Is Putin’s war on Ukraine really about religion?

WorldIs Putin’s war on Ukraine really about religion?

Putin told the crowd that Saint Fyodor had once said that ‘the storms of war would glorify Russia’. ‘This is how it was in his time’, Putin said, ‘that is how it is today and will always be’.

London: More than eight weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, puzzled experts are still discussing the basic question: why? Most have dismissed the Kremlin’s explanation that it was being threatened by a country dominated by “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” about to invite NATO onto Russia’s borders. After all, there was no likelihood that Ukraine would join the Alliance in the near term, or any evidence of drug addiction in Zelenskyy’s government. As for the absurd charge of Nazism dominating Ukraine, the far-right achieved only about three per cent of the national vote in recent elections, probably a smaller number than in Russia.

In a bizarre speech which appeared to be ripped from an alternative reality in the week he ordered tanks into Ukraine and missile strikes on Kyiv, Putin argued that Ukraine was an artificial state “wholly and fully created by Russia—namely Bolshevik, communist Russia”. But then he gave the real clue, echoing back to his long article published in July 2021, entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he claimed that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians are the same people whose common “baptismal font” is Kyiv, with the conversion of Prince Volodymyr (Vladimir in Russian) in 988. In other words, it’s religion that unites the three countries, and that this is a religious war which will bring them together again, recreating a triune nation—Holy Rus.

In front of thousands of flag-waving supporters, specially bussed-in to a recent Moscow stadium rally, President Putin claimed that it was a remarkable coincidence that the “special military operation” in Ukraine has started on the birthday of Saint Fyodor Ushakov, an eighteenth-century Russian naval commander famed for never losing a single battle, helping Russia to win back Crimea from the Ottomans. In 2001, Ushakov was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church, and is now the patron saint of nuclear-armed long-distance bombers. Wearing his $14,000 Loro Piana coat, Putin told the crowd that Saint Fyodor had once said that “the storms of war would glorify Russia”. “This is how it was in his time”, Putin said, “that is how it is today and will always be”. Linking church and state is not new to Putin watchers. It was in 2007 that he told a press conference in Moscow that nuclear weapons and Orthodox Christianity were two pillars of Russian society, the one guaranteeing the country’s external security, the other its moral health.

In Russia, church and military go hand in hand. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, explicitly supports Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He spouts Kremlin propaganda, claiming that Russia is not the aggressor and that genocide is being perpetrated by Ukrainians against Russian speakers in the Donbas. Nor is his endorsement of this war unique. During his tenure, priests have blessed bombs destined for Syria and Crimea. Bishop Stefan of Klin, formerly an officer in Russia’s missile-defence forces and who now leads the church’s Department for Co-operation with the Army, presides over the new Cathedral of the Armed Forces, a huge building in a military theme park around 40 miles from Moscow, built under the orders of Putin. The cathedral is dressed in khaki-green and is topped with a gold Orthodox cross, with a main dome whose diameter is 19.45 metres, a reference to the end of the Great Patriotic War, otherwise known as the Second World War. Nazi tanks were melted down to make the floor of the cathedral and angels gaze down on Russian soldiers in a mosaic commemorating the country’s role in Syria’s civil war, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin and the patriarch enjoy close ties, with Patriarch Kirill describing Putin’s 2012 election victory, the one which brought hundreds of thousands of protestors onto the streets denouncing the result as fraud, as a “miracle of God”. Many Russians believe that it was a “miracle” that Putin got away with the deception. This symbiosis between church and state has been beneficial to both sides, as the church has not just submitted to the political authorities, becoming extremely wealthy in the process, but the Kremlin has adopted the political language of the church. This became known as the ideology of “Russky Mir”, or “Russian World”, one which originated in the church and was then weaponised by the Kremlin. Putin, however, unsettled by the mass protests against his authoritarian regime in 2012, as well as those that toppled his vassal Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014, has since twisted both Holy Rus and Russky Mir to serve a more violent agenda.

In a sermon last month, Kirill claimed that Russia “had entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance”. He was referring to such things as gay pride marches as an example of what outsiders were trying to force on the people of Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, on whose behalf Moscow was ostensibly intervening. More zealous churchmen have gone further. Elizbar Orlov, a priest in Rostov, a city close to the border with Ukraine, said the Russian army “was cleaning the world of a diabolical infection”! In more general terms, Patriarch Kirill was claiming that behind the war in Ukraine there was a spiritual difference between the West and the Orthodox world, and that it was obvious to him that the latter is better. So, according to Kirill, the war is not about political aims or influence, but about spiritual, or, as he put it, “metaphysical” aims. Thus, he gives the official Russian point of view a theological underpinning.

The problem for Kirill, however, is that his support of the Kremlin is further splitting the Orthodox Church. Already in 2018 the church in Ukraine separated from Moscow because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, becoming the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, legally independent of Moscow (a move never recognised by the Kremlin). Within hours of the first missile strikes on 24 February, even those parts of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine that remained under the Patriarch of Moscow turned indignantly to Putin. “We ask you to stop this fratricidal war immediately”, implored one senior metropolitan, “such a war has justification before neither God nor man”. In Russia, nearly 300 Orthodox members of a group called Russian Priests for Peace recently signed a letter condemning the “murderous orders” carried out in Ukraine. “The people of Ukraine should make their choice on their own, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East”, it read, referring to the millions in Ukraine now split between Moscow and Kyiv. Kirill is also destroying his international standing, as the Orthodox community abroad, not gagged by the Kremlin’s ban on criticising Russian armed forces for their brutality, have condemned the war. These include Kirill’s own bishops in Estonia and Lithuania.

With each passing day, it’s becoming clear that Patriarch Kirill’s full-throated blessing for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church and unleashed an internal rebellion that experts say is unprecedented. Swift and total alienation of millions of Ukrainian Orthodox members is a colossal price for Patriarch Kirill to pay for loyalty to Putin. Nevertheless, in a response to recent criticism of his position, an unrepentant Kirill hit back using Kremlin rhetoric, insisting that “Western political forces have conspired to use Ukraine to make brotherly people enemies”, and that “all Western efforts to integrate Ukraine were founded upon a geopolitical strategy aimed at weakening Russia”. He fails to understand that by supporting the Kremlin so strongly, calling Putin’s invasion a “Holy War”, he is not only weakening Russia, but doing extreme damage to the Russian Orthodox Church.


John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.

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