Understanding Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Wednesday, March 30, 2022
Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Associate Professor of Political Science, Tufts University


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at CFR, and Oxana Shevel, associate professor of political science at Tufts University, discuss what is happening in Ukraine, the religious component to this conflict, and how the United States and its allies are responding.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website, cfr.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Thomas Graham and Oxana Shevel with us to talk about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So I will just give a few introductory notes.

Thomas Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a co-founder of the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies Program at Yale University and sits on the faculty steering committee. He is also a research fellow at The Macmillan Center at Yale. Dr. Graham was special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007, during which time he managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue, and he was a foreign service officer for fourteen years. Assignments included two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the late Soviet period.

Oxana Shevel is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. Her research and teaching focuses on post-communist regions surrounding Russia and issues such as nation and state building, the politics of citizenship and migration, memory and religious politics, and challenges to democratization in the post-Soviet region. Her current research projects examine the sources of citizen policies in the post-communist states, church-state relations in Ukraine, and the origins of separatist conflict in Donbas. She is published in a variety of journals and is the author of Migration, Refugee Policy, and State Building in Post-Communist Europe.

So thank you both for being with us today. As we all know, the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. So we are now over a month into this war. So I thought we could begin, Dr. Graham, with you to talk a little bit—give us an update on where things stand with the war in Ukraine and, as far as you can divine, your analysis of Putin’s intentions right now, and how the United States and allies are responding, and what more they can be doing.

GRAHAM: Thank you very much, Irina. And it’s a real pleasure to be with all of you here today. Just three sort of brief points. First, as we all know, the Russian military operation in Ukraine has stalled. The initial goal was to take Kyiv, but the Kremlin thought they could do that in three or four days. That clearly isn’t going to happen. The Russians now are in the process of regrouping. They have said that they will concentrate their forces in the east, that is in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, and try to make progress there. They have withdrawn some of their troops up from the vicinity of Kyiv, although they’re digging in for defense purposes. And then in addition, despite the claims that they’re going to concentrate in the east, air strikes continue across the country.

So there really hasn’t been a significant lessening of the Russian military assault on Ukraine at this point. Second, there are negotiations underway between Ukraine and Moscow. They had a session in Istanbul yesterday. You will read in the press that progress has been made, that the Ukrainians have made certain proposals as a way of reaching a ceasefire and a resolution of this conflict. The point I would stress is that the two sides are still very, very far apart on this. There’s not going to be a ceasefire or, indeed, a resolution of this conflict anytime in the near future. And for all that we can see at this point, the Russians haven’t backed down from their maximal demands.

They still want to see Ukraine as a neutral. They still want to see Ukraine demilitarized. They want the Ukrainian government to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and also the independence of these two statelets in eastern Ukraine. Independence that Russia recognized in the very eve of the invasion. This, in fact, is demanding that Kyiv capitulate. And I would also underscore that nothing in the Russian proposals say that even if Ukraine agrees to these demands that Russia is prepared to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory. So the conflict is going to continue.

What Putin wants ultimately is very difficult to divine at this point. He has Russian troops on Ukrainian soil at this point. I think at a minimum he does want to retain the Donbas within the confines of the two provinces in that region, which is a bit more than the separatists occupied at the beginning of the conflict. He’s also intent on building what we call a land bridge between the separatist region and Crimea. That will facilitate the movement of all sorts of things, including military forces, but also commercial traffic between Russia and Crimea. And he also wants very much that Ukraine takes on a neutral status, that it move—that it not move away from Russia into a European orbit at this time—irretrievably, from Russia’s standpoint.

Third, on the Western reaction,  what we have seen from the very beginning of this conflict is the letting over very severe sanctions by the United States and the European allies. Those countries have made an effort to try to escalate the sanctions over time to keep the pressure on Russia. The impact is very difficult to divine from the outside. It’s clear that it has had some bite on the Russian economy. After all, the Kremlin is complaining about them. They would like to see them ease. But there’s nothing that indicates that the sanctions are of such severity that the Russian government, Putin in particular, is reconsidering his conduct of this conflict in Ukraine. He’s still pressing ahead. And that, I think, is going to be true for many weeks into the future.

My own read on this is that we’ll see a significant change in Russian conduct only when the casualties mount to levels where the Kremlin can no longer conceal those from the Russian public. The Russians are taking heavy casualties. The Kremlin narrative is only admitted some fifteen hundred. The numbers are much larger than that at this point. But when the Russian population begins to realize the cost of this to their sons, their husbands, and brothers, I think that that will lead to a change in public opinion and a time when Putin will have to reconsider what his ultimate goals are vis-à-vis Ukraine. So let me stop there, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Tom.

And, Dr. Shevel, let’s go to you to talk about how or if religion is playing into this conflict. And especially vis-à-vis the split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from its Russian counterpart, I think, four years ago.

SHEVEL: Thank you, Irina. Thank you for inviting me to join this conversation. So let me say a few words about the religious landscape in Ukraine and how it has been affected by war. I’ll put it in a little bit broader perspective, because I think one interesting and sort of tragic or paradoxical thing that we see in Ukraine as a result of Putin’s aggression is that Ukrainian society is getting unified even in areas where it has been divided historically for quite some time. And ironically, it’s really Putin that can take credit for that. So it’s very peculiar irony because, I mean, his quest to keep Ukraine closer to Russia to  kind of weaken the pro-Western sentiment within Ukraine actually has achieved the opposite. We saw that already starting 2014 on issues—anything to do with NATO membership to EU membership.

