October 24, 2018

On the “spiritual front”: Kyiv and Moscow battle for hearts and souls

The independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow would strike a blow against Russia’s world-view

Being an integral part of human history, wars driven by religion seemed to have withered away with the end of the Thirty Years War (1618–48) and the advent of the Peace of Westphalia. This pivotal transformation witnessed profound change in the role and place allocated to religion in the countries of Western Europe. However, Eastern and Central Europe took a different path: in spite of horrible oppression and the decades of oblivion religion suffered in the 20th century, it has managed to retain its instrumental role in political processes, and now promises to become a key element of the new kind of inter-state conflict—hybrid warfare. This is fully reflected in a very recent conflict that has broken out between Russian and Ukrainian ecclesiastical powers, seemingly waged over the issue of autocephaly (a church’s ability to choose its own hierarchs) but in effect part of a multifaceted geopolitical confrontation between the two countries that might spread well beyond their borders.

“A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma”: The Roots of the Current Conflict

The history of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a matter of great complexity, permeated with a great deal of confusion and unresolved centuries-long disputes. It would therefore be impossible to look at this phenomenon in isolation, thereby trying to diminish or reduce the importance of ties with Russia. The first debates between Kyiv and Moscow over religious matters began to arise as long ago as the 13th century, and as can be clearly seen they have lost none of their vigour today.

As a result of developments and geopolitical transformations that befell the Ukrainian land through the course of its history, by the end of the 20th century the following major “branches” that now shape the Ukrainian spiritual landscape had been formed:

  • The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOCKP)
  • The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC)
  • The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOCMP).
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, right, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, sits with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, left, prior to their meeting at the Patriarchate in Istanbul, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. AP/Scanpix

Right from the last years of the late Soviet Union (when the Soviet authorities departed from previously maintained policies related to religious affairs), relations between the above-mentioned “branches” have been uneasy, to say the least. Emerging issues were profoundly amplified by the collapse of the USSR and advent of independent Ukraine, when in addition to internal dilemmas the nascent church was to face external pressure. Indeed, freed from political captivity, the population of Ukraine (with a level of religiosity visibly higher than in Russia) was still not free: in each and every political dispute with Kyiv, Moscow had a powerful argument in the form of spiritual supremacy, which the Kremlin was keen to use when necessary.

These tendencies were greatly influenced by two circumstances. The first was the emergence of the Russian World (Russkiy Mir) Foundation in 2007. Secondly, the election of Kirill I of Moscow as Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus′ changed the foundation of the Russkiy Mir concept, adding to it an ecclesiastical pillar and broadening the boundaries of the Russian “sphere of influence” in the form of canonical lands.1 In accordance with this principle, Ukraine was undoubtedly an integral part of these.

Relatively slow moving until recently, the issue of sovereignty over its own canonical territory and autocephaly was sparked by the appeal by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, in April 2018.2 In his letter Poroshenko asked the hierarch “to restore historical justice” and grant Ukraine the long-sought-after “Tomos of autocephaly”, an official document granting autocephaly—in other words, independence from Moscow.

To huge dissatisfaction (later turning into anger) from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Constantinople agreed to reconsider its previously held stance on the matter, stating that the grant of autocephaly might indeed have a positive/consolidating effect on the current state of religious affairs in Ukraine. To this end, two exarchs were despatched to oversee the process. From its side, the UOCMP (with clear and barely concealable support from the side of the ROC) demanded that the exarchs be recalled, construing the action as “an intrusion into the canonical territory of the UOCMP”.3 At this juncture, a meeting in Istanbul between Bartholomew and Kirill (preceded by a series of arguments), not only brought little solace to the Russian side but also came to be viewed in the ecclesiastical world as a “total defeat of the Russian hierarch”.4

This apparent lack of compromise between the ecclesiastical powers engulfed the lay sector (ordinary people and politicians) and third parties involved—this combination expanded the boundaries of the conflict well beyond the religious domain per se, with far-reaching social, political and even security consequences for all actors.

The Russian Take: The End of the “Russian World” Project?

In the Kremlin’s view, religion is the continuation of geopolitics by other means, especially when it comes to Ukraine. Of 35,000 parishes controlled by the ROC, 12,000 are located in Ukraine, 4,000 in Belarus and around 1,500 in other territories of the former USSR.5 Furthermore, in the Russian ecclesiastical narrative (ardently supported by lay powers, as was clearly shown after 2013–14) the “Holy Rus” concept sees Ukraine as one of three main pillars (Russia-Ukraine-Belarus) that hold together the foundations of the Orthodox world.6 At this juncture, the city of Kyiv has a deeply-rooted, perhaps even sacral, meaning for the Russian hierarchs. One might recall Kirill’s argument that “Kyiv is a starting point of our civilisation … The national consciousness of Russians and Ukrainians is a guardian of the united Orthodox Church.”7

On the other hand, as underlined above, it is an open secret that religious affairs have been historically/traditionally viewed by Russian secular powers as an indispensable instrument in the expansion of geopolitical ambitions. It thus would be relevant to recall the “hot summer” of 2013, when celebrations of the Baptism of Rus that took place in Kyiv (attended both by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill) were widely seen as Moscow’s final attempt to reconfirm Ukraine’s pro-Eurasian direction (in terms of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community). After 2014, religion openly became an integral part of political and even (para)military strife between Russia and Ukraine: in addition to implicit support for the annexation of Crimea by Igor Strelkov/Girkin,8 the ROC made abundantly clear its sympathies for the Novorossiya project—financially supported by Konstantin “the Orthodox oligarch” Malofeev, a target of Western sanctions.

