Ukraine: Invasion, Annexation, Labels, and a Good Idea

Building in Kharkiv's Freedom Square hit by missile. Frame capture from BBC News video, used w/o permission. (March 1, 2022)
(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Freedom Square, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Missile explodes, killing at least 10 people.
(BBC News (March 1, 2022))

I don’t know why Putin sent troops to Ukraine; why those troops bombed a hospital, a theater, and Kharkiv’s Freedom Square; or why Ukraine’s military didn’t either give up or get promptly defeated: but that won’t stop me from guessing.


Trouble in Ukraine: It’s Complicated

CIA's map of ethnic Russians in territory previously held by the Soviet Union. (1994))
(From the CIA/Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The trouble started February 24, 2022.

That’s when Putin said that he wasn’t invading Ukraine, and that he was protecting Ukrainians. Those who speak Russian, at any rate.

Then Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Or started protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Or doing whatever it is they’ve been doing ever since.

Seems that we’re supposed to believe that Putin’s even protecting non-Ukrainians. He says that one of his goals is the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine.

“Denazification?”

Russia’s official line is that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis. There’s almost a little truth in that claim, and I’ll get back to that.

Another ‘start of the trouble’ time was in 2004. That’s when someone poisoned Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Mr. Yushenko didn’t die, said the Russian government had sent the assassin, and won the election. Not necessarily in that order.

Or the trouble started in 2013 and 2014, when Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement boiled over. The Euromaidan folks thought closer ties with the European Union was a good idea.

Soon-to-be-former-President Viktor Yanukovych’s enforcers killed 108 protestors, but someone killed 13 police officers. So I don’t know how to figure the final score on that.

About the same time, Russia seized Crimea.

Quite a few folks, including those running Ukraine’s government, thought Crimea was part of Ukraine. But Russia’s leaders said no, and had the muscle to make their claim stick.

Maybe that’s why it’s called the “annexation” of Crimea.1

Maybe the “annexation” is legitimate, since quite a few folks living in Crimea have Russian ancestors. Then again, maybe not.

Quite a few folks living in central Minnesota have German and Irish ancestors. Which doesn’t make Stearns County part of Ireland or Germany.

A Commonwealth, Russia, Cossacks, and Banning the Ukrainian Language

Tonhar's map of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (green) and vassal states (light green) at their peak in 1619. (1865) From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Coming from another angle, the trouble started in 1569, when Ukraine became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

That led to new ideas circulating, which in turn led to dissatisfaction with the status quo. And, indirectly, Cossacks. Then, in 1648, a bunch of Cossacks got fed up, starting the Khmelnytsky Uprising and The Ruin.

After that, at least some of the folks involved asked Tsarist Russia for help.

Following the Pereiaslav Agreement, Tsarist interest in Ukraine transitioned from protection to rule.

Whether Tsarist Russia’s banning use of the Ukrainian language made some Ukrainians feel even more Ukrainian, or Russian leaders banned the Ukrainian language because they thought it threatened their control, trouble followed.2

Skimming Over Four Centuries

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Ukrainian intellectuals got out from under Russian disapproval of their language and culture by moving to the Austrian Empire.

On the other hand, many Slavic Ukrainians who stayed in Ukraine liked the pro-Slavic Russian line.

After that came the 20th century’s global war(s), the Ukrainian War of Independence, concentration camps and the Soviet Union. People died. Many people died.

On the ‘up’ side, Ukraine was free! Free from Tsarist Russia, that is.

But freedom is in the eye of the beholder — and the preferences of whoever’s talking. Let’s look at Ukraine’s existence as a nominally independent nation during the 20th century.3

The Holodomor, Wehrmacht, Liberation and Perceptions

Title page, 'The War That Will End War,' H. G. Wells. (1914) From Internet Archive, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.First came the Free Territory of Ukraine, an anarchist society that didn’t last; and then the USSR, which did.

This USSR is the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, which then became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

There’s also the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and World Congress of Free Ukrainians, but this has long since gotten over-complicated.

The ‘Socialist Soviet’ to ‘Soviet Socialist’ name change was part of a reform or rebranding that happened in 1936.

It followed a particularly unpleasant part of Ukraine’s history.

Soviet authorities conducted Ukrainian peasants into a “bright future” of socialism and starvation.

Whether or not the 1932-1933 Holodomor led to the 1936 Soviet Constitution, that I don’t know. But a fair fraction of Ukrainians weren’t happy about Russia and the Soviet Union when World War II started.

