Eight days after Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014, evangelical figurehead Reverend Franklin Graham published an op-ed in Decision Magazine which attempted to explain the person of Vladimir Putin to American Christians. Graham quietly applauded Putin’s campaigns to protect traditional values and Christians abroad while lamenting the loss of America’s “high moral ground.” Graham’s article did not mention Russia’s illegal operations in Ukraine, nor the international condemnation it rightly received. The next year, as Russia’s “little green men” occupied Ukrainian territory, Graham even went so far as to meet with Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Graham’s relationship with Putin’s Russia illustrates a broader trend among American Christians who may sympathize with Putin’s self-proclaimed efforts to defend traditional, Christian values against liberal threats – even at the cost of ignoring Putin’s warmongering. While Graham was clear to say “I am not endorsing Putin,” he argued “Putin is right” about LGBTQ issues and his military intervention in Syria. 

A decade after Russia invaded Crimea, some evangelical Christians are still finding themselves disappointed with America’s drift from traditional, conservative values and wondering if they have an unexpected champion in the Kremlin. All the while, they too might forget about Ukraine – the sovereign country which Russia again invaded in 2022.

For a repressive dictator, Vladimir Putin enjoys a puzzling amount of support among Americans with religious values. Christianity Today cited 2023 polling data suggesting “people who believe the US should be a Christian nation were more likely to support [Putin].” Yet Ukraine aid enjoys less support. As Steven Moore and Jason Jay Smart argue in their article “Evangelical Christians are Key to Unlocking Additional Aid,” Christians and self-described Trump supporters recently surveyed were opposed to more Ukraine aid. 

As evangelical Christians search for partners with shared values in foreign governments, we cannot ignore a prospective ally’s geopolitical calculations and unprovoked infliction of disproportionate suffering abroad. Russia’s war against Ukraine should be primary in the evangelical understanding of Putin, rather than an afterthought. Evangelicals must get our understanding of Putin right and that necessarily means acknowledging his unjust war against Ukraine and religious freedom.

Like Graham, Christians may be familiar with Russia’s intervention in international conflicts on behalf of oppressed Christians, especially in the Middle East. But, it is also worth noting that Vladimir Putin has revitalized Russian Christianity throughout the 2000s for nationalistic, political ends, employing the Russian Orthodox Church accordingly. Pursuant to revitalizing the Russian state’s power at home and abroad, the Kremlin may hide its foreign policy goals under the guise of protecting Christians abroad. This may legitimize foreign policy interventions and distract from the Russian government’s other, less palatable geopolitical motives and outcomes. 

For example in 2015, Russia militarily intervened in the Syrian civil war to support the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed that Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was acting to “save… Christians in the Middle East.” Three years into the campaign, Russian airstrikes reportedly killed at least 17,000 civilians, including more than 1,800 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The United Nations would accuse Russia of committing war crimes through “indiscriminate bombing” of Syria’s civilian population. Yet the Russian Orthodox Church, often a political mouthpiece of the Kremlin, praised these strikes as part of Russia’s “holy war” against Islam. Syria demonstrates how Christianity can be both a motivating and justificatory mechanism to advance the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals, no matter the cost to human life.

Yet, contra his claim to be a defender of the faith, Putin has embarked on a bloody, unprovoked, and sustained invasion of Ukraine, a largely Christian country, in 2022. In his infamous 2021 essay, Putin’s historical recollection unites Ukraine and Russia (and Belarus) through shared religious and linguistic heritage. Since Eastern Orthodoxy is the most prominent religion practiced by Ukrainians, seemingly, Putin could not profess to wage a war against Ukraine in defense of Christians. Yet he found a way: to spread propaganda that Ukraine persecutes Christians and that Russia acted to prevent such persecution. Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson also broadcasted the Kremlin talking point that Ukraine persecutes Christians, only for his claims to be thoroughly debunked.

While allegedly protecting Christians, the Russian government has been credibly accused of committing abhorrent war crimes against its Ukrainian Orthodox brothers and sisters. Further, after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the US Department of State reported that “Since its invasion of Crimea and portions of Donbas in 2014, according to widespread reports, the Russian Federation and its proxies have committed widespread, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion and conscience as well as physical and psychological abuse of religious minorities.” Putin is an unsuitable Christian ally if his directives persecute Christians and perpetuate war crimes against innocent civilians in Ukraine.

Therefore, evangelicals should approach the Russian government’s claims to defend Christianity and conservative values abroad with healthy skepticism, especially during wartime, and consider the political undertones of such messaging. But this is not a call to abandon Russia; rather, Christians must also remain sympathetic to the Russians caught up in a war beyond their control. Christians should responsibly avoid Russophobic, alarmist language and practices. Instead, all can use critical language towards the Russian government and military, rather than making sweeping generalizations applicable to Russia or Russians. As Graham’s 2014 visit to Russia may illustrate, American Christians should not isolate themselves internationally, and must remain a people called to make disciples “of all nations” – including Russia. 

Christians can update schemas about Putin and Ukraine, just as Franklin Graham did. In 2022, Franklin Graham expressed sadness over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, magnified stories of Ukrainians’ suffering, and championed humanitarian aid to Ukraine. He urged prayer for Ukraine and for Russia, for their leaders and their people. Instead of visiting Russia, he has visited Ukraine to support the humanitarian efforts of Samaritan’s Purse. Though Graham has not commented on sending military aid to Ukraine, in June of 2023 he and Mike Pence, a vocal supporter of military aid, toured Ukraine together, perhaps implying where his sympathies lie.

Christians cannot remain stuck in 2014, when there was ambivalence and equivocation towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Franklin Graham changed his tune, and so can the rest of the evangelical world. Dear evangelical Christian, please remember Ukraine.