The Russian Bear Reawakens

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The Russian Bear Reawakens

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In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, many scoffed at candidate Mitt Romney when he named Russia as America’s foremost foreign policy threat. Wasn’t that ancient history with the ending of the Cold War in the 1990s? But not so many are scoffing at the idea now.

To the shock and concern of many, Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin has taken up its old role of destabilizing provocation, first invading Georgia, then the Crimean Peninsula and finally Ukraine itself. This subterfuge, deception and open warfare have dramatically increased tensions between Russia and the West.

As someone with strong ties and current experience in Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, I have kept a watchful eye on the storm clouds of war gathering over Eastern Europe and Asia.

The fight over Ukraine has led to a great many deaths, including many civilians, children among them. The lives of millions more have dissolved into anonymous refugee status. And the grim possibility of a worldwide conflict at a scale unseen since World War II is shown to be much likelier.

With the 2014 takeover and occupation of Crimea, Russia captured Soviet-era warships and regained a warm-water port—free from the limiting marine ice of Russia’s northern coasts—from which to launch its newly commissioned nuclear submarines and battle cruisers.

Peace has all but disappeared in this region—the fervent hopes of continuing independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union decades ago nearly dashed.

How will the conflict between Russia and Ukraine end? Will it spread to the Baltic nations and beyond? Where is this leading, and what does it mean for you and me?

Increased tensions toward possible nuclear exchange?

The world is quite different today from the times of the resource-draining Cold War during the 1950s and 60s. Back then the fanciful doctrine of mutually assured destruction appeared to hold nuclear protagonists in place, despite the United States and Soviet Union poking and prodding each other in conflicts all over the earth.

Then at the beginning of the 1990s a stunned world watched the Soviet flag descend from atop the Kremlin, the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. The unthinkable had happened. The once-feared and mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had crumbled. The Soviet Union was no more, the Cold War at an end.

Today, though, the renewed winds of a dangerous future now cruelly blow in our faces. Hostile national sentiments have been returning. Are we entering into circumstances similar to the lead-up to World War II? Back then, as Hitler encroached on his neighbors with the German people cheering him on, no one was willing to stop him. We all know the end of that story—a worldwide conflagration with 60 million dead.

With Western nations giving support to Ukraine during the Russian invasion, Russian nuclear sabers have rattled openly as in the Cold War period, only now they do so with new-generation tactical weapons being positioned near the borders of NATO’s Eastern European and Baltic nations.

Might such weapons be used? The last Soviet leader and 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev commented on that in early January 2015. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, he warned that growing tensions between Russia and European powers over Ukraine could erupt into major conflict, even a nuclear exchange.

Indeed, a previously unthinkable about-face by Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz on that country’s decades-old pacifist foreign policy has revealed the danger that lies ahead. Besides canceling the highly lucrative and long-contested Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline (which would have allowed Russian gas to be piped directly to Germany, bypassing and therefore isolating Ukraine while increasing Germany’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs), Scholz announced his government would be sending arms to Ukraine and increasing military spending by an additional €100 billion in 2022.

We must not forget that the Russian Federation maintains (by treaty) more than 1,600 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on more than 500 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and strategic bombers. In addition, Russia has 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, some of which have been redeployed along European borders. An additional 3,700 nuclear warheads are still to be dismantled.

It’s been estimated that even a “small” regional nuclear exchange—limited to, say, a single exchange between Russia and Ukraine, between Iran and Israel or between India and Pakistan—could potentially render the entire world uninhabitable for human life. Now consider the fact that well over 17,000 known nuclear weapons exist today. The Bible speaks of the time we’re living in, as we’ll focus on shortly.

While many in the United States remain remarkably unconcerned about rising nuclear tensions, the infamous Doomsday Clock was moved up to “100 seconds to midnight” at the beginning of 2022—midnight on the symbolic clock denoting worldwide mass destruction and possibly literal human extinction!

The fall of the Soviet empire

In December 1991 the world watched in amazement as the Soviet Union imploded. Almost overnight, 15 separate countries emerged with almost no bloodshed. The Baltic Republics and Ukraine in particular wasted no time in freeing themselves from the USSR’s yoke.

How could this world superpower that once dominated the space race shatter so quickly?

