'Holy war': Russia now depicts Ukraine invasion in spiritual terms

WASHINGTON — “I promise that we will win this holy war,” the Russian officer tells the recruits arrayed before him in a video recently shared by the popular, pro-Ukraine Saint Javelin social media account. “Who is fighting against us? People who say that their God is Satan. Satanists are at war with us. People who insist we attend LGBT parades.”

The officer’s exhortation had nothing to do with territorial claims, or the supposed “Nazism” of the ruling regime in Kyiv, both of which were the original pretexts for Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Russia’s much smaller neighbor. Instead, the reference to “holy war” mirrored the increasingly sharp spiritual rhetoric emanating from political and military leaders in the Kremlin, who are desperate to retain public support for the faltering war effort.

A subtitle on a screen grab from the video says: We are people for whom there is a mother, father, god, religion, and everything else that the Almighty gave us. That's the whole point.
A screengrab from a video posted on the Saint Javelin social media account. (via Twitter)

To a degree, that effort has always involved some reference to spiritual warfare, despite the fact that Russians and Ukrainians share deep roots in the Orthodox Church. Those ties have been downplayed as the Kremlin has rebranded the war as an intrusion of Western values on the so-called Ruskyi mir, or Russian world, of which it sees itself as the custodian — and sole legitimate ruler, to the exclusion of sovereign governments in Kyiv or Minsk, Belarus.

“They’re not fighting Christians in Ukraine,” a scholar of Russian culture and religion at Wesleyan University, Victoria Smolkin, said, explaining how the justification for the invasion has shifted. “They’re fighting Satanists. They’re fighting the West.”

At a Kremlin ceremony to mark the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, Putin described the move as a “glorious spiritual choice,” referring to the nationalist philosopher and religious scholar Ivan Ilyin — who was also an early admirer of Adolf Hitler.

In the same speech, Putin quoted from the Sermon on the Mount and inveighed against nontraditional families, in a seeming attempt to incite homophobia and provide a cultural justification for his war. “The overthrow of faith and traditional values” amounts to “pure Satanism,” the Russian president warned.

Increasingly, the Kremlin sees its goal in Ukraine not as “denazification" — the original pretext for the invasion, predicated on a grotesque exaggeration of Ukrainian right-wing nationalism — but as “desatanization,” which has recently become a popular term in Russian media and politics.

President Vladimir Putin at the microphone, with three Russian flags behind him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a ceremony at the Kremlin on Sept. 30 for signing the treaties in which Russia annexed four regions of Ukraine. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (AP)

“By the way, many European leaders are real Satanists,” the right-wing pundit Sergey Mikheyev offered in a recent television appearance, giving a lurid vision of a fallen Western society — a society to whose cultural, social and political values many Russians aspire. Since the start of the war, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled to the West and elsewhere, apparently uninterested in sharing the Kremlin’s vision of a sanctified Russia engaged in endless spiritual warfare. Putin’s recent mobilization order appears only to have accelerated the flight abroad.

“Vladimir Putin and his enablers have made one thing very clear: This war is not only about Ukraine. They consider their war against Ukraine to be part of a larger crusade, a crusade against liberal democracy,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said earlier this month.

In that sense, Smolkin says, Putin’s understanding of modern Western culture is not all that different from Christian nationalists in the United States who see secular society as an existential threat. “There are very significant connections between American culture warriors and ‘Russian world’ propagandists,” Smolkin told Yahoo News.

Russian cultural and religious conservatives espouse a bleak vision that, in their view, requires a militant response to supposedly hostile elements. As the Kremlin ideologue Alexander Dugin recently put it, “Armageddon and the Apocalypse are unfolding before our eyes.”

The costs have certainly been rising for Putin. What was supposed to be a quick invasion has turned into a grinding war that has seen the Ukrainian armed forces put up a ferocious defense of their homeland, with military support from Western allies. As many as 80,000 Russian soldiers have been either killed or injured in the eight-month war.

A Ukrainian National guard soldier crouches and covers his ears as an artillery piece blasts off a mortar.
The Ukrainian National guard fires at Russian positions with a mortar near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Andrii Marienko/AP) (AP)

“Wars tend to get more ‘holy’ as they go on, and leaders have to justify the high costs,” says Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Ukraine’s allies in Western Europe and North America provide a useful foil for the Kremlin, which has never settled on a coherent — or convincing — narrative to explain why it needed to invade Ukraine.

“They do not want to see us as a free society, but a mass of soulless slaves,” Putin said during last month’s annexation speech, depicting Russia as a bulwark against Western materialism and spiritual impoverishment.

The sanctification of military operations has been commonplace for modern Russia, which emerged from a stridently atheistic Soviet Union to embrace the Orthodox Church, at least officially. Although the church has great political and cultural influence, Russians themselves tend to stay out of the pews.

