by James P. Moore, Jr.
Vladimir Putin’s declaration earlier this month calling for a 36-hour cease-fire in Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine in observance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ on Jan. 7 will go down as the callous, extreme act of hypocrisy that it was. It was a transparent ploy to pump up Kremlin propaganda to the Russian people, intended to allow the Russian military to take a deep breath and regroup amid setbacks. Ukraine did not buy it. The West did not buy it.
Unconstrained by a constitutional need to justify deadly military engagements on the battlefield, Putin continues to look for ethical justification to explain Russia’s actions. Having your people believe that God is on your side, the only answerable higher power than your own, allows for an autocrat to conjure up perceived divine favor.
From the moment he became president of Russia, Putin has found the Orthodox Church a convenient and indispensable tool and ally. Given that about 100 million of the country’s population is counted as Russian Orthodox — approximately 70 percent of the population — this is a significant asset in the midst of a war. Putin is known to wear a crucifix around his neck, attend special services, and take advantage of photo ops with the church’s hierarchy, particularly its leader, Patriarch Kirill. He breathes orthodoxy reminiscent of the days when tsars were proclaimed to be rulers of Russia appointed by God. He even implied that the patriarch had requested the cease-fire.
In return for remaining loyal to the cause, the church has found in Putin a cohort that allows patriotic churches to flourish with state funds and to turn the page from the atheist days of the Soviet Union. History, however, will judge the Russian Orthodox Church as complicit in aiding and abetting the territorial ambitions of one man — all for the greater glory of self-interest and the accumulation of territory, wealth, and power. Indeed, Kirill went so far as to declare that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine make a “sacrifice” akin to “that of Jesus on the cross.” “This sacrifice,” he claimed, “washes away all the sins that a person has committed,” allowing the soldiers to pass through the gates of heaven without fail. The patriarch’s support for the war has only deepened the schism between the different sects of the Orthodox Church.
And yet, the church, indeed all of Christianity, is based on the teachings of Christ, heralded as the “Prince of Peace.” It was Christ whom people asked what the greatest commandments were. His answer was simple — to love God unconditionally and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The onset of a war aimed at unilateral conquest was never part of Christ’s message. Bombing schools, wrecking civilian electrical grids, and destroying hospital complexes full of patients are not actions that lend themselves to the way of Christ.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been cloaked in religious garb. The tragedy of hundreds of thousands killed, wounded, and displaced is chalked up to a false, sanctimonious rationale. Putin is God’s instrument to vanquish spiritual decadence and influences not aligned with his sense of moral certainty, including the death of religiously devout Ukrainians who do not bow to his brand of orthodoxy.
For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the cease-fire declaration was seen “‘as a cover’ to resupply and stop Ukrainian advances.” U.S. President Joe Biden agreed: “I think [Putin]’s trying to find some oxygen.” But Russian cease-fire declarations in the past have often proven to be meaningless. Last year, the Kremlin promised to set up a humanitarian corridor for civilian evacuations and aid for the city of Mariupol. It turned out to be a hollow gesture — Russian artillery bombarded the entire area more than ever.
To declare a cease-fire with Ukraine to mark the birth of Christ was a shallow display of Kremlin propaganda. Putin and his allies would have better served religious fervor had they recounted the story of Christmas they likely heard as children. It was, after all, on Christmas night that a chorus of angels appeared to a group of humble shepherds to proclaim the birth of Christ, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”