Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked religion as part of his justification for Russia's attack on Ukraine, believing their shared Orthodox history would lend credibility to his ambitions. "Of course, the Ukrainians beg to differ," says USIP's Knox Thames. "It's actually strengthening Ukrainian resistance to [Putin's] aggressive actions."

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: I'm Julie Mason. Knox Thames is visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace with the Middle East and Religion and Inclusive Societies teams. He's a 20-year veteran of the State Department. He served across two administrations as special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames, Knox, welcome back.

Knox Thames: Great, thanks, great to be here.

Julie Mason: Great to have you. Really interesting about the religious tensions in Ukraine, and how that plays into the war sitch. Tell us about it.

Knox Thames: Yeah, Ukraine is this ancient bastion of Christianity that is under attack by another ancient bastion of Christianity. We've seen how Vladimir Putin has used the history of Orthodox Christianity in the region to create a justification for the attack on Ukraine. He talked about the need to expand the Orthodox Church to defend orthodoxy from Western liberalism. And thus, going into Ukraine was part of an effort to bring back what he talked about as an errant flock back into the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, the Ukrainians beg to differ. Ukrainian Christianity actually predates Christianity in Russia they their own distinct form of orthodoxy. It's been a source of pride for the Ukrainians, it's also been a way to invigorate the country. President Zelenskyy while himself coming from a Jewish background, has done a really impressive job of reminding Ukrainians of their unique religious identity, calling upon their patron saints, to protect the country to help them in the defense of the country. And because of that, I think Putin you know, he's miscalculated in so many different ways. He also miscalculated in how religion can help advance his goals, and it's actually strengthening Ukrainian resistance to his aggressive actions.

Julie Mason: Wow. You know, one thing I never quite understood about Putin was, for all his nostalgia about the Soviet Union days, I mean, those guys they didn't like religion, they, you know, tried to suppress it. And so, he and his embodiment of leadership in Russia has really brought the church back into some vibrancy. How did that serve him?

Knox Thames: Well, you know, if your starting point is a Soviet Communist atheism, then everything looks better. But the devil's bargain that's been brokered between the current patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is really, I think, going to undermine the long-term viability of that ancient proud faith. Patriarch Kirill is buddies with Putin, they're both from St. Petersburg. And has clearly thrown in his lot, a lot of the whole church sadly, in with Putin's political, such as it is system and his aggressive war. Patriarch Kirill has tried to give a religious justification for the, you know, war crimes that are happening in Ukraine. And I think the Russian people are smart enough to see that this doesn't comport with what they know about the Christian faith, certainly Ukrainian Orthodox believers, and there are many who traditionally look to the Russian Orthodox Church for spiritual leadership, they are now leaving in droves. So, this while the church has been lifted up out of the ashes of complete domination during the Soviet period, it is on shaky ground. And I'm really worried that its future has been mortgaged by this devil's bargain the current patriarch has struck with Putin.

Julie Mason: Wow. What about representation of other religions in Ukraine? I mean, how are the Muslims doing there? And I know there's one or two Protestants running around.

Knox Thames: Oh, yeah, Ukraine is not perfect. There are issues of antisemitism and Islamophobia. But, you know, looking at the former Soviet Union, Ukraine is a tremendous success story, where you have different expressions of orthodoxy living side by side, yes, there's competition. But the government traditionally has created an open space where all three can be expressed peacefully without fear of repression. There's all different types of Protestantism, Evangelicalism, the Catholic Church is present there, Judaism is coming back. Muslims are able to practice their faith freely. And those who don't believe in anything, that's also a large part of the spiritual landscape and they don't experience any problems either. So, really Ukraine, when compared against Russia is lightyears ahead and is much more European and, frankly, looks more like the United States than Mother Russia does in how it treats religion.

Julie Mason: Interesting that the Constitution in Ukraine provides for free expression of religious beliefs. It also asserts the separation of church and state which we don't have here. I mean, it's a constant here, but it's not in our Constitution.

Knox Thames: Yeah, you know, of course, their history is very different than ours. But I think we both share a commitment to secular government that stands apart from religion, of course, politicians will play on religious themes, and we'll try to use it to stir up voters to get them energized to vote. But the government isn't establishing a faith and prohibiting others, you know, both are committed to protecting the free practice of faith, all belief and none. And individual citizens aren't discriminated against, don't experience prejudice or limitations in their futures because they do or don't belong to a certain creed or religion.

Julie Mason: And much like here, faith does come into politics. I mean, people are so religious in Ukraine, right, that inevitably, it becomes a factor in political affairs.

Knox Thames: Yeah, for sure. And in fact, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, my colleague Peter Mandaville and I, we just issued a report talking about the importance in the United States of protecting international religious freedom from the domestic partisanship that we see with discussions of religious liberty at home. That the international work has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. The international work is dealing with issues of literally life and death, while our fierce debates at home are usually at much more nuanced points, you know, school support issues like that. And so we at USIP took advantage of this political moment to issue this report to say, look, religious freedom promotion abroad is a great expression of American values. It's also critically important for national security, even what we see with the protests in Iran. When people are forced to behave against their religious wishes, like wearing the hijab, and the state uses violence against them to enforce that people will rebel people will fight back, and that leads to instability. So, international religious freedom needs to be something that I hope right left and center will continue to support. And it won't be used as a partisan tool, as we near election day here at home.

Julie Mason: Do you think the religious nature of Ukraine is potentially a starting point for peace? Or does that provide some opportunities for peacemaking there?

Knox Thames: Yes, there's a broader coalition of churches called the World Council of Churches. It's been engaging Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church; Pope Francis has been speaking to his brother in faith trying to encourage him to stand up for peace. Religious actors have been key partners in delivering humanitarian aid to the refugees and those people at home. So, faith actors are going to be a key part in reconstruction and also, they're going to be neighbors regardless of however this war ends and so if there's going to be peace, I believe the church leaders will be a big part of that solution said. They won't be able to do everything by themselves, but they can't be left out either.

Julie Mason: Knox Thames is visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. You can follow him on Twitter at @KnoxThames, Knox, thank you so much.

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