The meeting last month in Havana between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) had far more import for geopolitics than it did for the reconciliation of two long-alienated branches of Christianity, as I recently wrote. One Russian goal was the appropriation of the Vatican’s moral authority by gaining Francis’ stamp of approval on Moscow’s role in Syria, in which Russian involvement was cast in terms of protecting Christian minorities threatened by Daesh. Another related goal highlighted in the joint statement was a further grab for the moral high ground vis-à-vis the United states by praising Russia’s identity as a “Christian nation” (which is why the statement included much praise of the revitalized role of the Russian Orthodox Church in public life in Russia) while simultaneously criticizing “some countries” – the United States – for cultural trends that restrict the ability of Christians to live out their faith in the public square.
A third goal was the blunting of Turkey’s ability to frustrate Russia’s goals in Syria – as Sergey Kholmogorov, a former Russia politician with strong ties to the Kremlin, wrote, a major Russian motivation for the meeting was “Third Rome [Moscow], Meeting First Rome [the Papacy], to Neutralize Second Rome [Constantinople/Turkey].” Moscow had additional important goals for its meeting with Pope Francis, however, which I did not have the space to address previously, involving Ukraine and Crimea.
Although Syria has for a few months supplanted Ukraine as Russia’s most urgent “holy war” (Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict having been given that status by the ROC), the annexation of Crimea and the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine has been framed from the beginning by both the Kremlin and the ROC as a “holy war” – as a civilizational struggle between “Holy Orthodox Russia” (a concept hundreds of years old) and an overly-secularized, morally decadent West (a Russian perception of the West that also predates Putin and Alexander Dugin by centuries) and Ukraine continues to be the most important field of civilizational conflict from Moscow’s point of view. And now that Vladimir Putin has announced the withdrawal of some of Russia’s military forces from Syria, Ukraine, where the lines between ecclesiological/theological and political differences have been blurred from the beginning, is likely to come back onto the front burner.
A major part of the rationale given by Vladimir Putin as to why he annexed Crimea in 2014 was due to its “sacred” nature as the spiritual birthplace of the Russian nation. Putin asserted that Crimea has “sacred meaning for Russia, like the Temple Mount for Jews and Muslims,” and that Crimea is “the spiritual source of the formation of the multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation . . . . It was on this spiritual soil that our ancestors first and forever recognized their nationhood.”
Putin was referring to the “Baptism of the ‘Rus,’” in which Vladimir, the Prince of Kiev, was baptized into Eastern Orthodoxy and enforced the conversion of his people. (What is not mentioned by either the Kremlin or the ROC is that Vladimir converted not for reasons of piety, but in order to marry the Byzantine Emperor’s sister and to tie himself geopolitically to the Byzantine Empire, which significantly boosted his domestic political prestige and also gave him a valuable foreign alliance. Also not mentioned is the fact that the linkage between the Kievan state of the 10th and 11th centuries and the political entity that later became “Muscovy” and then evolved into modern day Russia, the linkage upon which Putin’s claim depends, is highly questionable. Edward Keenan, the late Harvard historian who specialized in medieval Russia, taught that the medieval state of Muscovy did not exhibit any consciousness of being a continuation of the Kievan state – that historical narrative was a later creation.)
The ROC strongly backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, framing the conflict in apocalyptic, theological terminology in perfect harmony with Russia’s historic sense of messianic destiny. As I wrote last year:
As one priest articulated shortly after visiting Russian troops in Donetsk . . . . Ukranian forces and their Western supporters are fighting for ‘The establishment of planetary Satanic rule.’ He went on to explain that ‘What’s occurring here is the very beginning of a global war. Not for resources or territory, that’s secondary. This is a war for the destruction of true Christianity, Orthodoxy.’ Speaking of those who control policy in the West, the priest, known as ‘Father Viktor,’ went on to explain that ‘They are intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist.’ He then declared that ‘the soldier is also a monastic, but wages not an inner war with the spirits of evil, but an outer one.’
Because Moscow has portrayed the conflict in the apocalyptic terms in which it has, religious allegiances have been as important as, and closely correlated with, political allegiances. This has resulted in the Russian authorities in Crimea and the pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine conducting a “holy war” against all who are not Russian Orthodox, seeing them as enemies of Russia.
