This wouldn’t be the first time a tyrant has used faith to justify an aggression. But Putin just talks the game. Old Soviets aren’t exactly Evangelicals. Knox Thames, a Trump administration official, details the political heresy of Vladimir Putin.

Thames: “Please pray for Ukraine,” my friend said. Within sight of the Washington Monument, she shared pictures just texted from family members huddled in a Kyiv bomb shelter.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a religious war, per se, religion is a strong subtext. Both Ukraine and Russia are ancient bastions of Christianity. And this Christian history is part of President Vladimir Putin’s twisted logic to justify the unjustifiable aggression.

Putin cited religious concerns in his bombastic speech before the invasion on Feb. 21. Generally overlooked, he emphasized spiritual connections, along with other more highly discussed issues. While difficult to understand Putin’s reasoning for the invasion, his reading of history provides insights.

In his speech, Putin said, “I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Ignoring Ukraine’s centuries-long national identity distinct from Russia, he added, “the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”

Protecting this “inalienable … spiritual space” was part of Putin’s casus belli for attacking. In Putin’s history, Russia’s origin story began in present-day Ukraine and must be reclaimed.

Certainly, Ukraine and Russia share a religious heritage dating back to the 10th century when the kingdom of Kievan Rus adopted Christianity as the state religion. From that start, Christianity spread throughout that part of Europe and into Eurasia. Through their turbulent histories, citizens of both countries tirelessly adhered to the faith.

Today, the majority of Ukraine’s population of 43 million identify with eastern Christianity. The largest denomination looks toward the Russian Orthodox Church for its spiritual leadership under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. In contrast, the smaller Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led by the Kyiv Patriarchate, is a homegrown denomination, specifically Ukrainian.

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The presence of these churches, all operating freely, reflects the religious freedom enjoyed in Ukraine. In addition, Ukrainian Greek Catholics are found in western Ukraine, with their liturgy and rites reflecting a shared orthodox heritage. Protestants, evangelicals, Muslims and Jews also enjoy religious freedom.

Putin’s concerns for religious life are doubtful considering how he treats the issue at home. Russian authorities regularly target evangelical and proselytizing groups, religious minorities and those challenging the religious status quo. The Trump administration added Russia to its watch list in 2020 for religious persecution. The Biden administration last year further designated Russia as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom violations. The European Court of Human Rights just ruled against Russia on these matters…Should the Russians win this war, religious freedom would be one of many causalities in this needless conflict.