Is Putin’s War on Ukraine Really About Religion?

Putin told the crowd that St. Feodor once said that “the storms of war will glorify Russia.” “It was like that in his time,” Putin said, “it is like that today and always will be.”

London: More than eight weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, puzzled experts are still debating the fundamental question: why? Most dismissed the Kremlin’s explanation that it was threatened by a country dominated by “a bunch of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” about to invite NATO to Russia’s borders. After all, there was no likelihood of Ukraine joining the Alliance in the short term, nor any evidence of drug addiction in Zelenskyy’s government. As for the nonsensical accusation of Nazism dominating Ukraine, the far right got only about 3% of the vote in recent elections, probably a lower number than Russia.

In a bizarre speech that seemed to be plucked from an alternate reality the week he ordered tanks into Ukraine and missile strikes on kyiv, Putin claimed that Ukraine was an artificial state “entirely and entirely created by Russia, namely Bolshevik and Communist Russia”. But then he gave the real clue, echoing 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 is religion that unites the three countries, and it is a religious war that will bring them together again, recreating a Trinitarian nation – Saint Rus.

In front of thousands of flag-waving supporters specially bussed to a recent rally at a Moscow stadium, President Putin said it was a remarkable coincidence that the “special military operation” in Ukraine began on the day of the birthday of Saint Fyodor Ushakov, an 18th century Russian naval commander famous for never losing a single battle, helping Russia reclaim Crimea from the Ottomans. In 2001 Ushakov was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and is now the patron saint of long-range nuclear bombers. Wearing his $14,000 Loro Piana coat, Putin told the crowd that St. Fyodor once said “the storms of war will glorify Russia.” “It was like that in his time,” Putin said, “it is like that today and it always will 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, one guaranteeing the country’s external security, the other its health. moral.

In Russia, the church and the army go hand in hand. Patriarch Kirill, 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 Donbass. Nor is his endorsement of this war unique. During his tenure, priests blessed bombs destined for Syria and Crimea. Bishop Stefan de Klin, a former Russian missile defense force officer and now head of the church’s department for cooperation with the military, presides over the new Armed Forces Cathedral, a huge building in a military theme park about 40 miles from Moscow, built under Putin’s orders. The cathedral is clad in khaki green and topped with a gold Orthodox cross, with a main dome whose diameter is 19.45 meters, a reference to the end of the Great Patriotic War, otherwise known as the Second World War. Nazi tanks were melted down for the cathedral floor and angels watch Russian soldiers in a mosaic commemorating the country’s role in Syria’s civil war, the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin and the Patriarch enjoy close ties, with Patriarch Kirill describing Putin’s 2012 election victory as one that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets, calling the result a fraud, a “miracle of God”. Many Russians think it was a “miracle” that Putin managed to cheat. This symbiosis between Church and State was beneficial for both parties, because not only did the Church submit to political authorities, becoming extremely wealthy in the process, but the Kremlin adopted the political language of the Church. . This became known as the “Russky Mir” or “Russian World” ideology, an ideology that originated in the church and was later weaponized by the Kremlin. Putin, however, disturbed by mass protests against his authoritarian rule in 2012, as well as those that toppled his vassal Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014, has since twisted both the Holy Rus and Russky Mir to serve a more violent agenda. .

In a sermon last month, Kirill claimed that Russia “has entered into a struggle which has not physical, but metaphysical significance.” He referred to protests such as gay pride marches as an example of what outsiders were trying to impose on residents of Donbass in eastern Ukraine, on whose behalf Moscow was ostensibly intervening. More zealous clerics went further. Elizbar Orlov, a priest in Rostov, a city near the border with Ukraine, said that the Russian army was “cleansing the world of an evil infection”! More generally, Patriarch Cyril asserted 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 was better. Thus, according to Kirill, war has no political goals or influence, but spiritual or, as he put it, “metaphysical” goals. Thus, he gives the official Russian view a theological foundation.

The problem for Kirill, however, is that his support for the Kremlin further divides the Orthodox Church. Already in 2018, the Church of Ukraine separated from Moscow due to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, becoming the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, legally independent of Moscow (a decision never recognized by the Kremlin ). Hours after the first missile strikes on February 24, even parts of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine that had remained under the Moscow Patriarch turned indignantly on Putin. “We ask you to immediately stop this fratricidal war”, implored a senior metropolitan official, “such a war has no justification before either God or men”. In Russia, nearly 300 Orthodox members of a group called Russian Priests for Peace recently signed a letter condemning “murderous orders” carried out in Ukraine. “The Ukrainian people should make their choice for themselves, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” it read, referring to the millions of Ukrainians now divided between Moscow and Kyiv. Kirill is also destroying his international reputation, as the Orthodox community abroad, not gagged by the Kremlin’s ban on criticizing the Russian armed forces for their brutality, condemned the war. These include Kirill’s own bishops in Estonia and Lithuania.

With each passing day, it becomes clear that Patriarch Kirill’s full-throated blessing for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered the worldwide Orthodox Church and sparked an internal rebellion that experts say is unprecedented. The rapid and total alienation of millions of Ukrainian Orthodox members is a colossal price for Patriarch Kirill to pay for his loyalty to Putin. Nonetheless, in response to recent criticism of his stance, an unrepentant Kirill fired back using Kremlin rhetoric, insisting that “Western political forces have conspired to use Ukraine to make enemies of brotherly peoples”, and that “all Western efforts to integrate Ukraine have been based on a geopolitical strategy aimed at weakening Russia”. He fails to understand that by so strongly supporting the Kremlin, calling Putin’s invasion a “holy war” , not only does it weaken Russia, but it causes extreme damage to the Russian Orthodox Church.

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

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