I have traveled to the regions of the former Soviet Union many times, starting in 1967 when I visited as a photojournalist and translator covering the 50th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution that established communism in Russia—the roots of the Soviet Union that soon followed. I have seen firsthand what life has been like in almost all the Eastern Bloc countries (the nations under Soviet dominion) before and after the collapse of communism.

Before the fall, there seemed no end in sight to what former U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.” But after 70 years, communist rule collapsed under its own rottenness of godlessness, corruption, oppression and a failed economic system.

Billions of people then breathed easier. Clear skies ahead, nearly everyone thought. Doomsday averted! Political, economic and military alliances were quickly redeveloped. We basked in our good fortune. In 1991 nobody wanted to think much about the possibility of other global threats down the line. Nuclear extinction was a thing of the past.

But that was then. More than 2 billion people have been born since the Russian bear went into hibernation in 1991. They have no active memory of what was seared into my mind and the minds of billions of other people who were around back then. And now that the fearsome Russian bear has awakened, many fail to recognize the danger.

Desire to see Russia’s empire restored

In Russia, the sudden loss of the Soviet empire overnight has not been forgotten. To many older Russians— former Soviet citizens—this was a humiliating loss. Today many Russians, including younger people, want their empire back and the legendary greatness of their country restored. President Vladimir Putin believes his mission is to steer Russia toward its past glory as a global superpower.

This is a big part of what’s going on in Ukraine. Having this former Soviet country lean towards the West, towards NATO, rekindles old security fears in Russia. My friends in Ukraine told me that when Russia grabbed Crimea, one of the propaganda messages was that not surrendering to Russian occupation would result in U.S. missiles in Crimea aimed at Russia!

As you can read or watch for yourself, the attempt to restore Russian glory and reach is being done openly. What can the world do? How does the West respond to such aggression, particularly from a nuclear power? Are there more Ukraines in our future?

The small nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania own beachfront on the Baltic Sea that Russia again covets. In Soviet days the Russians maintained high-security military bases in the Baltic countries, and many areas were totally off-limits to visitors. One such city was Tartu in Estonia, Russia’s major Bear bomber base in the Baltic. Now visitors can freely travel to Tartu. The United Church of God, publisher of Beyond Today, has held church services and maintains an office there. The bomber base is abandoned.

But again, what does the future hold? While in Estonia several years ago, a few of my Russian friends came from St. Petersburg to visit. They were visibly unhappy over a new visa requirement for Russians entering Estonia, an area that a few years back was part of Russia and at that time an easy drive for them. “Let them flap their little wings—for now,” they mocked as they expressed their feelings about a free Estonia. That view is shared by many.

Centuries under authoritarian dictatorship

Russia’s landlocked position has played a significant role in shaping the Russian national character and the imperialist drive of its leaders (see “Russia’s Geographic Outlook” on page 10). And another major factor in the national psyche is centuries of some form of autocratic rule.

From 1240 to about 1480 A.D., the Russians were subject to Mongol rulers. This nearly 250 years of foreign rule is still etched into the Russian mind, playing out to some extent in xenophobic reaction to the neighboring nuclear Chinese—who outnumber Russians five to one and share a 2,700-mile border where military clashes have occurred on occasion in past decades. (However, Russia and China are now coming together more and more in opposition to America and other Western powers.)

After Mongol rule, the regimes of the czars or tsars (the term a derivative of “Caesar”) dominated Russia for nearly four centuries—from 1547 to 1917.

Their despotic control was aided and abetted by the Russian Orthodox Church, the people being oppressed with a singular application of the 13th chapter of Romans, where it reads: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (verses 1-2).

As Europe proceeded through the Renaissance and Reformation and into the Enlightenment, Russia remained stuck in the medieval past, the czars continuing to deal ruthlessly with dissent. Subservience to totalitarian oppression was a Russian hallmark.

Communist revolution and its aftermath

After the First World War broke out, Russia suffered grievous losses and defeats from incompetent leadership, coupled with millions of casualties. The oppressed people could finally stand no more from the corrupt government, and a grassroots uprising by women in St. Petersburg struck the spark that flamed into a coup. The last czar, Nicholas II, was dethroned in the February 1917 revolution. He and his family were then executed in July 1918.

