Russia’s assault on Ukraine unfolded along military, economic and diplomatic lines. Vladimir Putin’s Moscow also is waging a less-noticed war on Ukraine’s religious sovereignty. To understand this, look at the structure of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The church consists of 14 autocephalous, or self-governing, churches. Religious and national identities often overlap, as in the Orthodox Churches of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia. Each national church falls under a particular patriarchate, and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople is considered first among equals.
In recent centuries, Ukrainian believers had belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. Shortly before the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, a council of bishops in Ukraine declared the church’s independence from Russia. In the ’90s, the new leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Filaret, the metropolitan bishop of Kiev—came under pressure from Russian church and security officials to resign. He refused. In 1997 the patriarch of the Russian church excommunicated him and declared his followers schismatics.
An estimated 12,300 parishes in Ukraine continue to follow Moscow and belong to what is known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Meantime, some 5,100 parishes switched to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, led by Filaret.
Patriarch Filaret seeks recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as autonomous and independent, and he is about to get it. The ultimate arbiter in this dispute is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. On Sept. 23 he confirmed his intention to issue a tomos, or decree that confers the independence of a local church, for Ukraine.
The ties between the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate are as old as Russia itself. Throughout its history, the Russian Orthodox Church had been subservient to the state and an unshakable supporter of autocracy. Since the late 15th century, the church provided Moscow’s rulers with a political theology of manifest destiny, asserting that Moscow had become the Second Jerusalem and the Third Rome (Constantinople being the second).
The emergence of the atheist Soviet state in 1922 dealt a severe blow to the church. The state confiscated most ecclesiastical property. It destroyed many churches while turning others into storage places. Steeples that rose high enough became jamming stations to prevent Voice of America or the BBC from reaching Soviet citizens. Few seminaries survived. Those that did, trained a small number of priests. The KGB infiltrated the priesthood, informing on clergy and promoting Soviet interests abroad.
During Russia’s brief experiment with democracy in the 1990s, the church rebounded from decades of suppression. But under Mr. Putin the state quickly co-opted and subsumed the church. The Kremlin has relied on the Orthodox Church as the main unifying force in the country and provides it with generous financial support. In return, the church has been the key promoter of the “Russian World” concept that casts the Kremlin as a defender of Russians outside Russia. Patriarch Kirill has called the Putin era “a miracle of God.”
The prospect of Ukraine’s autocephaly would mean losing millions of dollars worth of properties and thousands of priests in Ukraine. It would deprive Moscow of power over several million Ukrainians. Most important, it would deal a serious blow to Moscow’s ambition of being the leader of Orthodox Christianity.
Moscow has put pressure on Patriarch Bartholomew using unsavory methods. A group of Kremlin-connected hackers, recently indicted in the U.S., stole thousands of email messages from Patriarch Bartholomew’s aides. That backfired: The patriarch does not use email and no compromising material from his aides emerged.
On Aug. 31 Patriarch Kirill made an urgent visit to Istanbul to dissuade Patriarch Bartholomew from issuing a tomos. The two do not see eye to eye. While Patriarch Kirill considers Western values as antithetical to the Russian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Bartholomew supports closer ties with Western churches, including the Vatican.
Patriarch Kirill argued that Moscow has led the Ukrainian Orthodox church for 300 years, but this sounded hollow in the halls of Patriarch Bartholomew’s Istanbul headquarters. For Bartholomew and other patriarchs the historical record is clear: the Constantinople patriarchs never officially approved Russia’s claims over the Ukrainian church. Patriarch Kirill returned to Moscow empty-handed.
Moscow has resorted to traditional bullying, issuing unspecified threats and denouncing Patriarch Bartholomew as an agent of the U.S. and the Vatican. When the threats failed, on Sept. 14 the Russian church issued a formal statement condemning Bartholomew’s intention to grant autocephaly to Ukraine. In a sign of an ultimate break, Moscow also announced that it would stop using Bartholomew’s name in prayers.
Mr. Putin’s geopolitical goal of turning Ukraine into a satellite state instead has given Ukraine a renewed sense of its national identity. Russia’s spiritual imperialism has also diminished the Russian Orthodox Church. These expansionist policies, holy and worldly, are leading to Russia’s further isolation.