“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Vladimir Putin invoked these words of Christ in a speech to Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament last year as a means to express his fears of increasingly secular Western civilization. “Millions of people in the West realize that they are being led to a spiritual disaster,” Putin continued, admonishing the audience that “Our ancestors passed [this civilization] to us and we must preserve it for our descendants.”
Despite Putin’s peculiar exegesis, his speech attests to a fundamental fact of international politics: religions and world civilizations matter. This statement became the chorus of many political scientists since the turn of the 21st Century. It is what Scott Thomas calls “the global resurgence of religion.” The thought of one influential political scientist, Martin Wight (1913-1972), bears particular significance for contemporary conversations on the relationship between religion in international conflicts, especially between Russia and the West. Applying Wight’s thought to the present conflict, two points are apparent. Firstly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a continuation of the historical Byzantine-Latin conflict and, secondly, the West must aggressively defend its civilizational values by assisting Ukraine against Russia.
According to Martin Wight in his famed 1948 article “The Church, Russia and the West,” the Cold War between the USSR and the US was the product of the “apostasy of Christendom.” Specifically, Russia replaced Byzantine Christendom with Marxism, while the West replaced Latin Christendom with liberalism.
Despite these two waves of secularization, both sides of the Iron Curtain acted as if they are still the heads of Christian civilizations. As Wight suggested, the USSR possesses a “sense of messianic vocation as world-leader and supplanter of the decadent West,” while the US has a “puritanical aversion from diplomacy,” seeing itself as “the exemplar of mankind, with a permanent revolution.”
These distortions of Christianity, however, position Russia and the West for conflict. Such theological language is unconvincing for the secular reader, but if one were to rephrase the “apostasy of Christendom” in sociological terms, it becomes “generational trauma” and “historical memory.”
From the Great Schism of 1054 to the Iron Curtain in the Cold War, Orthodox civilization has always been at odds with Western civilization. By putting contemporary East-West tensions through this historical lens, it presents a plausible explanation for why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022. If Wight is right, the Russo-Ukrainian War is a kind of continuation of the medieval Byzantine-Latin rivalry. The events leading up to the invasion confirm this argument.
Following the Maidan Revolution of 2014, marking a significant shift towards the West in Ukraine, Putin feared Western secularism was spreading to Orthodox civilization. The most notable example of Ukraine tilting west is NATO’s official acknowledgment of Ukraine’s aspiration to join the military alliance from 2018. In contrast, Putin believes in Russkiy Mir (Русский мир, or Russian World), the “multinational civilization of Orthodox Christians adhering to a common set of conservative values” as Nicholas Denysenko wrote in The Church’s Unholy War (2023). This special messianic duty to bring Ukraine away from Western influence and into the Russian fold echoes much of Wight’s description of the Kremlin.
In response to this essentially religious conflict between the West and Russia, Wight is a proponent of the Whig Tradition of Diplomacy for its “permissible accommodation between moral necessity and practical demands.”
One tenant of the Whig Diplomacy is a robust defense of sovereign territories, Ukraine being a good example. Wight argued that it is “in the conscious maintenance of the balance of power to preserve the independence of the member-communities” that a stable international order is found. Supporting Ukraine’s self-determination, therefore, is crucial for maintaining Western multilateral stability.
The practical side of actually ensuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity is more complex. The Whig Tradition holds “an index to the accumulated experience of a civilization which has valued disciplined skepticism and canonized prudence as a political virtue.” This index is the belief in compromise, an attempt to achieve a golden mean between idealism and realism in international politics. In the case of Ukraine, Western policy must balance the moral duty of defending Ukraine with some degree of pragmatic restraint that will not provoke Putin to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Pragmatism occupies a large portion of Wight’s desired foreign policy. In Wight’s famous essay, “Why Is There No International Theory?” (1966), he inspired foreign policymakers not to study the history of ideas, per se, but the history of international experience, in which foreign policy practitioners can learn from world leaders who have successfully executed diplomatic policy.
The indefinite nature of these solutions is purposeful, given that Wight viewed “political humility” as an essential Christian virtue. Since the Whig Tradition was, for Wight, the embodiment of Christian ethics and natural law, he saw it as the “least worst” system of foreign policy. Christian political actors who pursue justice in Ukraine, therefore, will likely support Ukraine’s counteroffensive through economic and military aid while refusing both direct military intervention and NATO enlargement, two policies that would provoke Russia to consider the nuclear question or further threaten the stability of Western civilization.
If Martin Wight were still alive today, he would begin his analysis of the Russo-Ukrainian War by contextualizing the conflicts of the 20th and 21st Century within the broader story of Latin-Orthodox rivalry. Wight would apply the Whiggish and Christian Realist emphasis on compromise to find a middle ground which neither abandons Ukraine in the name of cold-hearted realism nor insists on maximal confrontation with Russia for the sake of liberal-democratic idealism. This means diving deeper into history and religion to appreciate diplomacy and foreign policy as the ultimately humanistic subjects they are.