It would therefore be no exaggeration to emphasise that, from a Russian perspective, the prospect of Ukraine gaining autocephaly is nothing short of a strategic defeat and a “forfeiture of the status of the ‘the Third Rome’ and leadership of the Orthodox world”.9 In spite of the decisive tone and rhetoric (the ROC threatened to discontinue all talks with Constantinople if the issue moved forward without regard for Russia’s position10, the Russian side seems petrified by disbelief (that the issue, which has been dragging for decades, might be now on the way to resolution, but not in Russia’s favour) and perplexed by the course of action should the final verdict go against Russian interests. In addition to growing political isolation and economic problems—aspects that tend to be played down by Russian propaganda as materialistic and capable of hurting “morally stagnant” Western societies—Moscow is about to lose a battle on the spiritual front as well.

The Ukrainian Perspective: Breaking “Spiritual Shackles”?

In contrast to Russia—where significant unanimity on the issue is hardly a surprise—in Ukraine the matter appears to be more complicated. Naturally, the most discontent has come from the UOCMP, to which autocephaly would mean definitive and utter defeat. The UOCMP and circles close to it have therefore activated various means to bring the process to a halt, or at least slow it down. An effective media campaign and incessant public appeals are just one side of the story. An argument over the continuation of the illegal seizure of parishes (reportedly initiated after 2014) and the end of religious pluralism in Ukraine is currently being held up as a stern warning to Constantinople and other forces seeking to cut the umbilical cord and separate Ukraine from Russia. The most decisive wing of the non-conformist forces has gone as far as sending a petition to initiate legal proceedings against president Poroshenko for his actions and starting the interconfessional conflict.11

On the other hand, the sense of unease and disbelief is aggravated by growing uncertainties over the true purpose of Poroshenko’s recent actions. There is little doubt that the Russian side (acting through its information outlets and media resources) sees the “true” nature of the ongoing conflict and its timing as directly related to a desire of the Ukrainian president to “score points” in the forthcoming presidential election campaign. Indeed, on the surface all major problems that started to plague Ukraine in late 2013 have not gone away, despite explicit promises by Poroshenko when he assumed the presidency in 2014. (It is, however, a totally different question whether dealing with these issues in this period was at all feasible). This leads Russian commentators to argue that the lack of real achievements could make autocephaly a convenient subject in the light of other failures.12 Indeed, despite its origin, this argument could yield certain benefits to the (pro‑)Russian side, particularly taking into account weakening public support for Poroshenko.

This being the case, the complexity of the situation also rests on the lack of unanimity in Ukrainian society, which could be explained by either growing social apathy or increasing “real” problems that eclipse religious matters. Given the lack of credible data, it might help to look at the results of an opinion poll conducted by the Razumkov Centre in April 2018, which showed that only 23.4% of respondents strongly favoured an alliance between existing confessions in a single independent one.13

Conclusion and Further Reflections

The issue of Ukrainian autocephaly is very detailed and complex. On the surface, a resolution in Kyiv’s favour would be a severe blow to the Russkiy Mir project, which has already demonstrated that “spreading knowledge about the Russian language, culture and history” is by no means its primary purpose—Ukraine, Georgia and the three Baltic states can testify to this. Similarly, defeating Russia on the “religious battlefield” is likely to damage the policy of so-called “collection of the Russian lands”14 by taking away its core pillar. On the other hand, it would mean that the ROC’s efforts in Syria, Ethiopia, Palestine and other places where Russia aims to broaden its political influence by using religion as an integral part of its toolbox will encounter major difficulties. Ultimately and most importantly, a victory by Kyiv should be seen as yet another (and in many ways the most decisive) step towards cutting the cord with the past. This is the bright side; the reality appears to be much more complicated.

Autocephaly will not mean that Moscow is going to discontinue its attempts to be a part of Ukraine’s internal affairs, since a defeat rarely stops Russia, especially in its self-proclaimed sphere of influence. On the contrary, Russian interference could take different, more sophisticated forms. Similarly, the end of pluralism in the Ukrainian religious landscape (which could even be beneficial to some extent) might also have negative consequences: a religious straitjacket might transform the Ukrainian religious domain into one that exists in Russia itself—an issue that would be gladly exploited by Russian propaganda.


1 Sergey Sukhankin, “The ‘Russkij mir’ as Mission: Kaliningrad between the ‘altar’ and the ‘throne’ 2009–2015”. Ortodoksia, University of Eastern Finland, 2016. Available at: http://ortodoksia.fi/ojs/index.php/ortodoksia/article/view/39/8

2 https://spzh.news/ru/news/52862-opublikovali-obrashhenije-poroshenko-k-konstantinopolyskomu-patriarkhu

3 https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2018/09/25/7193183/

4 https://orthodoxia.info/news/эксклюзив-диалог-варфоломея-кирилла/

5 http://xn--b1ae2adf4f.xn--p1ai/article/50831–nas-zhdet–gibridnaya-anafema-.html

6 https://russkiymir.ru/news/32092/

7 https://orthodoxia.info/news/эксклюзив-диалог-варфоломея-кирилла/

8 https://ru.krymr.com/a/27477273.html

9 https://espreso.tv/news/2018/09/29/zhyrynovskyy_vyznav_scho_ukrayina_peretvoryuyetsya_na_naybilshu_pravoslavnu_derzhavu

10 https://tass.ru/obschestvo/5539314

11 https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2018/10/1/7193768/

12 https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/5623470

13 https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2018/04/26/7178822/

14 The expansionist policy of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy initiated in the 13th century and one of the main foundations of the “Russian World” project.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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