Why the Orthodox Church Schism is Bigger than the Church.

On October 7th, 2018, a New York Times headline read “Russia-Ukraine Tensions Set Up the Biggest Christian Schism Since 1054.”  It was the first of many to come regarding the creation of the newly autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. While another major break in Christianity may interest those in the religious world, why do Ukraine’s religious practices matter in a foreign policy context? The answer lies in the war that is now entering its fifth year in eastern Ukraine.

War in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine began in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatist forces seized portions of two eastern oblasts (the equivalent of U.S. states) in Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. Since then, active fighting has persisted, but the fighting line has remained relatively stagnant as soldiers and civilians continue to die on both sides. According to UNIAN, a Ukrainian-based news organization, around 13,000 people have died as a result of the conflict by the end of 2018.

As casualties continue to rise, the Ukrainian government has been forced to spend millions trying to best one of the largest military spenders in the world. Since the conflict began, Ukraine has spent approximately 3.5 billion USD annually on military expenses, a stark departure from its usual average of 1.9 billion USD. While the Russian Federation does not release a breakdown of its spending, in 2017 Russia spent 61 billion USD on its military, which was a decrease from previous years.

Nonetheless, this conflict is not limited to this region of the world. The United States Department of Defense spent over $250 million USD in Ukraine in 2017. In September of 2018, 10 NATO countries sent troops to western Ukraine to perform joint military exercises with Ukrainian troops. The reason for western involvement in this conflict is nuanced. One fundamental reason, however, has to do with the evolving political landscape of Ukraine. The war began shortly after a monumental change in government—from a Russian-leaning administration to a Western-leaning one. This new government had hopes of joining both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Joining these organizations would lead Ukraine’s political and economic activity to mainly occur with the West instead of Russia.

Since President Vladimir Putin of the Russia sees Ukraine as part of his sphere of influence, even going so far as to say Crimea is “an inseparable part of Russia,” many have pointed to Putin’s actions as a response to the possibility of a Ukrainian aligned western world. One of their points of evidence is his speech regarding the annexation, where President Putin said, “On the contrary, they [the west] have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact.”

Why does the Ukrainian Orthodox Church matter in this context?

While the connection between the conflict in Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church may not seem initially clear, the influence of the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, has led politics and religion to become intertwined.

To understand how this influence has grown, the history of Orthodox Christianity, particularly in Russia needs to be understood.

Orthodox Christianity was founded on the concept of a Pentarchy, meaning there would be five patriarchates. The one that remains the most powerful is the Constantinople Patriarchate (CP), who is the entity that wants to create the Schism. Even though the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) does not hold the foundational Pentarchy status, it is not responsible to the CP and is therefore recognized as an autocephalous church by the CP. Also, the ROC-MP controls local churches that exist underneath it, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarch (UOC-MP).   

During the days of the Soviet Union, the ROC-MP was forced to exist underground. The Soviet government destroyed churches, people were not allowed to be outwardly religious, and clergymen were regularly shot. One’s loyalty was supposed to be to the government, not a religion.

Since then, the ROC-MP has made tremendous strides, regaining strength not only in Russia but also in the surrounding countries where the ROC-MP has influence. Patriarch Alexy, the Patriarch of the ROC-MP following the fall of the Soviet Union, increased the number of churches by 400% during his tenure.  

After the creation of more infrastructure for the church, the new and current Patriarch, Patriarch Kirill, set his sights on a different and more extensive priority. Patriarch Kirill wants to connect the territory canonically occupied by the ROC, which includes Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. This block of people and institutions stems back from a concept called “Holy Russia.” Even though “Holy Russia” has existed for centuries, it has never been prioritized to the degree that Patriarch Kirill has, considering that this concept appeared in his first speech as Patriarch.  

While the concept is not inherently political, Kirill does not see political borders between countries he controls canonically, which can be seen as similar to Putin’s vision of reuniting the former Soviet Bloc. Separating Patriarch Kirill from politics is also harder because of his general involvement in politics, through his comments on political protest such as Pussy Riot’s and his frequent attendance of Putin’s press conferences.

Since the newly-Western leaning Ukrainian government does not appreciate Russia’s influence in its country, many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, who represent the strongest base of support for the ROC-MP, feel that Patriarch Kirill is prioritizing politics over religion. Their ultimate sense of betrayal was felt by Ukrainians when Patriarch Kirill eventually expressed his support for President Putin’s annexation of Crimea. By displaying this support, Patriarch Kirill signified his approval of attacking his own people and religious followers, leading many Ukrainians, including politicians, to call for the CP to grant the UOC-MP autocephalous status to become simply the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In the beginning of November 2018, the Constantinople Patriarch finally broke his silence on the matter, stating, “Moscow should recognize that the Ukrainian people, that these nearly 50 million people have the right to church independence to autocephaly.” In general, the CP stays out of political matters, so this statement alone was seen as a major victory by many Ukrainians. The Patriarch’s words became a reality when the autocephaly became official on January 5th.

The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was quick to make a political spectacle of the matter, calling the announcement of the new autocephalous Patriarch “the day of the final independence from Russia”

Given that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is still ongoing, President Poroshenko might have spoken too soon, especially considering that the conflict extended into the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait at the end of November 2018. Russian forces attacked and arrested sailors in these waters that are supposed to be shared between Ukraine and Russia.

Additionally, attempts to resolve the conflict, such as the Minsk agreements, have consistently failed even with involvement from the United Nations and other countries from around the world. Unfortunately, for the many Ukrainians who fear for their lives or have been displaced from their homes, there does not seem to be an end in sight.

Yet, the loss of the UOC-MP indisputably undermines President Putin's reach in Ukraine. Even though he has made it clear that he wants to reunite the Soviet Union, he has no legal physical hold on territory outside of Russia. His only hold existed through the ROC-MP. Now, the question remains, how will President Putin respond? Will he intensify the military deployed in Ukraine or has he already set a response in motion with the events that occurred in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait?

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Katherine Malus