President Putin is not mad. Unless, that is, all those who believe their political mission to be a divine vocation are mad. He may be grievously misguided and perversely in error, but his invasion of Ukraine is not without reason: there is method in his madness, which is not really madness. We listen to his rambling speeches, and they are dismissed as incoherent rants. They are not. Unless, that is, all those who expound their divinely-inspired strategies are incoherent. We watch his military forces march through the streets of Kyiv, and Russian missiles pounding apartment blocks and kindergartens, and we say he is a delusional sociopath.
This he may be – as many of those who, from time to time throughout apocalyptic history, have invaded their neighbours and turned piles of bodies to ash in the name of God.
Putin is ‘evil’, if his biographer Mark Galeotti has assessed him right.
And if he is evil, he is antichrist.
The Third Rome is a religio-political belief that Moscow succeeded Rome and Byzantium Rome as the centre of Christianity: there was Rome and the Roman Empire; there was Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire; and now there is Moscow and the Russian Empire. This is Putin’s Christendom; the Christian messianism of the profoundly religious Russian soul, notwithstanding the competing claims of Western Christianity and the echoes (or death throes) of the Holy Roman Empire which still murmur in the European Union.
“We see the restoration of neo-imperial ideas in Moscow,” Archbishop Yevstraty Zoria said in 2018, as Ukrainian officials petitioned Orthodox leaders to allow them to establish the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, independent of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“This is a matter of national security and our defences in a hybrid war,” said former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “Because the Kremlin regards the Russian church as one of the key instruments of influence on Ukraine.”
So when Putin refers to the ‘spiritual security‘ of Russia, and refers to Ukraine as an inalienable part of Russian “history, culture, and spiritual space“, that spiritual security and spiritual space reside in Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate is schismatic, and must be brought back into the fold of Russian Orthodoxy.
It is God’s will.
“Without control over Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate wouldn’t be the biggest Orthodox church,” Archbishop Yevstraty explained. “And the Russian Church would lose the basis of its vision to be the center of world Orthodoxy.” The situation is comparable to the breakup of the Soviet Union, he added. “Without Ukraine, the Soviet Union was no longer a superpower.”
And so President Putin’s mission to subdue and reclaim Ukraine is not only temporal, but spiritual. To him, NATO represents the evil forces of the Western Antichrist, which St Vladimir has been called by God to resist and defeat. So this is not madness, but the ages-old dream of Rome, in which Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus’ is complicit. “God forbid,” he preached yesterday, “that the current political situation in brotherly Ukraine should be aimed at ensuring that the evil forces that have always fought against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church prevail.”
When the principality and power of the sacralised politics of Russian Christian nationalism is thus understood, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine makes a perverse kind of sense: each bullet is blessed by Patriarch Kirill, and it is God who pulls the trigger. President Zelenskiy must bend the knee and repent of his political self-deceit and his spiritual self-destruction. This is how the violence of war is rationalised and justified: the “evil forces” must be purged for their own good.
And so darkness once again makes war on light; evil outbids and outdoes good. This is the struggle which will be pursued with mixed results until the end, but then its eschatological resolution will be absolute.
Putin may not be the Antichrist, but the Putin antichrist is one in a long succession of antichrists whose devilish empires and quests for world domination have given us glimpses of the Apocalypse. God sends signs of the end: there will be woes and terrors, unnatural happenings, and a rising tide of evil. If these are the End Times, the transfiguration of Vladimir Putin has been prophesied; the Parousia is the religio-mystical passion of Magog, and the world dances on the tip of a nuclear bomb.