St. John Paul II and the Future of Ukraine

With Divine Providence, nothing is left to chance.

On the Sunday of Divine Mercy, the Universal Church recognized what God had already ordained—solemnly declaring Pope John Paul II a saint. Almost twenty-four years earlier, this nascent saint made it possible for my future wife and I to meet in the Eternal City. It was to be—as they say—a marriage made in heaven.

Because our particular Church had been all but destroyed and forced underground by the Russians, Ukrainian Greek Catholics from around the world were invited to Rome in 1988 to celebrate the millennium of the Christianization of the Ukrainian proto-state, Kyivan-Rus.

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At that point, the longest and bloodiest tragedy of the twentieth century—the formally atheistic Soviet Union—was, mercifully, in its death throes … due in no small part to the angelic courage and prayerful efforts of Pope John Paul II. This great man knew all too well the ravages Poland had suffered under the inhuman ideology of communism, in particular as propped up by the cowardice of Russian nationalism.

The Soviet regime would not dare permit Ukrainian Catholics to celebrate the baptism of their nation in their own homeland. The Russian Orthodox Church had usurped Ukrainian history, claiming that it was the primary heir of Eastern Christianity brought to Ukraine—never mind there is no record of Moscow existing until almost 150 years after the Christianization of Ukraine in 988 A.D. This is akin to the British colony known as the U.S. claiming itself rightful heir to the seventh-century Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that would eventually become England.

Marx characterized the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian Empire a “prison house of nations,” and indeed until near the end of the twentieth century, few knew of the captive nations constituting the Soviet Union. Even fewer knew that Russians accounted for only 51 percent of a Soviet population comprising over 110 non-Russian nationalities and ethnic groups. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine emerged independent—but not free of Russian control—as a country slightly bigger than France with a population of over 52 million (its population today is barely 45.5 million), a shattered economy, rampant Soviet-style corruption, the legacy and contamination of Chornobyl, and a people psychologically and morally exhausted.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak recently compared Ukraine’s situation with that of the women held hostage by Ariel Castro for over a decade—incredibly unbeknownst to neighbors who saw Castro himself on a daily basis.

Yes, even nations are raped.

JPII Breaks Down WallFew knew and even fewer cared. And, those who did know invariably interpreted events through realist power dynamics. Even the Vatican under Paul VI engaged in the so-called “pragmatism” of ostpolitik—ostensibly to improve the condition of Christians in general and Catholics in particular behind the Iron Curtain. Sadly, Ukrainian Catholics did not fare well in the political machinations of others.

Few knew and even fewer cared … until John Paul II raised his voice with his earth-shattering exhortation “Be not afraid!” This was something of which the Soviets—who ruled through intimidation and fear—were deathly afraid. Encyclicals like Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio did more to coax people out of the shadowlands of the caves of relativism and fear than any political efforts—the latter largely focused neither on a proper anthropological understanding of mankind nor of mankind’s place in God’s salvific plan.

Our young family was graced by an already frail John Paul when he visited Ukraine in June 2001. In the western Ukrainian city of L’viv, the Holy Father blessed the cornerstone of the Ukrainian Catholic University, for which Fr. Gudziak was then Rector. We witnessed communists and Russian Orthodox marching hand-in-hand on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, protesting the Pontiff’s visit—spouting some of the most hateful language imaginable. Many times we visited the holiest place of Eastern Orthodoxy—the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv, currently under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate—where one could readily obtain anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Ukrainian tracts. And, in the early morning of April 2, 2005, I had just returned from an end-of-winter climb of Ukraine’s tallest mountain, Hoverla, to learn that the man who brought my wife and I together in Rome was at death’s door. My lasting impression of that day was the tectonic power of the witness of John Paul II’s salvific suffering. II Corinthians 12:9 indeed!

