This story is published in collaboration with Rolling Stone magazine.
(RNS) — Two days before he launched a bloody invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat alone in front of a camera and delivered a rambling, hour-long address. It outlined the ideological justification for what would ultimately become his “special military action” in Ukraine — an invasion that, as far as Putin was concerned, had more than a little to do with religion.
“Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said.
Two days later, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, spoke to military leaders and published a statement in honor of Defender of the Fatherland Day. The cleric congratulated Putin for his “high and responsible service to the people of Russia,” declared the Russian Orthodox Church has “always striven to make a significant contribution to the patriotic education of compatriots,” and lauded military service as “an active manifestation of evangelical love for neighbors.”
Within hours, bombs began to rain down on Ukraine.
This religious ramp-up to war was the culmination of a decade-long effort to wrap Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in faith — specifically, the flowing vestments of the Russian Orthodox Church. Fusing religion, nationalism, a defense of conservative values that likens same-sex marriage to Nazism and a version of history that seeks to define Ukraine and other nearby nations as mere subsets of a greater “Russkiy mir” (Russian world), the partnership of Putin and Kirill laid the ideological and theological groundwork for the current invasion.
But as explosions continue to rock Ukraine, some in the church are beginning to resist the religious appeals of Putin and Kirill, pushing back on efforts to recast naked Russian aggression as something that sounds a whole lot like a holy war.
The partnership of Putin, 69, and Kirill, 75, began around 2012, when the politician was reelected for a third term. It was then that Putin began embracing the Russian Orthodox Church — not necessarily as a point of personal conversion so much as a mechanism for political gain, something foreign policy experts often call “soft power.”
The relationship between the president and the prelate escalated rapidly. Kirill, allegedly a former KGB staffer like Putin, hailed the Russian Federation president’s leadership as a “miracle of God.” Meanwhile, Putin worked to frame Russia as a defender of conservative Christian values, which usually meant opposing abortion, feminism and LGBTQ rights. The pitch proved popular among a broad swath of conservative Christian leaders, including prominent voices within the American religious right: In February 2014, evangelist Franklin Graham offered cautious praise for Putin in an editorial for Decision Magazine, celebrating the Russian president’s decision to back a law barring dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” — a statute which, activists argued, effectively banned children from accessing media that presents LGBTQ identities and relationships in a positive or normalizing light. Graham would travel to Russia the following year, where he met with both Kirill and Putin, and told local media that “millions of Americans would like (Putin) to come and run for president of the United States.”
By 2017, Politico was already describing Russia as “the leader of the global Christian Right.”
The impact of this religious diplomacy was even greater in eastern European nations that once belonged to the Soviet Union, where the Russian Orthodox Church and its allies still enjoy outsized influence. When Moldova sought stronger ties with Europe, Orthodox clerics operating underneath the Moscow patriarchate campaigned against it, with one bishop telling the New York Times in 2016, “For me, Russia is the guardian of Christian values.” Things were similar in Montenegro, where the Serbian Orthodox Church has a close relationship with the Russian Patriarchate; priests there advocated against the nation’s plans to join NATO, and last year Russian Orthodox leaders lambasted Montenegro’s leaders for supporting “eurointegration.”
Kirill has long perpetuated a version of history that insists many countries that made up the former Soviet Union are one people with a common religious origin: namely, the 10th century baptism of Prince Vladimir I of Kiev, known as St. Vladimir. It’s often paired with a geo-political (and geo-religious) vision hundreds of Orthodox theologians and scholars recently decried as a heresy: a “transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world.”
It’s a Russian world with Moscow as its political center, Kyiv as the spiritual heart, and Kirill as its religious leader.