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Putin’s aggression must not go unchallenged

The invasion of Ukraine should be met with persistence, patience, and confidence

Russian President Vladimir Putin Associated Press/Photo by Yuri Kochetkov (pool, file)

Putin’s aggression must not go unchallenged

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the greatest act of national aggression since Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait nearly 32 years ago. Putin has become a Russian version of Saddam Hussein, a dictator for decades, surrounded by sycophants, engorged by stolen wealth, kept afloat by oil and gas, and a shrewd megalomaniac turned psychopath who believes his own mythology because everyone around him assures him it is true.

Like Saddam with Kuwait, Putin presumably believes he will absorb part or all of Ukraine and pay little in terms of costs. While making verbal protestations, the United States and the West will not, as they did on behalf of Kuwait, go to war against Putin and Russia, which would precipitate a global war that could potentially go nuclear. Ukraine, unlike the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, is not a direct vital interest to the United States.

But preventing a world in which dictators freely invade their neighbors is in our interest. And so the United States will levy harsh financial sanctions against Putin and his regime of kleptocrats and oligarchs. And the United States presumably will, if Ukraine continues to resist, feed weapons and supplies to the country’s freedom fighters. The United States did the same for the resistance in Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. The Soviets seemingly conquered that nation, but the primitive mujahedeen, armed with U.S. stinger missiles, forced an eventual Soviet withdrawal after a decade, which helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Independence for Ukraine and other Soviet republics resulted.

So maybe Putin’s overreach in Ukraine will ultimately destroy him. But if so, it may take years to see that destruction. The United States should be persistent, patient, and confident. There are several points to keep in mind.

First, Putin’s claims on Ukraine are deeply religious. Russia traces its history through Ukraine when Vladimir the Great more than 1,000 years ago converted to Christian Orthodoxy based in Constantinople. Such irredentist mysticism seems absurdly archaic to Western secularists, but historical mythology still speaks to human souls and has the power to sustain regimes and motivate wars even in the 21st century.

Second, clearly no diplomacy or concessions were going to deter Putin. In his own mind, his regime needs this mythology of reconstructing Holy Russia against its many enemies, chiefly the Latin-influenced and now democratic West. From the perspective of his myopic and paranoid self-interest, Putin had to invade Ukraine and was willing to accept the costs of Western sanctions. It’s important to understand that this brand of myopic paranoia is not unique to Putin and is deeply rooted in the historic Russian outlook.

Maybe Putin’s overreach in Ukraine will ultimately destroy him. But if so, it may take years to see that destruction.

Third, dictatorships are never as strong as they appear. There is always internal opposition, but it is usually intimidated into silence. There is no meaningful public debate. Dictators plunge their countries into potentially calamitous war without popular consensus. If the war is short and victorious, it burnishes the ruler’s luster. If prolonged and costly, its effect on the regime can be acidic, often unnoticed by the dictator until too late.

Fourth, there almost certainly will be a negative impact on the Russian economy undermining Putin. At a Kremlin meeting with industrialists after the latest invasion, one visibly and understandably nervous lobbyist told Putin, “Everything should be done to demonstrate as much as possible that Russia remains part of the global economy and will not provoke, including through some kind of response measures, global negative phenomena on world markets.” Putin responded nonchalantly and absurdly that absent the attack, “it was unclear how our country would even continue to exist.” Nobody present could contest his claim without peril, but they all know it is nonsense.

Fifth, while some Europeans will inevitably quibble about the effects of anti-Putin sanctions on themselves, the end result of Putin’s aggression will be a more nervous Europe fearing Russia, wanting NATO, needing the United States, and reluctantly increasing defense spending. Even Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having drifted away from the West, is repositioning back into its more traditional wariness about Russian power. And Germany’s leftist Greens party may reluctantly realize that fossil fuel or nuclear power is preferable to subservience to Russia.

Finally, the United States faces a 1930s world with rising dictatorships, amid naïve myopic isolationist nationalism and utopian pacifist internationalism at home, including among Christians. Back then, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr crafted Christian realism as an alternative to both. He strove to explain how the United States can counter dictatorship while not sacralizing itself or fantasizing about a world without struggle. Conflict is the natural state of fallen humanity, especially on the world stage. Christians should advocate statecraft that carefully stewards power for the maximum benefit of peace, security, and freedom for as many as possible.

Notably, but unsurprisingly, the historically state-obedient Russian Orthodox Church, a close partner with Putin as with nearly all Kremlin chiefs for centuries, is apparently blessing the Russian president’s aggression. Here’s a lesson for American Christians: Seek the common good with wisdom and courage, not with unthinking and fearful obedience. We love and serve our country best by trusting God foremost.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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