Borders: Frontier or neighbourhood?

The heart of the Ukranian Christian church missionary enterprise is to cross borders instead of erecting them and we in the rest of Europe must support them.

20 MAY 2022 · 14:20 CET

The fence of a construction site in Kyiv as a sign of Ukrainian patriotism. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">tina hartung</a>, Unsplash, CC0,
The fence of a construction site in Kyiv as a sign of Ukrainian patriotism. / Photo: tina hartung, Unsplash, CC0

Borders divide and borders join neighbourhoods. Some of them are peaceful, some very violent.

Crossing borders excites the one and endangers others. Societies build borders or leave them unmarked, green as we say, depending how peaceful the relationship between the neighbours is.

I grew up in Estonia, behind the Iron Curtain, the heavily militarised border between Western capitalist countries and the Communist Bloc led by the Soviet Union. For me a border to the world outside was set in stone or in iron. Crossing was impossible.

Forced to leave the country in 1976, I soon discovered how transparent borders in democratic societies were. In fact, border regions often developed into cross-national economic, political and even cultural areas.

I vividly remember visiting Hadrian’s Wall at the border between England and Scotland. After hours of walking, we entered a pub for a drink. The owner turned out to be a friendly man.

I asked him, who he was, English or rather Scottish. His answer was special. “Neither”, he replied, “I am neither English nor Scottish, I am a borderer. Because of guys like me, there is peace and unity among the English and the Scottish.” Border as a peace factor! What a concept!

Since meeting the borderer at Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain, I have visited many border regions and found the words of the man in many ways stimulating.

Border populations very often determine whether the border shuts down or conversely establishes peaceful relationships between neighbours.


East Ukraine - on the border of violence

One of the most endangered borders in Europe is that between Russia and Ukraine. Since Russia invaded parts of Eastern Ukraine, the danger of war has dominated Western diplomacy.

The orientation of Ukraine to Western Europe, and their desire to join NATO and the European Union, worries Russian politicians and especially its president Vladimir V. Putin.

On February 24th 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. An aggressive war started. Officially declared as a “special military operation” in support of the two rebellious provinces Luhansk and Donetzk, which just hours before declared their total independence from Ukraine and signed an agreement of military cooperation with the Russian Federation, the war clearly is aimed at a total control of Ukraine by Russia, the dismissal of the elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky and his government, and the establishment of a pro-Russian administration. This would mark the end of Ukrainian independence.

Needless to say, this war cannot be justified, and Putin is the only one to be blamed for it. The horrible brutality of Russian soldiers killing innocent Ukrainian citizens and destroying cities and villages, marks the madness of the Russian leadership.

Putin might have expected the Russian speaking minority of the Eastern provinces to welcome his soldiers as liberators from, what he called, a Nazi regime in Kyiv.

But the opposite was true. Not only the ill-equipped Ukrainian army, but the vast majority of Ukrainians stand against the aggressor.

What was considered a blitz-war of 2-3 days, is developing into full-scale brutal fight for every village and city. Putin obviously miscalculated the Ukrainian unity and readiness to protect their territory.

Neutrality of Ukraine was less a problem to Russia, but the integration of Ukraine into Western European power structures opened a potential danger for Russia at its western border.

In fact, the border would change its nature from being a border between two Slavic nations with a long history of fruitful relationships, to a border between two different political systems: Russia and the European Union.

According to the rulers in Moscow, this was a dangerous and potentially aggressive change which could not be tolerated. Therefore, there was pressure at the border and eventually the war.

Russian military pressure is, speaking honestly, is not really centered on Ukraine. It is aimed against NATO and the expansion strategy of the European Union. But Ukrainians are suffering, as they have suffered in centuries of their existence.

Even the very word Ukraine, translated into English, means “at the border”.[1] For centuries, it marked borders of empires – the Russian in the East and the Polish-Lithuanian and later Hungaro-Austrian in the West, and large territories of modern Ukraine were occupied and ruled by the one or the other.

This is best reflected by the differences in terminology used by the Eastern and Western variations of the Ukrainian language until now.


Is neutrality a solution?

Border states flourish best by staying politically neutral. In this regard Ukraine is no different. Living in good relations with Russia in the East and the European Union in the West opens many opportunities for being a connecter between East and West.

True borderers are, according to the Scottish/English borderer at the Hadrian’s Wall, a warrant of peace. Switzerland is since 1648 the best example of this [2]. And other European nations such as Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Finland, just to mention some, support the theory. [3]

Neutral states are easily identified by certain political factors.

  • Neutral states value ethnic and linguistic diversity over mono-ethnic national ambitions. Switzerland has proved over the centuries how effective their Cantonal System is, keeping the country united and economically highly efficient. The German, Francophone, Italian and Romanic people live together appreciating the other’s culture and language.
  • Multi-ethnic neutral states implement a federal system, controlled by decentralised power structures and therefore supporting every minority group regardless of its numerical strength.
  • Neutral states support international cooperation instead of enlarging their own power influence. In fact, neutrality is widely used in conflict resolution.

Ukraine is predestined to stay neutral, but Ukrainian neutrality is endangered by political forces inside and outside the country.

On the one hand it is the aggressive search for a national identity, which seeks to constitute a Ukrainian nationality based on one language over and against the other ethnic minorities in the country, such as the Russians, Hungarians, Polish, Tatar, Romanian, Moldovans, Gagauzians and a number of others.

