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"In the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kyiv, "let it be the mother of all Russian cities".
Something that is missing from the relentless ruminating about Putin's motives for invading Ukraine is that the man is a God botherer. Have we all overlooked that the post-Soviet revival of Christianity in Russia has Vladimir Putin as its champion? Surely not? After all, he came up through the secular communist regime. Yet, that's only part of his story.
Putin was born in Leningrad — a city that has reclaimed its original name of St Petersburg. His mother, a devout Christian, baptised him in secret, and he still wears his baptismal cross. Once in power, Putin soon set about portraying himself as the true defender of Christians worldwide. His relentless bombing of ISIS, for example, was cast as the defence of the historic homeland of Christianity.
Here is a speech he gave in 2013; "We see many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They deny moral principles and all traditional national, cultural, religious, and even sexual identities. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan."
Hence the argument goes that Putin regards his spiritual destiny as the rebuilding of Christendom, based in Moscow. So when the punk band Pussy Riot wanted to protest against Putin, they chose to do so in the Cathedral of Christ in Moscow, knowing this would infuriate him.
Maybe it's not only NATO's eastward movement playing on Putin's mind. Is he seeking to reestablish 'Holy Russia'? If yes, then Kyiv is central to that project and that may explain Putin’s obsession.
According to Russian Orthodox Church doctrine, Kyiv is the home of the spiritual founding event with the 988 'Baptism of Rus'. This mass baptism of the entire Kyiv population by St Vladimir (note the name) is the key to the issue.
Speaking of this mass baptism, Putin explained: "His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus."
"The spiritual choice made by St Vladimir still determines our affinity today," Putin wrote only last year. "In the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kyiv, "let it be the mother of all Russian cities". If Putin wants to do the same again, he needs Kyiv back, making this a religious project.
Into this religious intensity, we can add some angry church politics. In 2019, the Ukrainian arm of the Orthodox churches declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church rejected this claim to autonomy, stating that Ukraine belonged irrevocably to its 'canonical territory'. Putin affirmed that statement.
Is it that people in the West, coming to these matters with a more secular imagination, don't get the strength of feeling Putin summons up. Hence, we fall back on the simple "Putin is mad" narrative.
Is this confusing understanding leading to thinking that a bunch of sanctions will make a difference? Because it is evident that sanctions have no impact on Putin's actions.
Putin again: "Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space". That's what this is all about, "spiritual space". In Putin’s world, the West has gone soft with wokery making them weak and lacking in resolve.
Of course, none of this justifies the invasion and the tragedy unfolding for ordinary Ukrainians. They are caught between an angry zealot and a dithering West that doesn't comprehend the challenge it faces.
So, what to do? Well, Putin and his cronies factored in the sanctions, taking precautions well before the invasion to protect their interests. And short of committing military forces, for which the West has no appetite, few options remain.
Yet dismissing Putin as a psychopath is lazy rhetoric and a cop-out. Worse, it is counterproductive. Understanding what drives him may help save more unfortunates from a terrible fate. Because if religion is a significant factor, then the game is different from that of geopolitics portrayed in the Western media.
Because, as Christopher Hitchens proclaimed “religion poisons everything”. God help the people of Ukraine.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.