It has been just under 11 months since Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine.
Few Christians in the West have tried to justify this invasion. Virtually all agree it is an unprovoked act of aggression against a sovereign country. This aggression violates international law and multiple bilateral treaties, in which Russia previously acknowledged Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Even fewer Christians have tried to justify the way in which Russia has waged this war. The atrocities committed by Russian forces include acts of rape and torture, executions of peaceful civilians, complete destruction of villages and cities. As winter approached, Russia openly and deliberately targeted the energy infrastructure to leave millions of Ukrainians without heat and electricity.
This does not mean, however, that all Christians in the West favor the ongoing allocation of their nation’s resources to support Ukraine in its just war of self-defense. There are, of course, legitimate grounds for any nation to decide whether or not it is right or prudent to support another nation in a war–even a just one. However, many Christians are guided by considerations that may not be directly related to the war, but strongly influence their perception of it. So what are the reasons that prevent some Western Christians, especially certain conservatives, from showing solidarity with Ukraine?
The Russo-Ukrainian War and the Culture War
Many Christians are so preoccupied with the cultural battles in the West that they–consciously or not–project domestic politics onto the world scene. Since Russia declares its commitment to “traditional values”, while Ukraine is supported by Western “progressive” governments, then the war between them becomes a war between “conservative Russia” and “liberal Ukraine” (if not a proxy war between “conservative Russia” and “the liberal West”). If so, many Western conservatives tend to be more circumspect about taking Ukraine’s side, and some even see Russia as an ally in the fight against globalism or “wokeism”.
Such reasoning, however, is flawed on a number of grounds.
First, regardless of Russia’s and Ukraine’s positions on the conservative-liberal spectrum, it is clear who is the victim and who is the aggressor. It is this fact that must be decisive for our moral judgments concerning this war.
Second, when one looks beyond Putin’s anti-woke remarks, it is hard to see what actually puts Russia closer than Ukraine to the values of conservative Christians. Abortion and suicide rates are higher in Russia than in Ukraine. The same holds true for the divorce/marriage ratio and many other indicators of social decay. Meanwhile, same-sex unions are not legally recognized in either country. But what counts is not only statistics and laws, but the reality of life. Millions of Ukrainian women and children had to flee their homeland and live now separated from their husbands and fathers for months. How can a country that destroys families in Ukraine or dooms them to separation be seen as a protector of traditional family values?
Third, Russia’s war against Ukraine does not ultimately stem from the cultural war in the West. Rather, it stems from the denial of Ukraine’s nationhood and statehood. Putin sees Russia and Ukraine as one nation and tries to restore Russia’s former empire by re-uniting them or annexing some of Ukraine’s territories. For Ukraine, it is not only a just defensive war, but an existential one. Note that Ukraine’s neighbors understand this very well: the conservative government of Poland is one of the leaders in helping Ukraine.
Fourth, even if we concede that the war is, on some level, a manifestation of Western values vs. Russian values, the fact is that the Ukranians define “Western values” very differently from conservative Christian critics of the war. Whilst the latter see “Western values” as now synonymous with the postmodern emphasis on self-expression and authenticity, the vast majority of Ukrainians understand “Western values” to include human dignity, the rule of law, separation of powers, democracy, civil liberties, the inviolability of private property, and so forth. It is for these values–often taken for granted in the West–that Ukrainians are fighting against an aggressor that seeks to subjugate them and impose on them its own values of a totalitarian society. A great irony here is that these are exactly the kinds of Western values forged in Christendom whose loss conservative Christians so often decry–and yet now they heap criticism upon attempts to defend them.
Russia as a Christian Country
In the West, many see Russia as a country with a centuries-old Christian tradition, deep spirituality, and a great culture. This does not make Russia, however, more Christian than Ukraine. The percentage of Christians in Russia is lower than in Ukraine, with church attendance significantly lower. While in Russia Christianity is often utilized as a cultural marker or political weapon, Christianity in Ukraine is more vital and is lived out in religious communities. It is also far more diverse: Catholics form a majority in three regions in Western Ukraine, while Protestants, through their social activism, have a significant impact on society, even if their numbers are not as high.
The Russian anti-liberal agenda is not a defense of traditional Christian values, but a continuation of its traditional anti-Western polemics. Just like in the 19th century the Slavophiles criticized the “rationalistic and legalistic West” and the Communists in the 20th century attacked the “capitalist and bourgeois West”, so the Putinists in the 21st century oppose the “depraved and decadent” West. Behind this criticism lies the belief in Russia’s exceptionalism and its historical mission to save the West and, indeed, the world. One may see what such salvation looks like in Ukraine: Putin, Lavrov, and other Russian officials keep insisting that the goal of the invasion is nothing but to liberate Ukrainians from their “neo-Nazi rulers”.
Given the obvious absurdity of Russia’s “denazification” rhetoric, Russian authorities and mass media recently tried to put it in religious terms, proclaiming the need of the “desatanization” of Ukraine. According to Aleksey Pavlov, assistant secretary of the Russian Security Council, Ukraine became a “totalitarian hyper-sect” in 2014 led by fanatics. In this regard, he refers first to the then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov (calling him “a neo-Pentecostal pastor” while Turchynov is actually a member of a Baptist Church). The entire “desatanization” campaign is a radical example of Russian civil religion that uses Christian motifs for ideological purposes and for the justification of violent aggression.
Ukraine as a Corrupt Country
One of the biggest concerns in providing aid to Ukraine is its reputation as a corrupt country. This reputation is well deserved, and these concerns should not be dismissed even when the country is now fighting for its very existence. Much of the West’s support consists of humanitarian aid and financial assistance that helps Ukraine to keep the economy afloat. Due to the absence of high-profile cases of corruption and the urgent need of such aid, it has rarely been questioned.
What has provoked more discussions is the military aid. It must be noted, however, that even before the full-scale war the reform of defense procurement was one of the few effective anti-corruption campaigns in Ukraine. In the first weeks of the war, Ukraine received very limited military support from the West, but managed to curb the attacks of Russia, whose defense budget far exceeds that of Ukraine. In the following months, after receiving more costly weapon systems, Ukraine liberated a large amount of territory, better protected its citizens from Russian missiles, and inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces. According to a recent report, while the U.S. military aid to Ukraine amounted to only 5.6% of the U.S. yearly defense budget, Ukraine destroyed nearly half of Russia’s conventional military capability. Ukraine invited Western donors to check on their weapons deliveries, and there is no evidences of massive leakages of weapons out from Ukraine.
Presently, Ukraine is fighting an existential battle, and potential arms smuggling is tantamount to treason, but after the war the risk of corruption may increase. The West will do well to continue auditing and monitoring all kinds of aid. But so far Ukraine has proved to use the aid in a responsible and effective way, which also holds promise for its postwar development.
The Priority of Moral Reasoning
It is understandable that Western Christians want to be sure that the foreign policies of their governments serve the interest of their countries. And there is much to say about the strategic benefits of supporting Ukraine. But this war should not be viewed from the perspective of domestic partisan politics, and the Russian atrocities should not be normalized or trivialized by whataboutisms of the West’s faults in either the past or the present. Rather, it is moral reasoning, unclouded by political misconceptions, which must prevail as Christians consider their attitude to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Dmytro Bintsarovskyi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Theologische Universiteit Kampen/Utrecht (Netherlands). He is the author of Hidden and Revealed: The Doctrine of God in the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox Traditions (Lexham Academic 2021). Among other projects, he is now working on the Russian translation of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.
NOTE: posts on current political issues reflect the views of the individual author, not necessarily Ad Fontes as a journal.
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