Especially deadly, in my view, is the attempt to “upgrade” some Slavic nations such as the Russins and Hutsul into a Ukrainian ethnicity. [4]

The “one language, one nation, one culture” politics follows the exact pattern of the Russification philosophy of the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, and all other empires of the world such as Great Britain, Spain or the USA, for instance.

A melting pot unifying all ethnic identity under one is in many cases problematic. And just as the Ukrainians revolted against Russification, many ethnic tribes in Ukraine revolt against the politics of Ukrainisation.

The very essence of a peaceful and neutral state is contradicted by a search for a unified national identity.

This is not to say that such a search is in itself nationalistic, but it is potentially problematic, especially for larger minorities, who fear being marginalised. And the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, especially in the Crimea and the Donbass, certainly felt that way.

Alongside the intensive search for a national identity, there was the declared decision of Ukraine to join the European Union where so many nations live in peace with one another.

All Ukrainian governments since independence in 1991, have expressed their desire to belong to the European family of nations. This alone questions all possible nationalistic tendencies. Putin´s accusation of the “Kyivan regime being Nazi” lacks any basis.

On the other hand, the power structures of Europe are still guided by Russophobic tendencies, especially in North America.

Russia’s attempt to join Europe and build “a united European house”, as Mikhail Gorbachev and later Vladimir Putin once put it, have been bluntly rejected. [5]

Instead, NATO permanently expanded its influence to the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, isolating Russia as a potential enemy.

All the states in the Baltics and Central Europe joined the EU and NATO of their own choice. Yet it is also true that some of them did so in fear of their Russian neighbour under whose rule they suffered for centuries.

The opportunity to hide under the roof of NATO, the most powerful defence structure in the world, was very attractive to them.

It is this politics of permanent alienation that has led to harsh Russian reactions in the annexation of Crimea and support for the rebellious regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine, and now to a full war between the two countries.


Chances for peace – becoming a border of tolerance and peace

Ukrainians, as well most Russians, dream of a peaceful and free life in Europe with borders which connect and not separate. And Ukraine has all the elements of becoming a country of peace in the heart of Europe.

It is a multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural country at the border of Western and Eastern mindsets.

Instead of dreaming of joining the powerful in Western Europe by establishing a one-language one-culture nation, Ukrainians should follow the many examples of European multicultural and federatively organised societies.

This European model was rejected by the current leadership of Ukraine soon after the independence declaration, but the implemented national philosophy has not brought any positive development to the country either.

Whether NATO and the EU ever welcome Ukraine as a full member, has for years been no more than a project. Living in good relationship with both the EU and Russia, however, could establish prosperity.

The strong Christian church in Ukraine might play a crucial role in such a future. Christians are never called to enroll in partisan politics.[6] They are called to establish God´s Kingdom and not a nationalistic state.

The very heart of their missionary enterprise is to cross borders instead of erecting them. They should never ever fight for any dominion of one nation over the other. Christians are messengers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

Sure, Christians can never name evil as being good. They will stand at the side of the persecuted and attacked. But they will do this in peace.

The situation as it is in Ukraine today, where the Ukrainian Orthodox church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, after having received the status of a national Orthodox church in 2019, violently takes over church buildings and raids worship services of churches under the Moscow Patriarchate in the name of national identity, is unbearable and finds no justification.

And the same is true for what the separatist regimes in Luhansk and Donetsk do to the Protestant and Roman-Catholic churches.

It is war in Ukraine now. A horrible war. Ukrainians have amazingly united around their country and seek to protect it from the Russian aggression.

The whole world supports them. And all European countries have opened their borders for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the fighting. We welcome them and we try to care. And among those who love and support Ukrainians are many Evangelical Christians.

The war will be over one day. And then the Ukraine-Russia border will be reestablished again. Will it be a line of division or rather a border of peace?

The answer to this question largely depends on what Christians in Ukraine and Russia will do. They are called to a mission of reconciliation and we in the rest of Europe must support them.

The Evangelical church in Ukraine and Russia should be involved in a mission of peace. There is no other country in Europe with an Evangelical church as strong as in Ukraine.

Yet, at the same time, there is no other Evangelical movement in Europe as divided on theological, political, ethnic and cultural issues as the Ukrainian and Russian. Healing this divided body must be of high priority to everybody interested in peace in Ukraine.

Dr. Johannes Reimer is director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Vista Journal.


1. Ф.А. Гайда: От Рязани и Москвы до Закарпатья. Происхождение и употребление слова «украинцы» // Родина. 2011. № 1. С. 82–85; Наталя ЯКОВЕНКО: ВИБІР ІМЕНІ VERSUS ВИБІР ШЛЯХУ(НАЗВИ УКРАЇНСЬКОЇ ТЕРИТОРІЇ МІЖ КІНЦЕМ XVI — КІНЦЕМ XVII ст.) In: Міжкультурний діалог. Т. 1: Ідентичність. (Кyiv: Дух і літера, 2009), 57-95.

2. Francis Kendal: The Swiss cantonal system – model of democracy.

3. See an overview.

4. According to the Ukrainian constitution all people living in Ukraine constitute together the Ukrainian nation

5. See more: Andreas Zumach: Der enttäuschte Traum vom gemeinsamen Traum Europa

6. See my article: Johannes Reimer: Home, mission field and the Great Commission.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Vista Journal - Borders: Frontier or neighbourhood?