Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the Ukrainians have put up a courageous stand. The sheer force of the Russian onslaught against Ukrainian villages and cities may still break the military front. But what has happened and continues to happen in Ukraine is a miracle on the Dniepr. In the 1920 “miracle on the Vistula,” Polish forces arrested the westward march of the Red Army; now Ukrainians are fighting to obstruct Russia’s push toward Europe. The Ukrainians, willing to die to keep their liberty, are now Europe’s rampart.
But the miracle is not purely military. The miracle is the fact that Ukraine has proven to be a self-confident nation, led by an unflinching political cadre and supported by bold religious leaders who are fighting for its liberty.
In an age of extreme individualism, when the affirmation of personal preferences is equated with freedom, it is striking to see Ukraine, an ancient European country, fighting for its liberty and sovereignty as a nation. Our age does not appreciate the power and the necessity of the nation, a natural community in which we seek habits of virtue and ordered liberty. When a nation is strong, individual differences of beliefs and ideas, however deep and loudly debated in peacetime, disappear in moment of grave danger and hostile attack. Ukrainians have quickly put aside their differences and are choosing to fight, and die, in defense of their nation’s liberty, inspired by the faith that has sustained them for more than a millennium.
Ukraine’s political and religious leaders are making this unity possible. From the first day of Russia’s military attack, the political leadership, with President Volodymyr Zelensky at the helm, has advocated unequivocally for the defense of Ukraine. Zelensky did not hide behind empty bromides of “history’s inevitable progress,” but called the reality what it was: a brutal war, started by Russia, to which the only answer was a firm and violent response. Confounding the expectations of Moscow and perhaps of many in the West, the political leaders in Kyiv remained in place, rallying their citizens and soldiers. They are undoubtedly imperfect, like all men. Zelensky had some troubling views as a peacetime president. But as he faced the Russian threat and then the attack, he spoke the truth and acted accordingly: Ukraine is a nation that has the right to be sovereign and to decide its own domestic and geopolitical fate—and Ukrainians have a duty to protect this right. Whatever differences there are among Ukrainians—on issues big and small—they are best resolved by Ukrainians in their own independent polity. Zelensky and his government, abandoning any factional interests or ideological proclivities they may have had, are demonstrating the patriotism and courage necessary for national liberty.
Even more important, many religious leaders in Ukraine have firmly stood by the nation, much as the Catholic Church hierarchy in Poland did during the communist dictatorship. Ukraine has bishops, both Greek Catholic and Orthodox, with guts. They have no doubt that their defensive war is just, and they praise the soldiers and citizens lining up to destroy Russian military assets and defend Ukraine.
On February 24, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, gave a powerful speech. (Recall that this church was almost destroyed by Communist Russia; now it finds itself again on the frontlines of a war.) In its clarity and courage, Shevchuk’s appeal should serve as a model for others, especially in the West. He did not mince words: Russia, a “treacherous enemy,” attacked Ukraine, which now has the duty to “defend its dignity before God and humanity, its rights for existence and the right to choose one's future.” He continued: “It is our natural right and sacred duty to defend our land and our people, our state and all that is dearest to us: family, language and culture, history and the spiritual world.” In a rallying call, Shevchuk added: “Today we solemnly proclaim: ‘Our soul and body we offer for our freedom!’” There is no joy in war. But there is honor in fighting a just war.
The vision of a Catholic Church on the battlements may be unsettling to Western sensibilities. The last few years have created the impression that the Church exists to serve primarily as an NGO promoting social justice, or a social service organization tending to individuals seeking personal affirmation. It’s a vision of the Church as a global, nationless entity, restraining from judgment and always in favor of a conflict-mitigating compromise both domestically and internationally.
This is not what we see in Ukraine. The role of the Church is not to be a global diplomat, encouraging parties in conflict to lay down arms as if the attacked were morally equivalent to the aggressor. The miracle on the Dniepr is that Ukraine’s religious leaders—Shevchuk as well as Bishop Edward Kawa in Lviv and others—are showing that the Church and secular institutions share the role of defending the nation under an unprovoked attack by a hostile state. Zelensky is fulfilling his task in his sphere, arranging diplomatic support and moving forces. The bishops are in the bunkers, celebrating the liturgy. As a result, as Shevchuk pointed out on February 27, “We once doubted whether our institutions are strong. Now we see that our state has passed and is passing the test of strength.”
We should be thankful for the testimony of these Ukrainian leaders. In years to come, we will need their example. In these times of renewed power competitions, we need confident nations that are willing to incur sacrifices. No global abstract cause, whether it be climate change or free trade, “international rules” or unspecified “shared values,” elicits a willingness to sacrifice. Only confident and united nations can withstand the political tensions and military pressures of historic moments such as this one. And for such nations to arise and sustain themselves, we need statesmen and bishops who do not seek the chimera of a global community, but recognize the role of the nation as a natural community in which we seek liberty.
Jakub Grygiel is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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Photo by the President of Ukraine via Creative Commons. Image cropped.