Suddenly it feels as if it is 1960 again.
It is as if our bear of a winter has awakened and unleashed once again the Russian bear, and the Cold War that was such a part of many of our younger days has been given new life.
Once again news pages and television screens are filled with stories and images of new aggression; a new “invasion;” a new threat to world peace.
Last week the Catholic News Service carried a story filled with chilling comments from a priest who was discussing the expanding crisis in his country of Ukraine. He called it “a replay of what led up to World War II.”
Pope Francis has been urging Christians to pray for the unfolding situation in the Ukraine, especially in its autonomous republic of Crimea. It is there that Russian troops — some say as many as 30,000 of them — have poured across the border, taking control of Ukrainian military bases there, of radio stations in some cases, and blockading roads and cities in others.
It is not a simple situation to understand. The majority of those in Crimea speak Russian and consider themselves to be ethnic Russians. Some reports indicate that those people have welcomed the Russian “invasion,” if it can be called that.
About a third of the population of the region are Muslim Tatars who want the Ukraine left alone to become a part of the European Union, as does the northern two thirds of the Ukrainian nation as a whole.
Geopolitics aside, what they should all want — and what we should want for them — is peace. A peace free of an invading army. A peace free of naval blockades. A peace that not only doesn’t threaten the safety of their nation, but would help secure the safety of the world as a whole. We’re talking about nations with atomic weapons here, so the situation unfolding there isn’t of interest to just those people in that relatively small part of the world.
It is of interest — or should be — to all of us.
CNN reported earlier this week that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, “Ukraine found itself holding the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, including some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed to attack the United States. Working in a trilateral dialogue with Ukrainian and Russian negotiators, American diplomats helped to broker a deal — the January 1994 Trilateral Statement — under which Ukraine agreed to transfer all of the strategic nuclear warheads to Russia for elimination and to dismantle all of the strategic delivery systems on its territory.”
It is believed that the Ukrainian government in Kiev did this on the condition that it receive security guarantees or assurances — from Russian to its east and European nations and the United States to its west.
CNN reported that the so-called Budapest Memorandum, “signed on December 5, 1994, by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom” laid out a set of assurances for Ukraine. These included commitments to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and existing borders; to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence; and to refrain from economic coercion against Ukraine, the report said.
So much for the Budapest Memorandum.
One of Crimea’s leading Catholic Church voices, Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol, whose diocese includes Crimea, told the Catholic News Service that “Catholics believe every nation has a right to decide about its own future.” And he asked Christians worldwide to “fast and pray for peace.”
“The Catholic Church is deeply concerned about the evolving situation in our country, which is now one step from an open war that may involve a larger area,” Bishop Bernacki to the Italian bishops’ conference news service on March 3, CNS reported.
In nearly every story quoting religious leaders about the situation in Ukraine, the pleas are similar: They all say “please pray for us.” And it would seem that’s the least we can do, especially during the Lenten season.
An auxiliary bishop working with the Catholic charity called Aid to the Church in Need in Ukraine, may have said it best. “With our prayer we reach out to all the people without concern for their religion, political views or ethnic background,” he said.
“We pray that the people, who for tens of years (have lived) in peace, do not start fighting today and that the bloodshed of the kind we have seen in Kiev may be avoided.”
While we in the United States are preoccupied with our favorite TV shows or the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament, we should take more than a little time to familiarize ourselves with what’s happening in Ukraine and Crimea. We should remember Pope Francis’ words:
“I ask you again to pray for Ukraine, which is in a very delicate situation,” he said on March 2. “I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to support every initiative in favor of dialogue and harmony.”
While diplomats work for peace, and bishops in the threatened areas struggle to give hope to their flocks, the least we can do here in our relatively safe and secure world is pray for the peacemakers. And pray hard.