Religious Putin vs. Nationalist Putin

American Analysts Debate Russian Leader’s Personal Motives on Ukraine War

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during an Easter service in 2019. Yuri Kochetkov/EPA
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during an Easter service in 2019. Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Religious Putin vs. Nationalist Putin

This is not the first time that the American media is personalizing US foreign animosities and interventions, as the personality of Russian President Vladimir Putin has become the core of the coverage of the Ukraine War. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, and current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have been, among others, the focus of the coverage of US military interventions in their respective countries.

A Google search for the recent mentioning of combined “Putin” and “Washington Post” cited about six million references. A year before he sent his troops into Ukraine, Putin himself complained about the power of US officials and social media, when he addressed the World Economic Forum. Without mentioning names, he asked: “Here is the question, how well does this monopolism correlate with the public interest?”

Now, both US media and the public have personalized him as a historical villain, and the US government-subsidized Voice of America has recently asked: “Is Putin the New Hitler?”

The personality of Putin seems to have been analyzed, scrutinized, and insulted in the US media like no other recent leader, particularly his personal motives for invading Ukraine: Was that because of his nationalist patriotism? Or his Orthodox Christian spirituality?

David Ignatius, The Washington Post veteran columnist leaned towards Putin’s being a “born again Christian” who, in contradiction to his earlier life, particularly his spying and intelligence jobs, started preaching about the need for a return to Christian morals, not only in Russia but, also in the rest of the West

On the other side, James Krapfl, an American Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, argued that Putin was inspired more by Catherine the Great (died in 1796) who expanded Russia and made it one of Europe’s great powers.

But Putin, himself, in his recent speeches about Ukraine, didn’t want to separate his nationalistic and spiritual inspirations. At the same time he mentioned Catherine in his speeches, he explained that she was herself driven by Christianity. History doesn't agree with Putin on that, because Catherine was more known for being indifferent to religions -- let alone her many lovers whom she exploited to expand her empire.

Putin, in mentioning Catherine, avoided a historical fact that she gained power by fighting and defeating the Ottoman Empire towards the end of the 18th century. Her purpose, she reiterated, was to protect the various Christian minorities who were ruled by the Turks.

About 200 years later, Putin said his invasion of Ukraine was part of a two-prong mission: expand Russia and protect Christianity.

Following are excerpts from Ignatius’ and Krapfl’s opinions, from their tweets, websites and writings.




David Ignatius, the Washington Post veteran columnist

“Putin’s personality is more complex — and perhaps more dangerous — than the usual stereotype of him as an ex-KGB officer who wants to revive the Soviet Union. Putin is something different — a Russian Orthodox Christian believer rather than an atheist …

When he invaded Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, he stressed on his religious roots, the same way he did that two weeks ago when he addressed a stadium full of his supporters. He spoke about his duties to ‘to relieve these people (the Ukrainians) of suffering.’ And he quoted the Bible: ‘I recall the words from the Holy Scripture: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ …

Putin’s words sound perverse, even blasphemous, to us in the West. Putin’s army has bombed maternity hospitals, shopping malls and opera houses in Ukraine.

But this twisted version is evidently what Putin believes.

Putin’s religiosity is a little noted but a powerful part of his personality. Putin’s mother, Maria, was a ‘deeply religious’ woman … who survived the siege of Leningrad in World War II after moaning for help amid a pile of corpses.

When her son Vladimir was born in 1952, she ‘secretly baptized the boy,’ Myers writes…

Putin is said to wear a small aluminum cross that was given to him by his mother … He didn’t display it while serving in the KGB, but when he went to Israel in 1993, he put the cross around his neck. ‘I have never taken it off since’ …

Putin’s passion for the Russian Orthodox Church, he had repeated, was rooted in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, where St. Vladimir in 988 converted from paganism to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox faithful were often repressed over subsequent centuries but they persisted in Russia and Ukraine…

Putin once wrote, ‘We are one people’, adding a religious call to his bloody invasion of Ukraine …”



James Krapfl, American Professor of History at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada



“In his speech legitimizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin invoked 18th-century history …

It was, after all, Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great (1729-1796) who had first acquired the peninsula for Russia. At the same time, she seized what is now Belarusian territory in the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth …

In the second partition 21 years later, Catherine acquired extensive lands lying today in both Belarus and Ukraine. She amassed, even more, two years later, in Poland-Lithuania’s final partition.

Russia’s meddling in foreign elections did not begin in 2016 (in the US). Poland (as the multi-ethnic commonwealth was called for short) had an elective monarchy in the 18th century, and Russia regularly intervened to ensure that its preferred candidate won.

In 1764, Catherine dispatched an army to Warsaw to see that one of her lovers, Stanisław Poniatowski, was elected king, declaring that she was acting 'to defend the republic’s freedoms.' She expected Poniatowski to keep Poland weak, but he surprised her by undertaking modernizing reforms.

Catherine responded by covertly organizing militias of Poland’s Protestant and Orthodox minorities, and secretly financing a rival Catholic militia, which plunged the commonwealth into civil war.

Poland’s only significant ally, the Ottoman Empire, protested, but Catherine replied that she knew nothing of purported Russian interference. Alarmed Poles formed a fourth, anti-Russian militia and appealed to the Turks for aid, sparking a war in which Catherine wrested Crimea and most of what is now Ukraine’s Black Sea coast from the Ottoman Empire …

In other words, Putin, on the steps of Catherine, aims beyond Ukraine – Poland…”

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