Russian President Vladimir Putin’s absurd claim that Ukraine threatens Russia has been flouted because of Russia’s naked aggression, oil-based economic prowess, advanced weaponry and experience in the destabilization of other countries. Despite this, Putin is right on one vital point: Ukraine threatens Russia’s conscience. Certainly, the Ukrainian government cannot protect its territorial integrity. It is true that the Ukrainian army poses no threat to its neighbours. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s vibrant religious diversity and religious freedom – which are essential for democratic stability – offer a clear alternative to Russian authoritarianism.
Ukraine is the only country in the region where there is free religious competition between the Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Indeed, what is perhaps most distinct about Ukrainian society is the peaceful nature of this robust and competitive sectarianism. The Autocephalous (Independent) Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukraine was officially recognized by the Patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy in 2019 and peacefully coexists alongside its local Russian Orthodox counterpart. Mark Tooley noted that this “further undermines Putin’s mythological narrative that Russia and Ukraine are truly one people…artificially separated by Western conspiracies.”
Protestant churches are also growing in Ukraine, especially with the expansion of various evangelical ministries, schools, and service organizations. The Ukrainian Catholic churches (Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics) and the Jewish minority are also part of the religious tapestry. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is proud of his Jewish ancestry.
The long-term historical seeds of Ukraine’s religious diversity go beyond this essay, but it is important to recognize that in a part of the world where people have often been killed because of ethno-religious differences, Ukraine was considered a positive outlier. Religious freedom is an important foundation for other freedoms: freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and publication, freedom to raise children in the faith and make choices about their education, and freedom to consciousness.
In short, Ukraine is a threat because it represents a radical alternative to Russia. Putin wants quiet neighbors who will submit to Russian hegemony as they are ruled by their own authoritarian elites. Ukraine is increasingly democratic and Western-oriented.
Evidence of Ukraine’s robust religious freedom was seen in the 2014 Maidan democratic revolution, when religious leaders stood hand in hand on the main stage. Leaders of various religious traditions have united to demand representative government and respect for the human rights of all Ukrainian citizens.
Compare that with Russia. The state had persecuted its small population of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Half of those incarcerated in Russian prisons under the country’s anti-terrorism law are Jehovah’s Witnesses! Why does Russia bully small religious groups? He does this to send a broader message to Protestants and other groups, especially evangelicals, who have supporters in the West: “You are not welcome here. What happened to Jehovah’s Witnesses could happen to you.
As part of Putin’s media strategy, he and his family are frequently photographed in church or with Russian Orthodox officials. Putin articulates religious diplomacy, calling on religious conservatives around the world to follow him and his agenda. Unfortunately, Putin’s arguments found some resonance in some quarters of the West.
Russia is not only known for its treatment of minority religious groups, but Putin has also used religion as a savvy tool of diplomacy. Even though many Eastern Orthodox majority countries have low religiosity and low church attendance, they are nevertheless proud of their ethno-religious heritage, especially as expressed in art and architecture. Putin has been cunning in providing financial resources to rebuild historic monasteries, convents and churches in the Eastern Mediterranean and across the Orthodox world. In this way, Putin cultivates allies for votes at the United Nations and alienates countries from international institutions and human rights standards.
The Russian Orthodox Church has also become increasingly political in recent years, despite low parishioner attendance. Perhaps the clearest example of this was when the spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church called the conflict in Syria and the introduction of Russian troops to defend Bashar al-Assad a “holy war”. This language uses religious justification to support a client regime.
Vladimir Putin is a cunning autocrat who uses every lever of power to advance his agenda. Putin is particularly concerned about leaders or governments who stand in his way, and he is also infuriated by those who offer alternatives to his brand of Russian-centric authoritarian nationalism rooted in symbols of historical Russian Orthodoxy and Russian imperial culture. Ukraine defies Putin with its steps towards Western-style democracy. At the heart of this is Ukraine’s embrace of religious freedom, the first and fundamental freedom that is necessary for a vibrant and successful democracy.