, it has to be noted that Ukraine is a multi-ethnic state. Its Eastern regions and Crimea are populated by ethnic Russians. They felt threatened by the new pro-Western government that came to power and, among first things, deprived Russian language of the the official status in the country. No doubt that some of this was fueled by propaganda steaming from Russia.

Putin and the government of Russia did not recognize the new Ukrainian government. Instead, they provided refuge to former Ukrainian president Yanukovich, whom to this very day they consider to be ‘legitimate president.’ As it became apparent to many in recent days, Putin, who’s aim is to restore the old Soviet Union in the form of ‘Eurasian Union,’ was not going to tolerate a pro-Western government in the neighboring Ukraine, so, under the pretext of “protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea,” he sent troops into the region. Ukrainian army did not offer any resistance.

Just several days ago, Crimean Parliament, controlled by Russians, voted in favor of joining Russia. On March 16th, Crimeans will hold a referendum, during which the majority will most likely seal the union with Russia.

Many of my Ukrainian friends really hoped that Western democracies would offer their support and even interfere militarily to stop Russian aggression. However, soon it was clear that U.S., Germany and other countries-members of NATO would not risk a war with Russia over Crimea. The hope of many Ukrainians is that sanctions imposed by Western nations would cause Putin to exercise restraint and enter a dialogue with U.S. and new Ukrainian government.

The truth is that Ukraine is heavily dependent upon Russia for trade and energy. And so is Europe, to which Russia supplies natural gas (the pipe goes through Ukraine). Any super tough measures imposed on Russia are likely to backfire at Ukraine and the West. Without doubt, this further complicates the situation.

It now remains to be seen what the future will hold for relations between Russia and the international community. There is no doubt that relations between Russians and Ukrainians will be sour for decades ahead. It would be hard for Ukrainians to forget the loss of Crimea. For a while, they will look at Russia with suspicion, wondering whether to expect another surprise attack.

For the U.S., Crimean invasion may mean the beginning of another long period of Cold War with Russia or, let us say, decades of mutual mistrust. Probably,  the present situation will lead to increase of the U.S.  military involvement and presence in Europe, especially in the Baltic countries, Poland and Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin enjoys extreme popularity among Russians. A former KGB officer himself, he came to power in 1999 with promise to restore Russia’s glory and to crack down on its enemies. Russia continues to support break-away regions like Transnistria (in Moldova) and South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Rep. of Georgia). Having traveled to Rep. Georgia with Vitali and a dear friend of mine, Edward Vines, I have seen firsthand the results of Russian military operation in Rep. Georgia in 2008 and the subsequent military occupation.

It seems to me that Russian nationalism in general is on the rise. It no longer matters to many Russians, whether international laws are respected. Thousands support Putin in his efforts to restore Russia’s glory as a world superpower. Sadly, anti-American sentiment in Russian society in general is on the rise.

According to some observations, the Russian Orthodox Church seems to have joined the crusade. New restrictions have been imposed by the government upon Evangelical mission organizations and Western missionaries. Travel to Russia has been prohibited to some Americans, and a number of missionaries from the U.S. have been asked to leave the country. The climate for Evangelical believers in Russia right now is quite unfavorable.

Please, join us in prayer for Ukraine, its people, and for the former Soviet Union in general. Pray for peace and reconciliation. May the Lord grant wisdom to our brother in Christ Alexander Turchinov, acting president of Ukraine as he leads the nation out of severe political and economic crisis. We are committed to serving Christ and His people in that area of the world populated by more than 250 million people.

We long to reach one person at a time in the name of Jesus in the land that has been subjected to influence of atheism and communism for nearly seven decades. We help combat trafficking in women, provide Bibles and Christian resources for church leaders, support persecuted churches and give a helping hand to children and families in need.

Our hope and prayer is for political stability and continuation of freedom of preaching of the Gospel in the former USSR. Please, join us in prayer and support of the ministry in the former Soviet lands!