The Religious Factor in the Ukraine War

The Patriarch of Moscow, Cyril, blesses the invasion of Ukraine and presents it as a kind of moral crusade. Russian President Vladimir Putin attends religious ceremonies, as at the recent Easter, favors the Orthodox Church and is often seen with Cyril. There is a clear harmony between the two leaders, but, more than the religious itself, they coincide in Russian nationalism.

Putin made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, bathed in an icy lake at the party of the Epiphany, among other public manifestations of devotion. Many wonder if his religiosity is a personal conviction or a tactic. It is known that his mother made him baptize in secret, and that he keeps the baptismal cross she gave him. He said on one occasion that “today it is not possible to have morals separate from religious values”; but he never wanted to talk about his faith. According to Michel Elchaninoff, author of Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine , ecclesiastical sources say that the president is not especially religious.

In any case, the main thing is the role of religion, not in his personal life, but in his political project. And, in this field, religion has been gaining importance. Putin does not fail to underline the “spiritual and moral values ​​of Russia”, says Kathy Rousselet of the grande école French “Sciences Po”, in an article for the magazine Études. But, he points out, the president speaks of spirituality “in a more moral and cultural than religious sense”: as the basis of a strongly cohesive political community, in contrast to the dissolution social and morality of the West, which is one of its recurring themes. The Orthodox Church is favored, but – warns Rousselet – it is also instrumentalized for the renewal of society that Putin seeks.

The “Russian world”

This idea of ​​western decadence has gained sympathy in the West itself, where the distance from humanist, moral and Christian values ​​in opulent societies is also regretted. It is even more understandable that it finds an echo in Russia, after the experience of Boris Yéltsin’s times, years of savage capitalism, shameless enrichment of elites that shared the privatized state patrimony, sharp increase in inequality, rampant materialism. This left many with a strong rejection of the liberal order, not only among those nostalgic for communism, but also among those who hoped for a flowering of freedom, as Svetlana Alexiévich shows with the dialogues gathered in The End of the Soviet Man . Putin, says Rousselet, opposes these Russian values ​​to the “Western values ​​that spread across Russia in the 1990s and that destroyed the spiritual unity of society.”

Putin “brought order” and also gave hope to those who longed for the former Russian greatness, which had disappeared with the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 2007, Youness Bousenna points out in an analysis of the Putinist worldview published in Le Monde, Putin created a motto that would be capital: “Russian world” (russki mir). Within a few years, after his election as Patriarch in 2009, Cyril began to use the same expression.

Originally, both did not understand the “Russian world” in the same way. Cyril was referring to a supranational religious sphere gathered around the Russian Orthodox Church. For his part, Putin, although he points to orthodoxy as one of the “spiritual foundations” of the “Russian world”, conceives of it mainly in historical, cultural and political terms. In fact, in its “Russian world” it includes Islam – the creed of 7% of the population of Russia –, to positively assume a part of Russian history (the Tatar and Mongol rule between the 13th and 15th centuries), and to underline its Eurasian conception, another point of distinction and opposition to the West.

Cyril passes to Putin’s side

Putin invoked the “Russian world” to justify the annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists from Donbass in 2007. But this was not yet the “Russian world” of Cyril, who declined the invitation to attend the Crimea incorporation ceremony. I did not want to generate friction with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Everything changed in 2018, when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, granted autocephaly (independence from another patriarchate) to the Church of Ukraine. This involved formalizing the division of the Ukrainian Orthodox between supporters of the Patriarchate of Moscow and those who wanted independence from it. Cyril broke with Constantinople and joined Putin’s project. Since then, the proximity between the two is clearer. In the end, the two “Russian worlds”, that of the Patriarch and that of the President, extend over the same territory and have the same historical, cultural and spiritual foundations.


Well, then, it remains true that in Putin’s “Russian world” religion enters as a component of Russian identity, and the essential core is nationalism. Basically, it’s a very traditional view, which has two pillars. One is the conviction that the Russian nation constitutes a civilization of its own and must have hegemony in its extensive scope (that of the former Russian Empire, continued by the USSR). The second is the opposition to the West, which comes from the ancient Slavophiles, for whom assimilation would be the dissolution of Russian.