Putin, noting the interrelation of the growth of ROC authority abroad with his own goals in the post-Soviet space, has argued that “The revival of the [ROC] church unity is a crucial condition for revival of the lost unity of the whole ‘Russian world,’ which has always had the Orthodox faith as one of its foundations.” Kirill, prior to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine, had during his previous five years as Patriarch expended much energy attempting to build ties and strengthen the ROC’s presence in Ukraine. All of this work was threatened by the outbreak of conflict, which most of Ukraine blamed on Putin – and the ROC by extension given the Church’s support of Putin’s actions. The backlash within Ukraine against Russia has done massive harm to Putin’s hopes of rebuilding under Russian leadership a “Russian world” around Russia’s periphery in which Russian civilizational values as embodied and expressed by the Russian Orthodox Church hold sway.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (essentially the branch of the ROC in Ukraine) has been losing members and churches at an unprecedented rate as Ukrainians do not wish to be part of a church body that they see as merely an appendage of the Russian regime they believe to be tearing their country apart. These believers, clergy and whole churches have been moving to the two independent Ukrainian Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox church which split from Moscow at the fall of the Soviet Union after the Moscow Patriarchate refused to grant it independent status; and the Ukrainian Autocephalous (Autonomous) Orthodox Church, which broke from the newly-re-established Moscow Patriarchate in 1921 and was recognized by a briefly independent Ukrainian state at the time prior to the Soviet Union absorbing Ukraine into its polity (it regained recognition by the again newly independent Ukrainian state at the fall of the Soviet Union). These two independent Ukrainian Orthodox churches have been in talks to unify, and hope that Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch and leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, will grant them independent status within Orthodoxy, canonically answerable only to him and not to Moscow. (The struggle between Kiev and Moscow over Kiev’s canonical independence goes back to the late 17th century with Moscow fighting hard to make Kiev subordinate to Moscow and Kiev fighting to answer only to the Holy See at Constantinople (Istanbul), the head of Eastern Orthodoxy. At one point in the 1680s Moscow even attempted to bribe the Patriarchate of Constantinople to ensure Moscow’s dominance over Kiev.)
Metropolitan Onufry, who heads the ROC in Ukraine, in an attempt to hold onto churches and keep them within the Moscow Patriarchate, has told them that they no longer have to pray for Kirill as part of their Sunday liturgy if major hostility to doing so exists in their region (and there has been much hostility toward Kirill). As Paul Goble has recently noted, the trend line is not in Moscow’s favor:
According to Ukraine’s culture ministry, there are now approximately 16,000 Christian church parishes in that country not subordinate to Moscow, compared to only 12,500 that are. As a result, Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s talk about Ukraine as ‘the canonical territory’ of the Russian Orthodox Church has ever less of a foundation in reality.
Were this trend in Ukraine away from the ROC to continue and even to strengthen, which is likely, and were the two independent UOCs to unify and gain Bartholomew’s recognition as autocephalous within Orthodoxy (which action would doubtless strengthen the centrifugal force already pulling many UOC-MP churches away from Kirill), the ROC would be in danger of losing the dominant/majority status within Eastern Orthodoxy that it now enjoys (where it now makes up approximately 2/3 of Orthodox churches globally), and see the creation of unified and hostile UOC almost the same size as the ROC within Orthodoxy. This would not bode well for the ROC’s level of influence globally, both within Orthodoxy and Christianity in general, and would cripple the Kremlin’s soft power capabilities. As I wrote last summer,
Were the Ukrainian Orthodox churches currently answerable to Kirill to leave the Moscow Patriarchate . . . Moscow’s pretensions to international leadership of Orthodoxy are likely to ring increasingly hollow, and Russia’s culturally influence globally is likely to shrink rather than to increase.
This pretension to leadership of the Orthodox world is precisely what Putin and Kirill hope to continue to pull off, despite strongly opposing trends in Ukraine and major friction with Bartholomew, and the meeting with Francis had great utility for Moscow in supporting that perception. Moscow’s sensitivity about losing its dominant status within Orthodoxy was evident by Kholomorov’s dismissive reference to “the aggressive but insignificant Bartholomew” while playing up Kirill’s meeting with Francis.