The new provisional government was short-lived, overthrown later the same year in the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks, creating the communist state. A protracted civil war between the “Reds” (Bolsheviks) and the “Whites” (anti-socialist factions) ended in Bolshevik victory and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. Its first leader, Vladimir Lenin, died shortly after in 1924.

Lenin was succeeded by one of the most brutal human leaders of all time, at least in terms of scale, Joseph Stalin. My mother was born in Stalin’s Ukraine. Stalin’s extremely brutal 29-year absolute rule of the USSR was filled with atrocities, including purges, expulsions, forced displacements, imprisonments in labor camps, manufactured famines, torture and acts of mass murder and massacres. The total number of Stalin’s victims is debated but is estimated to be in the tens of millions, besides those killed as a result of World War II.

My Ukrainian mother was eight years old when she survived Stalin’s deliberate starving of the people of Ukraine in 1933. Six million died that year. As she would later tell me, she remembered bodies of the dead being placed outside homes to be picked up continually in her town.

In 1949, not long after I was born, my parents came to the United States as refugees. I remember how people who had come over together cheered at the announcement of Stalin’s death in 1953. Psychopathic and immoral, this evil dictator had no regard whatsoever for human life and eliminated anyone thought to be a threat to his power.

Devastation of World War II

World War II, known in the USSR as the Great Patriotic War, was a savage conflict rebuffing Germany’s Operation Barbarossa that started in June 1941. Those under Russian rule had suffered from the deaths of millions through World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War and Stalin’s purges, and now they experienced another 20 to 40 million military and civilian deaths. These are staggering numbers—unthinkable to us!

When I traveled to the Soviet Union in 1967 translating for a magazine editor and college professor who was then 38, he noted how he saw a complete void of men his age. He was right. They didn’t exist. Of those in the USSR who entered the military at age 19 in World War II, only one in a hundred returned.

While visiting a military cemetery in Kharkov, Ukraine, I saw stone after stone with inscriptions and asked about what they represented. I was told that each stone represented 14,000 dead!

Soviet cemeteries and memorials are huge. I was in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) shortly after the unveiling of the impressive 272-foot-high Mamayev Hill Mother Russia statue honoring the millions who died in the battle there. German generals were amazed at Russian military leaders having so little respect for their men as to send vast numbers forward as cannon fodder. Today we see awesome war memorials in Kiev and Moscow, with great honor and respect being shown the dead. If only such honor had been shown for them while they were alive!

Communism’s demise and new hopes now crushed

The history of the Soviet Union is indeed miserable, as is its economy and failed society. The ideology of communism, which the Soviet government worked to instill in the hearts and minds of its population, never really took firm root.

When we traveled through the USSR in 1967 we were surprised at the low outputs of the huge collective state farms. In contrast, the small private plots people were allowed were very productive—a sizeable part of the national produce coming from these small gardens.

Notions of equality and justice were seen as the underpinnings of communism, but its purveyors and advocates greatly misunderstood human nature. People were told they were in a “worker’s paradise,” but everyone knew they were not. As the national joke went, people did become equal—all equally poor.

In 1985 Gorbachev came into power after almost seven decades of national tragedy and economic failure under oppressive socialist dictatorship. The country was suffering severe stagnation and deep economic problems. Gorbachev tried to be revolutionary and introduced a two-pronged approach to reviving the nation. He initiated glasnost or “voicing” to the public—that is, publicity or openness in the operations of government, which invited increased freedom of speech. The other prong was perestroika, which means rebuilding or restructuring.

As I traveled through the USSR during this time, the word was that it would take five years, maybe 10, maybe a generation before the real changes the people wanted.

However, by allowing freedom of expression, Gorbachev unleashed pent-up passions and political ideas that burst forth in an unexpected rush. Economic reform was slow and ineffective. Results that people hoped for were not materializing. With their new freedom the Soviet people turned on Gorbachev, and it became his undoing.

This directly led to the dissolution of the USSR on Dec. 26, 1991—the various countries of the union now becoming independent states. Boris Yeltsin took over then as the first president of the Russian Federation. He was succeeded by former KGB officer Vladimir Putin on Dec. 31, 1999.

Dreams of a better world remain unfulfilled

It initially appeared that we might see a new civilized Russia turned from its traditional past of belligerence and intimidation. Sadly, that was not to be. The same spirit that drove the czars and Soviet bosses is alive and well.

