The role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian army: ideological foundations, creation of a “military chaplaincy,” propaganda of the war as a struggle for “true Orthodoxy”
While the Western world has left religious wars in the past, Russia remains on this path. In its war against Ukraine, Russia utilizes the Russian Orthodox Church as a key element of its propaganda. The ROC justifies and supports the invasion of independent countries, destruction of cities, torture of people, and their forced deportation. This is evidenced by the official media resources of the Russian church and publications on the websites of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, highlighting their close cooperation with the authorities and law enforcement agencies in this regard. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation even has a department dedicated to cooperation with believers in the Russian Armed Forces. Additionally, the head of this department, Alexander Surovtsev, defended his doctoral dissertation on the “Development of the Spiritual Foundations of Military Security of the Russian Federation”.
This article examines how Russia has been exploiting the Church to legitimize its heinous actions and military campaigns.
The close cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the current Russian government stems from their joint advocacy of the “Russian world” concept. This ideology promotes Russia as a civilization much larger than its current or historical legal borders. Russia’s territorial claims to Ukrainian lands are justified by the belief that Orthodoxy, which originated in the “Kyivan font,” encompasses the modern territories of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. They argue that Russia, being the largest of these countries, should control this ancient centre of Orthodox culture located in Kyiv. The “Russian world” concept serves as a convenient tool for the Russian aggressor, used to justify not only the invasion of Ukraine but also any past or potential future wars Russia may initiate.
One of the first mentions of the “Russian world” concept in the official rhetoric of the Russian authorities was in Putin’s annual address to the federal assembly in 2007. He stated, “Our country historically formed as a union of many peoples and cultures. And the spirituality of the Russian people itself has long been grounded in the idea of a common peace — shared by people of different nationalities and confessions. This year, declared the Year of the Russian Language, reminds us that Russian is the language of historical brotherhood of peoples and truly international communication. It is not just the custodian of a whole layer of truly world achievements but also the living space of the multimillion-dollar ‘Russian world,’ which, of course, extends far beyond Russia itself…”
The same idea was echoed by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who, while serving as Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, discussed the “Russian world” on the TV program “Word of the Shepherd.”
He stated,“If we consider civilization, Russia is part of a broader civilization than the Russian Federation. We refer to this civilization as the Russian world. The Russian world is not limited to the Russian Federation, nor it is the world of the Russian Empire. The Russian world originates from the Kyiv baptismal font. It is a unique civilization to which people who today identify as Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians belong. This world can even include people who are not part of the Slavic world, but who have adopted the cultural and spiritual components of this world as their own.”.
Ideologists of the “Russian world” often conflate the terms “Russian-speaking people” and “Orthodox” (referring to the Russian Orthodox Church). Researcher Pavlo Kovalchuk, in his article “The Content and Main Directions of Propaganda of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Context of Russia’s Hybrid War Against Ukraine,” argues that this blurring of terms significantly broadens the scope of the “Russian world’s” informational influence. Its audience includes not only Russians in Ukraine but also people of other nationalities, including parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). The jurisdictional status of the UOC-MP allows Russian official authorities to extensively utilize church and political propaganda technologies among the large number of UOC-MP parishioners in Ukraine.
The idea of their supposed spiritual and territorial unity with Russia, stemming from the alleged historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, is widely promoted. Utilizing UOC-MP priests as conduits for pro-Russian ideas is quite effective, considering their significant authority among many believers in Ukraine. The “Russian world” concept became the ideological foundation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the war in Donetsk, and, since February 24, 2022, the full-scale war against Ukraine.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, promoting the “Russian world” idea has become a primary objective of the “special military operation” (war), as confirmed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements.
The Russian Orthodox Church insists that the only canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine is one aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate. Concurrently, the ROC severed ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople after it granted autocephalous status to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Additionally, the ROC has been denouncing other Local Orthodox Churches that support Ukraine, striving to establish an exclusive “monopoly” over Orthodox parishes in Ukraine.
Russian priests and their propaganda
A prominent figure known for his anti-Ukrainian rhetoric and direct support of the Russian aggressor is Archpriest Andrei Tkachev.
Archpriest Andrei Tkachev began his aggressive rhetoric during the Revolution of Dignity. In a 2013 sermon, recorded in an archival video, he referred to the events on the Maidan as “demonic possession” and branded those protesting against Yanukovych’s government as lacking the spirit of God. In 2014, Andrei Tkachev delivered a speech in the temporarily occupied Crimea, standing behind a pulpit adorned with Russian symbols against a banner displaying “Russian World.”
The biography of Archpriest Andrei Tkachev reveals why a priest, traditionally expected to embody Christian teachings and promote a message of love, espouses sermons resonant with the tone of a military and patriotic political commissar from the Soviet era. At 15, he joined the Moscow Suvorov Military School, followed by studies at the Military Institute of the USSR Ministry of Defence, specializing in Special Propaganda.
Andrei Tkachev’s most aggressive and direct support for the Russian army, including calls for the killing of Ukrainians, emerged with the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In one video, he justified the actions of Russian troops, labeling it an “apocalyptic war” and “purification.” In another, Tkachev explicitly called for bombing Ukrainians with the Grad system, cynically suggesting this be done while reciting a prayer. On the Tsargrad TV channel, he again rationalized Russian aggression as “the struggle against Western captivity in all spheres of life,” portraying the “Russian world” as the sole means to combat “existential evil.”
Tkachev is not an isolated case; rather, his rhetoric reflects the general stance of the Russian Orthodox Church and its clergy. Other church ministers, such as Archpriest Artemii Vladimirov, also actively label Ukrainians as “Nazis” and “fascists,” further inciting Russian war crimes in Ukraine. In his “sermon,” Vladimirov denounces Ukrainians as fascists and describes the criminal “special operation” as the start of Europe’s defascization.
