“Why don’t we just let Putin have Ukraine?” These words were spoken by my classmate and group project partner in November 2021. We were both in the midst of a master’s program in international affairs and had been assigned the task of presenting and evaluating options for the United States to take in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
In that moment, I was shocked. As I had focused on Russia and Eastern Europe and international security in graduate school, I was used to the eyes of my relatives and non-grad school friends glazing over as I attempted to explain why things like the Kosovo War or the 2008 invasion of Georgia were important. But a classmate who had studied international relations at the graduate level could not grasp the potential that the Ukraine crisis had to create massive human suffering and throw the whole world into disarray?
It suddenly began to sink in that, if the Ukrainian conflict escalated, everyday Americans weren’t going to care, as is often the case for wars happening far away.
So imagine my surprise on February 24, 2022, when, as I watched images of Russian tanks crossing into Ukrainian soil, the outpouring of support for Ukraine from regular Americans was swift and massive. My Facebook feed was full of people adding the “I stand with Ukraine” filter to their profile pictures. Within days, the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag could be seen on nearly every corner of my Boston neighborhood. Now, more than six months of war later, I can see those same flags and signs of support for Ukraine all over the streets surrounding my new apartment in Washington, DC.
Initially, I was ecstatic about this response. Public support for Ukraine makes it so much easier for the United States and its allies to defend Ukraine and to help those Ukrainians who are in dire need of assistance due to the war. It was wonderful that so many people were interested and invested in a cause and a region that I’ve cared about deeply for years.
However, soon my joy began to be mixed with cynicism, as some of these shows of solidarity began to seem performative rather than genuine.
The first instance to me was rather small. One of my favorite history podcasts concluded its new episode about Ivan the Terrible by recounting a scene from Servant of the People, the TV comedy that Volodymyr Zelensky starred in before becoming the current president of Ukraine. The podcaster described how the 2015 episode parodied the famous Repin painting of Ivan the Terrible murdering his son, with the clear implication that Russia had similarly turned on and attacked its “son,” its former imperial subject, Ukraine.
The podcaster described it as an eerie case of prescience, as the episode predated Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine by seven years. This statement completely ignored the fact that the Russo-Ukrainian War began in 2014 with Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbass. The scene was not a coincidental foreshadowing of what was to come, but a direct response to a year of war. This demonstration of complete ignorance of the basic facts of the war soured the episode to me and turned it from a gesture of support to a pandering for views.
The next incident had a much bigger impact on me. In late March, my university severed its partnership with a Russian graduate program, immediately ending the joint class I attended with students from both schools in the middle of the semester. We had just finally reached a place of productive discussion and exchange between these future leaders of Russian affairs and my American colleagues and myself.
My classmates and I spent hours trying to unpack this decision together. Our school of diplomacy had always emphasized the importance of dialogue at all levels in mitigating and resolving conflicts, and it felt disingenuous that the people leading this program were not heard in the final decision. The university higher-ups eliminating this avenue felt thoughtless and counterintuitive to our mission, especially since they had waited several weeks of classes after the invasion to end this relationship.
Then, my classmates discovered the decision was made just after a newspaper article was published that criticized Boston-area universities for their remaining ties to Russia. Instead of considering what was best for students and what could have a positive impact on international relations in the future, the university had cut and run at the first sign of bad press.
These experiences caused me to look with more cynicism on the public response to Ukraine. Did any of these people really care about Ukraine? Or was supporting Ukraine and being anti-Russia just the cool thing to do now, a way to get positive PR as a business and admiration from your friends?
A Christian worldview
The crisis in Ukraine opens up a bigger question we all need to consider. What is the right way to respond to public crisis and tragedy? In a world where we have limited resources and little control, especially over events so far away, what should we do? Most importantly, what does God call us to do?
Let’s start with acknowledging that action and intent don’t always align (I could talk about this in relation to foreign policy and faith for ages). As is said in James 2:16, if you say to someone in need, “‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” Sending “thoughts and prayers” without engaging in meaningful action has become a meme and rallying point for criticism of authorities and Christians in this country, and these critiques are not groundless.
And yet, I know that, in a big world where we often feel so powerless, sometimes good intentions feel like all we have. Not only that, but God cares about our motivations, about where our hearts are. As 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
I also know that thoughts and prayers are not meaningless. God calls us to pray, and tells us that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” (James 5:16, NIV). I have seen how telling someone who is struggling that you are thinking of them and praying for them, even if you don’t know what else you can do, often makes them feel a little less alone. So, intentions, thoughts, and prayers are not everything, but neither are they nothing.
I started reflecting on my own response after the invasion. Did it at all fall in line with God’s calling for me? The $75 worth of food and medical supplies that I donated to the drive my Ukrainian friends organized probably did. My decision to refuse to practice Russian on Duolingo for over a month probably did not (although it did make me feel better). My obsessive checking of the news in the first weeks after the invasion felt somewhere in between. It didn’t make a concrete difference, but to me it was an act of love and respect for the Ukrainian people, to at least know what they were going through and pray for them specifically. It’s something I need to commit to doing again.
Reflecting God’s love
In this sinful, fallen world, with our sinful, fallen selves, all we can do is our best to reflect God’s love, and then strive to do better. So, in response to the war in Ukraine and to the other tragedies we see, we should make sure our actions of support, no matter how small, are intentional and motivated by love for God and for others, not by love of self. And then, as we learn and grow, we try to do better the next time.
In the end, I choose to see the Facebook profile pictures and the Ukrainian flags as acts of love, as a demonstration to the Ukrainian people that they are not forgotten and not alone, as an attempt to fulfill God’s calling. But, I know that in every step of this war and in every public tragedy that comes next, I will be struggling. I will be testing others’ responses and my own. And I will be trying to find actions that will be impactful and loving.
This process is unending, and that is okay. Because it is also part of God’s calling for me.