Everything is subordinated to this nationalism. For Elchaninoff, Putin, “deep down, practices imperialism à la carte. Depending on the circumstances, it evokes nostalgia for the USSR, religious principles, Russianness, the Russian language, the Eurasian project…”

Still, Putin understands by imperialism the expansion of NATO, not your national project. The “Russian world” is an ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, historical, spiritual space… Every Russian must be, if not within the borders of the Russian Federation, at least within Moscow’s sphere of influence and under its tutelage. The hostile gestures of independent Ukraine towards Russia and the Russian minority, such as the suppression of the Russian language at school, fueled the Kremlin’s reaction.

But the invasion is not, in the eyes of Putin, against an external enemy, if not against some “traitors” or “infiltrators” (he calls them Nazis), as shown in the alleged reasons for ordering the so-called “special operation”. For Putin – as for Cyril and even for most Russians – Ukraine was never really any other country, but part of Russia. In the words of historian Antoine Arjakovsky in La Croix: “The inhabitants of Northern Rus (later Russia) never saw in Ukraine (Southern Rus) an identity different from yours.”

Divisions among the Orthodox

But in fact there was a distancing from Russia among the non-Russian Ukrainian population, which is also noticeable in the religious aspect. Russia and Ukraine largely share the same faith, Orthodox Christianity, which is the confession of almost three quarters of the inhabitants in both countries (in Ukraine there is still 14% of Greek Catholics). What there is not is ecclesiastical unity. According to a poll by 2016, the Orthodox in Ukraine are divided into 44 % of the faithful of the autocephalous Church, 16 % of the faithful of the Church dependent on the Patriarchate of Moscow and 38% that are not defined. The war deepened the division.

Some Ukrainian parishes moved from the Patriarchate of Moscow to that of Kiev, incited by the Russian invasion and the silence of the bishops, who did not speak out against it, according to New York Times. Manifests against Cyril’s stance and theses were published. One, international, that more than 1.300 orthodox professors and theologians have signed it, rejects the doctrine of the “Russian world”: qualifies it as heretical for claiming to supplant the kingdom of God with a temporal kingdom. Another statement, promoted in Ukraine by Archpriest Andriy Pinchuk, also considers it heresy and condemns Cyril for “blessing the war against Ukraine and unreservedly supporting the aggressive actions of Russian forces”. About 44 Ukrainian priests joined. There is also a petition from about 300 orthodox priests, most of them in Russia.

They also appeared divisions between the Orthodox Churches of other countries, which spoke out about the war according to their relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow. Bartholomew condemned the Russian invasion in forceful terms, and other patriarchates followed him, such as those of Greece, Romania or Alexandria. On the other hand, the Churches close to Moscow, while deploring the war, refrained from reprimanding Russia: such is the case of the Patriarchates of Serbia, Albania, Jerusalem and Antioch.

Brake on ecumenism

Ecumenism is another casualty of war. The Holy See’s relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow, always complicated, had slowly improved and registered an important advance in 2016, with the first conversation between a Patriarch and a Pope, when Cirilo and Francis met in Havana. The second meeting between the two was being prepared next June in Jerusalem. But the Holy See decided to suspend it, as the Pope announced in an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nación in 2022 Of april. “A meeting of the two at these times”, said Francisco, “could lead to a lot of confusion”.

Since the invasion began, there has not been much understanding between the two about the war. The public statements of the one and the other clearly contrast, and after their conversation by videoconference in 16 March, the Patriarchate and the Holy See issued remarkably different communiqués. Moscow’s was generic, while Rome’s reiterated clearer expressions used by Francis: that the Church must not adopt political language, or that wars are unjust.

On the other hand , the Patriarchate of Moscow since 2018 does not participate in the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue body. He withdrew not because of friction with the Catholic Church, but because of an intra-Orthodox question: he is opposed to the preferential position occupied by the representation of Constantinople in the meetings.

It could be said that, just as Putin wanted to stop the expansion of NATO and is almost causing the opposite, Cyril sought the reunification of the Church of Ukraine with its Patriarchate and begins to find more secession.

©2022 ACEPRENSA. Published with permission. Original in Spanish.
Back to top button