how Russia wants to present an attack on Ukraine as a “holy war”

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev before a meeting with government members in Moscow, Russia, January 15, 2020 – Dmitry ASTAKHOV/SPUTNIK/AFP

From “special military operations” to “holy war”? For several weeks, Russian forces have tried to give a religious and sacred dimension to their attack on Ukraine, while Dimitri Medvedev, Russia’s ruling Security Council number two, asserted in early November that the “holy purpose” of the breach was to “stop the rulers of Hell”. This rhetoric, however, is divided even within the Orthodox Church.

“We are fighting those who hate us, who ban our language, our values ​​and even our beliefs,” said Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia’s enemies are the Ukrainian “Nazis” and the Western “dogs”, who still denounce the former head of state, close to Vladimir Putin.

A “holy war” against the West

A sign of the importance of the spiritual dimension the Kremlin wants to instill in its military interventions, Vladimir Putin emphasized, during his New Year’s greetings, that “moral correctness” was on Moscow’s side.

This claim illustrates the desire of the authorities to overcome the doubts of a part of the population that has been knocked off balance by the entry of Russian troops into a country where the majority of adherents, as in Russia, are Orthodox Christians.

While Moscow has suffered several military setbacks, religious rhetoric has gained increasing momentum since the fall, with senior officials and state media describing the intervention in Ukraine as a ‘holy war’ against the West being portrayed as decadent. .

The priests were sent to the front

Apart from speeches, religious and military ties were also manifested by sending dozens of priests to the front lines to support the army. Military chaplain Sviatoslav Tchourkanov explained that the mission’s aim is to prevent soldiers “losing their souls (…), even if circumstances push them to do so”.

A priest must “take root in the military’s soul that prisoners must not be tortured (…) We must not pillage, we must not harm civilians,” he continued.

The cleric has no doubts about the merits of this incursion into Ukraine, which he says consists in maintaining the “traditional values” that the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church have presented as patrons.

The sacrifice of the soldiers meant to “wash away sins”

In a sign of the clergy’s importance to the conflict, Vladimir Putin in November bestowed the title “Hero of the Russian Federation”, the country’s highest honor, on an Orthodox priest who died in the battle zone, Mikhail Vasiliev.

The head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has also voiced support for the military offensive, saying support should go to pro-Russian “brothers” in eastern Ukraine who have “rejected” Western values.

In a sermon in late September, he claimed that those killed while fulfilling their “military duty” made a “sacrifice that takes away all sins”.

A divisive rhetoric within the Church

But the Church’s involvement in this conflict and the increasing religious rhetoric around it was not unanimous in Russia.

“This ‘holy war’ rhetoric comes straight from the Middle Ages,” said Andrei Kordotchkine, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church stationed in Madrid.

If the Moscow Patriarchate has shown overt support for military intervention, it has caused an uproar within the Orthodox world, with bitter struggles between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

A platform against war signed by religion

Even within the Russian clergy, there are differences: on March 1, a platform against “civil war” was signed by 293 Orthodox religious people.

“It is not only society (Russia) that is divided, but also the Church and the clergy,” said priest Andrei Kordotchkine.

Some of the signatories to the texts were sanctioned by the patriarchate by being removed from their parishes, one of them said, on condition of anonymity. “In recent years, the ties between the high Orthodox hierarchy and power have strengthened. The state has helped the Church a lot and this help has created a huge dependency,” he added.

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