And the religious divide, actually, it’s one of the few remaining divides now in the Ukrainian society, as you said, between the two Orthodox Churches. Just for the listeners, I mean, probably everybody knows, but in Ukraine there has been two competing Orthodox Churches that are the same as far as kind of the set of beliefs, rituals, and so forth. But one church is in unity with the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. And the other one is the one that was received—(inaudible)—from the patriarch in Constantinople in late 2018. And since early 2019 there has been a transfer of some of the parishes, by different counts anywhere between sort of five hundred-plus to seven hundred parishes that switched, or at least tried to switch. I mean, the process itself has been very complicated. If there is time, I can go into that maybe in the Q&A.

But basically, this divide has remained. And what happens now that it was started, unfortunately, the patriarch in Moscow has essentially endorsed the war. And that puts Ukrainian Church, the Moscow Patriarchate Church which is unity with Russian Orthodox Church, in a very difficult situation. Because, obviously, in Ukraine there is this great sense of national unity, opposition to aggression. And the parishioners of that church, by and large are, obviously, not in support of the war, and they volunteer to fight in the armed forces, and so forth. So the church has basically put them in this very difficult situation.

So the hierarchs—the leader of this Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate even appealed to Putin to stop the war. Of course, that didn’t work. And now the question becomes, what happens to this church? Does it keep its ecumenical kind of organizational unity with Moscow—with the Church in Moscow, Russian Orthodox Church? It’s essentially basically been kind of keeping its traditional religious affiliation, but now really in opposition or in very kind of confrontational relationship with a big part of its own flock in Ukraine, including some of the lower-level hierarchs.

So we see this situation where the church leadership essentially took kind of a moral wait and see position. So they have spoken against the war. They have appealed to Putin to stop it. But they have not left. They haven’t made a decision to leave the Russian Orthodox Church, break affiliation and join this Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is independent. That’s the one that received the—(inaudible). So this is the development that I think we need to watch and see what happens. I just want to kind of suggest a few ways it might go, and what we already see happening.

So, for one, what we see happening, there is not a massive but certainly some movement within the lower-level hierarchs and the parishioners, individual parishes, of this Moscow-affiliated church to break ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. By different accounts, as many as a hundred parishes—there is no exact statistic but that’s sort of the higher estimate—but there are certainly dozens of parishes that since the war started broke affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate Church and asked to join the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. What is interesting, what’s happening now, which was less prevalent in 2019, that now in many of these parishes it’s not just the people who want to switch, but the priests as well.

Because what was happening before in 2019, some parishioners wanted to switch, but the parish leadership by and large did not want to switch. We can sort of talk about reasons for it. Some of it was political. Some of it was religious. Some of it—there are accounts that people were basically paid. There were sort of unofficial civil society groups, for lack of a better word, on both sides, and sometimes these confrontations were violent. And the legislation was kind of ambiguous. This is another aspect we don’t have time to go into in detail now but, again, if there are questions. The very process of sort of what constitutes a switch of affiliation under Ukrainian law is very, very complicated. It basically meant that all of these attempts to switch in 2019 ended up in courts because there it was sort of not clear who has the jurisdiction to make this decision, who doesn’t. And essentially it has been—there are hundreds of cases pending in Ukrainian court over this.

So what we see the difference now, so it’s not just the parishioners but also oftentimes the priests and even the hierarchs at the regional level. There are, again, different estimates, but among the eparchies—I think that’s the English word that they—sort of organizationally, the church is divided into these eparchies, like regional centers, and about a dozen of these regional centers now in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate have asked the leadership to break ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. And the leadership of the church remains, again, kind of undecided. So I think once the war ends, that might be—it’s a little bit too early to say—but it might be another area where Putin’s aggression against Ukraine might actually end the division that existed for many years, if indeed these two churches might unite.

I don’t think it’s a predetermined outcome, because there is a lot of sort of, you can say, bad blood in the relationship between these churches. The position of the Moscow Patriarchate Church has been that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is essentially schismatic, that they cannot perform rites with them and so forth. So they, in a way, put themselves in a situation that sort of outright joining together would be very difficult. But they don’t really have many other good options, because one possibility, of course, would be to ask for autocephaly, independence, from the church in Moscow. And that’s obviously clear to everybody that the Russian patriarch will not give its Ukrainian Church autonomy.

So to have two autonomous churches that would not be in unity with Moscow in Ukraine would be very strange, because there is already one that received autonomy from the Constantinople patriarch. So the Moscow Patriarchate Church is really—the leadership is in a very kind of difficult situation, I think. They are trying to kind of weigh their options. There are some reports, again, in the social media, in local press, that they essentially tell the priests that, we want to wait and see how this war ends because, of course, if Russia, if they were to win somehow, that would be different political playing field and  different references in the church.

Last thing that I would mention that so far there hasn’t been much violence as far as parishioners trying to take over the parishes. There are some isolated instances of the priests being kicked out of the churches, but now in Ukrainian parliament there is draft legislation to ban the Moscow Patriarchate Church all together, exactly because it’s sort of perceived as collaborating with church affiliated with the so-called aggressor state. That draft bill has not passed. I personally don’t think it’s a great idea to have this law. It would violate some principles of religious freedom. But sort of emotionally, I mean, if, say, such a law is passed, I think it might receive kind of emotional support among many in the society. So that’s also something to watch.

