March 29, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Russian Orthodox Church labels Ukraine a  ‘holy war’ to defend ‘Holy Russia’

Institute for the Study of War

The Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP), a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit, held the World Russian People’s Council in Moscow on March 27 and 28 and approved an ideological and policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future. ROC MP Head Patriarch Kirill, reportedly himself a former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) officer and a known staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, chaired the congress of the World Russian People’s Council that approved the document, and Kirill likely coordinated the document’s ideological narrative and policy recommendations with the Kremlin. The document, “The Present and Future of the Russian World,” addresses Russian legislative and executive authorities with specific calls to amend Russian policy documents and laws. These calls are likely either attempts to socialize desired Kremlin policies among Russians before their implementation or to test public reactions to policies that Kremlin officials are currently considering. Putin and Kremlin officials have gradually attempted to elaborate on amorphous ideological narratives about the war in Ukraine and their envisioned geopolitical confrontation with the West since the start of the full-scale invasion, and the ROC MP appears to be offering a more coherent ideological framework for Russians. The ROC MP released the document a week after the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack and roughly a month before the start of the Orthodox Easter Holy Week, and likely aims to seize on heightened anxieties following the terrorist attack and increased Russian Orthodoxy observance to garner support for its desired ultranationalist policies and ideological vision.

The ROC MP intensified Kremlin rhetoric about Russia’s war in Ukraine and cast it as an existential and civilizational “holy war,” a significant inflection for Russian authorities who have so far carefully avoided officially framing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as any kind of “war.” The ROC MP called Putin’s “special military operation” a holy war (Svyashennaya Voyna) and a new stage in the Russian people’s struggle for “national liberation…in southwestern Russia,” referencing eastern and southeastern Ukraine. The ROC MP claimed that the Russian people are defending their lives, freedom, and statehood; their civilizational, religious, national, and cultural identity; and their right to live within the borders of a single Russian state by waging Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine. The ROC MP argued that the war in Ukraine is a holy war because Russia is defending “Holy Russia” and the world from the onslaught of globalism and the victory of the West, which has fallen into Satanism. The ROC MP asserted that the war in Ukraine will conclude with Russia seizing exclusive influence over the entire territory of modern Ukraine and the exclusion of any Ukrainian government that the Kremlin determines to be hostile to Russia. The ROC MP’s description of Russian goals is in line with repeated Kremlin statements indicating that Putin retains his objective to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and statehood. The ROC MP’s use and description of the holy war in Ukraine is also consistent with Kremlin efforts to frame the war as an existential national struggle against Ukraine and the collective West but notably expands the alleged threats that defeat in Ukraine poses for Russians. The term “holy war” may also conjure allusions to the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War), as the Soviet Union’s unofficial war anthem shared the same name, and the Kremlin has routinely invoked the mythos of the Great Patriotic War to generate domestic support for the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has continued to stress that the war in Ukraine is a “special military operation,” however, and the ROC MP’s direct acknowledgment of the conflict as a holy war may elicit support from Russians who have found the Kremlin’s comparatively restrained rhetoric uninspiring. The ROC MP did not define the holy war as a purely Orthodox concept and instead tied it to the Kremlin’s purposefully broad conception of who is a part of the Russian nation and Russkiy Mir (Russian World). Ukrainian victory does not pose these existential threats, however, as Ukraine’s struggle to restore its territorial integrity, return its people, and defend its national identity does not infringe on Russian identity, statehood, or territorial integrity.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP), a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit, held the World Russian People’s Council in Moscow on March 27 and 28 and approved an ideological and policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future.
  • The ROC MP intensified Kremlin rhetoric about Russia’s war in Ukraine and cast it as an existential and civilizational “holy war,” a significant inflection for Russian authorities who have so far carefully avoided officially framing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as any kind of “war.”
  • The ROC MP called for the codification of elements of the Russkiy Mir and may be gauging public support for the formal inclusion of ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians in the Kremlin’s concept of the Russian nation.
  • The ROC MP heavily emphasized Russia’s need for traditional family values and an updated migration policy to counter Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis.
  • The ROC MP appears to be combining previously parallel Kremlin narrative efforts into a relatively cohesive ideology focusing on national identity and demographic resurgence that promises Russians a period of national rejuvenation in exchange for social and civic duties.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stressed that materiel shortages from delays in Western security assistance are constraining Ukrainian forces and forcing Ukraine to conduct a strategic defense.
  • The Russian military likely expanded the target set for Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure to include hydroelectric power plants.
  • Russia vetoed an annual United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution extending a monitoring panel tracking adherence to UN sanctions against North Korea on March 28.
  • The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in pressuring Telegram to further censor extremist content following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, highlighting the Kremlin’s ability to pressure significant actors within the Russian information space to act in its interests.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 29.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is preparing for Russia’s semi-annual spring conscription cycle, which will begin on April 1.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue law enforcement crackdowns, including against the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority, to consolidate control over occupied Ukraine.


Full report:  https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-29-2024

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