COMMENT: Ukraine’s long-awaited religious independence is a matter of national security

COMMENT: Ukraine’s long-awaited religious independence is a matter of national security
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was one of the major instigators of the break with Russian oversight and influence.
By Nicholas Kaufmann in Brussels February 5, 2019

The fallout continues to grow daily from Ukraine’s momentous religious split from Russia. Earlier this month, 150,000 people in Kyiv celebrated Orthodox Christmas by descending on St. Sophia Cathedral to catch a glimpse of a single precious document: the tomos, issued just days earlier by Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. The elaborate tomos, inscribed in Ukrainian, Greek and English, held the words that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has yearned after for centuries: the declaration that the Kyiv-based church is autocephalous, meaning the Ukrainian body of believers is now fully independent from the Moscow Patriarchate.

A centuries-old dream

The move has certainly been a long time coming. Many Ukrainians have long cherished the notion of an independent church, and the decision in December to ordain a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church was the culmination of countless years of activism by religious leaders and politicians alike. The event has been judged by some pundits — only marginally hyperbolically — as bearing the same importance as the achievement of Ukrainian political independence in 1991.

Since Ukraine claimed political independence almost three decades ago, there has been a trinity of religious bodies fighting for dominance: the first, the Moscow Patriarchate, boasts the largest number of parishes in Ukraine and a link to the Russian Orthodox Church. The other two, the smaller Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UOC) have operated in parallel without formal recognition.

It has been the latter two bodies, along with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, that have been the major instigators of a break with Russian oversight and influence, calling instead for the establishment of an independent, unified, distinctly Ukrainian church. The granting of autocephaly, then, represents the long-awaited fulfilment of nationalist dreams forged in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Renewed importance in the face of Russian aggression

The issue of Ukraine’s religious institutional landscape has gathered new importance in recent years in the midst of mounting Russian aggression, from the seizure of Crimea to fermenting unrest in Ukraine’s east. Amid the tension, it has been impossible for Ukraine’s competing religious authorities to maintain neutrality. Rather, they have been bolstered in their separate corners by shifting political forces.

Indeed, the question of ecclesiastical autonomy has now become a question of national security. Ukrainian President Poroshenko has been explicit in his vision for the new church, claiming that “the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church is a necessary attribute of nation-building,” with this latest shot at religious independence an “opportunity that arises once in a millennium.”

On the other side of the fence, Moscow has raised eyebrows with a series of concerning declarations, including a pledge to “protect the interests of the faithful” in Ukraine in the same way it currently “defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers”. That this is one of the same justifications Russia used to intervene in Crimea and the Donbass has not been lost on international observers. Just how Moscow will react to losing a significant source of soft power remains unclear: the alliance between the Russian patriarchate and Kremlin is centuries old, and the church has been accused of spreading disinformation in Ukraine since the takeover of Crimea. Most importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has exploited the patriarchate to promote his vision of a unified Russian identity.

Moscow eager for a quarrel

Tensions over the religious schism are running particularly high, given that Moscow appears to be already spoiling for a fight. Late last year, Russia assaulted Ukrainian Navy ships passing through international waters near the occupied Crimean Peninsula, soon thereafter amassing near Crimea’s border with eastern Ukraine.

Russian ships have since kept a stranglehold on the Kerch Strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, all but blocking ship traffic to Ukrainian ports. Despite the clear violation of international law – and a treaty between Russia and Ukraine agreeing to share both strait and sea – Moscow has yet to receive more than a mere slap on the wrist from international authorities. Even more concerning are reports Putin is preparing for further escalation. Leaked EU cables in December revealed the European bloc’s fears that nuclear warheads may have already been installed in occupied Crimea.

While Putin’s tactics of testing the West are familiar, if not further emboldened by relatively tepid international condemnation, Moscow’s efforts to destabilise Ukraine are in particularly high gear ahead of the country’s presidential elections this spring. Pro-Western President Poroshenko is running for reelection, and Putin is undoubtedly keen to discredit his government before Ukraine goes to the polls.

According to one political analyst, Putin “is hoping for, and may be committed to doing everything possible to bring about, a Poroshenko defeat”. While a victory by popular actor-turned-politician Vladimir Zelenskiy, who has active business in Russia, would be “Putin’s dream scenario for Ukraine”, Moscow would rather deal with almost anyone else rather than the current president.

Populist presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, who looks likely to face Poroshenko in the elections’ second round, is running on an anti-Moscow message, demanding Russia to compensate Kyiv for the annexation of Crimea. Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most divisive figures: venerated by many, skeptics nevertheless recall her warm relations with Putin during her terms as prime minister — Tymoshenko called the Russian strongman a “wonderful, dignified leader”, while he referred to her as “the only person in Kyiv he could work with”.

Tensions between Kyiv and Moscow were always sure to ratchet up over the election period. In the wake of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s newfound independence, however, Putin’s pushback is sure to be particularly acute.

Nicholas Kaufmann is a public affairs consultant currently based in Brussels doing contract work for European institutions. His writings have been featured in the Moscow Times and Eurasia Review.