Still, centuries of Orthodox spirituality retain a grip on Russian culture, particularly in times of distress. During the brutal second Chechen war, launched by Putin to suppress the independence efforts of the Muslim-majority province, a slain Russian soldier, Yevgeny Rodionov, who supposedly refused to convert to Islam while in captivity, became a sanctified figure, with icons of his image commonplace in patriotic Russian households.

In 2020, Russia opened the Cathedral of the Armed Forces near Moscow. The vast edifice mixes Orthodox images with Russian military history, celebrating Soviet victories over the Nazis, the Soviet suppression of protests in Eastern Europe, and Putin’s invasions of Georgia, in 2008, and Ukraine, in 2014, as well as Russia’s involvement in Syria, which raised allegations of war crimes against civilians.

Russian servicemen attend a service at the Cathedral of the Armed Forces in a military theme park outside Moscow on June 23, 2020. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian servicemen attend a service at the Cathedral of the Armed Forces outside Moscow on June 23, 2020. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

“This is not really an Orthodox cathedral, it’s a cathedral of our new post-Soviet civil religion,” one religious scholar lamented at the time.

In a cruel irony, many of the soldiers now fighting for Russia come from the nation’s poorer Islamic regions and share little of the Kremlin's spiritual or geopolitical aspirations. This tension has surfaced in the form of anti-draft protests in provinces like Chechnya and Dagestan — and in a mass shooting at a Russian military base at Belgorod, near the border with Ukraine.

According to news reports, Muslim soldiers there objected to participating in the Ukraine invasion, prompting Lt. Col. Andrey Lapin to tell troops that they were fighting a “holy war.” He then proceeded to insult Allah. Apparently in retaliation, Tajik soldiers killed Lapin and 10 others.

No one has done more to promulgate that civil religion than Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Orthodox Church in Moscow. Rumored to have once been recruited by the KGB, Kirill is a close associate of Putin, himself a former Soviet intelligence officer.

The war has perhaps been the greatest political challenge of Kirill’s career, a sign of how difficult it is to reconcile spiritual faith with a war whose atrocities are impossible to avoid or disguise.

From the start of the war, Kirill has sanctioned the invasion, downplaying its human costs and moral concerns. He recently cited the work of the 11th century cleric St. Nestor the Chronicler to argue that divisions between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were fictional — a version of the pan-Slavic argument that Putin has used to justify his brutal invasion, which has killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and Russian soldiers.

Patriarch Kirill, in white jeweled miter, white robes and with three icons suspended from his neck, holds a candle in each hand by an ornate brass gate to the altar..
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill conducts the Easter service at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on April 23. (Sergei Vlasov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP) (AP)

In September, Kirill tried to comfort the thousands of young men who suddenly found themselves conscripted into the armed forces after Putin announced a "partial mobilization": Any soldier who died on the front, he announced, would receive absolution. “He will have sacrificed himself for others. And therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins committed by such a man,” Kirill said in a sermon.

“That does seem to be very much a jihadist kind of approach,” says one Russia expert from Oxford University, Samuel Ramani.

Pope Francis recently pleaded with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to bring an end to the conflict; Muslim and Jewish figures have made similar calls.

In an autocratic nation like Russia, however, even churches are enlisted in government enterprises.

Kirill thus finds himself in an untenable position, according to Smolkin, the Wesleyan scholar. After the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from the Russian Orthodox Church, a process that took four years — and represented a major defeat for Kirill, by weakening his grip on Ukraine's church, the third-largest Orthodox community in the world, after those of Russia and Ethiopia.

Last winter’s invasion further deepened the schism, presenting problems for the Ukrainian churches that remained under the control of the Moscow patriarchate. Those churches declared in May that they wanted independence from Russia.

Conscious of the tricky position he occupies, Kirill has endorsed Putin’s invasion while calling for peace, as he did during a recent meeting with members of the World Council of Churches. Kirill has also trained his criticism on the West, decrying the closure of churches in one of his recent sermons as the sign of an enfeebled civilization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reaches out to put both hands warmly on Patriarch Kirill, who is wearing red robes and miter, and bows his head in a gesture of acknowledgment.
Kirill and Putin after the Easter service at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in April. (Oleg Varov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP) (AP)

For all that, Smolkin notes, “it’s not really the church that embraces this rhetoric” of an anti-Ukrainian crusade. While Kirill’s outright militarism is striking coming from a religious leader, it pales in comparison to the rhetoric routinely espoused by state media propagandists, who face few consequences for casting the war in Ukraine in whatever terms appear expedient to their paymasters in the Kremlin.

As the invasion started to falter in April, the editor of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, speculated that Russia would soon launch a nuclear strike, leading to World War III and worldwide devastation.

In response, Vladimir Solovyov, another prominent Kremlin propagandist, countered with a spiritual silver lining: “But we will go to heaven.”