Tensions between Russia and Ukraine not out of the ordinary but troop movements call for caution

A Ukrainian serviceman watches an armored personnel carrier maneuver near a frontline position in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine January 28, 2022. High-stakes diplomacy continued on Friday in a bid to avert a war in Eastern Europe, the urgent efforts ahead as 100,000 Russian troops are massed near the Ukrainian border and the Biden administration fears Russian President Vladimir Putin will stage a kind of invasion in a few weeks. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

About 100,000 Russian troops are stationed along the Ukrainian border, prompting caution from world and Church leaders as the threat of an invasion looms.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announcement on January 24, he temporarily reassigned full-time missionaries in the Ukraine Dnipro and Ukraine Kyiv/Moldova missions to sites outside the country.

“The decision is made out of caution, as some government embassies in Ukraine prepare to relocate some staff and their family members,” church spokesman Sam Penrod said in a statement. “We pray for a peaceful resolution of tensions in Ukraine and look forward to the return of the missionaries.”

Many of these missionaries are reassigned to missions in Europe. Some missionaries will serve in Moldova which is far from any potential conflict zone according to the statement. In 2014, civil unrest in Ukraine caused similar missionary transfers.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a press conference at the Pentagon on January 28 that Russian President Vladimir Putin now has a full range of military options, the Associated Press reported. Although US officials do not believe Putin has decided to use these forces against Ukraine, he now has the capability.

History of tension

Ukraine gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 after centuries of Russian influence. Since the 1990s, Ukrainian presidents and prime ministers have rebounded by becoming more Russian-oriented and more European-oriented, said BYU history professor Jeff Hardy.

Protests erupted in late 2013 after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a trade deal with the European Union, trying to balance pressure from the West and that from Russia, said Hardy. He remembers seeing these events unfold live with his students during Russian history lessons.

Putin then invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, a major naval base where the majority of people identify as Russians, Hardy said. The former Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk voted for independence in May 2014 referendum, becoming pro-Russian separatist governments.

Prior to this tumultuous year, Ukraine had a delicate 50/50 electoral political balance between Western-oriented and Russian-oriented people. Those breakaways meant that many people who identified as Russians no longer voted in Ukrainian elections, Hardy said.

“It really disrupted that to make the Ukrainian government much more firmly Ukrainian nationalist and pro-Western,” Hardy said.

Missionary adjustments

Drew Barnard (right) and fellow brother Hayward meet a man in Chernivtsi, Ukraine named Sasha (middle). The missionaries were making outside contacts for the first time in over a year. (Photo courtesy of Drew Barnard)

Drew Barnard heard about rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia after returning from the Ukrainian mission in Kyiv in November and has since contacted some of the people he met there.

Although they were sad about the situation, he said they didn’t seem very surprised. The tension is not out of the ordinary. “I wish I could help, but even if I was there I would be fired,” he said. “So I can’t do anything.”

The mission was gaining momentum after missionaries from the United States were reassigned to Ukraine in June 2021. Barnard, who was then assistant to the president, said he has seen more people learn the gospel and get baptized. He said the mission had dwindled during the pandemic, but things were looking up.

Liberty Howell visits Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg as part of her mission. (Photo courtesy of Scott Howell)

The missionaries had also “found their own fire,” Barnard said, recalling a general change in attitude within the mission. “Missionary work was returning to its former glory with fresh new minds to do it,” he said. “And now they’re all gone.”

Liberty, the daughter of Church history and doctrine professor Scott Howell, serves in the Russian Mission in St. Petersburg, which was not as affected. Howell said her daughter reassured her family that everything was fine. She hopes everything will fall apart so she can continue her volunteer work.

“You have nothing to fear,” Liberty wrote in a message to her family. “The worst thing that can happen is that they reassign me to another mission in Europe and I end up there, but I don’t think that will happen.”

Another missionary in Russia spoke to the Daily Universe about the precautions his mission is taking, but declined to be quoted after checking with his mission president. He referred to rules prohibiting Russian missionaries from speaking about government matters to the media.

Hardy said he thinks the Church is acting with care and caution in evacuating missionaries to Ukraine. The US State Department is also evacuating diplomats’ families out of the country. “It’s not just the Church that does this.”

If armed conflict erupts, Hardy said missionaries in Russia would likely be evacuated as well.

What does Putin want?

In this photo from January 27, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a memorial wreath laying ceremony at the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery where most of the victims of the Siege of Leningrad were buried during World War II, in Saint Petersburg, Russia . With over 100,000 Russian troops positioned around Ukraine, Putin is capable of launching an invasion. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Hardy said he doesn’t think Putin wants to invade Ukraine, but he could create a political crisis to his advantage, bringing his favorite political candidates to a pro-Western country and boosting nationalist pride.

Taking over Crimea and adopting nationalist rhetoric worked well for him domestically in 2014, Hardy said.

But it could also come down to security issues. Hardy said Putin might want a set of “buffer states” on the Russian border that wouldn’t be loyal to the West, even if they wouldn’t be loyal to Russia either.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but other neighboring countries of Russia are: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Hardy said this worries Putin because it means there are US NATO troops on his border. “He really doesn’t want to see Ukraine go down this path,” he said.

The invasion of Ukraine could backfire on Putin, Hardy said. While Ukraine’s military may be weak compared to Russia’s, it is strong enough to inflict significant casualties.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of stomach in Russia for body bags brought home, basically, in the numbers we would see,” Hardy said.

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