This winter, Ukraine emerged from its revolution of dignity—bloodied, but with hopes of a Ukrainian Spring just around the corner. Yet, as weak and exhausted as her people are from years of struggles against corruption and authoritarianism, Ukraine now faces the external threat of a resurgent Putin—a man deathly afraid that the scent of freedom ordered to the true, the good, and the beautiful might “infect” his own people.

Future Prospects for an Independent Ukraine
Yet, where—really—is the West? Ukraine wants nothing to do with Munich’s “urban naked zones.” It does not appreciate Europe’s evisceration of its Christian legacy from the Preamble to the European Constitution. Many in Ukraine correctly wonder how homosexuality can be viewed by the West as a “right” or “valid lifestyle,” while most perceive the transvestite winner of this past week’s EuroVision competition a sick joke. Ukrainian citizens are puzzled over seemingly ineffectual “warnings” and “sanctions” against certain Russian authorities … all while Russian military jets repeatedly violate Ukrainian airspace, Russian-trained separatists take school children and OSCE observers hostage and torture innocent coal miners, Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, and Russian military personnel already operate on its territory. Moreover, international agreements are hardly worth the paper upon which they are printed—given the West’s failure to live up to its obligations to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, while, according to one observer, “Putin has laid waste to a host of international agreements. It’s not that he rejects the need for them; he just wants others to recognize that the Kremlin has the right to its own interpretation of international agreements and principles.” And, we now know the numbers: the so-called Crimean referendum was fraudulent, with few participating, and those who did were “protected” by machines guns.

The modus operandi of Putin’s “diplomacy” is, first, to gain domestic support by manipulating Russian public opinion through oppressive control of the media and saturating the news with Soviet-era propaganda. The victim of Russian territorial piracy—Ukraine—is faulted, while orders are issued to Russian special forces operating on Ukrainian territory and Russian separatists are directed to take over government facilities. Then, Putin keeps complacent and risk-averse Western powers guessing—countries overly dependent upon Russian fossil fuels, especially conflicted Germany: he masterfully employs doubt to magnify threats and conceal weaknesses to gain the initiative. Putin’s proximate goal is not so much to invade eastern Ukraine—although, de facto that has already happened—but to destabilize in order to delegitimize upcoming elections … including this weekend’s illegitimate and very localized “autonomy referendum,” whose result appear chaotic at best. All this is in support of Putin’s vision for a new world order. As one scholar noted in the Washington Post: “Putin not only seeks to revisit the results of the end of the Cold War; he also wants a final say in establishing the new world order. Briefly, the Kremlin offers a new trade-off: In return for continued economic benefits for the West, Russia wants Western consent to its interpretation of the rules of the game.”

Why delegitimize elections and destabilize Ukraine? To keep it from moving towards European integration and NATO. Putin cannot permit May 25 elections in Ukraine (which, not accidentally, coincide with European Parliamentary elections) to gain legitimacy, for this will surely “lose” Ukraine for Putin. Not only will Ukraine’s European aspirations eventually be realized, but Moscow and Kyiv understand very well that the West cannot—at least openly under the current circumstances—provide an unelected interim government serious military backing, and Putin will go to great lengths to keep it that way. And, Putin has a very potent ace up his sleeve: by quietly employing agents (while using the more overt and violent separatists to deflect attention), people in eastern Ukraine will be coaxed to boycott the May 25 elections—an outcome of no war … but also no peace.

Putin doesn’t hide his ultimate intention to rebuild the Soviet Union (the collapse of which he characterized as “the greatest tragedy of the twenthieth century”)—except this time not propped up by communist ideology (which he loathes) but based upon his nationalist vision of a “Great Russia” as the alleged protector of any ethnic Russia no matter where they are. To this end, at a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest (the same year he invaded Georgia) Putin claimed Ukraine was “an artificial state.” Moreover, Russian commentators routinely assert the borders of countries which formerly constituted the USSR were incorrect—thus subject to change. Putin is on a westward march—the question is, how seriously does the West take this? Sanctions, while a nuisance to Russia, betray a misunderstanding on the part of the West who think limited economic pain will necessarily persuade a people who have grown accustomed to doing without; as author and journalist Edward Lucas observed: “[Putin] will accept economic pain if he believes it’s in Russia’s national interest. He is prepared to use force. And he is prepared to lie—blatantly and repeatedly.”

