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Lucian N. Leustean

February 8th, 2023

Is Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine still a Religious War?

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Lucian N. Leustean

February 8th, 2023

Is Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine still a Religious War?

0 comments | 25 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

As February 24th approaches, conversations about the role of religion in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue. Here, Lucian N. Leustean analyses the key milestones which have shaped religious mobilisation towards the ongoing war.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains a religious war and requires not only political and military answers but also a religious solution.

In an op-ed published on 3 March 2022, I wrote that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February can be described as the first religious war in the 21st century. So, to what extent is the ongoing conflict still a religious war and what are the lessons for the religious and political communities eleven months later?

Russia and Ukraine are predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian countries, with three churches actively involved in the conflict, namely the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (which separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990 and remains the largest religious community in Ukraine) and an independent (autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church (recognised by the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate only in 2019).

In chronological order, the following events have been milestones in shaping religious mobilisation towards the ongoing war:

This list is non-exhaustive and does not include the suffering and trauma caused by the war to the lives of so many people. Transfer of parishes between the two Ukrainian churches, changes in religious jurisdiction, the work of military chaplains on both sides of the conflict, the bombing of churches and religious sites, and the humanitarian activities of religious communities towards refugees and displaced people are some of the missing examples from the overall picture.

What are the lessons for understanding the religious dimension of the ongoing war? Three key points stand out:

First, religion has been an inexorably active part of the war and its security strategies in advancing political power. The longer the war continues the more complex the religious mobilisation will become. In Russia, Patriarch Kirill’s statements only reinforce the militarisation of Russian society in support of the war, a discourse adopted by Putin’s inner circle and the security apparatus. In Ukraine, in the legislative process of implementing religious freedom and ‘spiritual independence’ from Russia, political authorities need support from international organisations to ensure that religion is not used as a tool leading to further military escalation.

Second, the politicisation of religion has demonstrated that the shifting frontline between Russian and Ukrainian troops can be seen as a religious border. Military chaplains fighting alongside Russian troops do not hesitate to describe the conflict as a veritable ‘spiritual war’. Ukrainian troops defend not only their country but the whole secular West and the liberal Eastern Orthodox world while the Russians fight for the protection of traditional Orthodox Christianity.

Third, political imagination and identifying a diplomatic and military solution to ending the conflict must take the multifaceted role of religion into account. Religious diplomacy, informal faith-based networks of national and international dialogue, religious symbolism, and religious charisma could provide results where political and military avenues are unable to do so.

The social and political mobilisation of religious communities in Russia and Ukraine will only continue to intensify in the months ahead and will remain key to understanding what motivates people and states.

Religion, in its institutionalised form and as a lived community, can increase conflict but can also provide the means of discovering peaceful solutions.

This op-ed was supported by the author’s participation as Senior Fellow in the ‘Orthodoxy and Human Rights’ project, sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

Photo by Viktor Hesse on Unsplash

About the author

Lucian N. Leustean

Lucian N. Leustean is a Reader in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, Birmingham, where he has been teaching since 2007. He is a senior fellow of the ‘Orthodoxy and Human Rights’ project at Fordham University, New York. His recent publications include, as co-editor, with Grace Davie, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Europe, with Victoria Hudson, Religion and Forced Displacement in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia and, as editor, Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.

Posted In: International | Populism and Religion

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