Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephaly: Moscow’s Proxy Dispute

On December 15, a Ukrainian church council will meet to establish an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), according to President Petro Poroshenko. This comes after, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople granted a “tomos on autocephaly” to the UOC – in essence de-jure religious independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Ukraine has for most of its history been a canonical territory under the ROC.

From Religious to Political?

The UOC’s effort to sever centuries-old relations with the ROC forms part of a dynamic conflict within the world of Orthodox theology, which extends into political spheres. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has stated that “Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers [and] of the Orthodox”. He also mentioned that Russia might take strong measures if the “Ukrainian authorities are unable to keep the situation within legal bounds, if it takes some ugly, violent turn”. This reaction was followed by a statement by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, describing Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople’s support for the UOC’s aspirations to autocephaly as a “provocation […] undertaken with direct support from Washington”. It is clear that political tumult is being provoked by the autocephaly discourse. Critically this ecclesiastical conflict is much more than a theological dispute, and might be understood as a part of an identity struggle playing out between Kyiv and Moscow. While December 15 lays a groundwork for an independent UOC, it also means a split of two churches, each politically dependent on another government.

ROC as a Proxy

There are several indications of the close ties between the Russian Patriarchate and the country’s political elite: The Head of the ROC, for instance, has characterized Putin as a “miracle of god”; Putin has spoken about the ROC as a “conduit of the Kremlin” tasked with maintaining “stability and unity”, and emphasized the ROC’s role in state affairs as an entity that “inspired people to [undertake] constructive action and heroic deeds for the Fatherland.” Furthermore, several visits by ROC clergy abroad reflect the church’s increasing role in Russian foreign policy as a soft power tool. Recently, Moscow dispatched the ROC’s Head of External Church Relations to Pyongyang to commemorate 70 years of diplomatic relations between the DPRK and Russia.

The ROC appears to be poised to serve as a proxy for the Russian government in fulfilling its interest not only domestically but also abroad through “political Orthodoxy”. “For the Kremlin, the [ROC] is just such a tool: a normative powerhouse wielded to change attitudes and ultimately reshape the post-communist European geopolitical framework to Russia’s advantage”, says Alexandru Lazescu, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iasi. However, the relationship appears to be more complex than this would suggest. For instance, Russian Patriarch Kirill has criticized the state’s influence on the ROC throughout history and hinted at disagreements between the Kremlin and the Russian Patriarchate. Adding to the complexity, it is important to recognize and consider the peculiarities of the religiosity and diversity of Orthodox views within the ROC.

ROC in Ukraine – A Matter of “National Security”

President Poroshenko perceives the UOC’s autocephaly as an “issue of [Ukraine’s] independence [and] national security”. On November 7 he again stressed this opinion by stating that the ROC “has no business in Ukraine”. Poroshenko’s position is backed by other prominent politicians, researchers and journalist who believe that the Kremlin is using UOC’s parishes to support its hybrid war against Kyiv. Considering the close ties between Moscow and the ROC, as well as Moscow’s track record for influence campaigns and the strong “identity-aspect” of the conflict in Ukraine, it appears reasonable for Poroshenko to want to reduce the risk of the UOC’s exploitation through foreign actors. Thus, the step towards autocephaly can be read as a response to the increasing tension in Ukraine over the status of the UOC in wake of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

For Kyiv, these statements by Russian state officials have an ominous ring, given the Kremlin’s recent history of intervention and hybrid war strategy. The drive for the UOC’s autocephaly appears to be a part of the ongoing conflict between Moscow and Kyiv. Religious tensions within the Orthodox Church could be used by both sides to sow misinformation, political divisions and violence in Ukraine. In this regard, reports have surfaced alleging support by Orthodox clergymen for separatists in Ukraine. Furthermore, a religious rift could serve as yet another playground for the Russian government to influence Ukraine’s elections in 2019. Nevertheless, Poroshenko could use the conflict to further stimulate anti-Putin sentiments and strengthen his position for Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections after losing ground to Iulia Tymoshenko in recent polls. Tymoshenko, too, who is considered to be favored over Poroshenko by Putin for the next Ukrainian Presidency, has positioned herself in favor for the UOC’s autocephaly.

The Bigger Picture

The conflict within the Orthodox Church’s hierarchy is not merely religious and goes beyond Kyiv versus Moscow. A successful bid for autocephaly by the UOC could trigger other governments or branches of the Russian Patriarchate to consider similar steps, leaving Russia with a diminished policy tool in Orthodox countries. Moreover, the UOC’s independence could signal Moscow’s inability to secure its influence over countries it regards as part of its sphere of influence. This is something President Putin is unlikely to accept without pushback, particularly considering the importance of Georgian presidential and upcoming Ukrainian elections. In other words, Moscow may seek to demonstrate its ability to project power – as it did recently in the Kerch Strait incident – and reinforce the message that such entities should play on Moscow’s terms.

Overall, most recent disputes appear to fall in the category of Moscow’s long-lasting efforts to dominate its neighboring countries and minimize the risk of Western powers gaining influence over its immediate neighborhood. Both the interventions in Georgia and Ukraine coincided with those countries taking steps towards the NATO membership. Moscow’s policy of pinpricks appears to counter these countries’ efforts to build closer relations to the EU and particularly NATO. In other words, sustained efforts of the West to integrate Ukraine and Georgia in its socio-political and security spheres are likely to contribute to further Russian interference in neighboring countries. Thus, the West needs to adapt its strategy on how to (re-)act to aggressive Russian interference in states like Georgia and Ukraine. Particularly as these countries may demand further security guarantees in order to reduce the ongoing pressure from Moscow and ensure their national security.

The case of the UOC’s autocephaly and Moscow’s reaction show us that the superordinate competition between broad parts of the West and Russia is an ongoing clash contested in various spheres. The establishment of an independent UOC during the Ukrainian church council meeting on December 15 will mark a day in the Orthodox and political world, that is promising to serve as a strong symbol of the UOC and government distancing themselves from the Russian orbit.