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Russia’s Holy Claim to Ukraine: The Religious Dimensions of Putin’s Destructive Invasion

By Benjamin Souza, Contributing Writer for the National Interest Foundation

Introduction

In the early hours of February 24th, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the country’s citizens and the international community, attempting to make his case for why Russia should invade neighboring Ukraine. While media coverage has referred to the invasion of Ukraine as “Putin’s War,” the causes and domestic defense of it go deeper than the leader himself. The invasion has been characterized as a belief shared by Putin and others that Ukraine is part of political Russia and meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch has defended Putin’s claim further by arguing that The Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be reimposed into the Moscow Patriarchate. This religious element ties into the root viewpoint of the Russian government that neither Ukraine nor its culture has a right to independent sovereignty from Russia, and thus has been used as their justification for the illegal invasion.

Brief History of the Russian Orthodox Church and Its Ties in Ukraine

The Russian Orthodox Church’s history has lasted far longer than the timeline of various Russian governments and leaders. Founded officially in 1448, the state-sponsored formation came hundreds of years after Prince Vladimir made the Byzantine sect of Christianity the state religion of Russia. This would set the groundwork for the church to form into its own Russian orthodoxy sect. The constitutional adoption of the Byzantine Empire’s sect of Christianity helped scholars form the idea, after Constantinople fell, that Moscow was “The Third Rome.” As Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire post the fall of Rome, now with Russia taking the state religion of the Roman successor, it was deemed “The Third Rome.” This mindset would tie into the idea of the “Russian World.” The concept being a political-philosophical belief that as Russia is the continuation of Rome, it therefore has a density to expand and maintain its empire through Eastern Europe, all where the Russian Orthodox Church would have influence.

Ukraine, bordering Russia, would consistently have either close relations or outright occupation from the Russian Empire and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This has allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to cultivate and form deep roots in Ukraine. Through the long complex history of moving borders and various moments of occupation, Ukraine – especially in the east – has had close cultural ties with Russia, sharing the same religion, similar languages, and often, an overlapping history. Even while the USSR oppressed the Russian Orthodox Church, it survived, deepening relations with Ukraine as well, who faced repression from the same government.

In 2018, the Ukrainian sect of the Russian Orthodox Church split, with then-President Poroshenko supporting the move in an attempt to boost his ratings as a new election was around the corner. In the aftermath of the Euromaidan demonstrations, Ukraine was increasingly separating ties with Putin’s Russia. As such, Ukraine’s religious pro-Euromaidan sects wished for their own church under the longstanding Eastern Christian Orthodox precedent “One Country, One Church.” Given that Ukraine was independent of Russia, this criterion would dictate that their church should be as well.

Following the split of the two churches, Pew Research published an analysis from data in 2015 and 2016 after the Russian annexation of Crimea which looked into Ukrainians’ religious tendencies. It found that a plurality of Ukrainians, around 46%, looked to the Ukrainian Orthodox sect leaders of the Russian Church while just 17% looked towards the main Russian Orthodox Church. This demonstrated a notable sentiment of separation from Russia overall, but also showed a clear pro-Russian Orthodox standing in some of the eastern regions of Ukraine, consistent with political identification in the country. The data indicated the existence of a link between political elements and religious identity – further complicating the issue.

The Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch’s Support of the Invasion at Home and Abroad

After Putin announced his invasion, the Russian Orthodox Church suffered an internal split. In Russia, some clergy have supported the invasion while others have expressed reserved opposition. However, despite this split within Russia, The Patriarch, who makes the official position of the Church, has been a large supporter of the invasion. As 86% of Russians identify with the Church, there is a strong likelihood that many will hesitate to resist the official position, which is pro-invasion and calls for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be reabsorbed by the Russian Church.

Internationally, the reaction is very split. In New York City, for example, the two churches have had very different responses to the invasion. While the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been an outspoken critic of the invasion, holding prayers and rallies, the Russian Church leader has been silent. Like in Russia, some in the Russian Orthodox Church have been quietly enraged with the invasion. This has forced Russian Orthodox churchgoers into difficult predicaments waiting for further guidance from their religious leaders.

While the Church is fundamentally split over the invasion, ultimately the official position has consisted of support for the illegal invasion. There is a concern that this religious dynamic may cause some Russians, who often identify under the Russian Orthodox Church, to be reluctant to voice opposition to the war. Furthermore, the alliance between Putin’s government and the Church could even bolster national support, and also serve to complicate Russia’s entanglement due to the involvement of the two major entities. Opposition within the Church will almost certainly be silenced despite many officials’ uneasiness over the invasion.

The Long-Term Effects and Dangerous Elements of a War with Religious Undertones

The Russian government has used the Russian Orthodox Church’s complex Ukrainian history as a further dimension to justify its illegal invasion. Tying in Russia’s deep religious population into a belief that this has holy implications has been purposefully done to try and formulate support for the action. For Putin, he needs the support of the Church due to its influence on the Russian population, and the Church in turn needs Putin to have further political influence. This symbiotic relationship will cause neither side to make concessions without the support of one another.

These aspects have caused further outrage from Ukrainians. Not only do they fear that they will lose political free will, but also, their freedom of faith is under attack as well. This may cause Ukrainian citizens to become wearier that should Russia’s war efforts succeed, deep impacts will be made on their day-to-day liberties and autonomy. Internationally, there has been widespread condemnation of this more aggressive religious aspect to the conflict. The worry regarding an imposition on religious freedom in Ukraine is directly not compliant with international law down to the fundamentals laid out in Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church view the invasion of Ukraine as deeply intertwined with religious elements. From the historical “Third Rome” and “Russian World” perceptions to modern-day geopolitical considerations, the conflict is problematically woven with these religious and ideological components. Thus, there are legitimate concerns over the stance that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church must be reabsorbed and that religious undertones will significantly complicate any potential diplomatic concessions or peace deal.

Conclusion

The destructive Russian invasion of Ukraine goes deeper than a simple fear of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion. At its core, the invasion is based on hundreds of years of Russian nationalism and a belief among some that Russia has a religious claim to Ukraine. With the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin has attempted to make gains in garnering domestic support to aid his justification for the invasion. The religious elements make the prospect for diplomatic deals far more difficult and dwindle the ability of either side in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict to make the concessions necessary for lasting peace and stability.

NIF USA