In terms of Russia’s long term relationship with Ukraine, the movement within Ukraine away from the Moscow Patriarchate powerfully symbolizes the cultural decoupling of Russia from Ukraine. For obvious reasons Moscow (both the Kremlin and the Patriarchate) hopes to halt this trend. In addition to the meeting with Francis serving the purpose of creating the perception that Kirill is the leader of global Orthodoxy, there were other ways that Moscow hopes Francis can help.
According to Kholmogorov, Moscow hoped to convince Francis to take a stance of neutrality vis-à-vis the current religious conflict in Ukraine, which, it was hoped, would help blunt the animus against the ROC within Ukraine. In fact, the joint statement appeared to reflect Moscow’s view of the conflict – reference was made, for example, to “the hostility in Ukraine”, as if it were merely a civil conflict in Ukraine in which Russia had no hand. And as Kholmogorov said it would, the joint statement called for neutrality of all churches in the conflict, which ignores the very powerful role played by Kirill and the ROC in stoking the flames of sectarian conflict and making it into a religious war. Russia’s hope is that this statement on the part of the Pope will encourage the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which follows Orthodox rites, but answers canonically to Rome) to take a neutral position as well. The Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine has been a sharp critic of Moscow’s actions, very pro-Western and a strong supporter of the Maidan. It has therefore come under severe persecution both from the new Russian authorities in Crimea and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, has warned that “Any number of statements emanating from the Kremlin of late leave little doubt of Russian Orthodox hostility and intolerance toward Ukrainian Greek-Catholics,” and has further warned that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “menaced with extinction” both in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. He went on to predict regarding Crimea that “If Russia remains in control of the region, it is hard to imagine that Catholic life, whether Greek or Latin, would be allowed to return.”
This has added to the longstanding tensions between the ROC and the Vatican (which has been long been accused by the ROC of poaching Russian Orthodox believers in Crimea and Ukraine). Stalin attempted to exterminate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church shortly after WWII by forcing it into a union with the ROC, which he had completely infiltrated and controlled since reviving it in order to use it as a tool it in the war with Germany. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church survived, and ever since have had to find a way to survive in the face of unrelenting hostility, first from the Soviet government and now from Putin’s government and the ROC. It is doubtful that the joint statement will have any effect on the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church in reducing its opposition to Putin, given the extent of the persecution both historically and currently that has targeted the Church from Moscow.
Kholmogorov explains that one reason Kirill met Francis in spite of the historic tensions was because “the Vatican represents a lesser threat” to the ROC, and therefore to Russia, than does Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, due to the fact that Bartholomew has the power to urge the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church centered in Kiev, which the Kremlin claims would bring “much greater harm on Orthodoxy than any diplomacy” that the Vatican could undertake.
In actuality, it is Moscow that is threatening a major schism within Orthodoxy. A “Synaxis” of the world’s Orthodox primates met in Geneva in late January, at which meeting Kirill complained that a number of Orthodox bishops had visited Ukraine last autumn and, claiming to be speaking for Bartholomew, had expressed support for the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Although this wasn’t explicitly stated, the clear implication was that all cooperation on the part of the ROC with global Orthodoxy would be threatened if Bartholomew recognizes an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church which falls only under the canonical authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch rather than that of Moscow. He was thus hoping to foreclose the possibility, through threatening schism, that the UOC will be recognized as autonomous at the upcoming Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, a meeting of the global leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy, which many expect to be the largest and most important in centuries, to be held in June in Crete (it was moved from Istanbul due to the extreme levels of tension in Russo-Turkish relations).
The upcoming Council will be watched closely, therefore, as its implications for geopolitics are as important as they are for the future of Orthodoxy. Putin and Kirill’s nightmare scenario of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the implications of such an occurrence for a continued disintegration of the “Russian world,” are ultimately their own fault as it is their partnership over Crimea and Ukraine that have led to this situation. What value the Kirill-Francis meeting will have for Russia vis-à-vis its ecclesiological position in Ukraine and Crimea remains to be seen, but it is difficult to imagine it significantly altering the broad trends clearly visible – and those trends are not in Moscow’s favor.