The “Russian world” concept, bolstered by ideological justifications and propaganda, underpins Russia’s imperial and colonial aspirations. This has culminated in Russia’s war against Ukraine, which Moscow depicts as a righteous crusade for the preservation of Orthodox Christianity.
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Church and military
Recognizing the significance of instilling ideological values in its military personnel, the Russian government established a dedicated department within the Ministry of Defence to working with religious servicemen. Formed in 2010 as part of the main department for personnel affairs, its primary aim, as stated on the Russian Ministry of Defence’s website, is to implement the President’s directive to introduce military clergy. The deployment of military chaplains in active war zones is deemed crucial to maintaining the ideological commitment of troops.
Media reports have documented the involvement of Russian clergy in the war against Ukraine since 2014, with continued service in the full-scale war in 2022. Notably, Hieromonk Nestor (Arkhipov) served with the separatists of the so-called DPR and LPR from 2014 to 2018 and, as of 2022, is a staff chaplain of the 155th Marine Brigade of the Russian Pacific Fleet. There are also instances of clerics from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate who sided with illegal armed groups in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Post-February 24, 2022, Russian media, both church and secular, openly acknowledge Russian clergy’s participation in the war against Ukraine. Despite this, the Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership has sought to legitimize clergy involvement through legal means. Vakhtang Kipshidze, deputy head of the Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and the Media of the Moscow Patriarchate, underscored the need to adopt a concept developed by the Russian Orthodox Church. This concept would legally define the status of military priests, making their service in the “special military operation” zone “more effective.” He also suggested introducing social benefits and payments for Russian “chaplains” in combat zones.
Regarding the precise numbers of Russian clergy in Ukraine, Kipshidze stated: “We cannot provide exact figures as many clergymen frequently come and go, others are being dispatched on business trips, and some serve in irregular military units like Cossack units, where obtaining statistical information is challenging. Nevertheless, we believe the current number of military priests is insufficient, and thus, regulating their deployment, social guarantees, and overall conditions of service is essential.” This statement indicates an expected increase in the number of such “ministers.”
According to Orthodox canons, a church minister is not permitted to bear arms, but the Russian clergy interpret this differently. For example, Archpriest Konstantin Tatarintsev, first deputy head of the Synodal Department for Interaction with the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Bodies of the Russian Orthodox Church, stated in an interview with Russian media that priests assigned to combat units of the Russian army should receive mandatory military training:
“Of course, it’s essential to understand how the Armed Forces are organized. It’s essential to know that there are different branches and types of troops, there are different divisions, platoons, companies, battalions. One should know the specifics of the service of ground troops, pilots, and sailors. Many military priests come from the military themselves, so they understand this. I, for one, served in the Long-Range Aviation and am a reserve captain.”
The Russian army also includes former special forces officers serving as military chaplains. Archpriest Svyatoslav Churkanov, one such chaplain, discussed his background in an interview: “Many of us have a military background. There are clergymen who have experienced conflict zones. For instance, I served in the special forces, did my military service in the internal troops, in a special motorized police unit (SMMU). During perestroika, interethnic conflicts erupted. We were deployed to Tbilisi in April 1989 amidst the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, which saw massive riots. Later, we were sent to Nagorno-Karabakh, and in early 1990, we guarded the airport in Baku for almost two months…”
Additionally, Svyatoslav Churkanov is known for his ideological propaganda. His statements about the “Right Sector” are well-known: “…Over the past eight years, the distinction between Ukrainian Nazis and the soldiers of the Armed Forces has practically vanished. They are now venerating cemeteries with flags, extraordinary wreaths, installations… It’s become a real cult of death. People have shifted from Orthodoxy to occultism.”
Such statements indicate that Russian clergy in combat zones, siding with the Russian aggressor, are actively promoting aggression and the murder of Ukrainians, spreading Russian propaganda, and attempting to elevate the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the level of a religious war, a crusade for the “salvation of true Orthodoxy.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin actively endorses these practices. He directed Patriarch Kirill to appoint the chief priest of the “SVO” — the priest overseeing all military chaplains in Russian troops participating in the war against Ukraine. Moreover, Putin’s decree posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Russia to Archpriest Mikhail Vasiliev, who died on November 6, 2022. Intriguingly, Vasiliev was the rector of the Church of the Great Martyr Barbara, the patriarchal courtyard at the General Staff of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Russian Armed Forces. His involvement in “hot spots” and operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Abkhazia, Kyrgyzstan, the North Caucasus, and Syria, indicates a career military man who deliberately engaged in the war against Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church is thoroughly and intentionally collaborating with the Russian government in waging a full-scale war against Ukraine. This criminal partnership manifests in various ways, from ideological propaganda, such as promoting pro-Putin narratives in official messages and sermons of Russian church hierarchs and ministers, to practical invovlvement, including serving in Russian military formations as “chaplains.” They are also directly involved in the deportation of Ukrainians, notably in establishing “temporary accommodation centres” (TACs) for Ukrainian deportees in Russia, conducting propaganda efforts, “spiritual conversations” with deported Ukrainians, and promoting the Russian perspective of the full-scale war through the lens of “SVO,” as the Kremlin’s mouthpieces refer to the war against Ukraine.
Finally, the “Russian world” concept championed by the Russian authorities, along with Patriarch Kirill and his subordinates, has been denounced as heretical by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
These elements illustrate the deep involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in the war against Ukraine, forming a separate ideological front. This involvement includes using religion, totalitarian moral, and psychological influence on Russian military personnel to justify their war crimes.
Vladyslav Havrylov, author
Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors