Before Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the topic of religion was rarely discussed by the most prominent state media performers. The war was supposed to be quick and painless, and the motivation for stealing its neighbor’s land did not need God’s endorsement.
On December 31, 2021, Oleg Voloshin, a former aide to the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, predicted that “Russia could destroy Ukraine in less than 10 minutes.” During the broadcast of the state TV show 60 Minutes later the same day, senior military analyst Mikhail Khodaryonok claimed that it would take all of 11 minutes.
After the rude awakening delivered by Ukraine’s military, the Kremlin needed a better explanation for its decision to invade — and a stronger incentive for the masses to join the bloody endeavor. By April, state media and lawmakers started to portray Putin’s war of aggression as a holy crusade.
Appearing on Channel One, Deputy of the State Duma Vyacheslav Nikonov (a grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov) claimed: “In the modern world, we are the embodiment of the forces of good. This is a metaphysical clash between the forces of good and evil . . . This is truly a holy war we’re waging and we must win.” By July, this premise was expanded to include Islam along with Christian Orthodoxy. Appearing on 60 Minutes, Apti Alaudinov, commander of Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen Akhmat militia, asserted that Russian forces in Ukraine are fighting a “holy war” against the Antichrist, who he explained was supported by gay people and other sexual minorities.
The notorious state TV host Vladimir Solovyov used similar language in October, publicly describing Russia’s war as a jihad. During his program Full Contact, the host declared: “This is jihad. This is a jihad, this is a holy war!” By January, Solovyov — who claims to be an observant Jew —was chanting “Allahu Akbar” on state television.
Promoting Putin’s full-scale invasion as a religious crusade is not the result of a religious revelation among Kremlin propagandists. It is crafted to appeal to two distinct target groups. The first is the domestic audience, and the second is the religious right in the US. It is the role, after all, of Russian official mouthpieces to exploit any potential division in the West, especially, the US, as Ukraine’s main military and financial backer. Every Tweet or comment by notable US figures opposed to President Biden’s Ukraine policy is endlessly promoted on state television, with the underlying message that it is only a matter of time before anti-war Republicans cut Ukraine’s lifelines and leave Russia the victor.
Most Russians are not overly religious, with church attendance sparse (only 6% attend church regularly.) Most propagandists, many of them raised in the atheist Soviet state, are not only irreligious, they openly admit this, while at the same time peddling the idea of a holy war against Ukraine and the West.
Sometimes the hypocrisy is too much to take, even for the most seasoned Kremlin mouthpieces. Appearing on Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov in March, Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s former Children’s Rights Commissioner, asserted: “There should be no godless people in the places where governmental decisions are made, no agnostics, the undecided, the doubting ones. Friends! The enemy understands where to hit us. It was no accident that Congressman [Jamie] Raskin said that first, Orthodoxy should be destroyed, since this is the foundation of Russia.” In reality, Representative Raskin made no such comment, the attribution originating on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
Replying to Astakhov, Solovyov objected: “After 30 years of attempting to restore Orthodoxy, preceded by 80 years of total godlessness, we’re trying to find a group of highly professional people for whom we are supposed to check their degree of Christianity?” He argued that qualifications are much more important than beliefs. Solovyov said: “We believe in the triumph of our weapons.” Panelist Vladimir Kornilov chimed in: “This means I’m surrounded by believers. Now I know.”
When Astakhov proposed a ban on abortions, Solovyov said that was going too far: “If we use the methods of evil and say that we want to implement harsh measures, then how are we different from them?” Astakhov argued: “We’re different because we’re on the side of good.”
The host replied with a surprisingly lucid argument, apparently without realizing that his words also apply to Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine: “If we’re using evil methods, what makes us think that we’re still on the side of good?” He added: “This is what the Inquisition was based on: they believed they were on the side of good, but they’ve committed such horrible evil. In all the Crusades, they believed they were on the side of good, but look at what they’ve done!”
Julia Davis is a columnist for The Daily Beast and the creator of the Russian Media Monitor. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and Women In Film.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.