It should come as no surprise the invasion of Ukraine by Russia runs much deeper than a desire to rebuild the Soviet Union, as mainstream media claims. The spiritual roots of the conflict run deep and are at the heart of the invasion. However, to understand how this current war is grounded in religion, one must understand the history and mindset of Russia and its culture.
This is certainly not going to be a complete history lesson, but it should give a synopsis for a deeper understanding into why such a seemingly “unnecessary” war happened and why Russia, specifically Putin, believes it is certainly necessary and essential in preserving Christianity.
The year is 988 and Emperor Basil II is in power in Byzantium. He has extended the imperial rule in the Balkans, Mesopotamia, Georgia, and Armenia and is enjoying great success. However, he has a problem. Basil realizes he has a problem with some of his military generals who are traitors, and he is in trouble. So, Basil II, a Christian, reaches out to a pagan for help. He reaches out to Vladimir of Kievan Rus and makes a strange offer. The Christian Emperor tells Vladimir (also known as Vladimir the Great) if he will assist in putting down this revolt that was rising up against him by his generals then he would give his own daughter in marriage to Vladimir. The proposal was a no brainer for Vladimir. The ability for a pagan to marry a Christian imperial princess was unheard of and all he had to do was put down a revolt. Well, not quite. Vladimir had to do one more thing. He had to become a Christian. It was a deal.
Vladimir quickly took care of Basil II’s problem and returned to Kyiv in victory. After he fulfilled the other part of his commitment and was baptized a Christian, Vladimir made the entire city become Christian. He had everyone in Kyiv to go to the banks of the river Dnieper and everyone was baptized Christian at the direction of Vladimir. This is important to the current Vladimir (Putin) in Russia because President Putin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his mother was a devout Russian Orthodox woman. (In fact, Putin’s father was atheist, and it is said that Putin’s mother secretly had him baptized because of his father.) The Kyiv baptism in 988, at the direction of Vladimir the Great, was how the Russian Orthodox Church started. This is the beginning of the church in Russia and after the mass baptism of everyone in Kyiv, Vladimir the Great was declared a saint.
The collapse of the Byzantine Empire did not end the church started by Vladimir’s massive baptism. In fact, it only propelled Russia in elevating its own sense of importance in Christianity. Russians began seeing “Holy Russia”, as it is referred to, as a “third Rome”. In essence, they view themselves as the protector of the Christian faith and not the Catholic Church or Protestantism. As a result, the Baptism of Rus is the central heart of the mentality of President Putin and is why Putin is interested in Kyiv. Vladimir Putin is interested in not just obtaining a few districts or areas, such as Crimea which he currently has control of thanks to an invasion earlier, but he is seeking the entire country. He has his eyes set on Kyiv because that is where the Russian religion traces its beginning. Putin has portrayed himself in Russia as a defender and protector of Christianity and Christians worldwide. He has taken steps to unify the Russian Orthodox Church with the Orthodox Church outside Moscow through his participation in promoting the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007. The Act healed an 80-year-old schism between the Russian Orthodox Church under Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church outside Moscow.
He intends on trying to make Kyiv the “mother of all Russian cities”, according to Putin himself, because of its roots in the Baptism of Rus and its importance in the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. For Putin, it is about unifying the Russian Orthodox Church all under Moscow, therefore under the control of the Russian government leader.
Another important factor to consider in the motivation of Putin’s invasion is the rejection of Moscow by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Until three years ago, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was still under Moscow’s control, despite Ukraine being a sovereign nation for 30 years. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s rejection of Moscow control and influence, gaining its own authority and autonomy, only deepened Putin and Russia’s belief the Church was being compromised and influenced by the Western Church and policies of the West. In essence, Putin believed the departure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow symbolized the departure of the Church from its roots and truth.
Putin has been quoted as saying, “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” That’s why international sanctions, no matter how much they may hurt Russia, will not curb Putin’s appetite to gain Kyiv. For him, this is a spiritual war in which he believes is necessary to recapture the heart of Russian Orthodox and protect Kyiv from being tainted and influenced by a false Christianity. It’s more than just about rebuilding the Soviet Union.
Understanding Putin’s history, and perhaps a little of his beliefs (although understanding what he believes completely seems impossible), provides an effective guide for Christians worldwide to know how to pray for the Russian leader. It is essential we pray for him. It is crucial we pray for Russia. We should pray that Vladimir Putin have a softened heart by the Holy Spirit and sees true Christianity and the truth of what Christ taught his followers. It is vital we pray for Putin to be converted.