In what has been described as an “unhinged rant,” Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of four regions of Ukraine that were purported to have voted in favor of joining Russia. In this wide-ranging and often incoherent talk, he blamed the West not just for supporting the rights of Ukraine to maintain their independence but also for what he described as a “satanic” view of the world.
This would appear to raise the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine to a whole new level of conflict. It was now not just a fight over territory but over righteousness and civilization itself.
Putin was not the first to cast the war in these religious terms. It was previously portrayed this way by his comrade and co-conspirator in bellicose language, Patriarch Kirill, the titular leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
On March 5, 2022, at the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Patriarch delivered a sermon on what was Easter in the Russian Orthodox tradition. In it, he portrayed the battle in Ukraine as not just a mundane military encounter, but a conflict of “metaphysical significance,” in which the existential forces of good and darkness were contesting.
Kirill, and now Putin, have raised the stakes in what was initially described as a military operation. It now appears to be something of a holy war.
In my recent book, God at War, I have mused over the concept of war, especially as it has been used by a variety of groups engaged in terrorism that I have studied in the past thirty years. It strikes me that that there are different ways of conceiving war, even different ways of conceiving the relationship between religion and war.
Often priests and other clergy are brought in to bless the troops and to imply that God is on the side of one’s army during a military confrontation. But what many violent activists are asserting is that their war is more than that—it is part of God’s design in a transcendent confrontation of apocalyptic proportions.
This awesome view of war on a metaphysical level is what I have called cosmic war. It is more than just a religious affirmation of one’s military. It is lifting military combat into the high proscenium of spiritual battle.
This is what Patriarch Kirill and now Putin have done with their war in Ukraine. It is their cosmic war.
Such wars never end well. Like the notion of “absolute war” described by the 18th century Prussian General, Carl von Clausewitz, as long as a battle is conceived in cosmic terms there is no possibility for negotiation or easy abnegation of the struggle. There can only be absolute victory or absolute defeat.
Putin’s annexation of portions of Ukraine and his strident talk about fighting the “satanic” power of the West seem to be setting himself up for one or other of those two choices. But cosmic war can seldom be achieved by mortal means. It is one of these fantastic visions that ultimately must bend to reality and be abandoned.
This is what has happened in many of the religion-related violent struggles in recent history. Take ISIS, for instance. When I talked with former ISIS militants, most no longer believed they were engaged in a cosmic struggle. Some, however, told me they still believed in the caliphate and the metaphysical struggle against satanic enemies, but no longer believed that the ISIS organization was worthy of conducting it.
Cosmic war can be abandoned as quickly as it has descended. Or, in some cases, it is possible to retain a notion of cosmic war but detach it from earthly struggles. This happens only when reality sets in, when it is clear that the cosmic struggle is not going to succeed on an earthly plane and there are other options for survival.
The hope is that Putin will realize that his imagined metaphysical war is a fantasy, or that it need not apply to his territorial ambitions in Ukraine. His cosmic war will end only when he is forced to accede to reality, including his increasingly likelihood of defeat.