By Kadri Liik, Momchil Metodiev, Nicu Popescu*
The Kremlin’s relationship with the church is not as direct as that with, for example, a government ministry. Although it operates on a largely cooperative basis, the church is not a mere tool of state policy. Like all institutions, the church also has its own interests, agenda, traditions, and sensitivities that it wants to protect. These do not always coincide with those of the state. “While everyone outside thinks that the church just serves the state, the church itself sees exactly the opposite: the state puts pressure on them, but they push back”, says one church insider in Moscow.8 Illustrative of this is the church’s position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia: while Russia recognised these as independent states in 2008, the church has – allegedly in defiance of the Kremlin, insiders maintain – stuck to its old position that holds both to be the canonical territory of the Georgian patriarch.
When it came to the escalation of hostilities in Ukraine from 2014 onwards, if the Russian president indeed viewed Kirill as a mere underling, then he may have expected full-throated support in matters as important as the war in Ukraine. In fact, Kirill made some attempts at superficial neutrality. But his efforts may have landed him in the worst of both worlds: he offered neither the Kremlin nor Ukrainian believers the sort of support they expected. As a result, he lost the trust and goodwill of both.
Kirill’s most prominent attempt at nominal neutrality took place on 18 March 2014. On that day, Moscow was in a celebratory mood: gathered in the Kremlin, Putin and three Crimean politicians signed the treaty on the “accession of Crimea” to the Russian Federation. The crème de la crème of the Russian political, military, and business worlds was present. Yet Kirill was missing. Given that the patriarch is ready to attend lesser meetings such as the defence ministry collegium, his absence from the Crimea treaty signing pointed to a tricky balancing act in which he attempted to account for both state geopolitical interests and church interests. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate is the largest Orthodox church in Ukraine and is an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church. This made it far too difficult for the Russian Orthodox Church itself to celebrate an event that was certain to pitch Ukraine and Russia against each other. The decision to stay away – and the reason for it – has since been semi-publicly confirmed by the church itself: “The Patriarch decided not attend the meeting on March 18, and the state officials said: ‘point taken’”, one high-ranking church official has commented.
As the war in Ukraine progressed throughout 2014, it became clear that the Russian Orthodox Church would not be able to straddle a conflict that pitted its followers in Ukraine against its followers in Russia. This was revealed during the battle of Ilovaisk in August that year. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Donbas, during which the Russian army appears to have intervened in Ukraine. But, instead of calling for peace – which might have been a useful workaround for him – Kirill issued a statementattacking Ukrainian “Uniates and raskolniks” (schismatics) for engaging in conflict against his flock. He made direct reference to Orthodox and Greek-Orthodox Ukrainians who do not recognise the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Soon afterwards, the Russian patriarch proceeded to publicly extol the virtues of “Russkii mir” – “the Russian world”, a concept that the Russian media and political class have made use of to justify Russian political, military, and ecclesiastical activity in Ukraine. He declared that: “Russia belongs to a civilisation that is wider than the Russian Federation. We call this civilisation the Russian world. This is not the world of the Russian Federation, nor Russian empire. The Russian world starts at the Kievan baptismal font. Russian, Ukrainians, Belarusians belong to it.” During a crucial battle for Donetsk airport in late 2014, Kirill all but broke with whatever ambiguity remained by decorating the heads of Russia’s two leading state-owned television channels with church orders. The official reason was for their services to church and state. But the channels had been instrumental in broadcasting inflammatory propaganda that fuelled the war in Ukraine. Kirill had clearly chosen a side, even if he had initially intended to avoid doing so.
The church’s position was not confined to the high rhetoric of the patriarch, but was also reflected on the ground in eastern Ukraine. There, some representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine rose to prominence in supporting the insurgents. One local priest from Sloviansk became notorious for his mix of religion, poetry, and geopolitical activism. He wrote poems professing his “love for the great Russian soldier, ready to die for his Motherland, and defend her from monsters like NATO and other predatory terrorists!” Another activist, a former sacristan of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra – the Kyiv monastery of caves – organised the war’s first ambush of Ukrainian intelligence operatives, in early April 2014.
And, in one episode in Kyiv-controlled eastern Ukraine, two priests belonging to the Russian patriarchate refused to conduct services for a deceased child who had not been baptised in a church recognised by Moscow. While this was not necessarily the case in every location, in a country at war, just a few such incidents polarised society even further and massively undermined the standing of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Trust levels in Kirill fell across Ukraine, from around 40 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2018. And, in the same period, the number of Ukrainians who declared themselves members of the Moscow Patriarchate church fell from 19 percent to 12 percent. Those who claimed Kyivan Patriarchate membership rose from 18 percent to 28 percent.
In sum: once Russia began its war in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church’s long-established close cooperation with the Putin regime left it exposed on difficult terrain. With a large proportion of its parishes on Ukrainian territory and, despite the church’s previous history of resisting some Kremlin demands, the Moscow Patriarchate would almost certainly have found it difficult to set a different course. A studied quietness might have been achievable. But not only was the Russian Orthodox Church likely experiencing significant political pressure in Moscow, its room for manoeuvre was further constrained by: Ukraine’s highly diverse church landscape; the unusual situation of an Orthodox country lacking its own church; and already-worsening relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. But, even so, the Russian Orthodox Church’s next moves were a masterclass in tactical missteps and strategic haziness.
*Τhis article is part of a research for ECFR. Romfea.news will republish extracts from the paper in the following days