Soldiers of the Cross: The Church, Ukraine’s Independence and Russia’s Fight for Regional Influence

Main Image Credit A refectory church of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Courtesy of ЯдвигаВереск/Wikimedia

Faith has long been one of the key pillars of nation-building in Europe. The church will likely have an influence in upcoming elections.

At a synod (assembly of a church council) earlier this month, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the mother church of most Orthodox churches, announced that it would recognise the autocephaly (independence) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The decision has not yet been formalised; the synod is expected to announce its final decision in the latter half of November in a written proclamation, known as a tomos. But the move is already creating shockwaves: in response, the Russian Orthodox Church on 15 October announced at its own synod in the Belarussian capital of Minsk that it would sever relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over this matter.

Ukraine’s desire to part ways with the Russian Orthodox Church is part of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s re-election campaign, but is unlikely to have a fundamental impact on Ukrainians’ worshipping practices. However, Russia is now likely to increase its scrutiny of its relationships with other countries’ churches to prevent a similar schism, particularly in places like Moldova where the Russian church remains highly influential.

Spiritual and Influential Loss

Ukraine has three Orthodox churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which had recognised the Russian Orthodox Church’s authority; and two others – the Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian government maintains that the Russian church holds considerable influence in Ukraine and is often used to promote the Kremlin’s political narrative – the Moscow Patriarch has had the right to officially appoint the Metropolitan of Kiev (the head of the ecclesiastical region) since 1686.

Evidently, the loss of Kiev as a ‘spiritual hub’ will be symbolically significant for the Russian church. The church has maintained for centuries that the identity of Slavic people originated in Kievan Rus’ – a 9th Century territory that Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians claim as their mutual ancestors. To reinforce this, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled two years ago a controversial statue of Prince Volodymyr close to the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow. Volodymyr is recognised as a 10th Century ruler of Kievan Rus’ who brought Christianity to Kiev. The statue was unveiled on the Day of National Unity, a holiday that the Russian authorities use to promote ideas of Russian national identity.

And just as importantly, Constantinople’s decision to recognise an Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church will likely have repercussions for the Russian church’s relationship with other countries, particularly in parts of rural Moldova where the church is highly influential. An opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a US-based organisation promoting democratic values world-wide, noted in July 2018 that the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is formally aligned to the Russian Orthodox Church, is one of the most highly trusted institutions – 65% of respondents maintained that they had a favourable opinion of the church, far more than the government (31%) or the Prosecutor’s Office (30%).

As Moldova prepares for its own parliamentary election in February 2019, the support of a trusted institution such as the church will be vital – its head, Mitropolit Vladimir has already endorsed incumbent President of Moldova Igor Dodon, who also formerly headed the Socialist Party (the parliamentary opposition party) before taking office as president. And with perfect timing, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church, is now in Moldova for a ‘working visit’. Dodon and his Socialist Party support Moldova’s deeper political integration with Russia, and neutrality towards Western structures such as NATO and the EU. Russia is highly likely to increase its scrutiny of the Moldovan Orthodox Church’s activities ahead of these elections, to ensure that it continues to drum up support for the Socialist Party.

Army, Language, Faith

Autocephaly of the church has been under discussion for months in Ukraine; President Poroshenko announced in April 2018 that he would be appealing to the Archbishop of Constantinople and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for independence.

As indicated, this drive for independence from Moscow is part of Poroshenko’s campaign strategy as he seeks re-election. As Poroshenko’s campaign posters indicate, he promotes three main goals – developing the army, language and faith. In his annual address to the Ukrainian Parliament (Rada) in September, Poroshenko reiterated that the church is a fundamental part of Ukrainian identity. Distancing the church from Moscow is another attempt to further reinforce distinctions between Russian and Ukrainian national identities, and in many respects replicates the historic drive for independence of other Orthodox churches in 19th Century Europe; the Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek national Orthodox churches followed exactly the same path, and almost always encountered the same stiff resistance from Russia

President Poroshenko has also focused on the other two goals. First, it has attempted to boost the number of military recruits as the conflict continues in the east. Second, the Rada has also passed several laws in recent years promoting the use of the Ukrainian language – in December 2017 the Rada passed new legislation that banned schools from teaching in minority languages after primary school age, including Russian, Hungarian and Romanian.

Opinion polls vary, but most agree that these efforts are not making an appreciable impact: opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko from the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party leads in the polls, with Poroshenko lagging in second place. Independence from the Russian Orthodox Church is clearly a political win that Poroshenko can point to, but it is unlikely to have a tangible effect, particularly as popular support for the conflict in the east has significantly declined.

But another pillar of Ukrainian independence is now put in place. And another front has opened in Moscow’s struggle to reassert Russia’s control over the former Soviet space.

Emily Ferris is a Research Fellow in the International Security Studies team at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Emily Ferris

Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia

International Security Studies

View profile

Explore our related content