A threat to Russian authoritarianism
Ukraine’s religious diversity and freedom offer a clear alternative to Putin’s ways
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s absurd claim that Ukraine threatens Russia has been scoffed at due to Russia’s naked aggression, petrol-based economic prowess, advanced weaponry, and experience in destabilizing other countries. Despite this, Putin is correct in one vital aspect: Ukraine threatens Russia’s conscience. True, Ukraine’s government cannot protect its territorial integrity. True, Ukraine’s military poses no threat to its neighbors. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s vibrant religious diversity and religious freedom—which is critical for democratic stability—provides a clear alternative to Russian authoritarianism.
Ukraine is the only country in the region with free religious competition among Protestant denominations, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox churches. Indeed, what is perhaps most distinct about Ukrainian society is the peaceful nature of this robust, competitive denominationalism. Ukraine’s autocephalous (independent) Ukrainian Orthodox Church was formally recognized by the patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy in 2019 and peacefully coexists alongside its local Russian Orthodox counterpart. Mark Tooley has noted that this “further undermines Putin’s mythological narrative that Russia and Ukraine are really one people … artificially separated by Western plotting.”
Protestant churches are also growing in Ukraine, particularly with the expansion of various evangelical ministries, schools, and service organizations. Ukraine’s Catholic (both Roman Catholic and Eastern-rite) churches and the Jewish minority are also a 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 are beyond this essay, but it is important to recognize that in a part of the world where people have often been killed over ethnoreligious differences, Ukraine has been seen as a positive outlier. Religious freedom is an important foundation for other freedoms: the freedom to assemble, freedom of speech and to publish, freedom to raise children in the faith and to make choices about their education, and freedom of conscience.
In short, Ukraine is a threat because it represents a stark alternative to Russia. Putin wants quiescent neighbors who will submit to Russian hegemony as they are managed by their own authoritarian elites. Ukraine is increasingly democratic and Western-oriented.
Evidence of Ukraine’s robust religious freedom was seen in the democratic Maidan Revolution in 2014, when religious leaders stood hand in hand on the main stage. Leaders from a variety of faith traditions were unified in demanding representative government and respect for the human rights of all Ukrainian citizens.
Contrast this with Russia. The state had persecuted its tiny population of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Half of those in Russian prisons under the country’s counterterrorism law are Jehovah’s Witnesses! Why does Russia bully small religious groups? It does so to send a wider message to Protestants and other groups, particularly evangelicals, who have supporters in the West: “You are not welcome here. What happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses could happen to you.”
As part of Putin’s media strategy, he and his family are frequently photographed at church or with Russian Orthodox officials. Putin articulates a religious diplomacy, calling on religious conservatives around the world to follow him and his agenda. Sadly, Putin’s arguments have found some resonance in certain quarters of the West.
Russia not only is notorious for its treatment of religious minority 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 ethnoreligious heritage, particularly as it is expressed in art and architecture. Putin has been cunning in providing financial resources to rebuild monasteries, convents, and historic churches in the Eastern Mediterranean and throughout the Orthodox world. In this way, Putin cultivates allies for votes at the United Nations and pulls countries away from international institutions and human rights norms.
The Russian Orthodox Church has also become increasingly political in recent years, despite meager parishioner attendance. Perhaps the clearest example of this was when the head spokesman 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 a religious justification to prop up a client regime.
Vladimir Putin is a wily autocrat who uses every lever of power to advance his agenda. Putin is particularly concerned about leaders or governments that stand in his way, and he is equally incensed by those who provide alternatives to his brand of Russo-centric authoritarian nationalism rooted in the symbols of historic Russian Orthodoxy and imperial Russian culture. Ukraine defies Putin with its steps toward 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.
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