However, it may have recently dawned on Putin what he’s gotten himself into. First, while hardly viewed as direct economic blows by the Russians, targeted sanctions are having knock-on effects in the Russian banking industry as a whole in terms of currency exchanges and massive capital flight. Second, as ruthless as Putin’s actions are and notwithstanding his ultimate goal of reconstituting some form of a Russian empire, he doesn’t appear to be in command of a well-defined long-term strategy to realize his dreams, prompting one commentator to suggest “Putin is winging it on Ukraine.” Third, Putin’s actions have galvanized and unified Ukrainians in a way never before seen. Fourth, Putin’s recent promise to pull troops back from Ukraine’s eastern border (not yet realized) appear to be prompted more by the successes of Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operations against Russian separatists than a true commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. (Our oldest son’s best friend in Kyiv is proud that he and “other young men are arming ourselves to the teeth” to defend Ukraine.) Fifth, this exposes limitations in what Russian special forces can achieve (which cannot be utilized as an invading force), and it also exposes long-known weaknesses in the Russian military as a whole: having the Russian army sucked into a protracted guerrilla war over a large chunk of Ukrainian territory is something Putin can ill-afford. Sixth, regardless of Putin’s chessboard-aggressiveness, the fires he stokes pose a serious potential of harming the Russian Federation far more than the current pariah state it has become. Strong domestic nationalist support notwithstanding, public opinion is a fickle thing—even in Russia: a protracted guerrilla war in Ukraine will cost dearly in national treasure and blood, and plummeting Russian stocks in an economy overly-dependent upon fossil fuels betray tremendous risks in this regard.

Finally, Putin appears to have set in motion the potential for a conflict (currently far under the public radar) beside which Russia’s aggressiveness against Ukraine will pale: in March an MP to the Chinese National People’s Congress registered a draft law on the accession to China of Russian territory in the far east—echoing the 1969 Sino-Soviet conflict. Because the Russian Federation removed visa restrictions against Chinese citizens in 1992 to support economic development in these far-flung regions, hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers have settled in Siberia and the Russian Far East—in particular to the Far Eastern Federal District. The modern Chinese historical conception views the northern boundary of the Yuan dynasty extending to the Arctic Sea, while most of the Russian Far East and parts of Siberia were also part of China under the Qing Empire—roughly one-sixth of China’s current territory. Taken together, Putin’s actions and the number of Chinese living in the Russian Far East appear to provide the government of China excellent precedent for territorial annexation, something that may have already started.

“Be Not Afraid!”
In February, a BBC reporter asked a weary Ukrainian on the Maidan square in Kiev about his country’s future in Europe. The man responded matter-of-factly: “We don’t want to go to Europe. We want to build Europe here.” Europe at the door of Russia in the guise of a vibrant and prosperous Ukraine is another fear of Putin’s, for his own overly petroleum-based economy is on the verge of collapse. Ukraine as a cultural and spiritual contributor is what Western Europe fears, for Europe has strayed from its Christian path.

And yet, a great saint exhorts them all: “Be not afraid!”

Editor’s note: In the image above St. John Paul II is pictured with Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma at the airport in Lviv in 2001. (Photo credit: AP)


  • Alexander R. Sich

    Alexander R. Sich is Professor of Physics and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has twelve years of professional experience in nuclear safety and non-proliferation abroad, primarily in Ukraine. For the 2014-15 academic year, Dr. Sich was a Fulbright Teaching and Research Scholar at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT and a Master’s in Soviet Studies from Harvard University and a second Master’s in philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

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