The Role of Religion in Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

Religion appears to play a role in Russia’s latest attack against Ukraine. Days after the Russian assault against Ukraine began, Pope Francis called for a cessation of hostilities, for prayer, and for his willingness to involve the Vatican in mediating the conflict. Without addressing Putin directly, Francis was critical of the Russian President denying that his invasion of Ukraine was only a special operation to protect Russia. The destruction caused by Russian bombs and missiles, the millions of Ukrainians forced to migrate, disruptions of families, and the number of civilians killed and maimed attest to the fact that this was not simply a small fracas. As the attack continued, Francis referred to it as shameful, while also being critical of NATO powers’ decision to increase their spending on weapons, calling it madness.1

On the other hand, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has gone public to justify the Russian invasion on the West’s Russophobia, likely knowing that in essence, it is nothing more than a preventive war, the type of conflict that is condemned both by international law and the Christian and secular moral concept of Just War. Patriarch Kirill also blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the West’s violation of God’s divine law through its acceptance of gay rights. In essence, he was preposterously suggesting that gayness threatens the national security of the Russian nation. From a Christian standpoint many sins are committed in the world, including in Russia. Attempting to justify violence through preventive warfare by reducing Christian doctrine to one sin (presuming it is so) is nothing short of perfidy. Again, Christianity is morally divided at a time when one of its greatest existential values, peace, becomes a necessity.

In fairness, Patriarch Kirill had a point, although not a big one, in saying that the West’s Russophobia is responsible for Putin’s actions.3 NATO is not driven by hatred or fear of the Russian people but by Vladimir Putin’s disregard of international and moral law. Nonetheless, misperceptions both by NATO and Putin, weak diplomatic efforts, and unwillingness for compromises led to a war that could have been avoided. NATO’s claim that each nation is sovereign therefore ought to be free to join the alliance is nothing but a truism that in a few years converted the NATO alliance into a military country club. Likely, countries that had been under Soviet domination were afraid that Russia, given its historical resume in the role of the Soviet Union, could still present a threat to them. Nonetheless, NATO and the US failed to recognize that Russia was no longer the Soviet Union, militarily, economically, or even religiously. Fear of the past was driving its policies without recognition of how Putin would react.

It was a difficult situation, indeed. For NATO to deny these nations access to the alliance could be misperceived as giving Russia a green light to threaten them again. But granting membership could also be misperceived by Russia—as it seems to have happened–that NATO was trying to encircle Moscow. The popular revolt by a Ukrainian mob in 2014 against their duly elected president for fear that he was tilting toward Russia’s economic offerings (presidential corruption was not a crucial issue at the time), violated (once again) the liberal principles of the democratic process that Western democracies have pledged to uphold. This incident was abetted and supported by the United States and European NATO allies. The so-called Revolution of Dignity propagated through Western media was an enormous and humiliating defeat to Putin who likely saw the writing on the wall. Ukraine, a potential buffer territory between NATO and Russia could become (and was in fact begging) to become part of the NATO alliance. Following the outcome of the Maidan uprising, Putin accepted that ninety-five percent of Ukraine would not remain neutral, so he settled for the lion’s tail by illegally annexing Crimea. Misperceiving how Putin would evaluate the fall of Ukrainian democracy, the West further misperceived this annexation as evidence that Putin could not be trusted and accused him of doing what other European countries and the United States had done before: relying on preventive warfare to accomplish political goals.

This interpretation of events or any other cannot possibly be extracted from the Gospels or even from Paul’s letters that showed no interest in a conflict with the Roman Empire. A potential outcome, assuming the conflict does not escalate into a nuclear conflagration, is likely to confirm the failure of diplomacy, misperceptions, and intransigence on both sides. If anything may prevent escalation is the dreadful yet all too real concept of Mutual Assured Destruction that may extend to other nations all over the world.

At this time, we may want to ask how the teachings of Jesus Christ help us to understand the moral aspects of this war. In the exhaustive study I conducted on the Gospels there is a striking empirical observation: Jesus had little if anything to say about warfare despite being aware of historical wars in which his people participated, and the suffering brought by Roman domination. He condemned killing—Thou Shall Not Kill—except that his commandment was intended as personal (not social) teaching. Jesus’s concept of peace also was limited to relations among individuals, not nations. Although we may extrapolate his teaching to wars among nations, Jesus refrained from doing so. His teachings indicate, judging by the way he died, that he was personally a pacifist. Numerous examples in the Gospels allude to this view, but none more than a most bizarre parable instructing his followers not to intervene in killings or wars because of the risk of collateral damage to the innocent (Mt 13:24-30). If the Christian world were to accept this teaching as divine and follow it, nations would not be able to intervene in acts of genocide; essentially it would mean the end of civilization as we know it since the concept of law and order would become meaningless.