But so I’ll end, again, with a smaller point, another paradox, really. This creation of unity within Ukraine and ending many long-term divisions as a result of Putin’s policies and exactly his goal to actually keep the divisions and kind of increase the Russian sentiment in Ukraine that produces the opposite results. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much to both of you. Let’s go now to your questions and comments. You can either raise your hand by clicking on the “raise hand” icon, or you can write your question in the Q&A box. We would love to hear from you live, though.

But I will start with Martin Raffel of—and if you could, when you—if you’re going to write a question, if you could put your affiliation, that would be great. But I will try to raise affiliations as well. So, Martin is with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. And his question is: Could Russia’s pullback from Kyiv be preclude to use of WMD? Is Putin chastened by Biden’s threat of severe consequences if WMD is used? So, Tom, do you want to take that one?

GRAHAM: Making sure I understood the question correctly, does he say—is it that the pullback precludes the use of WMD, or?

FASKIANOS: Could Russia’s pullback be to—I believe to stop the use of WMD? Martin, do you want to unmute and you can ask it? Because I also think we need a little more clarification.

GRAHAM: There’s Martin.

RAFFEL: Yeah. I was asking could it be a prelude—

GRAHAM: A prelude, OK. (Laughs.)

RAFFEL: To the use of WMD. Moving Russian troops out of harm’s way.

GRAHAM: Right. That’s what I thought.


GRAHAM: It’s a different type of question. The short answer to that question is we really don’t know. The defensive—withdrawing the troops, I think, is an indication that the Russians want to transfer some of the forces to the east in order to intensify the struggle and their operations in that part of Ukraine right now.

All that said, the Russians have, as you know, for the past several weeks talked about the possibility of biological weapons, chemical weapons being used by the Ukrainians. But they’ve made much of these biological labs that have been discovered in eastern—or, in Ukraine. They’ve been there for years. The Russians were well aware of them. They’re well aware of what the United States was doing at those labs, in part because the United States did similar things in Russian labs in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

We have always been concerned that Russia might use biological or chemical weapons. After all, they have used chemical weapons before against individuals—most famously against the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a little over a year and a half ago. It also used them on the ground in Syria as part of that conflict.

So, again, whether withdrawing the troops is a prelude to using these weapons, we don’t know for sure. All that—but what I would say is this is always a possibility. We are watching this very closely. And I think you probably notice that President Biden spoke about that issue very forcefully on his European trip, that there will be some sort of response. But he left out the particulars of how the United States would respond to that type of use by the Russian Federation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Azza Karam, who has raised her hand.

KARAM: Well, lovely. Thank you so much for unmuting me. And thank you very much for the speakers, Dr. Shevel and Dr. Graham.

My question is really more for—to Dr. Shevel. And it has to do with thanking you for the way that you elaborated the tensions between and within the various Orthodox Churches. I’m just curious, I hear you very clearly that in a sense the aggression has brought so many of the Ukrainian people together, including the religious communities. I’m just curious to understand two things: If the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church in Ukraine hasn’t yet made up its mind, and there seems to be different positions inside as you described so eloquently, then where is the unity in that? I mean, either they’re united or they’re disparate. But the other question also has to do with everyone’s focus on the Orthodox Church, which I fully understand. But had the situation been elsewhere in the world, in a Muslim majority country, the question on everybody’s mind would be what about the religious minorities? So can you perhaps just share something about the other religions in the Ukraine, and that particular dynamic? Thank you.

SHEVEL: Yes. Thank you for the question. Let me address that—address all of these briefly. So on the unity part, I think what we see, what I’m—again, I think the end result, that’s if I were to make some sort of educated guess  where it would end—I think the end result would be these two churches, or at least most of the—of the Moscow Patriarchate Church uniting with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Because you’re right, at this point the leadership is essentially fence sitting. But among the lower-level hierarchs, we see quite substantial movement.

So I think at the very least if the Moscow Patriarchate Church were to survive as an institution in Ukraine, it will be much smaller. They are going to lose a lot of parishes. They are going to lose whole eparchies. And sort of, somewhat paradoxically, it’s in the areas where people are more religious because, as you may know, in Ukraine, say, people in the east of the country generally are less religious than people in the west, and this is kind of western-centered. That’s where we see the whole eparchies, not just individual parishes, trying to basically break institutional affiliation with this church that’s affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Now, as far as the other minorities, I think here what I would first of all point out, that if Russia gets to keep any of the territory—additional territory that it’s seized so far—where its troops are stationed—I think we’ll see a lot of persecution of so-called nontraditional religious minorities, because we already saw that happening in Crimea. We saw that happening in Donbas, that has been occupied with these pro-Russian separatists since 2014. So various Protestant denominations, Crimean Tatars, right? The accusation of Islamic militants and so forth. But certainly, a lot of Protestant communities have been quite severely persecuted. Priests sometimes are forced to leave, some of them disappeared. So we will see, I think, religious minorities really suffering in the territories if Russia is able to sort of exert control over the long term over a greater part of Ukrainian territory. So I think, I would say, is important to keep in mind for the religious minority.

And also if I can—Irina, if it’s OK if I jump in—because there was a question in the chat I saw about Russkiy Mir, sort of this ideology of the Russian world and the Holy Rus. And I think that’s very important. I’m glad to whoever wrote this question, because that’s essentially what Russian Orthodox Church leadership kind of presents as ideological or spiritual justification for this war, right? So it really dialogues with Putin’s claim that Ukrainians and Russians are really ultimately one people, right?