Which may explain why some saw Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht as liberators. Some even helped purge Europe’s gene pool.

Other Ukrainians formed pro-Soviet guerrilla groups. Still others began fighting both Wehrmacht and Soviet forces.

World War II eventually ended. And so, in 1991, did the Soviet Union.

Now it’s called the Russian Federation.4

Recent(ish) Changes and Labels

Equestrian statue of Peter I of Russia in Saint Petersburg: symbol of the city. From CIA World Factbook, used w/o permission.The extent to which the 1991 makeover is reform — or rebranding — that’s another thing I don’t know.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin started out as a KGB agent.

So I’m willing to suspect that the Russian Federation is a Soviet Union reboot, run by folks who finally twigged that economic realities matter. Even if they’re not politically correct. And that’s another topic.

Now, about Ukraine’s current government being neo-Nazi: like so many other labels, it depends on who’s talking. And how selectively the labeler cherry-picks from reality’s tree.

If the fact that some Ukrainians liked the Wehrmacht means Ukraine’s current government is neo-Nazi, then folks like Vidkun Quisling prove that today’s Norway is run by skinheads.5

Which strikes me as a daft notion. Effective propaganda, maybe, since “Nazi” is an emotionally-charged word, but daft nonetheless.


Death and Strange Targets

Mariupol city council's photo of courtyard and maternity and children's hospital attacked by Russian forces. Mariupol, Ukraine.
(From Mariupol city council, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

A cease-fire was in effect on March 9, 2022. So the Russian Air Force bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine. On March 10, 2022, Russian officials said the attack was okay, because Ukrainian forces were somewhere around there.

In any case, Russian forces only killed four or five people in that attack: depending on whether the child who was stillborn counts as a person.

Maybe the Russian line has a grain of truth, that Maternity Hospital No 3 was a rebel base, and that children and women giving birth there were enemies of the (Russian) state.

Maybe, but I don’t think so. I find the idea of a tactical children’s hospital a trifle hard to swallow.

I’m not surprised that Mariupol’s Deputy Mayor Ukraine’s president called the hospital bombing a war crime and genocide, and that Ukraine’s president said the attack was “proof that the genocide of Ukrainians [was] taking place.”6

But, according to Russian officialdom’s version of reality, they’re both neo-Nazi. Which, again, doesn’t make sense. Not to me.

Bad Times in Mariupol, Ukraine

BBC Research, Institute for the Study of War's map; showing Mariupol explosions, and areas controlled by Russian forces. (March 9, 2022)
(From Mariupol city council, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Russian forces have been busy in and around Mariupol. Besides a tactical children’s hospital, they’ve protected Ukrainians from enemies of the people in a couple residential areas and a strategic Epicenter K store. That last happened on March 2, 2022.

And that’s enough snark for today. Maybe too much.

Anyway, folks in Mariupol are ‐ according to Russia’s official line — now part of the Donetsk People’s Republic.7 And besides, maybe they’re getting in the way of Russian progress along the Sea of Azov coast.

Bombing a Theater in Mariupol

Maxar's satellite image of Mariupol theater. (March 14, 2022)
(From Maxar, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Somewhere between 500 and 1,200 folks were sheltering in the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol on March 16, 2022. Then at least one shell and/or bomb dropped on the place.

It’s not all bad news. Quite a few folks in the theater weren’t killed. But some were.

I’ll give folks in Mariupol credit for trying to discourage the March 16 theater bombing. Somebody wrote “дети,” “deti” — “children” in Russian — on the ground outside the theater.

Ukrainian officials say that Russian forces shelled the theater.

Russian officials say that the Azov Battalion are the villains in this piece. The Azov Battalion is — you guessed it — a neo-Nazi outfit. Such things do exist.

Whoever blasted that theater, the current invasion has affected several culturally important sites in Ukraine.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, and cemetery, was damaged but not destroyed. The same goes for Kharkiv’s Dormition Cathedral, although the cruise missile that hit the Kharkiv city center damaged some artwork and stained glass.

Zavorichi’s St. George’s Church burned on March 7, 2022. And, like I said, airstrikes on the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre damaged the building and killed some folks sheltering there.

I don’t know why Russian forces attacked a maternity hospital, folks in Chernihiv queuing to buy bread, and a theater with “children” written on the ground outside. Unless, of course, nasty neo-Nazis are the nogoodniks in the latter case.

Maybe from the air, a breadline looks like an armored convoy. Or maybe the unguided aerial bombs used in Chernihiv were aimed at some other target at the intersection of Viacheslava Chornovila and Kruhova streets.

