Crimea - a battle of principalities and powers
As Western politicians boycott the Sochi Paralympics and tweet their outrage, Ukrainian Orthodox priests are sprinkling holy water over President Putin's battalions in the hope that peace will prevail, while Russian Orthodox priests are blessing the military hardware in preparation for armed conflict. The Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has sounded the alarm: "We are on the brink of disaster," he warned, leaving us to infer that the Russian mobilisation amounts to a declaration of war.
There is a certain irony, as Britain commemorates the outbreak of World War One with fractious debates about Blackadder and a staging of Oh What A Lovely War, that Russia is actually staging a re-enactment with real tanks, troops and trenches. We're reading a lot about Putin the big bad bully and complete hypocrite, and even more about breaches of international law and acts of aggression. Some are discontent with US sabre-rattling and itch for NATO to march in with bayonets and swords, seemingly oblivious to the horrific carvery of sickles that would greet them. Blood begets blood: it is time to draw back from the brink and consider history as well as destiny.
The Crimea was part of Turkey until 1792, when it became Russian, but tensions between Muslims of the Ottoman Empire and Russia's Orthodox Christians continued. In October 1853, Russia determined to guard its Christian heritage and culture, and the region descended into a murky religio-political war. Britain contributed her own cavalry charges at Balaclava the following year, siding with the Turks and French against Russia. Peace was agreed in 1856, without advantage to either side. In 1921 the Crimea became an autonomous republic in union with the Soviet at Moscow, and in 1991 an independent state in its own right. But the political unity of the region has long been subverted by the ethic division: there are people who consider themselves Russian, others who assert Ukrainian ethnicity, and still others who are Crimean Tatars - descended from the 18th-century Turks.
While we view the current conflict through the distorted prism of secular European enlightenment and the primacy of economics, millions in the Ukraine are asserting their cultural and religious identities. On the one hand are the Western-inclined pro-EU reformists who are seeking liberation from oppression and corruption; on the other, the Eastern-facing pro-Russian conservatives are battling once again to preserve their way of life. And these are by no means the only hands: the region is fraught with complexities. But when priests sprinkle holy water over the troops, it is because they believe they are defending Christian orthodoxy and traditional morality against social liberal secularism and moral relativity. For many millions of ethnic Russians, this isn't simply a question of gay rights and wrongs, but of good versus evil. It is about the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation itself.
So when we read the Daily Mail or listen to the BBC, we are understanding nothing of this crisis, for it is not a conflict of flesh and blood, but of principalities and powers. It is not about politics and opportunism, but morality and mission. Obama and Cameron can issue their warnings and demands that Putin respect 'equality' and ‘democratic values’, but when you believe you are called by God to do His holy work, a pesky liberal president and a devalued prime minister are of very little significance at all.
It was Russia which led the way to aid the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. It is Russia that defends 'family values' and confronts the secular zeitgeist of moral relativity with an appeal to conservatism. Putin is on a crusade. If millions of your anti-Western co-religionists appeal to you for spiritual liberty, you don't ignore their cries: their salvation is your vocation.
We may not like this Damascene conversion from KGB Communism to Christian conservatism: it may, indeed, be a dark spiritual cloak to effect a global political coup. We may feel very great sympathy for all those Ukrainians yearning for liberal values whose dissent is censored and suppressed. We may be horrified by news reports of beheaded protestors and stabbed policemen, and appalled by the spectre of wider bloodshed and another Crimean war. We are right to feel pain and share in the suffering.
But neither Brussels nor Washington can act beyond edicts of condemnation.
And London is mired in sound-bites and spin.
The US and EU are not going to war against Russia over the Ukraine, so, for God's sake, let's talk and pray and pray and talk while we spy and survey and tap and record. Either and both and all are preferable to invasion and war.
Especially if it turns out that God is on the other side.