His is sort of more primordial, if you want to call the argument, but here the patriarch offers, of course, an ideological/religious argument that there is really this civilization, right, of Holy Rus, of Russkiy Mir that extends to Ukraine, right? And then it is threatened by Western civilization, by gay pride parades, or whatever sort of these threats come from. So the Russian Army here is just on a civilizational mission to essentially uphold the spiritual purity and so forth, so this is Russkiy Mir.

And I think this narrative is essentially failing, certainly failing in Ukraine. So, again, it remains to be seen to what extent—sort of how Russian Orthodox Church survives this war, what happens within the global orthodoxy. But I think as far as this narrative of essentially being many—not a lot of people. I mean, we can sort of look at different statistics, how it’s evolved over the years. But there were certainly people in Ukraine who broadly maybe were OK, especially among the religious parishioners of the Moscow Patriarchate Church.

I think that narrative is basically going to lose any potency in Ukraine. So Russia might try to continue to propagate it. It certainly offers justification for the military aggression. But as far as it being—resonating among the people who supposedly belong to this Russkiy Mir, right, the Russian civilization, the Holy Rus, in Ukraine I think it’s failing majorly.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Saffet Catovic, who has a raised hand.

CATOVIC: Thank you. Thank you very much for a wonderful program. Very much appreciate it. Saffet Catovic, the imam and head of Office of Islamic Society of North America in D.C., interfaith and community alliances and government relations.

I wanted to follow up on something that our dear sister Professor Azza Karam said with regard to both the minorities and the reach of the Orthodox Church, specifically with regard to the Balkans, and the Republika Srpska and Serbia itself, and Montenegro, and their open alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church in support of what is going on in Ukraine. And of course, both Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina have Muslim populations there. A couple weeks ago we were fortunate to have a call with the head of the Muslim community—one of the heads of the Muslim community in Ukraine, Sheikh Zayed, who said there were 10,000 Ukrainian Muslims that have been killed in the fighting thus far of the 1.5 million-plus, primarily Tatar Muslims, in Ukraine. And the streets in Banja Luka in particular were livid with protests in support of Vladimir Putin and specifically the Orthodox Church.

So my question is, how does this pan-Orthodoxy play itself out in the Balkans, especially given that some of the nations in the Balkans are on track to become part and parcel of NATO, and Russia’s possible influence through those nations into NATO policies. So I wanted to ask that. Thank you very much for your—once again allowing me to share.

FASKIANOS: Great. Oxana, do you want to take that?

SHEVEL: I’ll try. I mean, I should say right away I’m not an expert on the Balkans or sort of global religious issues, kind of, in that part of the world. But I think the idea that there is now among different religious—including global orthodoxy. So the decision has to be made, right? Like, what do you do? Do you continue business as usual with the Russian Orthodox Church? Do you take a position, right? There have been some statements made. Somebody mentioned in the chat that it’s quite unprecedented that religious leaders globally try to weigh in on political processes and appeal to the Russian patriarch.

So I’m not sure kind of what happens—what would happen within the Balkans. But I think the question, could the Russian patriarch be somehow swayed by these religious leaders outside Russia who are appealing to him to maybe weigh on Putin, I personally remain very pessimistic. I don’t think that’s likely. I think we see this—sort of this whole so-called symphonia, or symphony between political and religious leadership in Russia. I can’t imagine kind of under what circumstances, short of maybe really major defeat of Russia on the battlefield, and it’s sort of clear that  Russia lost the war and there is no way to present it otherwise, maybe under those circumstances we could see something.

I think that would also go back to what Graham was saying earlier. Each day there are many Russians coming home in body bags, right? Could that change something, because, again, presumably people receive religious services, like last rites and so forth. Maybe that might begin to kind of—the process, maybe. But, again, from what we’ve seen so far I think the propaganda remains very strong, including the parents of these killed Russian servicemen, either because they’re scared or because they really believe it, kind of continue to maintain that that was the right—their sons died for something, to save Ukraine from Nazism and so forth.

So we do see some processes within the Russian Orthodox Church, again, individual priests who spoke against the leadership. But here, again, to my mind, the question is, would that make a difference at the institutional level? The centralization or this power vertical—vertical command-and-control method within the Russian Orthodox Church has been established, it’s very strong. So kind of the autonomy of individual priests is not really there. So I—again, I realize I’m not really answering the question about the Balkans. I just don’t know. But this broader question, could these processes, and pressures, and appeals from religious leaders in different parts of the world somehow persuade the Russian patriarch to change his position and therefore try to pressure Putin to change his position? I don’t think so. So that’s what I would say.

FASKIANOS: Tom, I know that—do you want to say anything about the Baltic states, or should we go onto the next question?

GRAHAM: I think we should go onto the next question.

FASKIANOS: Great. So there are two chats from Nancy Ammerman, who’s at BU, and Donald Tinder with the Zinzendorf School of Doctoral Studies. And essentially both are talking about the role of other religious groups in Ukraine—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, other. How present are they? Do they have any public or civic role? Donald Tinder’s is focused specifically Protestants. Does the reality of three distinct groups of Orthodox/Greek, Catholic make society increasingly acceptance of religious tolerance and freedom?

SHEVEL: Yeah, I can try to comment just briefly on this. I mean, definitely I think other—all religious groups in Ukraine, and this also answers another of the questions, there is really great sense of unity. I mean, one can’t say to what extent it will last after the war, but I think at this point people have put aside their—be they linguistic differences or  religious differences. And we certainly see Protestants—for example, there were reports that the Protestant—the preachers helped the evacuation efforts of civilians from Irpin north of Kyiv, and, very actively supporting humanitarian aid and all these things.

