For nearly three months, viewers around the globe have been subjected to a daily dose of heart-wrenching pictures of Ukrainian cities and civilian population mercilessly bombed by Russian forces. Repulsed from the capital city, Kyiv, they are now focusing their onslaught on the eastern part of the country. Some compelling evidence has surfaced of mass killings and torture of civilians at the hands of the retreating Russian army.
For the first time since the Second World War, Europe has seen a major land conflict, wherein a superpower is trying to dismember a neighbouring sovereign state. However, the highly vaunted Russian military and its formidable war machine have been bogged down in the face of unexpected resistance by the Ukrainian defenders, heavily supported, militarily, and financially, by the US and NATO countries. US and mainly Western countries have imposed heavy sanctions on the Russian economy. The country is a major producer of gas and oil and some 40% of its income is drawn from energy exports.
The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former stage actor and comedian with no prior government experience, has emerged as the wartime leader of his embattled nation, galvanising its people and raising their morale. He has also proven to be an effective campaigner, affirming the adage that unlikely leaders emerge in times of crisis. Meanwhile, nearly, four million bedraggled Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have been forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in Poland, a country with a population of only 38 million. Poland is struggling to find resources to accommodate the relatively large number of asylum seekers and appealing to other European countries to share the burden. Germany, which previously accepted over one-million Muslim Syrian refugees, is likely to come to rescue again.
A variety of opinions have been expressed as to what motivated Vladimir Putin to initiate an unprovoked war against Ukraine, a country that posed no threat to Russia and plunged Europe into an ill-advised conflict. Many western political commentators believe that Putin is nostalgic about the glory of the old Soviet Union. Driven by revanchist and irredentist aspirations, he would like to restore the former Soviet Empire. Others suggest that countries close to the Russian boarder(the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and three members of the former Warsaw Pact–Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia–joining NATO has caused Putin to feel threatened. Paradoxically, the war has instead galvanised NATO, which was previously moribund.
Ukraine potentially joining NATO presented a special problem for Russia. It was part of the Soviet Union before the latter’s dissolution (1988-1991), and shares numerous religious, cultural, and linguistic ties with Russia, which has been chipping away at Ukrainian territory. Putin, in March 2014, forcibly detached Crimea from Ukraine and annexed it to Russia. The Russian acquisition of territory by force is, however, not new. Writing in an article in The Daily Telegraph, Charles Milliken, professor emeritus at Siena Heights University, noted that from the late Middle Ages until the collapse of the Russian Empire following World War I, Russia expanded to about 8.8 million square miles, about one-sixth of the entire land mass of the earth. It swallowed large parts of Europe to its west, the huge Siberian land mass to its east, and most of the Muslim states of Central Asia to its south.
The conquest of the Khanate of Crimea provides a fascinating case to examine. In the late Middle Ages, Crimea was part of a vast empire, successor to the Mongol Empire, the Golden Horde: which stretched from central Romania to almost Moscow, and lasted from 441 to 1781. In the early sixteenth century, it was so powerful that the Tartars warriors raided deep inside Russia, twice pillaging Moscow itself. The Tsars were too weak to resist and were forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Khans. A century later, the power balanced shifted and Russian Tsarina, Catherine the Great, after a protracted bloody battle, conquered and annexed Crimea in 1783, making it part of her empire.
It is reported that when Catherine came to visit her newly acquired territory, she stayed in the old palace of the Khan, modeled on royal palaces of Constantinople. In his book, The Great Upheaval, Jay Winik has provided some enchanting details: “With its ancient Greek marbled walls and intricately tiled floors, the palace was awash in Moorish and Arabian influences. The palace contained thick walls, its cushioned divans and lingering sounds of imams calling the faithful to prayers evoked the memory of the ancient city of Constantinople.” The empress was exposed for the first time to the ‘exotic’ sounds and sights of the orient, and was mesmerised by them.
Her real ambition, however, was to continue and retake Constantinople and restore it as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. That dream, however, was never realised. Since her days, the demographics of the peninsula have changed drastically. In May 1944, nearly 200,000 Muslim Tatars were deported from their homes by the Soviet government on the suspicion of collaboration with Nazi Germany.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Hannah Allam commented on the current status of Muslims in Ukraine, a small minority, who are fighting the Russians on the front line along with other Ukrainians and rendering humanitarian relief work. He quotes, Suleimanov, Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of Lviv, who views the efforts as both a religious duty and an assertion of their identity as Ukrainian Muslims. Muslims are no strangers to the country, however. The most famed Ukrainian Muslim was Mohammad Asad, born as Leopold Weiss into a distinguished Jewish family, and is recognised as an outstanding scholar of Islamic studies.
The Muslim involvement in the war is not one-sided. In the now extinct Soviet Union, six of the fifteen republics had a majority Muslim population, and some 20 million Muslims today live in the Russian Federation. Chechnya, a republic of Russia, has a Muslim majority, where an uprising against the Russian rule in 1999 was brutally crushed. The capital city Grozny was almost destroyed. Ramzan Kadyrov, who serves as Putin’s right-hand man in Chechnya is known for his brutal tactics. His forces are fighting alongside the Russians against Ukraine and have been heard chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ while attacking the city of Mariupol.
The Russian war has wrought untold misery to millions of people and has brought economic hardships to people around the world. Most importantly, it is casting an ominous shadow over the entire human race of a nuclear conflagration that can spell its obliteration.