For some time, some theologians have been urging the Church to repudiate the concept of Just War, created by Christians–Catholics and Protestants–as a means to mitigate the risk of war. They suggest that the concept has run its course and become insignificant. Nevertheless, these advocates have failed to indicate what practical replacement would fill the moral vacuum its rejection would create in international politics. A proper understanding of the Just War concept, however, reveals, not its insignificance, but its indifference by religious and political leaders under the pretext that power politics is out of bounds in Christianity.

For example, Pope Francis has said that no war is just, apparently rejecting a concept that has existed for nearly two thousand years, albeit without always preventing wars. At the same time, Francis has indicated that Ukrainians have the right to protect the homeland from invaders, suggesting that some aspects of warfare may be morally just. The point is that we cannot have it both ways. If the mere defense of the homeland with defensive weapons is morally allowed, it must be because there is some justice to it. Defending the defenseless from genocide appears to obey Jesus’s first commandment, love of God and love of neighbor. How the faithful can love God by rejecting warfare but love their neighbor by defending them through military conflict is an intricate moral proposition, one that is difficult to extract from the Gospels or even Paul’s letters.

In the end, expecting divine guidance may be wishful thinking because of each side’s actions. There is a reason for this behavior. Ethnocentrism, nations’ tendency to judge events from their perspective inserts a biased view of relations among them when evaluating international politics. No nation is likely to see itself as being evil, hence by default the opposition are the bad guys.

This war, however, calls for perspective lest we think we are always the good guys. That Vladimir Putin has engaged in brutal actions is indisputable, whether because NATO powers cornered him or he perceived that such was their intention. Not knowing when or how it will end, Russia’s preventive war in Ukraine has reenforced the normative value that each nation in pursuit of its own interests will flaunt international and moral  principles as it sees fit. So far,  thousands have been killed or maimed while infrastructures in towns and cities have been completely demolished. In the eastern regions of Donbas and Luhansk where combats have been going on between Russian-aided separatists and Ukrainians since 2014, Russians have attacked viciously. The number of casualties although difficult to estimate probably will surpass 50,000.

We may want to compare the above to other outcomes of preventive warfare. During the first two months of the 2003 US preventive invasion of Iraq (dubbed preemptive by the administration, US Congress, and US media) there were nearly 4,000 civilian deaths according to IraqBodyCount.org database, following President George W. Bush’s proclamation banner “Mission Accomplished.” Throughout 2008, the end of the Bush presidency, there had been 80,000 civilian deaths. Following the Law of Unintended Consequences that the Just War concept takes into account, the US invasion of Iraq accounted for between 186,143 and 209,349 civilian deaths. When the number of combatants killed is added, figures go as high as 288,000.4

Do comparisons allow us to establish moral and political equivalence? Yes, although with a distinction. NATO forces were attempting regime change driven by disingenuous intelligence, violations of international law, and questionable moral intentions. Their objective to destroy Weapons of Mass Destruction that were supposed to be inside the country (but were never found) was the rationale to remove Saddam Hussein (who had been previously involved in criminal activities). Although the US did not annex any part of Iraq’s territory, the invasion led to the creation of new terrorist organizations we are still battling and the chaos they have created in the region. Putin, on the other hand, has attacked a nation he perceived as potentially threatening Russia, headed by an honest and heroic president who naively failed to make clear his intentions regarding NATO. Moreover, in violation of international law, he has occupied Ukrainian territory.

Both wars were preventive (not preemptive), hence illegal, and immoral. The staggering number of casualties, including combatants on both sides that have no choice but to obey orders and die for their leaders or  questionable reasons and values, make preventive warfare indefensible from a religious, humanist, and legal norms.

From a divided Christian perspective, it is difficult (if not impossible) to trace a proper moral course in international politics to avoid preventive warfare and the subjective and insidious reality of power politics. It is left to the liberal democracies of the world to assume the necessary leadership to establish a new world order. However, such a task requires the good guys to abstain from violating the values they claim to defend. As of today, the US and some NATO countries accuse Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Nonetheless, we cannot take these charges to the International Criminal Court because we refuse to be a signatory to the International Criminal Court statute. In this regard, we cannot have it both ways.

1) Inés San Martín, Pope condemns ‘shameful’ Ukraine war, but calls Western defense expenditures ‘madness’, Crux, March 24, 2022.

2) Inés San Martín, Russia expert says political pressures forcing Kirill to back Putin’s war, Crux, March 23, 2022.

3) Elise Ann Allen, “Orthodox Patriarch blames Ukraine war on western ‘Russophobia’,” Crux, March 11, 2022.

4) IraqBodyCount.org. There have been various estimates of this war. For example, Gilbert Burnham, Shannon Doocy, Elizabeth Dzeng, Riyadh Lafta, Les Roberts, “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq – A Mortality Study, 2002-2006,” Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore Maryland, and School of Medicine, Baghdad, Iraq, places the numbers of people killed at 600,000; Amy Agopian, et al, “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study,” NIH, National Library of Medicine, Oct 15, 2013. The study reported approximately 405,000 people were killed from 2003 to 2011.