Ukraine historically has been a very tolerant society religiously. It’s very religiously diverse. Of course, the Orthodox Church is sort of the bigger—and the Catholic Church would be the biggest ones. But there are dozens if not hundreds of different  religious denominations, groups in Ukraine. There is also this council in Ukraine that unites all religious leaders. They have also issued statements.

So I think what sort of I would say, again, given that this law that’s now tabled in the Ukrainian legislation—in the Ukrainian parliament to ban the Moscow Patriarchate Church, they might see, again, if this law were to pass, you would say that’s probably a sign of religious toleration becoming lessened by the war, but specifically aimed at the church that is seen—at least its leadership is seen as not having sufficiently broken ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

But I think as far as all of the other religious groups—from Muslim groups, to Protestant groups, to various other minority religions, I think there are—at least from what I can say—I don’t think there are any tensions. As I mentioned before, they would be in danger, many of them, under Russian occupation, for sure. But within Ukraine government-controlled territory, I think there is great unity and different groups working together for what they see as a common goal of defending the country.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Jim Wallis, who has a raised hand. And if you could unmute yourself, Jim. There we go.

WALLIS: Can you hear me? OK.


WALLIS: This may be more asking you to do a reflection than a question. We were one of those many groups. I’m with the Georgetown Center on Faith and Justice. But we got a big ecumenical, a hundred church leaders here writing to the patriarch our concerns.

But we’re talking, again, this week, this same group of church leaders. And the question is, you would describe—we see the holy mother Russia religion, sort of a conversation, is its own kind of nationalist religion. And in the U.S., white Christian nationalism, specifically, is the biggest obstacle, I think, to democracy in this country. So there’s a parallel here of nationalist—this is our conversation for Friday—nationalist religion around the world versus more independent kind of faith that is critical of the state. As King would say, reminding churches that we are not the master or servant of the state but, he would say, the conscience of the state.

That’s an ecclesial question about faith and politics. So we’re having a conversation on Friday about that question. And what parallels do you see? And there’s people in this country, the people who are most supportive of Putin are from the white nationalist tribe here in the U.S. And what’s the parallel here? Underneath the conflict there’s a battle between autocracy and democracy we all see. And the religious part of that is what kind of global Christianity are we talking about here? The nationalist kind or the more kind in the more prophetic, Dr. King tradition that’s critical of the state wherever it is? What parallels do you see between the Russian, you might call, nationalist religion and our own white Christian nationalism in this country?

FASKIANOS: Oxana, I think that might be one for you.

SHEVEL: I was going to say, maybe Tom has some thoughts on that. I honestly have—I think it’s an excellent question. I’m kind of thinking on my feet here. I haven’t really given it much thought before. It’s—I mean, there is this white Christian nationalism certainly is a phenomena. Again, if I think of the region that I study, I think there I would not even describe it as nationalism but more of like imperialism, right? Because really the sort of people who support this narrative in Ukraine, in Russia, about this Holy Rus and how there’s this civilizational struggle, and Russia and Ukraine are one people, and so forth, it is not really nationalism in the way that you sort of keep political borders, but within these borders you want to have white supremacy, or something like that.

It is essentially about erasing these borders, right, and to have Russian empire, in some way, some sort of greater Russian state, and so forth. So I think in the post-Soviet space white religious nationalism is not really nationalism but more like imperialism. Thatkind of was my first thought. And maybe that would be the difference with countries elsewhere because, again, if we’re talking about white religious nationalism in the U.S., or in Western European countries, right—again, maybe I’m wrong here. I’m just kind of thinking out loud.

It doesn’t seem to me—it’s really imperialist, right? It’s really about autocracy, an authoritarian form of government, denying rights to the minorities, so-called traditional values, racist underpinnings. But it sort of operates within the borders as they exist, as opposed to aiming to change the borders. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but that sort of the thought that comes to mind to me. But maybe Tom has other ideas.

GRAHAM: No, no, look, I think that’s absolutely right. For the Russian Orthodox Church, I mean, clearly it is the former Russian empire is the space that they think of. So it’s not limited simply to Russia. And the whole idea of the Russian world extends beyond the borders of Russia as well, and there’s some overlap between that and the Russian Orthodox viewpoint as well. One other point I would make is that it’s clear there’s an affinity between the white Christian groups here in the United States and perhaps the Russian Orthodox Church or the—or even Putin’s ideology, at this point.

I mean, Putin has made a very specific point of defending what he calls traditional values, something that resonates with the white Christian churches here in the United States. It is anti-modern. It is opposed to what Putin and, I’m sure, the white Christian nationalists here in the United States see as the decadent elements of modern Western civilization. And that, I think, explains some of the support that you’re seeing here in the United States for Putin over the years that hasn’t been erased by this very violent act of aggression against Ukraine over the past several weeks.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Dr. Mary Nyangweso, who is at East Carolina University.

The response to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been very revealing. The absence of the United Nations’ serious action is even more revealing. What do you think this says about security organizations around the world, especially when policies get in the way of protecting human lives? And what more can be done to protect the children, the elderly, and pregnant women from the line of fire?

GRAHAM: I guess that’s a question for me, right, Irina?

FASKIANOS: I think so, Tom.

