This is the text of my introductory speech on Friday 8 July 2022 to a debate on Ukraine. The text of the motion follows the script. This should be read in the context also of (a) a debate I moderated at the Bradford Literature Festival with two academics on Sunday 3 July on the theme: Russia: Expansionist or Opportunist? and (b) my lecture to CCADD on Wednesday 6 July at Westminster Abbey here.

I am grateful to the Business Committee for making time for this topical debate which opens up a number of challenging questions and calls the Church to prayer, listening and action.

It is important for the Synod to debate this as (a) the conflict is impacting the whole world (energy resources, economics, migrations and humanitarian catastrophes, food security, and so on), and (b) there is an unavoidable church element to the conflict (the Moscow Patriarchate’s uncritical support of Putin’s ideological vision and nationalist dogma, noting also the impact on chaplaincies in the Diocese in Europe and our partner churches in the region). It is also inevitably about politics. Politics, however, is about people, the right ordering of society and the distribution of power – all issues that go to the heart of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition.

There might be disagreement as to the specificity of particular policy recommendations, but that should not discourage us from a necessary engagement with matters of people and place that sit at the heart of any incarnational obligation. The Church exists for the sake of the world, not the other way round.

For the sake of this debate, our understanding of neighbour is both local – those affected in our own congregations by the effects of this war (immigration of Ukrainian refugees, high energy bills, food shortages, for example) – and global, including those fighting on the front line in the Donbas or seeking safety in a makeshift air raid centre in Kyiv or Russians seeking respite from and truthful understanding of President Putin’s authoritarian regime.

We have a responsibility to provide generous refuge to those displaced by this conflict – and I hope we hear more about this remarkable work in the debate that follows. But, we must also engage with the causes of their displacement – both the immediate, Russian aggression, and the more long term, including wider missteps in the West’s relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War.  

We also have a responsibility to think through how this war affects those in other parts of the world. Tens of millions of people are now at risk of famine in parts of Africa and Asia, even though they are not party to the conflict. Against this background, the decision to cut Britain’s overseas development budget continues to look short sighted. The cutting of numbers in our Army raises other questions, too.

Beyond the humanitarian fall out, we are all conscious that the risks of strategic miscalculation are very real – threatening not only human life on a scale unimaginable a few months ago, but also the very integrity of God’s creation.

This war requires us to rethink what it means to be peacemakers in an age of global disorder. The conceptual frameworks of the 70 year post-war global settlement have fallen apart in a very short time and the world is now a different place. It requires us to use all the resources at our disposal, and that includes our relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, to try to navigate a way through this crisis. 

In an age when many politicians appear to have lost their moral compass, it is important that we do not doubt the reason why issues like this matter and why we get involved in the way we do.  

Our starting point, our obedience to God, is very different from that of governments and others. It leads us to take a much wider and a theologically searching moral view.

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that we sometimes find ourselves at odds with government.

To do otherwise, to take a different starting point, is to run the risk of Archbishops and Bishops becoming the ‘altar boys’ to this and future governments – a charge that others have made of the Russian Orthodox Church’s relations with the Russian Government.

Synod, the briefing paper that accompanies this debate attempts to help us think through the war in Ukraine in a serious and integrated way from Christian foundations. 

Contrary to what you might have read in the Press recently, this paper, produced by the newly formed Faith and Public Life Division, does not articulate a fixed position. What it does do is raise from first principles questions that need to be grappled with and the consequences that need to be considered. In doing so, it recognises that it is the politician, not the bishop, who has to make decisions and to bear responsibility for the consequences. 

Loosely put, the questions mirror those that arise from the set of criteria known as the Just War principles. 

To avoid confusion or uncertainty, let me be crystal clear. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes an act of evil that cannot go unchallenged.  Ukraine has a legitimate right to self-defence and a right to seek assistance from others in doing so. 

The Government and the wider international community must stand with Ukraine and provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support as part of its broader efforts to uphold international law and the norms underpinning the international community.

Yet, as the MOD suggested last week, such support cannot realistically be unlimited and this war cannot be waged without restraint.

The focus of our efforts must be bringing this conflict to an end in a way that respects Ukraine’s independent sovereign status. 

This objective risks being thwarted by the lack of clarity amongst states as to whether the aim of Western actions is the upholding of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, weakening Russia, or regime change in Moscow.  Such ambiguity invites mission creep and increases the risks of strategic miscalculation.

It is these broader objectives that risk Britain becoming embroiled in a protracted and proxy war in the Ukraine. It is for Ukraine to decide if, how and when the war might be ended … and on what terms. It would be morally problematic to oppose a conclusion to the war that would save Ukraine from further devastation in the hope that we might secure wider geo-strategic advantage, if Ukraine so decides. 

Military force has utility; but, it does not follow that military force alone will be sufficient to reverse the territorial gains that Russia has secured since February 2022 or even 2014 when Putin’s money was flowing through the sewers of London. 

The risks of this conflict spreading beyond its current borders are real. It is therefore reassuring that the armaments that the UK has provided are of a defensive rather than offensive nature.  Britain’s support must remain proportionate to the ends we are seeking and those owned by Ukraine itself. 

We know that atrocities have been committed in this conflict – the full horrors of which will probably only be known well after this war ends. It is incumbent on all parties to the conflict to uphold the principles of discrimination and non-combatant immunity.

Where atrocities have been committed, these should be documented and those responsible held accountable, even if that is at a much, much later date. It should not be forgotten that earlier this year, the International Criminal Court opened its trial against those considered responsible for war crimes committed in Darfur over two decades ago.

The principles of discrimination and non-combatant immunity do, whether we like it or not, invite questions as to the efficacy of the sanctions regime assembled against Russia. It is clear that Russians have limited access to truthful media and are subject to authoritarian propaganda. Which is why many politicians and commentators have been clear to distinguish between ‘Russia” and ‘Putin’s government’.

We should not be so naïve as to think that sanctions, as a form of political intervention, do not cause serious human damage, and therefore do not also raise pressing ethical questions. If we conclude that they are morally justifiable (whether effective in securing appropriate ends or not), then we must also be open-eyed about their costs and consequences.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has descended into a brutal war of attrition, with outstanding questions over how long Ukraine’s forces can continue to resist Russian advances. The geopolitical and security implications of the conflict for Europe have already been profound, from German militarisation to accelerated NATO expansion: these will continue. Global ramifications will only become known over the long term. 

Synod, in a world which looks more dangerous and unstable, we need to look again at what it means to work for the reconciliation of humanity to God. We do so with prayer and humility. I suspect that this will not be the last time that we reflect on this conflict and the issues arising from it.

I look forward to the debate.

WAR IN UKRAINE (GS 2259)

Bishop of Leeds to move:

  1.  ‘That this Synod, committed in Christ to support peacemakers and to work for the reconciliation of humanity to God in a world marked by division and conflict:
    1. (a)  lament Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the suffering and terror experienced by Ukrainians and the repercussions and anxiety felt globally for our common future;
    2. (b)  urge all Christians and people of faith to pray that the war in Ukraine be ended justly, that the risk of strategic miscalculation between conflicting parties be avoided and that the Russian people find respite from an authoritarian government;
    3. (c)  call on each diocese and each parish to work towards providing long term refuge and hospitality to refugees from Ukraine and other conflicts and forms of danger, and to contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Appeal or the appeal organised by USPG and the Diocese in Europe;
    4. (d)  call on Her Majesty’s Government to work to secure a just peace that provides for the flourishing of relations in Ukraine and between nations in Europe and to provide a generous response to those seeking refuge from the conflict.’