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ROME—Greek Catholic Ukrainian Father Andriy Zelinskyy has firsthand knowledge of the devastation that war can cause. For the past 16 years, in different capacities, he has been close to the Ukrainian military, where he serves today as the coordinator of the military chaplains.
In 2014, when Russian Vladimir Putin first ordered his army to invade Europe’s largest country, Zelinskyy went to the front to give spiritual support. He spent four years in the war zone, three of them in the trenches.
For this – and several other reasons – he insists that the Russian army that marched into Ukraine Feb. 24 is all part of the same invasion.
“Our war began in 2014,” Zelinskyy told Crux over the phone. He spoke from Lviv, where he has relocated along with the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). “It is just that then, the West chose not to notice it. Everybody just closed their eyes, pretend like nothing was happening in Ukraine. But nowadays, thank you, we’re not alone.”
Yet according to the priest, who majored in political science, those who see it as a “conflict in Ukraine,” fail to see that what is going on “is much bigger than just a Ukrainian war,” and that “Russian authorities are very clear: It is not about Donbass [a region of Eastern Ukraine invaded by Russia in 2014]. It is not about even Ukraine. None of them has ever said that.”
Putin’s intention, he said, is a “geopolitical transformation” that will impact all of Europe, because Russia has “much bigger ambitions than just Ukraine. It is important to understand because sometimes we become prey to our willing ignorance. We tried to pretend, believe there was peace.”
“But peace is a result of our openness to truth and justice,” Zelinskyy said. “And we have to open ourselves to it, because, as Jesus said, only truth will set you free.”
Before the war in Eastern Ukraine began back in 2014, he was involved in a chaplaincy program working with military cadets in Lviv, which is in Western Ukraine. When the war began, they were called to the front.
“It is very difficult to see friends die,” he said. “And these are not acquaintances, people you’ve met with once or twice. They are friends. And I have lost many. Not one, two or three. Many.”
Speaking about the war, Zelinskyy said that he sees it as a “test for the whole of humanity,” and not simply as a Ukrainian conflict. In fact, “it’s about the values upon which the whole Western world, the whole Judeo-Christian tradition was constructed.”
“We are all responsible for peace,” he said. “And peace doesn’t begin with words. Peace is not an ideology; it is a responsibility.”
A key component of peace, he said, is a responsibility with the truth, and this is not something that can be “built in an office” nor decided at a desk on a whim. No one, including Putin, “can be in their office and simply decide a nation doesn’t exist, and give a personal, non-existent read of history as a way to justify the decision.”
Zelinskyy then pointed out that the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century had something in common: They were built upon the fabrication of what the regime had forced people into believing was true.
He noted one regime would argue that social class didn’t exist [communism], while the other would say that there is a race of people that is biologically superior than others [nazism]. “Once again, not true,” the priest said.
Nowadays, he said, Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill claim that there is a “Russian identity” with common values, culture and language that tie Ukraine and Russia together, and that the Ukrainian people need to be freed so they can see this.
Zelinskyy would want for both Putin and Kirill to “open your eyes” and realize that those whom they are allegedly freeing don’t want it. The so-called Russian ethnic Ukrainians, he said, are fighting for the national army and shouting at the Russian military, in Russian, “Go away, go home, don’t liberate us, liberate your minds.”
As an example of Putin’s disinformation campaign, Zelinskyy described a recent celebration held in Moscow’s cathedral, where Kirill gave an icon to the head of the Russian National Guard. The army leader, upon receiving it, said that they have been struggling because the Nazis are hiding behind schools and civilian buildings. The moment Putin launched the “military intervention” into Ukraine, he listed the “denazification” of the country as one of the top goals.
The priest said that in just one city, Kharkiv, the Russian troops have destroyed 60 schools and over 600 residential buildings.
He also lamented the destruction in the nation’s capital, Kyiv.
“Kyiv was always one of the most peaceful cities I ever visited,” Zelinskyy said. “And I remember the morning in February when this whole mental paradigm was just completely destroyed by the Russian bombs.”
As a military chaplain he is concerned for the Ukrainian troops because “they have been fighting one long battle, with planes dropping bombs over the peaceful cities, with rockets flying and destroying our infrastructure and countless human lives.”
“And we still don’t know how many how many philosophers, doctors, teachers, good fathers and mothers have been buried in debris due to the unreasonable, senseless evil that walks our streets these days,” he said.
On the other hand, he has little understanding for the Russian troops, making them co-responsible, together with Russian authorities, for what is happening.
“They knew they weren’t coming to Ukraine to drink tea and sing songs with us,” he said. “And it is not Putin who is dropping the bombs from the planes. It is them, attempting to do their job as best as they can.”
During his years as a military chaplain, he had never imagined that in the 21st century “somebody could just start bombing peaceful cities, with no provocation whatsoever.”
“This is something that pushes us to more philosophical dimension of what’s going on,” he said. “We the people of the 21st century, took peace for granted. We forgot that we have to pay for it. To pay with what? With truth. We have to be honest to ourselves, and if we don’t, if we start creating truth, like for example, President Putin does when he says that they are not bombing civilians, you get senseless evil.”
There is no justification for this war, Zelinskyy said: “We are witnessing evil for the sake of evil. I mean, what is the strategic reason for throwing a 500-kilo bomb on a maternity hospital? On a school? On apartment buildings?”