GRAHAM: Look, I mean, that’s a very good question. What we have seen during this conflict is that the UN Security Council is not really a very good forum for working out these issues, in part because of the way it’s structured. Russia is one of the five permanent members. It does have a veto. And that limits what the Security Council can do in terms of voting resolutions and either to condemn or to propose certain ways forward in this conflict. All that said, the auxiliary organizations at the United Nations are going to play a significant role on the ground in and around Ukraine.

Refugees, for example, High Commissioner for Refugees has a role to play in helping to deal with this tremendous outflow of Ukrainians over the past several weeks. The latest numbers are four million. As this conflict continues, we will expect even more. There are probably six million or more internally displaced people in Ukraine because of this conflict. And that will require the work of the United Nations and its auxiliary organizations in dealing with this challenge going forward. There will be working in cooperation with a number of other relief organizations as well.

So this is a massive effort. It’s only beginning. Much greater thought needs to be given to the longer-term settlement of these refugees. I think there is a hope that the conflict will end quickly, that these people will return. After all, the overwhelming bulk of them are women and children, and old people. The men are staying back in Ukraine, along with some of the women, to continue the fight against Russia. But this is not going to be a problem that is going to go away quickly. as the conflict continues and even after the conflict there’s going to be tremendous need to deal with refugees outside of Ukraine, and then the even more important task of rebuilding Ukraine after this devastation that we’ve seen, particularly of its major cities over the past several weeks.

FASKIANOS: And—yes, please.

SHEVEL: Can I just co-opt just to add to this? I agree with everything Tom said. One thing that I would mention, kind of talking about the UN role, I think they’re really in a crisis of sort of world government, for lack of a better word, because we have a country that is one of the permanent members of the Security Council that’s supposed to guarantee world peace that’s totally gone rogue. So I think this is something to think about, that Putin basically is able to hold onto power. And that’s quite possible, I think. It’s also possible he will not be, but he is, right? What is it—so what is UN’s role? Is this still a stable system with the UN Security Council as it exists now, with Russia and the role that it plays there? I think that’s something that would be a question for world leaders to think about as far as international relations.

There was a question also I saw in the chat about the destruction of sacred sites, and I just wanted to comment on that. Unfortunately, this is going on. The statistics I just read this morning in one of the Ukrainian cultural—officials from the Ukrainian culture ministry is saying on average two holy sites get destroyed in the war every day by the shelling. So there is—and most of them are churches, but not only, right? So there is definitely, again, going to sort of this narrative that there is Holy Rus, that there is Russian Army bringing together this Russian world as they are bombing the churches, including Moscow Patriarchate Churches. So that’s also something, I think, going to the point of how that narrative of the Russkiy world, Russkiy Mir, is going to be perceived, how credible is it, especially with the people in Ukraine.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to a raised hand from David Adams.

ADAMS: Thank you, Irina. And thank you to our panelists. It’s a very interesting, if depressing, presentation that you’ve given.

I’ve got kind of a two-part question linked together. One has to do with the ability of the international community to track where the Ukrainians who have been spirited out of Ukraine into Russia are being taken, and what—how many of them there are and what they’re being forced to do. I’ve read or heard that  manual labor in Siberia, for example, may be the destiny of some of them. But I don’t know if that’s empirical data-based or not. And the other thing is, conversely, do you see the Russians—unless there is a peace agreement, I would imagine the Russians bringing migrants, Russian migrants, into Mariupol and areas such as that, that are being absolutely devastated and possibly depopulated, if the refugees are able to—or, displaced persons are eventually able to get out of a place like Mariupol.

GRAHAM: David, those are two very good questions. Oxana may have more information on this than I do. I think in answer to your first question, the simple answer is we don’t know at this point. We’ve heard there’s reports. Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, himself has talked about two thousand children or so being taken out of Mariupol into Russia. Their whereabouts are unknown. Unfortunately, we have very little insight into what is happening inside Russia at this point. And part of that is a consequence of the drawdown in our—in the American embassy in Moscow.

I think the less travel across the country, fewer people who are prepared to talk willingly to Westerners about what’s going on inside Russia because of the consequences of that, this fear that has been conveyed across the country by the Kremlin at this point. So the short answer is we don’t know. There are a lot of rumors. And it’s something that we will want to track, but it’s also something—a question of which we should be demanding answers from the Russians at this point. This would be a role for the UN Security Council, for example, to raise those types of issues and hear what the response is from the Russian government.

On the second question, clearly if Russia does conquer this territory in eastern Ukraine, the city of Mariupol in particular, there’ll be questions of reconstruction and repopulating those areas. How the Russians will go about doing that I think is an open question. Yes, there may be a certain number of migrants that they would—from Russia itself that they would want to move into that area. Perhaps people from the Donbas, people from Crimea, for example. But I think you’re right, they would hesitate to return to that city people who they saw as anti-Russian, who had been in opposition and fought against the Russian forces at that point. And so the preference would be for Russians elsewhere who might be more loyal to Moscow.

But in any event, I think that’s way down the road. This conflict is continuing. Mariupol has been destroyed. And before anybody’s going to move back to Mariupol there’s going to have to be a large reconstruction effort undertaken.

SHEVEL: Let me just add to that. I think it’s a very important question. I’m glad you brought up these forced disappearances and forced removal of the population. I think it’s really tragic. And, first of all, the numbers we really don’t know at this point. I mean, I’ve seen estimates as high as thirty thousand people altogether. We really don’t know. But I think what we do know, this is part of the Russian playbook of the so-called de-Nazification that Putin claims to be pursuing in Ukraine, and who counts as a so-called Nazi needing to be de-Nazified is anybody who seemed to be in opposition to Russian goals, and Russian plans, and Russia ideals.

