How Russia uses the church as a weapon against Ukraine
One of the defining features of the Ukrainian nation are its deep religious roots, which date back to the times of Kyivan Rus. It was then that Prince Volodymyr the Great christened the kingdom and laid the groundwork for the development of Christianity in the historical territories of modern Ukraine.
It is this factor that Russia has been using to spread its influence and propaganda on the territory of sovereign Ukraine since the collapse of the USSR.
For this purpose, Russia and, in particular, its ruling elite use the Russian Orthodox Church, whose actual representation in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It has been the Kremlin’s mouthpiece and propagator of pro-Russian sentiment among the Ukrainian population for more than 30 years of Ukraine’s independence. It is this church that Russia is still using against Ukraine, in the 9th year of the war.
Allow us to explain with examples how Russia uses the church as a weapon in its war against Ukraine and its people.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been displacing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since the 17th century
The Russian Orthodox Church has always considered the territory of Ukraine as its canonical territory. However, in reality, these territories have long been ecclesiastically subordinated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and were transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in a dubious manner, as has been openly confirmed by Ecumenical Patriarch* Bartholomew (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople). Indeed, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has made relevant statements on this issue before. Earlier, attention was drawn to the fact that in 1686, the Kyivan Metropolis had been illegally transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.
*The highest-ranking bishops in Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church etc. A patriarchy is a Christian church governed by a patriarch.
During the times of Kyivan Rus, almost all but two of the Kyivan metropolitans were sent from Constantinople. Sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Moscow and Kyiv metropolitanates split, and the Moscow metropolitanate became a patriarchate, while the Kyiv metropolitanate did not, the Patriarchate of Constantinople no longer had such influence and only blessed the Kyivan metropolitans*.
*Is the second title of bishop in the Orthodox Church after the patriarch (in the Greek tradition, the third after the patriarch and archbishop), presiding over a metropolis, and also leading autocephalous or autonomous churches.
The Russian Orthodox Church claims that this was a “transfer” of the Kyiv Metropolis, while the official position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople says that there was only an “Act” that gave the right to ordain the Kyiv Metropolitan to the Moscow Patriarch and to provide spiritual guidance to the metropolis, while the metropolis itself remained part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The Moscow Patriarchate did not comply with any of the terms of the Act: the election of the metropolitan passed into the hands of the Moscow Synod, the commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was among the first to cease, and the privileges of the Kyivan Metropolitan were revoked. In 1722, even the metropolis itself ceased to exist as a church unit.
The Russian Orthodox Church is a political, not a religious entity
As a moral authority, the Orthodox Church provides justification for the existence of the Russian state. It has merged with the state organism; it answers the question of why the state exists.
Since the early 2000s and the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has become increasingly associated with the state’s power institutions. Due to changes in legislation and the expansion of its financial capabilities, the ROC became stronger and more influential.
During his first two terms in office, Putin promoted ROC dominance through laws delegating the return of property confiscated during the Soviet era and the introduction of religious education in public schools, as well as through tax breaks and financial benefits. For its part, the ROC has used its influence and resources to promote Putin’s vision of an Orthodox Christian national identity and has steadfastly supported a strong militarized state, especially since the election of Kirill as the All-Russian Patriarch of Moscow in 2009.
In addition to the domestic political influence that the church began to acquire in Russia, there were manifestations of foreign policy influence. In partnership with the ROC, the Kremlin has sought to extend its influence to the predominantly Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe, including several EU member states, which make up a complex landscape of autocephalous (self-governing) churches and see Moscow or Constantinople as dominant.
A February 2021 hearing of the European Parliament’s Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation (INGE) highlighted how Russia is building ties in the EU’s neighborhood through the ROC’s activities, which emphasize religious affiliation and common goals, such as protecting persecuted Christians in the Middle East or preventing the “Islamization” of Europe. Other analysts have identified a “nationally targeted approach” to Kremlin propaganda that combines narratives of Orthodox affinity with pan-Slavic brotherhood, protection of ethnic/linguistic minorities, or preservation of Christian values in Europe, depending on the national context.
Moreover, on December 29, 2021, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to form its own exarchate in Africa, thus violating normative agreements among Orthodox churches and claiming the canonical borders of the Patriarchate of Alexandria.
Implicit to the ideals promoted by the ROC is the understanding that a “slave of God” (a phrase that appears very often in Orthodox worship) is at the same time a humble slave of the emperor, because the monarch’s power on earth is an extension of God’s power in heaven. This is where the ideas of the “little man” and narratives about the powerlessness of the common man and his sinfulness, so beloved of Russian novelists, sprout.
The secular processes of separation of church and state and the Christ-centered concept (the importance of the figure of Christ and the individual salvation of each person) are an opportunity for the church to understand itself as a separate organism. The Russian Orthodox Church, on the other hand, seeks to “fit in” with the state apparatus and become a quasi-military organization, which distances this structure from the ideas of primitive Christianity.
