Today, a US pilot was killed when a Ukranian fighter jet crashed during a joint training exercise held by the two countries. Yesterday, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church split from the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (present day Turkey)over Ukraine. Coincidence? Irrelvant? Yes to the first and no to the second.
The United States is supporting Ukraine and has been pushing Russia’s neighbor to join NATO and the Western alliance since the beginning of this century. This has caused conflict and consternation in Moscow. Oil pipelines run through Ukraine and its southern border runs the width of the Black Sea, a strategic military and economic port.
Perhaps more importantly, Russians understand their religious and spiritual heritage to be found in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Russia became a Christian nation after Prince Vladimir declared it such in 988. The place in which the birth took place was Kiev.
Yesterday, Patriarch Bartholomew, the Greek head of the church once centered in Constantinople, the head of the Byzantine Empire, stepped into the church life in Ukraine and declared himself the head of the church in Ukraine. Bartholomew believes he has the right to make such decisions as the head of the Orthodox Church in the world. The Russians (and the other Orthodox Patriarchates around the world agree) don’t believe he has this type of authority.
Those with more sinister views of the situation believe Bartholomew made his move for money and power. The church in Ukraine holds a great deal of sway in terms of land holdings and money. Many of the churches and monasteries in the Ukraine are considered the holiest sites in all of Orthodoxy. For those who hold this view, Bartholomew’s actions are an unlawful power grab that can’t be tolerated.
So, this sounds like an ethnic, religious, and regional dispute. How is the United States involved? The US government supports the Ukranian government as well as the church leaders who want independence from Moscow (there are those who believe Ukraine already enjoys this independence). The US support has not been tacit or passive. There has been fairly public whisperings that the US has extorted the elderly Greek patriarch to intervene in the Ukraine in exchange for money and political support. Even Joe Biden stepped into the fray a few months ago to meet with the leaders of the Ukranian church independence movement.
Today, a military jet crashed highlighting the joint exercises between the US military and Ukraine. It’s not clear how Russian President Vladimir Putin will react. He has vowed to defend Ukraine from what he sees as interlopers (read Greeks and US government).
This is a highly complex region of the world that is a powder keg. If the Russians intervene to stop or prevent ethnic bloodshed and the destruction of Orthodox holy sites in the Ukraine, the US may be caught in the middle. It is not too farfetched an idea that our young men and women could find themselves at war with Russian in Ukraine. The situation could prove to be a worst nightmare scenario for the US, caught in ethnic and religious strife they do not understand while holding antiquated Cold War perceptions of Russia.
Think it can’t happen? Go watch Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam.
We didn’t understand the Vietnamese’ deep-seated hatred for foreigners and their deeply held Buddhist beliefs. We thought they’d welcome us as liberators. We even supported the minority religion (Catholicism) in Vietnam because the South Vietnamese president was Catholic.
This isn’t a Democrat or Republican argument. It’s not liberal vs. conservative. It’s about history and learning the lessons it teaches so we don’t make the same mistakes again.