So it's not just sort of you’re original, so to say, Nazis, right? Like the Azov Battalion is fighting in Mariupol, right? It has about a thousand membership or so forth. But they’re really going after—and that what they’re saying—that they have blocked humanitarian corridors to Ukraine-controlled territories, so when people leave through the Russian checkpoints they are being essentially vetted. Especially men, but also women. They check their phone communications. Sometimes they have actual lists, like in Kherson and elsewhere, where they’ve occupied.

So it goes to civil society activists, certain religious leaders, local government, bloggers—anybody who’s perceived to be in opposition and disagreement with Russia. And we have now dozens of cases of forced disappearance, from local government officials, to journalists, to these unknown number of thousands of people who have been moved to Russia. And what’s going to happen with them? And I think, first of all, we don’t know. But I think there are very good reasons to be very concerned because certain sinister things can be happening, and are likely happening, given, again, what we saw in Donbas in 2014. These so-called basements where people were held, sort of like filtration camps. There are books written about it. This infamous Izolyatsia prison in Donbas where people have been tortured and held for many months incommunicado. Many died.

So we could see some of that. Or, again, we could see removal of people to far regions of Russia, from which they may not be able to come back again. We have these unconfirmed reports that people who were taken from Mariupol, their Ukrainian documents were taken, they were given some sort of piece of paper that only allows them to move to some farming town, and then it’s sort of unclear what happens to them after that. And as far as reconstruction and repopulation of Mariupol, I think—I mean, I think Tom is right. It’s kind of down the road. We don’t really know. But I would mention just two things here.

So, first of all, if Russia does hold onto these territories and doesn’t pull its troops back, I think that basically means that the sanctions will continue, the Ukrainian government will not agree to give up any additional territory, right? They may have reached some agreement over Crimea. Zelensky was proposing maybe a fifteen-year referendum, what have you. But certainly not giving additional territory. That would have to be imposed by Russia by force. Right, then it means, again, that there would be a continuation of sanctions and all the economic problems it creates in Russia.

So to think that they would have the money to rebuild this territory, which is now—Mariupol is like 90 percent destroyed—I don’t think so. I think that would be essentially wasteland. Probably militarized, right, again, given its strategic location on the Black Sea, like we saw in Crimea. And again, if we look at Donbas, the region—the so-called separatist republics, their, economy has been very depressed, and there wasn’t nearly that scale of destruction there. So this sort of idea of moving more Russian people to Mariupol in particular, I think is unlikely given how destroyed the city is and how Russia will not have the funds to rebuild it. But certainly deporting or disappearing or otherwise dealing with people who, quote/unquote are “Nazis,” not just in Mariupol but also in Kherson and these other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, I think that’s very possible.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America, general secretary emeritus.

And the question is, to follow the discussion of the theological vision of Russia’s role and destiny, are these dimensions generally overlooked by Western policymakers who are focused on geopolitical issues and diplomatic compromises, but don’t take account of the underlying religious dimensions of the conflict? Tom, I think you can start on that one, since you’ve been at the table.

GRAHAM: (Laughs.) I’ve been at the table. I think the short answer to that is that there is a tendency inside, certainly inside the U.S. government, not to pay sufficient attention to these underlying sort of ideological, theological issues to see how they might play in the process. The focus is largely on geopolitical matters, military forces, and so forth. That isn’t to say that there aren’t people inside the government that focus on these things very clearly. And within the State Department, within our intelligence community they can provide information on those matters.

But I would say that there is, inside the U.S. government, a certain amount of hesitation to get engaged in these issues because of the separation of church and state in the United States. And people are concerned about crossing those lines. So even if we’re aware of it, the extent to which we would get engaged or try to exploit it in some way to our advantage is quite limiting because of those constitutional restrictions inside the United States. Now, whether that’s the right way to approach it or not I think is an open question. But it is a factor when the issue of religion comes up as part of a larger geopolitical crisis or conflict.

FASKIANOS: Oxana, do you want to weigh in?

SHEVEL: No, I would agree. I think it’s fair to say—(inaudible)—that that’s probably not the main priority, right, for the Western policymakers, when they actually formulate policy. But at the same time, I think there is awareness, and sometimes the sort of religious underpinnings or divisions might be actually a very—could be very consequential for, say, military or political outcomes. And I think that they are, or they’re perceived to be. I think that’s probably when they receive more attention. You put this more on the historical level, right? Like you say in the case of this war, Putin says Russia and Ukraine are one nation, even though all evidence from Ukraine shows that they aren’t, right? And then the patriarch is basically saying the same thing but now he has more  religious justification or narrative.

Is this changing anything? Kind of. I think if you’re saying something different, that probably would be something for policymakers to maybe pay more attention to, because here there is conflicting narrative or something along those lines. But when we have political narrative being reinforced by religious narrative, both on the same point, reality on the ground is something different. Maybe that’s why it’s not getting that much attention.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’ll take the next question from Father Thomas Zain.

Do you think the center of Kyiv is somewhat safe from the type of destruction seen elsewhere because of the especially sacred sites there, like the Kyiv Caves Monastery?

