Russian Orthodox Church declares “Holy War” against Ukraine and West

The Russian Orthodox Church has approved a remarkable new document that spells out the Kremlin’s intention to destroy Ukraine while also making the ideological argument for a broader confrontation with the Western world. The decree was issued during a March 27-28 congress of the World Russian People’s Council, which is headed by Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill. It calls the invasion of Ukraine a “Holy War” with the explicit aim of extinguishing Ukrainian independence and imposing direct Russian rule.

Churches often issue decrees stating official positions on key issues, but rarely do these proclamations involve calls to violence or territorial ambitions. Russia is mentioned 53 times in the 3000-word document, underlining the very clear focus on the Russian state’s earthly interests. “From the spiritual and moral point of view, the Special Military Operation is a Holy War, in which Russia and its people are defending the single spiritual space of Holy Russia,” the document states, using the Kremlin’s preferred euphemism for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The decree goes on to stress Ukraine’s status as part of the wider “Russian World,” while underlining the need to extinguish Ukrainian statehood once and for all. Following the conclusion of the current war, it states, “the entire territory of modern Ukraine should enter Russia’s exclusive zone of influence. The possibility of a political regime hostile to Russia and its people existing on this territory must be completely excluded.”

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The sentiments expressed in this recently approved document expand on previous statements made by Patriarch Kirill since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion more than two years ago. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has frequently asserted that Ukrainians and Russians are “one nation,” and is widely viewed as a key ideological supporter of the war. Kirill’s comments have led to widespread criticism, including a warning from Pope Francis to avoid becoming “Putin’s altar boy.”

The new decree positions Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a larger spiritual struggle against the West, which it accuses of having “fallen into Satanism.” This is strikingly similar to the ideological arguments favored by Islamist radicals, who have long sought to portray the United States and other Western nations as “Satanic” as part of efforts to justify their extremist agenda. In addition to the Russian Orthodox Church, numerous senior Kremlin officials have sought to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential fight with Western “Satanism.” In a further chilling echo of the Islamist doctrine, Patriarch Kirill has also claimed Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine would have their sins “washed away.”

The Russian Orthodox Church’s endorsement of language more typically associated with religious extremism should come as no surprise. After all, the entire Russian invasion of Ukraine has been framed as a crusade from the very beginning. Following the 2014 seizure of Crimea, Putin compared the occupied Ukrainian peninsula to Temple Mount and spoke of its spiritual importance to the Russian nation. He routinely insists Ukrainians are actually Russians (“one people”), and has labeled Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

The recent confirmation of a holy war against Ukraine and the West comes at a pivotal point in Russia’s full-scale invasion. Since February 2022, Putin’s invading army has been unable to overcome Ukrainian resistance or break the country’s will to defend itself. With little current prospect of a decisive military breakthrough, the Kremlin is now turning increasingly to terror tactics, including a sharp escalation in the bombing of Ukrainian cities and the methodical destruction of Ukraine’s civilian power grid.

By defining the invasion in explicitly spiritual terms, the Russian Orthodox Church hopes to whitewash the war crimes being committed in Ukraine and encourage more ordinary Russians to volunteer. Moscow’s recent declaration of a holy war also sends an unmistakable message to anyone in the West who still believes in the possibility of striking some kind of compromise with the Kremlin. While Putin initially sought to justify the invasion as a pragmatic response to the growth of NATO, it is now apparent that he views the war as a sacred mission and will not stop until Ukraine has been wiped off the map of Europe.

Brian Mefford is the Director of Wooden Horse Strategies, LLC, a governmental-relations and strategic communications firm based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Military personnel at Alexander Nevsky Square carry an icon during the festive celebrations after the religious procession along Nevsky Prospekt. On September 12, a religious procession was held dedicated to the Day of Transferring the Relics of the Holy Blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky to St. Petersburg. A festive service was held under the leadership of Metropolitan Barsanuphius. Thousands of people carried the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God along Nevsky Prospekt, which was closed to traffic. Also for the holiday, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus' arrived in St. Petersburg to lead the celebrations in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. (Photo by Artem Priakhin / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)