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 The Religious Dimension of Russia’s War in Ukraine By Dr. Andrey Kravtsev

Faith in the War between Russia and Ukraine

Early in April, the Moscow Patriarchate’s official website published “The Present and Future of the Russian World,” adopted at the XXV World Council of Russian People. The document opens with a theological rationale and lists several implications for Russian society’s political, social, and cultural life. Despite its quasi-Christian terminology, it does not take long to see that we are faced with an exposition that completely substitutes the most essential teachings of Christianity for a civil religion undergirding Russia’s current political ambition. 

The Sacred Substitution

The first and most apparent substitution is that “the sacredness of Russian civilization and the great Russian culture” is exalted to “the highest value and meaning of human life.” The ultimate “sacred thing” for which a person should live and die (as well as kill others) is Russia itself and its culture. In essence, the nation here claims the place of God himself, who alone can be the supreme value and meaning of a Christian’s life. 

Holy Russia

The second substitution is identifying Russia with the forces of ultimate good. “Holy Russia” is hailed as the “universal force that holds back [the antichrist] and protects the world from evil.” The myth of “Holy Russia” or the “Third Rome” – the only Christian state supposedly entrusted with preserving the true faith until the end of time – shaped the self-awareness of the Russian elite and its attitude toward its subjects for at least four centuries. It also defined its foreign policy and fueled endless imperial wars. 


Christian Scriptures speak of a unique people entrusted with the mission to anticipate the Kingdom of God in its communal life. However, this people is not a specific nation but the universal Church—a community of believers that includes representatives of all nations and cultures. History demonstrates that transferring this idea to any ethnic group or state has repeatedly betrayed the “privatization” of Christianity by national elites. 

Forces of Evil

The third substitution is the identification of Western civilization with the forces of evil. According to the authors of the document, the “West has fallen into Satanism” and seeks to “establish universal hegemony of the evil principle in the world.” In Christian theology, however, humans, whether of the West or the East, are neither good nor the source of evil. To see oneself as the sole “bearer of light” is self-deception, and to demonize others is to embark on a dangerous path of dehumanization and hatred towards the rest of humanity. 

The Patriarch Cyrill has repeatedly disparaged Western secular humanism’s prioritizing human rights and desires as rebellion against God. Yet one can never hear him expose unjust courts, torture, extrajudicial violence, and the persecution of people for their convictions within Russia’s borders. Neither does he ever speak out against the mass violations of the commandments “do not kill,” “do not bear false witness,” and “do not covet what belongs to your neighbor,” committed daily by representatives of “Holy Russia” against citizens of a neighboring country. 

The previous points lead to the fourth substitution – the thesis that Russia’s war against Ukraine is a “holy war.” The transfer of metaphysical categories of good and evil into relations between cultures inevitably thrusts the transfer of spiritual warfare into the political sphere. When, in the mid-2000s, the security services revived the time-tested narrative of a hostile West to protect the power and resources they had usurped, it was representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church who placed this narrative in the eschatological context, thereby granting it a sacred status. The outcome of the theology of “holy war” turned out to be the most terrible bloodshed in Europe since World War II. 

Admittedly, it is important to understand the psychological traumas experienced by many Russians after the breakdown of the USSR: the loss of political significance, ideological chaos, disillusionment with democracy, impoverishment of the population, regional separatism, the rampant spread of organized crime, and so on. However, in place of hard work to revive Christian values, the hierarchy embarked on preaching the “unique spirituality” of Russia, denouncing the “decadent West”, restricting civil liberties, and achieving the long-coveted “union” with the political authorities. Instead of taking the lead in national repentance, the ROC has fed the roots of Russian resentment. 

Civil Religion

Today, we are witnessing the emergence of a civil religion that only superficially bears the mark of Christianity in Russia. It is an ethnic cult centered around worshipping Russia as having higher spiritual value. One can’t help but notice a recurrent plot in human history—to ensure complete loyalty from subjects, the empire claims divine status, and cult servants eagerly offer their services. 

As is customary for an idol that has taken the place of God, the nation demands human sacrifices that have already amounted to half a million people killed in this war. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, in this frame of reference, is none other than the chief priest of the ethnic cult, blessing the sacrifice by publicly announcing “complete forgiveness of sins” to all who die in the holy war on foreign soil. This sobering picture resembles a local rehearsal of the future global disaster: the false prophet, “having horns like a lamb but speaking like a dragon,” deceiving the masses into worshiping the last human empire. 

In this connection, it is startling to see many Western evangelicals who are fascinated by a false image of Putin as a leader with “conservative moral values.” Unlike Russian Orthodoxy, which needs autocracy for its legitimacy as a totalitarian religion, evangelicalism, in principle, even if indirectly, has tended to undermine it. In history, these two different religious paradigms eventually translated into two different socio-political and cultural agendas similar to what Samuel Rutherford long ago described as “the king is the law” vs. “the law is the king.” 

Ukraine serves as a fair example of this. The country has two different Orthodox Churches and two forms of Catholic Christianity, so the government has to treat every religion equally. In addition, Ukraine has at least twice as large an evangelical population as its close neighbor, Russia. This is very different from Russia, whereby in infant baptism, ROC clergy considers all “ethnic Russians” their spiritual possession. The political situation correlates with religion: Ukraine has elected six presidents over the last thirty years and, despite the prolonged birth pains, was gradually becoming a young democracy fighting post-soviet chaos and corruption. 

This seems to be one of the true reasons behind the war. Russian state propaganda has repeatedly portrayed Ukraine as “anti-Russia,” but it is more correct to see it as an “alternative Russia.” By itself, the Western concept of democracy, with its regular change of power, human rights, and media competition, is no threat to the Russian people. Still, it is undoubtedly a death spell to Russian authoritarianism. That is why state propaganda (religious included) instills the fear of the West as “the perpetual enemy” in the minds of young Russian men who die by the hundreds every day in the steppes of Ukraine. 

The Gospel

It’s time to see the ideological and spiritual underpinnings of the current European crisis for what they are. Ultimately, what lies at its root is the spiritual ignorance of the Russian people, who, despite the thirty years of freedom, have not yet heard the Gospel. “Doom to a nation without the Word of God,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky. That is why the sake of Russia itself needs to expose its “sacred” ethnocentric myths with Scripture. 

Our Faith

It’s also time for Western evangelicals to think again through the implications of their faith. Let’s endeavor to be instruments of peace and justice rather than submit to manipulative politicians consumed by their thirst for power, wealth, and self-glorification. Our values and loyalties should be determined, first and foremost, by the Gospel that tells us who we are, why we are here, and the real battle we are all involved in. 


Andrey Kravtsev (Ph.D.)  has been a Ukrainian missionary in Russia for 21 years, a relief worker, and a seminary professor in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 

Learn more about Andrey’s story and how God has entrusted him as an agent of transformation.


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