SHEVEL: Yeah, I don’t think anywhere in Ukraine is safe at this point because we have seen  places bombed west, and north, and south, and everywhere. The idea that, say, the Caves Monastery would be purposefully protected, I mean, you might think so. But then again, given that many Orthodox Churches, including there are some historical ones in Chernihiv, which is a very ancient town north of Kyiv—also, again, I’m not a military strategist, but from what I read the sort of precision-guided missiles in Russia are maybe kind of getting in short supply, and they’re using less precision, especially when they bomb the cities. So even if, say, there may be an intent—or, not an intent to, say, to target the Caves Monastery, right, if you’re using the kind of munition that is not particularly precise, it could be damaged without intent. So my short answer would be that I don’t think it is safe, just because there is this religious site there.

FASKIANOS: Great. So I want to try to get in Don Frew, Covenant of the Goddess.

I’m in communication with Pagan groups in Ukraine—Slavic, Greek, Scandinavian, and Celtic. As one might expect, they’ve been discriminated against in Ukrainian society, but people have been putting aside religious discrimination in the face of a greater enemy. And do you think this greater acceptance is likely to continue after the war?

SHEVEL: Yeah, it’s a good question because, for me, I mean, I agree that people have put aside many differences, including religious differences. Would that continue after the war? I think it partially depends on how the war ends, right? I think if the war ends in a way that Ukraine gets its territory back that Russia has occupied since February of this year, there is reconstruction effort, there is support—great support from the West, eventually maybe even prospect of EU membership. So there is kind of enthusiasm, I think we can expect this unity to continue. Again, just on the point of refugees, most refugees come out, they want to come back. I have a lot of friends and family there, and everybody’s talking about how they will rebuild.

This is what people talk about, right? And you can say it’s in part kind of a psychological self-defense mechanism, but there is this great optimism, right? Some, over 90 percent, of the population, according to opinion polls, believe that Ukraine can win, right, and sort of good things can come. So I think if there is this, we can say, sort of positive end to the war in Ukraine, then I think this continued cooperation and greater unity would probably continue. Not to say that some of the old differences, or discrimination, or animosity may not—would be completely erased. But it probably, it would be my guess, would be that it won’t be the dominant sentiment, right?

Now if, say, Ukraine somehow loses, and so it becomes, who’s to blame, which groups maybe didn’t do your right share, if the government did this or should have done that. So I think that then we might have more divides in the society, right? Sort of this finger-pointing, blaming, right? And the question is, we have to live under new reality. Do we keep fighting, do we not? So there I think we may see maybe potentially in looking for groups to blame, right? Again, I’m not sure it’s going to attack Pagan groups specifically, but sort of broader, looking for internal enemies or people to blame, finger-pointing, and therefore more divisions.

FASKIANOS: Great. And I’m going to give the last question to Nathan Hosler, who’s with the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy.

What are the possibilities for, or risks associated with, bodies such as the World Council of Churches engaging with either of the Orthodox Churches regarding the present situation? So, Oxana, why don’t you start and maybe—

SHEVEL: Let me see. So I’ll just—so the question is about the World Council of Churches doing what? Sorry, I missed the beginning of—

FASKIANOS: That’s OK. Let me just—it was basically how can bodies such as the World Council of Churches engage with either of the Orthodox Churches regarding the present situation. So essentially, what can religious leaders do to help, to do their part in this conflict?

SHEVEL: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, it’s—I think condemning the war and calling on the Russian patriarch to not endorse it is certainly the right kind of acts that these groups already are doing. Would it have any effect? I remain somewhat skeptical. I think one thing that, again, maybe we haven’t seen that yet—and I don’t know, I haven’t really followed it that closely so maybe there have been some reports—about how, say, other Orthodox Churches feel about recognizing—(inaudible)—because—which has now only been recognized by four churches—Orthodox Churches, this Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church.

I’m not sure if that’s something now that’s a discussion within global Orthodoxy, sort of what role the World Council of Churches plays in, right? So there is—yes, I see the question in the chat. The World Council of Churches, right, that the Russian Orthodox Church is a member, so there is kind of a conflict since the World Council is against the war. So I’m not sure if the Russian Orthodox Church can—its leadership in particular—can be somehow persuaded to take different position. I honestly don’t think so. Sorry, that’s not a very satisfying answer.

FASKIANOS: No, that’s fine. And, Tom, I just wondered, from your perspective, what you think religious leaders can do or—

GRAHAM: So it’s not beyond what Oxana has said already. I mean, they should be condemning the war. They should be condemning the aggression. They should be condemning the unwarranted and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. That is what is a fundamental precept of most world religions. Is it going to have an impact on the Russian Orthodox Church, the leadership? I think Oxana is absolutely right: No, at this point. But it—this is a case where people ought to stand up for their principles and their faith. And I think that makes it incumbent upon religious leaders to condemn the violence in the most forceful terms possible.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Well, we did not get to all the questions. I apologize for that. We are at the end of the hour. So we will have to leave it here and come back. Alas, I think that, as you both have said, this is not going to end any time soon. So we will continue to focus on it in our discussion.

So thank you to Tom Graham and Oxana Shevel for being with us today. We really appreciate it. You can follow Dr. Graham at CFR.org and Dr. Shevel on Twitter at @oxanashevel. And I also hope you’ll follow us, CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program at @CFR_religion. And of course, as always, please visit CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest policy analysis on this crisis, as well as other regions and topics around the world. And as always, please send us your suggestions of topics, speakers, feedback to [email protected]. We love hearing from you and want to continue the dialogue.

So thank you all again. Our next session will be on Tuesday, April 5, at 1:00 p.m. And we will be discussing religion and conflict resolution. So, again, thank you both.

SHEVEL: Thank you.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

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