Ukraine: Fault Line or Potential Nuclear Earthquake?

By Timothy Furnish Published on February 1, 2023

February 24 will be the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s killed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, both Ukrainian and Russian. (No one has accurate numbers.) As of December 2022 the US had sent $48 billion in aid to Kiev. Almost half of that military hardware. Recently, Western allies agreed to provide over 100 tanks. Tuesday Reuters reported the U.S. is set to supply $2.2 billion more, including for the first time long range missiles. 

However President Biden has rejected (thus far) Ukrainian pleas for fighter-jets. It’s the bloodiest war in Europe since Yugoslavia’s break-up in the 1990s. Yet most Americans favor US support for Ukraine — although that percentage is dipping. The latest strategic update shows Russia controlling Ukraine’s easternmost provinces. This gives Moscow a contiguous land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula (which Russia took in 2014).

It’s Not Paranoia When They Do Invade You

But why is Putin so hell-bent on seizing parts of Ukraine? I examined this last year:

Look at the geopolitical situation from Putin’s, and Russia’s, perspective. Particularly valuable here is the chapter on Russia in Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. “You might think that no one is intent on invading Russia, but that is not how the Russians see it, and with good reason” (p. 13). Starting in the 17th century, Europeans have invaded Russia every hundred years or so. Poles, Swedes, French, then Germans. The last twice, in both world wars. So Ukraine joining NATO, or even flirting with the idea, sets off alarms in Moscow. Furthermore, the first Russian state, over a millennium ago, began in Kiev. … As for Crimea, it “was part of Russia for two centuries, before being granted to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954″ (p. 24). And 60% of that territory is ethnically Russian. Also, Russia’s only warm water port is Sevastopol. On the Crimean Peninsula.

Know Your Opponent’s Motivations — You Don’t Have to Agree with Them

None of this is to excuse Russia’s brutal invasion. But as I pointed out on my website some time back, the first rule of war is to understand your opponent. That’s true whether they’re jihadists, ChiComs or, as in this case, Orthodox Christian nationalists. The Western media, and politicians, try hard to paint Putin as Satan. Or worse. But in fact he sees America in that role. And himself on the side of the angels. Here’s his perspective:

The West, and its (classical) liberal ideology, is spent. That dominated the globe for 500 years, and did defeat both fascism and communism. But it has descended into a decadent progressive liberalism. One … obsessed with race, that denies the biological facts of male and female, and refuses to teach the likes of Shakespeare. Proponents even “eliminate entire pages from their own history.” This is “even worse than the agitprop department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” What is needed is a “Fourth Political Theory” to replace fascism, communism and woke liberalism. This Putin calls “traditional conservatism.” He also says Russia is uniquely qualified to deliver it to the world. … There would need to be a spiritual aspect to this traditional conservatism. A Russian Orthodox one, primarily.

Thus, religion — Orthodox Christianity — is as important to Putin, and many Russians, as the geopolitical map. In fact, they are inseparable. And so when Ukraine’s President Zelensky orders, or at least supports, attacks on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the chances for peace plunge toward zero.

Who Are the Orthodox? 

A quick backgrounder on Orthodoxy. Its 15 major churches (and some minor ones) are home to about 250 million Christians. Orthodoxy is of course closer to Catholicism than to Protestantism, theologically. But it rejects the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. The largest Orthodox countries are Russia, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Romania and Greece. There are only several million Orthodox Christian in the U.S., however. Orthodox Christians tend to be (very) conservative, but not fundamentalist. For example, most regard homosexuality as a sin and think only men should be priests. And of course, Orthodox worship is typified by bearded priests, incense, and standing during most of the long Divine Liturgy. Roman Catholicism has one pole of authority. Protestantism, with thousands of denominations, has many — although most Protestants would say it’s the Bible alone. Orthodoxy is multipolar, with authority equally divided among those 15 churches. But the “Ecumenical Patriarch” of Constantinople is considered first among equals. Thus having a titular pride of place. His major rival? The Patriarch of Moscow. Particularly since Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Since then Orthodox Russia claimed that Moscow was the “Third Rome.”

Orthodoxy in Ukraine 

How does this relate to Ukraine? From 988 until the late 17th century, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was under the Patriarch in Constantinople. (The Turks tolerated the office, but controlled it.) Then from 1685/6 until 1990, the UOC was under the Patriarch of Moscow. Russia was seen as better able to ward off Western Catholic incursions there. After the Soviet collapse, the UOC declared itself “autocephalous” as the UOC-Kiev Patriarchate. Which the rest of Orthodoxy did not recognize. In 2018 then-President Poroshenko trekked to Istanbul and convinced the EP, Bartholomew, to recognize the UOC-KP plus another schismatic church as the self-governing “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU). But other Orthodox bishops did not agree. This was purely political. And backed by the Trump Administration. Notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Washington thus injected itself into a theological turf war. Why? No one knows.

Then It Got (More) Political 

Then Poroshenko’s administration began to brand the UOC as foreign. Although it had been the only Ukrainian church for centuries. The new OCU was now declared the sole legitimate one. When Zelensky was elected President, this conflict stopped. Until the Russians invaded. But the vilification of the UOC didn’t resume until late 2022. Whereupon Zelensky ramped it up. UOC clergy have had their assets seized, and are not allowed to own land. (Orthodox priests can marry and have families, unlike Catholic ones.) UOC churches have also allegedly been “desecrated.” Zelensky’s actions also violate the Ukrainian Constitution.

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One can certainly understand the anger of Ukrainians. Being invaded and brutalized by their much larger neighbor. The Russians, however, consider Ukraine part of their patrimony. Which could not be allowed to serve as the West’s attempted beachhead for both NATO and the LGBTQ+ agenda. Indeed, between those two, the Russians seem to think the latter is the bigger problem.

It’s the Civilization, Not the Ideology 

In the early 1990s, Samuel Huntington accurately predicted the post-Cold War world. It’s become one of civilizational conflicts. Not ideological ones. And the fault line between the West and the Orthodox world runs right through Ukraine. But America’s ruling elites don’t see it. They still think ideology trumps nationalism, culture and religion. U.S. elites of both parties are convinced the world needs, indeed wants, Western liberalism. Yet that increasingly woke ideology grates on others. Muslims, for example. Indeed, Huntington thought most conflicts would happen on the “bloody borders of Islam.” But Ukraine shows that the frontier between the post-Christian West and still-Christian Russian can be just as gory. Let’s pray this fault line doesn’t collapse into an earthquake. Especially a nuclear one.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.

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