As hopeful as we once were about a change in the nature of nations and people, the words of the prophet Isaiah ring out: “The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways” (Isaiah 59:8).

On one Russian trip I had a lengthy talk with a female conductor on a train. She asked, “Why do you want war when we want peace?” I was astonished that she would think this! What had she been taught? How had her mind been so manipulated?

The sad experience of history is one warring tragedy after another. And what’s now on the horizon in this region will predictably lead to more misery through oppressive government, war and death. This impacts me deeply, as I have extensively worked in and love this part of the world. My ancestral roots are here.

The Russian people can be some of the most generous, hospitable, kind and caring people you will ever find. The same is true of Ukrainians. I know so many from not only traveling in these countries, but from working with them through humanitarian and church initiatives.

Yet because the Russian people can be so compliant and humble toward authority, they unwittingly give themselves over to opportunistic leaders who cunningly fill voids of power and then turn around and abuse, oppress and destroy them, as evidenced by a string of belligerent leaders of Russia and the USSR. Putin is simply the most recent manifestation of this.

What will Putin do next? He seems unperturbed by what the West does and appears bent on an agenda to regain what was lost in the breakup of the USSR. He wants the resources and 45 million people of Ukraine to be part of a new Russian empire. Will he stop there? The West remains accommodating in talking with Russia in spite of Soviet-style big lies and denials about its actions. But with power and lack of resistance you can do what you want.

(One aspect of this to consider is that, as pointed out in the next chapter, Bible prophecy foretells the rise of a revived European-centered Roman Empire in the last days. And Russia’s recent actions have provoked serious discussion among European nations about turning from dependence on the United States for their safety and taking security matters into their own hands, including establishing a European military force.)

Awaiting the sure solution

Those of us with strong ties to the people in these areas also have strong feelings and desires for them to enjoy peace and a normal life. And even apart from such ties, everyone should feel compassion for those suffering under such plights. Yet humanly we feel helpless about what we can do. So what’s the answer?

In a lengthy prophetic outline of end-time events, Jesus Christ stated that in the last days before His return “there will be great distress [called in other translations “great tribulation”], unequaled from the beginning of the world until now” (Matthew 24:22, New International Version). So bad will it be, He goes on to say, that if those days are not “cut short, no one would survive” (verse 22, NIV, emphasis added throughout). Ominously, human extinction through mass destruction is now possible!

But here’s the good news for a world facing the specter of nuclear war and catastrophic devastation. Jesus then stated, “But for the sake of the elect [the people of God] those days will be shortened” (NIV). Humanity will survive!

This period of great end-time calamity is foretold in many different Bible prophecies. The outcome, however, is always intervention and salvation. That is where we secure our confidence and hope. We don’t need to live in fear or bury our heads in the sand. Our faith needs to be in the comforting and authoritative words of Jesus Christ our Savior.

A time of restoration—for Russians, for Ukrainians, for all people—is coming, but it’s not yet here. We live in the critical time just before that. We desire it greatly, but we must wait a little while longer.

At the same time that we approach these terrible days of survival, the world has almost universally sunk to the basest levels of behavior. Even so, the Bible clearly instructs us to embrace hope and the ways of God, holding fast as we near the end of this age.

The promises of the age to come are worth waiting for. For those of that time, God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:26). Indeed, God says, “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28)—on all peoples, the Russians and Ukrainians and everyone else. God will change our very nature to His own loving nature!

Yet what about now? Difficult and challenging times lie ahead, but God gives those of us who will follow Him now the power and direction to survive and be victorious! He commands us to change the way we think, to accept and embrace the new heart that He wants to give us today.

As Jesus Himself tells us: “The time has come . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV). The word translated “repent” here means to change one’s mind or purpose—to turn from our own ways to seek God and His ways.

What is God’s direction for us today? “Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40).

We do not need to feel helpless and hopeless with the increasing darkness that is coming over this world. While the world will be rocked by terrible devastation, apparently including nuclear war and other weapons of mass destruction, this will not be the end of the human race—or of God’s plan for mankind. It’s darkest before the dawn, and a new, glorious dawn is coming—maybe not as far off as we might think. Then there will at last be world peace. May it come swiftly!