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Welcome to Russia’s holy war

Paul Starobin, a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, is writing a book on Russia.

In mid-March, several weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin appeared on stage before a crowd gathered at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. 

Donning the role of a pastoral leader heading his national flock, Russia’s head of state solemnly moved to consecrate his country’s fallen soldiers, paraphrasing from “our Christian Bible.” “There’s no more love than if somebody gives their soul for his friends,” he rhapsodized. 

Welcome to a military conflict cast by Moscow in fervent religious terms.  

State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov, a close Kremlin ally, recently declared on Russian television that “This is truly a holy war we’re waging, and we must win.” Nikonov is the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s longtime foreign minister, but his stark declaration of a “metaphysical clash between the forces of good and evil” is indicative of the decidedly “White,” not “Red,” thinking that prevails in the Kremlin today — a notable return to czarist-era justifications for Russian wars of pre-Soviet times. 

Russia began gravitating back toward Orthodoxy as a heavenly destination after the collapse of the officially atheistic Soviet Union in 1991, and this pilgrimage has proceeded more rapidly since Putin assumed power. Today, some 70 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, according to a Pew survey. 

What does it mean, then, for Russia, in its own mind to be fighting a sanctified “holy war” in Ukraine — and how should the West understand this messianic mission? 

In the first instance, the prospect of a nuclear war, now openly talked about by top Russian government officials, cannot be dismissed as mere bluster. “The danger is serious, real” and “cannot be underestimated,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a recent television interview.  

Nuclear armaments are seen as God’s way of ensuring Mother Russia’s survival. As detailed in a bracing 2019 book, “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy,” by the analyst Dmitry Adamsky, each leg of the nuclear triad — air, land and sea-based — has a patron saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. Holy water is sprinkled on nuclear weapons; nuclear-armed submarines come with chapels; and priests minister to military personnel responsible for the nation’s nuclear weapons system.  

Putin himself has said that Orthodox faith and nuclear weapons are “closely interlinked” components of “Russian statehood.” And he recently announced on television the successful test launch of Russia’s most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile ever, the RS-28 Sarmat, referred to by NATO as Satan-2. 

A threat to incinerate Washington with a ballistic missile may seem far-fetched, as the United States has the means to cremate Moscow with the Pentagon’s own arsenal of nukes. But Russia is thought by Western analysts to have over 1,500 so-called tactical nuclear weapons, designed for use on the battlefield. A low-yield weapon could conceivably be exploded over the Black Sea to deliver a testament of unwavering commitment to this battle not only to Kyiv but also to Washington, in an apocalyptic response to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent statement on weakening Russia as a war aim. 

Russian dedication to holy war also suggests that the “Battle for Kyiv” may not yet be over. Though Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia’s initial advance, forcing a Russian redeployment of its firepower to eastern and southern Ukraine, if these campaigns are concluded to Russia’s satisfaction, Moscow may well turn its attention back to Kyiv. 

After all, the prized place of Kyiv in the Russian Orthodox firmament cannot be overstated. In the Russian national story, history essentially begins in 988 with a mass baptism of pagan souls in the waters of the Dnieper by Kyiv. The Mongols later sacked Kyiv, but the city recovered its Orthodox identity, and in 1685, the clergy of Kyiv came under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.  

In the first “textbook” of the history of “Rus,” its teachings deeply rooted among Russians and often cited by Putin in his insistence on the indissoluble bond between Russians and Ukrainians, Kyiv is depicted as the cradle of Muscovy.  

Now, with Russia’s post-Soviet Orthodox revival, possibly no image would resonate more triumphantly with the Russian people than those of their soldiers taking triumphant possession of the Saint Sophia Cathedral, the hallowed shrine built in the first “Rus” to proclaim Kyiv as a new Constantinople. 

In one sense, there is nothing new here. Russian czars — and Putin fits this mold, even as an elected president — traditionally have gone to battle to protect, as they saw it, Orthodox peoples.  

The twist in the current battle is that the Russians are fighting their Orthodox brethren. 

Nearly 80 percent of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox — a higher share than in Russia. But in Moscow’s view, the Ukrainians are heretics, as many have largely split from the Moscow Patriarchate, and their apostate government is seeking to join the decadent West through membership in the European Union and NATO. So “Little Russia,” as Ukraine was officially known in imperial czarist times, must be repossessed. 

Shortly after the start of the invasion, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, delivered a sermon in Moscow that set the stakes as an epochal struggle over a godless, Western-imposed project, a “new world order.” In response, hundreds of Orthodox clergy in Ukraine accused Kirill of heresy for preaching that Ukraine eternally belongs to the unified spiritual and territorial space that Russian Orthodox leaders call Russkiy Mir — Russian World. 

Kirill himself has called Putin’s reign “a miracle from God.”  What’s clear is that Putin has publicly embraced the invasion of Ukraine as a religious quest. Holy war tends to be the most savage war of all — and Russia’s may be just beginning.

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