IN A debate in the House of Commons on 26 February 2003, less than a month before the start of the Iraq War, Alex Salmond (then a Scottish Nationalist MP and later his party’s leader) humbly warned the Prime Minister, Tony Blair: “Let us consider morality. The Prime Minister is a religious man and I respect that. It does him great credit. I have nothing like his record of churchgoing or observance.
“However, I, too, have faith and conviction. I believe that if an immoral and unjust war takes place, with thousands of casualties and the spilling of innocent blood, the person responsible for arguing for it will answer one day to a much higher authority than the House of Commons.”
Today, one might well hope that the Russian Orthodox bishops in Moscow, particularly Patriarch Kirill, would similarly condemn “the spilling of innocent blood” in Ukraine, and remind President Putin, who attends church services and is said to be close to the Patriarch, of his ultimate accountability.
Unfortunately, Patriarch Kirill has not done so. Instead, on 6 March, in a sermon in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow — ironically, on the Orthodox Church’s “Forgiveness Sunday” — the Patriarch spoke supportively of the Donbas’s eight years’ resistance to certain “so-called values” of the “new world order”: “excess consumption”, “false freedom”, and Gay Pride parades (News, 11 March).
THE Russian Orthodox Church surely needs a leader, at this time, of the calibre of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Archbishop Luwum of Uganda (who criticised General Amin’s brutality, and paid for his courage with his life in 1977).
Nevertheless, despite this lack of leadership, on 1 March, more than 280 Russian Orthodox priests did sign an open letter calling for an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They also referred to the Last Judgement: “No earthly authority, no doctors, no guards will protect from this judgement. Concerned about the salvation of every person who considers himself a child of the Russian Orthodox Church, we do not want him to appear at this judgement, bearing the heavy burden of mothers’ curses [i.e. mothers whose sons have been killed in the war].”
While it is not clear whether President Putin will be brought to judgement in this life, it may be worth noting that his evil actions are resulting in the very thing that he did not want (a concept explored in my book The Rule of Reverse Results).
Mr Putin feared NATO encirclement, but his actions have provoked his neighbours, Sweden and Finland, to consider joining NATO, which has become more united in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Germany has decided to increase its spending on its defence budget to two per cent of its GDP, as stipulated by NATO. If Mr Putin goes further into Ukraine, he will be surrounded by the NATO countries of Romania, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary.
THE concern of the Russian and Ukrainian Churches should surely be now to end the bloodshed by calling for an immediate ceasefire. Pride in an all-out victory should be replaced by pride in negotiation to save lives. There is much that could be negotiated. If Ukraine still refuses to declare itself neutral (though this now seems less likely), the West could invite both Russia and Ukraine to join NATO, for example.
Russia’s securing the predominantly Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as Crimea (provided the people agree in UN-supervised referendums), is another area of negotiation.
These regions asked Putin for his protection in March 2014, when the far-Right Svoboda party almost succeeded in getting the Kyiv parliament to ban Russian as an official language. Since then, Russian-speakers have suffered increasing linguistic persecution educationally, in business, and in public life. This January, a law came into force requiring all print media to be published first in Ukrainian before appearing in Russian. Many publishers cannot afford to do this, and have gone out of business, so that printed media in Russian are very restricted.
Regarding the peace process that must eventually come, the Churches should emphasise the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia, just as Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Secretary and a devout Christian, did in 1950, to end the age-long enmity between Germany and France. He founded the European Coal and Steel Community, in which both countries worked together and which grew into the European Union. Perhaps there needs to be another Schuman to create the peace between Ukraine and Russia.
Meanwhile, on 13 March, the Pope condemned the “unacceptable armed aggression” and the “barbaric” killing of children and unarmed civilians in Ukraine. It is lamentable that Patriarch Kirill cannot also do this.
Dr Audrey Wells is an Honorary Research Associate in the History Department of Royal Holloway College, University of London. Her most recent books are The Importance of Forgiveness and the Futility of Revenge in International Politics (Springer, 2022) and The Rule of Reverse Results (Routledge, 2016).