Officials from Ukraine, the United States, and Amnesty International have called these attacks war crimes. Maybe they’re right.8


Maritime Trade and a Motive: Maybe

CIA World Factbook's map of Russia.
(From ‘CIA World Factbook,’ used w/o permission.)

Assuming that Russia’s leader(s) had a motive for invading Ukraine seems reasonable. It’s hardly the sort of thing I’d expect to be a whim or passing fancy.

Putin and company have been pretty clear on what they say they’re after: saving Russians from neo-Nazis and defending parts of Ukraine they say are independent countries.

Maybe so.

But I’ll suggest a motive that I haven’t seen discussed. One that may make more sense than fighting neo-Nazis who aren’t really.

Russia is not, technically, a landlocked country. It’s had coastline on the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, and Arctic Ocean for a millennium, off and on. And, since conquering the Khanate of Sibir, the Pacific Ocean.

But the Arctic Ocean isn’t exactly a prime maritime trade zone.

Almost as bad from a ‘Russia first’ viewpoint, Russia shares Baltic, Black and Caspian Sea access with other countries. Including, recently, former Russian holdings like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three of which are members of NATO, and the European Union.

Small wonder a sufficiently-edgy Russian leader might feel threatened by all those foreigners being between Russia and the open ocean. Particularly since it’s a long haul from Moscow to Vladivostok.9

Conquering Ukraine wouldn’t improve Russia’s ocean access issue much, since Turkey holds the Black Sea’s south coast. And shipping on the Black Sea has to go through the Sea of Marmara and Aegean on its way to the Mediterranean.

Still, maybe Russia’s leaders are taking the long view. They might figuring that after Ukraine, all that stands between Russia and the world ocean is Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt. And that conquering those countries will be easier than invading Ukraine.

Or maybe not.


Thinking About Life, Death, Defending Others, and Prayer

Lx 121's photo of memorial 'altar' at the John McCrae House (birthplace, museum, & memorial) in Guelph, Ontario Canada. Remembrance Day, November 11, 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

I don’t like war. War breaks things and kills people.

But I think that sometimes war is better than other alternatives.

I’d make a terrible pacifist.

Since I’m a Catholic, I can’t be a sabre-rattling warmonger, either.

That’s because I think human life is sacred. It’s a gift from God. Each of us is made in the divine image. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258, 2260)

Demonizing the ‘bad guys’ isn’t an option either.

I’m obliged to love my neighbor and see everyone as my neighbor. Everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:43-44, 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37)

“Love” isn’t “approval,” and that’s yet another topic, for another day. Week. Month. Year, maybe.

I think human life is sacred.

So how come I don’t say that using force to stop someone who’s killing another person is always wrong: since the attacker is human, and force might kill the attacker?

Legitimate defense, intending to preserve one’s own life or the life of an innocent person, is a good idea. (Catechism, 2263-2267)

Murder, intending to kill an innocent person. or not-so-innocent person when doing so is avoidable, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism, 2268-2269)

Here’s where it gets a bit complicated.

Basically, it’d be okay for me to try stopping someone from killing another person; even if I had to use force which might kill the attacker. St. Thomas Aquinas talked about this. At length. (“Summa Theologiae,” Second Part of the Second Part, Question 64, Article 7; St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1250))

I understand the idea of “moderate defense,” As St. Thomas Aquinas put it.

But I’m profoundly glad I’ve never had reason to use lethal force to stop an attacker.

And I’m sure not going to criticize Ukrainians who are trying to stop foreign troops from killing Ukrainians. And I’m not surprised that they’re earnest about protecting their homes.

War and Alternatives

Nagasaki City Office's photo of Urukami Cathedral, Nagasaki, Japan. (1945)
(From Nagasaki City Office, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Memorial service outside Urukami Roman Catholic Cathedral. (November 23, 1945))

I sympathize with Ukrainians who want other countries to do more than just express disapproval of what Russian forces are doing there.

On the other hand, I’m glad that a fair number of American and other leaders are showing a little sense.

I’m still — concerned — about Putin’s implied threat to use nuclear weapons, back on February 28. So far, Putin and company haven’t been exhibiting reassuring levels of good sense and peaceful intentions.

And some possible actions by NATO and other non-Russian outfits, like establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, seem like a good idea.

Except that doing so could turn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into open war between Russia on the one hand and NATO and America on the other.10

It’s frustrating.

So far we don’t have an international authority that’s able to deal with the likes of Saddam Hussein and (apparently) Putin — without waging war.

And until we do have a sufficiently competent international authority, governments are obliged to maintain military forces. And occasionally use them. (Catechism, 2308)

I don’t like that situation. But, apart from suggesting that finding alternatives to war sounds like a good idea, there’s not much I can do about it.

Coming Soon: Consecrating Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

Vatican News photo, 'Pope Francis in Fatima, Portugal.' Used w/o permission.
(From Vatican News, used w/o permission.)

Pope to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to Immaculate Heart of Mary
Vatican News (March 15, 2022)

“Pope Francis will consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Friday, 25 March, during the Celebration of Penance that he will preside over at 5pm in St Peter’s Basilica.

The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, said in a statement: ‘The same act, on the same day, will be performed in Fatima by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, papal almoner,’ who is being sent there by the Pope….”

The Vatican News piece recaps some of what was said during the 1917 Fatima event.

“…Our Lady had asked for the consecration of Russia to Her Immaculate Heart, stating that if this request were not granted, Russia would spread ‘its errors throughout the world, promoting wars and persecution of the Church.’

“‘The good,’ she added, ‘will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be destroyed.’…”
(Vatican News (March 15, 2022))

I still occasionally cringe when I read those words, since I grew up hearing rabid anti-communist, anti-Catholic and anti-rock music rants. Which set me on a path that led to me becoming a Catholic, and that’s yet again another topic.

But I think that Fatima11 quote accurately describes some of the 20th century’s events.

After Fatima, we’ve had several consecrations to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

  • Pope Pius XII consecrated
    • The entire world (October 31, 1942)
    • The people of Russia (July 7, 1952)
  • Pope St Paul VI renewed the consecration of Russia (November 21, 1964)

And Pope St. John Paul II composed a prayer called an ‘Act of Entrustment’ in 1981. That’s something I haven’t looked up yet.

About Prayer and Consecration

Brian H. Gill's photo, outside Sauk Centre's Saint Faustina Adoration Chapel. (2019)Prayer is important. Folks have been praying for a long time. (Catechism, 2558-2565, 2566-2567, 2568-2589)

And it’s a good idea. (Catechism, 2598ff)

Consecration is a good idea, too.

Consecration: The dedication of a thing or person to divine service by a prayer or blessing. The consecration at Mass is that part of the Eucharistic Prayer during which the Lord’s words of institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper are recited by the priestly minister, making Christ’s Body and Blood—his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all–sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine (1352, 1353).”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary)

I haven’t run out of words today, but I have run out of time.

Recapping, Russia’s government sent more troops into Ukraine recently. They’ve attacked a maternity and children’s hospital, bombed a breadline, blown up a theater — without killing all the folks inside — and made life very unpleasant for surviving Ukrainians.

The official Russian line seems to be that they’re defending Russian-speaking Ukrainians from neo-Nazis, and protecting parts of Ukraine that Russia’s leaders say are really independent countries.

I am very glad I don’t live in Ukraine.

Maybe Putin and company really believe their version of what’s happening. Maybe not.

Either way, I’m pretty sure that Ukraine’s military and a quite a few Ukrainian civilians are fighting Russian forces because they don’t think killing Ukrainians is a good idea.

Restraint, or Maybe Diffidence, and a Good Idea

Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery's photo of Arlington National Cemetery. (2018)The situation is anything but simple, and there are centuries of history behind the mess. Millennia.

Ukraine’s leaders, understandably, want more military support from other countries.

Leaders of other countries have, so far, seemed unwilling to start direct conflict between Russia and major Western nations.

I figure that’s admirable restraint, regrettable diffidence, or a mix of both. Folks will probably be discussing — and arguing — about that for decades. Me? I don’t know nearly enough to have a reasoned opinion.

Pope Francis will consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary next week. I think that’s a good idea, and will be looking for a transcript of what he says.

Finally, links to other stuff I’ve written, and then resources you might find interesting.


1 “Annexation,” invasion and a little history:

2 Cossacks, Tsars and more history:

3 Language, culture, nominal independence, concentration camps and death:

4 The Soviet Union, an allegedly “bright future,” Nazi Germany and still more history:

5 Scary words, history and politics:

6 Maternity Hospital No 3 and official versions of reality:

7 Marupol, Ukraine; briefly:

8 Death in a breadline, and perceptions:

9 More names you don’t often hear, and still more history:

10 A little background and analysis:

11 Very briefly:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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