Moscow Draws a Religious Line in the Sand in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 104

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Source: Reuters)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that the West is opposing Moscow in Ukraine because Russia is returning to Orthodoxy. Whereas other Russian commentators suggest that Moscow must fight in Ukraine not just to oppose Kyiv’s shift toward Europe but also to block the eastward expansion of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism into the Slavic world.

Such statements tap into some of the deepest levels of Russian paranoia. They figure in the history of Aleksandr Nevsky, who, according to Moscow historians, fought the Teutonic Knights not because they were representatives of the German emperor, but because they were the advance guard of the Vatican. Consequently, such Russian paranoia simultaneously makes the conflict in Ukraine more cosmic from Russia’s point of view. But it also makes any resolution of that conflict by a negotiated compromise that much more difficult, if not impossible.

On June 5, Lavrov argued that the West is so opposed to Russia’s return to its “traditional spiritual values” that it has deployed Ukraine against Moscow. “To our surprise,” the top Russian diplomat said, “the thesis has begun to circulate that the Soviet Union with its Communist doctrine [at least] remained within the framework of the system of ideas developed in the West, while the new Russia is returning to its traditional values, which are rooted in Orthodoxy, and as a result has become less understandable” (

Speaking to the Russian World Affairs Council in Moscow, Lavrov suggested that the West is opposing the contradictions “between the objectively strengthening multi-polarity [in the world] and the striving of the United States and the historic West to maintain their accustomed dominance, [as well as] between the cultural-civilizational variety of the contemporary world and attempts to impose Western values on everyone.” These Western values, the Russian foreign minister continued, are “ever more detached from their own Christian roots and are ever less acceptable to the religious feelings of people of other faiths.”
In his actions and statements, Vladimir Putin has long reflected the deep national antagonism toward Catholicism and Protestantism, viewing the first as one of the sources of Polish resistance to Russia and the latter, which at present is the fastest growing denomination in the Russian Federation, as a threat to the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, with which the Kremlin leader has formed a close alliance.

Now, as the conflict continues in Ukraine, others are following Putin and Lavrov’s lead. Such critics suggest that what is going on in Ukraine is not just a political struggle between those in Ukraine who want to become part of Europe and those who oppose such a step by preferring to link their fates with Moscow. Rather, the defenders of this view argue that the Ukrainian crisis represents a clash of civilizations between Western Christianity and Russian-led Eastern Christianity.

One of the clearest articulations of that notion was provided by Archpriest Andrey Novikov in Moscow’s “Pravoslavny Vzglyad” portal last week (June 4). Novikov, who the Orthodox outlet noted had to flee from his parish in Odessa, said pointedly that Russia must win in Ukraine to defend the values of Russian Orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and what he called schismatic Ukrainian Orthodox groups. If it does not, he warned, this war “will come to Russia itself” (

Were Moscow to leave the people of southeastern Ukraine to their fate under Kyiv, Novikov said, “they [Orthodox residents of southeastern Ukraine] would never trust Russia again.” But Russia has additional reasons for acting, Novikov noted. Throughout history, “Russia’s mission lies in the preservation of a tough faith and the defense of Orthodox Christians,” wherever they are to be found, against Rome and the Protestant denominations that descend from Rome. This means, he continued, that Moscow cannot ignore the religious dimension of the conflict in Ukraine. If it does, he suggested, “we will lose the moral right to defend ourselves.”

Summing up, the former religious leader from Odessa said, “Russia has always been spiritually opposed to the West, repulsing Catholic and Protestant expansion. Now, Russia is opposing the complete destruction of Christian morality and the creation of a new type of man on anti-humanistic foundations. The Donetsk People’s Republic is basing itself on Orthodox principles” and that is why it has generated “such fanatic opposition from Western Ukraine (the Uniates and the splitters) as well as from Kyiv and the West,” which he suggested is “the puppeteer behind all these events.”

Such language has another consequence beyond making compromise in Ukraine more problematic. It is triggering the kind of discussions inside Russia itself that may make it even more difficult for the country to escape from its current wave of obscurantism and oppression of all faiths except the favored Russian Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate. Indeed, in this area as in so many others, the real consequences of Putin’s Ukrainian adventure are likely to be felt beyond the borders of that country.