In January, Ukraine’s Orthodox church won independence following 332 years of Russian control – a powerful blow to Russia’s ability to exert influence in Ukraine and across the Orthodox world. Ukrainian officials recognize that the Kremlin will respond, likely by provoking violence at Ukrainian churches. The Ukrainian government and the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine should work assiduously to prevent such violence. While the independence of Ukraine’s church from Moscow is fraught with political implications for both Ukraine and Russia, the new church can reduce the risks of violence only by keeping itself visibly independent of the Ukrainian government and politics.
The Ukrainian church’s independence – proclaimed by Orthodoxy’s leading prelate, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I – followed another escalation in Russia’s Ukrainian intervention. Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukrainian navy vessels in November – part of a continued effort to squeeze Ukraine’s access to the Azov Sea – offered President Vladimir Putin a narrative with which to distract Russians from his setback in the Orthodox world.
Ukraine’s church independence is a historic setback for Russia. Moscow won formal religious authority over Ukraine in 1686, a vital step in building the Russian empire. As such, the recent months’ reversal of that authority is no ordinary foreign policy defeat for Putin as he struggles to justify his adventures in Syria and Donbas. For Putin, Ukrainian religious independence undercuts the domestic political narrative with which he justifies his rule, and it weakens the Russian Orthodox Church – Russia’s most venerable institution and one of Putin’s most potent political allies.
Putin’s legitimizing narrative is that he has reversed Russia’s decline in global influence following a humiliating loss of superpower status in the Soviet Union’s collapse. A trigger for Russia’s loss of power was Ukraine’s insistence on independence, which helped force the Soviet Union’s dissolution and a 500-mile Russian retreat from its centuries-old frontiers with Central Europe and the Balkans. Because Russia’s own cultural and historic roots are in Ukraine, Ukrainian democracy and affinity for Europe all the more powerfully challenge Russians’ acceptance of Putin’s authoritarian, anti-European rule. Therefore, Ukraine and its allies should expect an aggressive Russian response to its declaration of church independence. In addition to the recent naval attack, predictors of the Kremlin’s response include its invasions of Crimea and Donbas, and its long campaigns of subversion, from disinformation to cyberattacks and power blackouts.
Russia’s ‘Church of Empire’
The Russian Orthodox Church helps maintain Putin’s claim to be the defender of ethnic Russians throughout the Russkiy Mir, or “Russian World,” encompassing the territories of the former Soviet Union. Russian Patriarch Kirill, “a Russian World enthusiast,” heads a “church of empire” that fulfills the Kremlin’s “need for a political religion,” according to Sergei Chapnin, a theologian who served as editor of the patriarchate’s in-house journal until he was fired for publishing that critique in 2015. By ruling Ukraine’s congregations, the Russian church also reinforces Putin’s claim that Ukraine’s independence from Russia is illusory.
Global Orthodox tradition holds the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the “first among equals” as titular leader of the faith. But since the 1400’s, the Russian church has used its status as the largest, richest Orthodox congregation to challenge Constantinople’s primacy. Ukrainian church independence, if made effective, will deprive the Russian church of up to a third of its parishes, with their associated revenues, and weaken the Russian church’s effort to dominate the Orthodox world.
Since 1990, two groups in Ukrainian Orthodoxy have demanded independence from Ukraine’s Moscow-led church. This campaign surged after Russia’s seizure of Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014. Many Ukrainians saw the Moscow-led church as unacceptably aligned with the Kremlin’s attacks on Ukraine, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko energetically supported the independence campaign.
On October 11th, Patriarch Bartholomew defied the Russian church by awarding Ukrainian Orthodoxy the right to “autocephaly,” or independence. The Russian church indignantly “broke its communion” with Bartholomew, rejecting his authority and excising his name from its prayers.
The Rising Risk of Violence
Bartholomew’s acceptance of an independent Ukrainian church has opened a new competition, likely to last years, for the loyalty of Ukraine’s 18,000 parishes. The Moscow-led church, to which 12,000 of the parishes have been affiliated in recent years, predictably rebuffed an invitation to join a “unification council” to form the new church structure.
In the contest for parishes, “factional violence could break out, much as happened when Russia incited parts of eastern Ukraine to seek independence,” Chapnin writes. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov vowed that violence, such as seizures of churches, will trigger Russian “politico-diplomatic” measures to protect “the interests of the Orthodox.” Ukraine believes Russia will try to provoke violence in Ukrainian parishes, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told this article’s co-author, William Taylor, in Kyiv in November.
Ukraine’s government and religious leaders should move immediately to forestall physical confrontations, which already have occurred. The Kremlin’s church and media allies are amplifying and, it appears likely, exaggerating, these physical confrontations to present a justification for a Russian response. While independent news media have reported several incidents – four attacks or attempted attacks between January and October 2018, according to an Associated Press account – the Russian church and news media present a dire picture. The Kremlin-loyal Russkiy Mir Foundation reported that attacks on churches “happen…all over the country continuously,” and that 50 churches have been seized in the past four years.
Ukraine has an imperative to head off a real wave of violence. The most prominent cleric in its movement for church independence, Kyiv-based Patriarch Filaret, set that tone in November, declaratively ruling out any physical seizures of churches. Physical confrontations, he noted, “create the grounds for interference” by Russia. In any parish wishing to transfer from the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate to that of Kyiv, “two-thirds of the parish must vote for that transition,” Filaret proposed.
An essential step to reducing tensions among Ukraine’s church factions, and the risk of violence, is that Ukraine’s new church and the government must visibly demonstrate the separation of church and state required by Ukraine’s constitution. Any appearance of a Russian-style conflation of the two will make the new church an easier target for Moscow’s political attacks. It also may risk encouraging Ukrainian ultra-nationalists to imagine physical action against Moscow-aligned priests or parishes as a patriotic act.
Ukraine’s government and church can separately encourage a nationwide dialogue on ways to improve peaceful resolution of religious conflicts. The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations – which brings together Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders – could be a vehicle. A scarcely-noticed provincial meeting in October – of local government and religious leaders in Zaporizhia to declare the community’s resistance to provocations of religious conflict – is the kind of initiative that should occupy civic agendas nationwide.
It is critical that Ukraine’s government, faith leaders, and civil society enforce this approach of legality and nonviolence. Ukraine’s democratization must overcome a long history of violent religious conflicts, including anti-Semitic pogroms, oppression of Muslim Tatars, and discrimination against Ukrainians who have joined other faiths, including small Protestant churches. The transition now beginning within the country’s dominant religious tradition can model tolerance, dialogue, and peaceful conflict resolution that can strengthen Ukrainian democracy and stability, Vladimir Putin notwithstanding.
William B. Taylor is the executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2006-2009. Leslie Minney is a research coordinator on Ukraine at the U.S. Institute of Peace.