The invasion of Ukraine on February 24th may not have been entirely unexpected, but it still came rightly as a shock. Ground invasions like Putin’s seem like forgotten warfare in an era where cyber attacks and nuclear threats are the most common instruments of larger countries. Yet a traditional ground invasion, tanks and all, is not the only bit of “tradition” that Putin has resurrected. His rhetoric behind the invasion stems, at least in theory, as much from his vision of traditional Russia as it does from more “modern” economic and national security concerns.
Putin’s hatred of Ukraine is not hatred for the Ukrainian people, but for its status as a sovereign state, and for reasons that are nothing short of romantic. As revealed in his speech preceding the invasion, Putin believes that Ukraine and Russia share a common history and that that history makes them one and the same. Ukraine, in Putin’s view, has always been part of Russia, and to let it continue to exist as a separate state is an insult and a threat to the holy idea of Russia. Foundational Russian cultural events such as the “baptism of Russia” by St. Vladimir the Great took place in the land that is now Ukraine, and Putin emphasizes those events as moments of unity for the Russian people—a people that includes many of the former Soviet republics, and especially Ukraine. Thus, the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign state is a blow to Russian identity and a reminder of the fallen state of modern Russia compared to its past greatness.
Coupled with this anger over Ukraine’s separation is an increasing fear of the threat of the West. Not only does Putin fear the military threat of NATO and the EU, but he also fears the cultural encroachment of secularism, democracy, and liberalism into Russia. The fact that Ukraine has become increasingly Western is a threat both on a physical and spiritual level; the presence of a Western nation hostile to Russia on its border is a military threat in and of itself, but additionally, the Westernization of a people that Putin sees as Russia’s own is a moral and cultural insult. It is fair to say that, because Putin sees Ukraine as historically and practically part of Russia, he sees the state of modern Ukraine as nothing more than a breeding ground for Russians who oppose his idea of Russian identity. It is, to him, a place of corruption and dangerous nationalism, heavily influenced by what he sees as the decadent West and betraying its great Russian heritage.
Unlike many Russians, Putin has access to the facts. He must know, on some level, that Ukraine is not violently persecuting Russians; that most Ukrainians do not see Russia as a liberator; and that the leadership of Ukraine is not a Nazi remnant. As such, it is tempting to write off his rhetoric about “holy Russia” as mere propaganda. However, it would be dangerous for the West to underestimate Putin’s rhetoric and the extent to which such rhetoric directs his actions. It would be equally dangerous to underestimate the strength that the narrative has over Russian and Ukrainian people. Religious history and tradition, specifically the Orthodox Christian tradition, are so intrinsically tied to the identity of Russia that it is nearly impossible to extricate them from each other. And while this interconnection is not intrinsically good or bad, it allows Putin to use religion and tradition for his political purposes.
Take the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Putin has used the common Orthodoxy of Ukraine and Russia as a reason for their similarity and union. However, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been fractioning itself away from the Moscow patriarch in an effort to distance itself from Russia nearly to the point of schism between the two churches. The political animosity between Russia and Ukraine has reflected in the church itself, and Putin is trying to use the reunion of Orthodoxy as one of his reasons for the unification of Russia and Ukraine. It is tradition, just as much as security, that Putin has invoked as justification for his invasion.
Those of us who love tradition may recognize his passion and see in it the kind of romanticism that hearkens to the medieval world. However, it is important to remember that though Putin may see himself and his war as the protection of a tradition on the eve of extinction, his methods are far from moral, and the cognitive dissonance that it takes to use violent military action against the people one claims to be one’s own in the name of a holy nation is astonishing. His invasion and its accompanying rhetoric are an example of religion being used for purposes other than the spiritual enrichment of its people. Putin does not care for the moral or spiritual protection of his people; that is not the reason he touts Orthodoxy as a point of unification. If it were, there would be no violent war.
Rather, Putin sees Christianity as inherently connected with Russia and appeals to that tradition to strengthen his position. He uses tradition, legend, and spirituality as a tool for power and political gain, taking advantage of the traditional Christian spirit of Russia to advance his political global agenda. This misuse of religion and religious identity should frighten and anger those of us who want to protect and honor tradition for the life that it gives to the soul.
It is ironic that Putin has used religion in his argument when he has also publicly praised the former Soviet Union, under which religious expression was severely repressed. Russia’s involvement with religion has long been more symbolic than practical. Reviving this symbolic association while lacking the historical significance to back it up would be laughable if the rhetoric did not help incite a major war.
Putin is not a religious leader, and seeking the reunification of the Orthodox religion under Russian authority is not his primary goal. However, he certainly sees the West as both a physical and cultural threat to Russia and seeks to reestablish a Russian empire to combat that threat. He uses a combination of historical and religious fact and legend to sell an idea of Russia that includes the Ukrainian people and can only be realized when Ukraine no longer has its own state. This use of religion in pursuit of a goal that violates Ukrainian sovereignty and life constitutes both a gross misuse of tradition as a lofty goal and an example of the consequences of allowing religion to be so entrenched in politics. It should anger Christians everywhere that a tradition as ancient and beautiful as the Orthodox one is being used to justify the kinds of atrocities that are now taking place.