The Russian Orthodox Church does not profess Christian values
The modern Russian Orthodox Church is not a descendant of Byzantium or, as it imagines, Kyivan Rus. It is the remnants of a pseudo-Christian entity restored by Stalin, which has moved from cooperation with the special services and justification of murder and torture by Russian soldiers to an imperial narrative that tolerates sacrifice, punishment, inaction, and militarism.
Guided by the “values” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian soldiers are shelling Ukrainian kindergartens and schools, hospitals, churches, even those belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate. The “special operation” that the Russian Orthodox Church blessed Russian troops to undertake destroyed at least 80 Orthodox churches in eight regions of Ukraine.
To this day, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate are a channel for spreading anti-Ukrainian ideologies in Ukraine that are essentially heretical in relation to Orthodox doctrine (“Russian world”, “tsarism”, “atoning sacrifice/martyrdom”), as well as a means of imposing on Ukrainians complexes of inferiority, atonement for the Holodomor of 1932-1933, perception of Russia’s war against Ukraine as “fratricidal”, and so on. There was no assessment or condemnation of these ideologies by the leadership of the UOC-MP or its clergy even after the beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Faith and the army came together in a bizarre way. Soldiers have become missionaries who hang icons of Christ Pantocrator or the Virgin Mary on their tanks, and clergy have become soldiers who offer prayers for the success of their rifle-wielding colleagues’ military operations.
The Russian Orthodox Church is trampling on the biblical principle of “love thy neighbor” by promoting violence and discrimination against the LGBT+ community, while whitewashing the image of conservative President Putin as a bearer of “traditional values.”
ROC’s attitude to Russia’s war against Ukraine
Since the beginning of the war, there has been a process of religious legitimization of war crimes. It is worth noting the recipients of this propaganda — the Russians. There is no free media in their country anymore. This is one of the reasons why the Russian Orthodox Church is so easily susceptible to military propaganda and becomes its tool.
Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church blesses the Russian army and calls the war “domestic.” This demonstrates his direct encroachment on the borders of sovereign Ukraine as part of Russia’s vast empire. Recently, the term “Gundiayevshchyna” has even been coined after Patriarch Kirill (born Vladimir Gundiayev). Gundiayevism is the final integration of the Russian Orthodox Church into the idea of the “Russian world” and disregard for the borders of sovereign neighboring states. Patriarch Kirill has repeatedly stated this while supporting the illegal entities of the so-called LPR and DPR in eastern Ukraine. For Kirill, the boundaries of the “Russian world” are determined not only by the language of communication, but also by the spread of the ROC ideology beyond Russia’s borders.
Russia spreads disinformation that the Orthodox Church is being repressed in Ukraine
In addition to using the church as a tool for spreading propaganda in its information war against Ukraine, Russia uses the Orthodox Church as the propaganda’s subject of this disinformation. For example, the Kremlin is spreading fake news that Ukraine is persecuting the Orthodox Church because it wants to introduce “neo-paganism of a satanic nature.” In addition, it has introduced false claims that the Ukrainian government allegedly seeks to eliminate Christianity as such.
This is a fake. Firstly, the Ukrainian security services conducted searches in the dioceses of the UOC-MP not because the authorities are eliminating Christianity, but as part of security measures to uncover potential subversive activities. Second, there is no logical reason to believe that the Ukrainian authorities are trying to artificially impose a particular religion on the population.
Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine guarantees freedom of worldview and religion, including the freedom to profess any or no religion, to conduct religious rites and rituals without hindrance, and to engage in religious activities.
In addition, the possibility of “pushing out” Christianity or Orthodoxy in particular from Ukraine looks extremely doubtful. In July 2022, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) conducted a survey on the religious self-identification of the population of Ukraine. 72% of respondents identified themselves as Orthodox.
The Security Service of Ukraine conducted searches in the dioceses of the UOC-MP in different regions of Ukraine because of the subversive activities of its representatives. The Service reported that it had found Russian passports, propaganda literature, millions in cash, and evidence of ties to armed groups in the Donetsk region and in Russia. For example, in the Ivano-Frankivsk diocese of the UOC-MP, the Ukrainian Security Service found symbols (chevrons) of the “Great Don Army,” an illegal formation that helped Russian troops occupy parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014. In other churches, they found “passes of federal advisers of the Russian Federation” and the flag of the so-called “Novorossiya.”
Recognizing the seriousness of the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Ukraine, as a secular state, is currently trying to curb the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate on public life in Ukraine by all available and legal means. This is manifested in the massive voluntary transfer of churches of the Moscow Patriarchate to the parish of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the termination of the activities of the Moscow Patriarchate clergy in the buildings of the ancient Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, as well as criminal proceedings and investigations against the senior clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate for treason and aiding Russia in its war against Ukraine.
In a world where soft power sometimes does much more than military power, the role of the church in warfare should not be underestimated.