It's easy to paint the Russian government's actions as cartoonishly evil and totally beyond the pale of reason but life isn’t a cartoon where evil people exist solely to do evil things. The people of the Donbas and the Russians have serious concerns and justifications for their actions, and as long as they believe their actions have purpose and meaning, then they will fight and do extreme things to achieve their goals. Therefore, those in the West must understand where they are coming from rather than just writing them off as backward and irrational.
While the current war in Ukraine has been caused by many factors, one underappreciated aspect by pundits and commentators is the religious struggle at the core of the conflict. The potential accession to NATO by Ukraine is certainly in the mind of Russia and Vladimir Putin, but the conflict itself is rooted in the perceived breakup of the Russian ethnoreligious identity by Ukrainian nationalists at the behest of Western powers.
Schism in the Church
While it’s anyone’s guess whether Putin actually believes in the Orthodox-fused nationalism that he has been preaching the past few years, it is clear the 2019 schism of the Russian Orthodox Church has become key in his calculations toward Ukraine. Kiev was where Russian Orthodoxy began and its separation from Russia’s second spiritual city, Moscow, has long been an affront to the extreme nationalists in the country and to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill. In 2019, this split became not only geographical as the Orthodox Church of Ukraine declared its separation from the Moscow Patriarch thus stripping millions of believers from the Russia-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Requested by Ukrainian nationalists for years, this move caused an uproar in Russian leadership with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov calling the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who recognized the split, a puppet of Washington and stating, “His mission, obviously, is being prepared by the Americans and they do not hide that they are actively cooperating with him, using the slogan of ‘freedom of religion and belief’,” (Athens Bureau). While Russia is always quick to blame the US whenever something bad happens, in this case they do have a legitimate justification for their anger. Upon the churches split, the US embassy in Kiev congratulated the OCU which was quickly followed up with praise by Secretary of State Pompeo. As former NSA analyst John Schindler has questioned “… it’s worth asking why the State Department felt compelled to take a public position on any of this. Does Foggy Bottom side with Sunni or Shia? What about Lutheranism versus Methodism?” While Russia is increasingly becoming as post-Christian as the rest of Europe, the nationalist hardliners who dominate the intellectual sphere took this affront to heart and Putin, with his dreams of imperial legacy, has run with their grievances.
Russkiy mir Nationalism
The concept of “Russkiy mir” or “Russian World” dominates the minds of the hardline nationalists who romanticize the imperial grandeur of the Russian Empire and seek a return to its ideals if not its previous borders. One such nationalist who has been pivotal to the war in Ukraine more than any non-government official is former FSB officer Igor Strelkov. Strelkov is an Orthodox monarchist known for his diatribes in nationalist newspapers and fervent calls for the reunification of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Cutting his teeth as a volunteer in Transnistria and a soldier in Chechnya, Strelkov was one of the leaders of the pro-Russian militias in Crimea who welcomed in Russian soldiers in 2014. Pro-Russian leaders in the Donbas asked Strelkov to do the same and even though he has remained out of favor at the Kremlin due to his criticism of Putin, Strelkov was given permission to lead fifty-two volunteers across the border to occupy Slavyansk and start the Donbas insurgency. Strelkov was so dedicated to the cause of greater Russia and fulfilling his aspirations to be a great man of history, that when the Kremlin attempted to shut down the operation the night before it was to begin, Strelkov turned off his phone and refused contact until the center of Slavyansk was occupied.
The only thing Strelkov is more known for than his nationalism is his unceasing pessimism about Russia’s future. Critical of Russia’s failure to fully support the Donbas rebels in the initial stages of the war, he was removed from command and sent back to Moscow where he has remained unhindered by oppressive speech laws only by the fact that he is calling on Russia to escalate rather than return to peace. Since the start of the invasion and before, he has posted on his Telegram that Russia will be annihilated if they do not swiftly destroy Ukraine and stop further Western interference. He has called on Putin to declare the conflict an existential war to the death and introduce mobilization of the populace to destroy the Ukrainian army, liberate the Donbas, and take Kiev. Barring these actions, Strelkov and the other extreme nationalists fear that Russia will be broken apart by the vengeful west and brought back to the devastation of the 1990s.
Since 2014, the nationalist hardliners have only grown in strength as sanctions and internal crackdowns drive out what remains of the liberal intelligentsia, leaving those like Strelkov to fill the ideological gap. While Strelkov remains disliked by the Kremlin, his positions have been widely co-opted by those like Putin who cannot outwardly call for imperial reunification but has professed support for the Russkiy Mir and allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Church more so than any leader since the Tsars. Strelkov may be extreme, but his warnings resonate deeply with the Russian population who fears a return to the poverty and desperation of the 1990s and seek to renew Russia’s glory and unify the Slavic world. Putin’s infamous article on the “Ukrainian Question” last summer showed his full embrace of Russkiy Mir and his rejection of separate Russian and Ukrainian identities, calling it a mere byproduct of Soviet policies leading to today’s current objective of reintegrating the parts of Ukraine that once comprised Novorossiya. Even as the Russian offensive comes to a slog, it is clear that Putin cannot back down and will have to see the conflict through to the bloody end, ushering in a new era of animosity between Russia and the West.
Kurt Gmunder is a rising senior at George Mason University where he studies Government and International Politics with a minor in International Security. This summer he will be working as an intern in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.