Religion Unplugged

Russia attacks Ukraine: Why some experts insist Putin is motivated by religion

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

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What’s religion got to do with Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

A whole lot, according to some experts.

Here at, Richard Ostling stresses that journalists shouldn’t neglect the importance of two rival churches.

Ostling, retired longtime religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press, points out:

Russia and Ukraine contain, by far, the two largest national populations in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The new World Christian Encyclopedia edition — which belongs in every media and academic library — counts 114 million Orthodox in Russia, for 79% of the population, and 32 million in Ukraine, for 73%.

Terminology note for writers: “Eastern Orthodox” is the precise designation for such churches — related historically to the Ecumenical Patriarchate based in Turkey — that affirm the definition of Jesus Christ’s divinity by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The separate branch of so-called “Oriental Orthodox” is non-Chalcedonian; its largest national church is in Ethiopia.

Ukraine’s ecclesiastical history, like its political history, is highly complex. The saga began with the A.D. 988 “baptism of Rus” in Kyiv — Russians prefer “Kiev” — when Prince Vladimir proclaimed Orthodoxy the religion of his realm and urged the masses to join him in conversion and baptism.

Russians see Christendom’s entry into Eastern Europe as the origin of their homeland and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian President Vladimir Putin cites this history to support his claim for Ukraine as a client area within greater Russia instead of a validly independent nation. His post-Soviet Kremlin maintains close bonds with the Russian Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, which in turn has centuries of ecclesiastical authority within Ukraine.

At Religion News Service, religion author Diana Butler Bass makes the case that “Kyiv is essentially Jerusalem, and this is a conflict over who will have control of Orthodoxy — Moscow or Constantinople.”

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

RELATED: Must reads: Understanding the Russia-Ukraine war from a religious perspective

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