As Moscow fumes over the Constantinople Patriarch’s decision to back Orthodox independence for Ukraine, new details are emerging of the Russian Orthodox Church’s role in Putin’s Ukraine War. In an interview addressing the issue of autocephaly for the Ukrainian church broadcast on 11 October, the former commander of Russian hybrid forces in Ukraine Igor Girkin admitted that his personal bodyguards were all monks loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Girkin’s claims carry considerable weight. He was the most publicly prominent among the first wave of Russian commanders of the Kremlin campaign in eastern Ukraine during spring and summer 2014. Initially lionized by the Kremlin media under the nom de guerre “Strelkov” (“Shooter”), Girkin abruptly disappeared from the conflict zone in August 2014 due to damaging associations with the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17 and the Russian retreat from Slovyansk.
He remains at liberty in Moscow and has become a media personality commentating frequently on Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine. Girkin’s latest revelations regarding the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the conflict will be hugely embarrassing for the Kremlin as it tries to portray the issue of Ukrainian Orthodox independence as a purely theological affair.
“My personal bodyguard was exclusively made up of monks from the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery, right down to the last man,” said Girkin during his recent interview. “There were not so many of them. Nevertheless, they were there.” The Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery, also known as the Sviatohirsk Lavra, is a monastery complex in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Girkin’s comments will further strengthen the widespread belief within Ukrainian society that the Russian Orthodox Church is intimately involved in the Kremlin attack on Ukraine. Priests of the Russian Orthodox Church stand accused of everything from harboring weapons and blessing fighters to serving in the ranks of the Kremlin’s military formations.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Orthodox priests loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have refused to provide burial services for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the conflict and have shunned public memorials honoring the fallen. This has dramatically undermined the spiritual authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, leading to the defection of entire congregations from the Moscow to the Kyiv Patriarchate and forcing millions of Ukrainians to question how they can continue worshipping in a church that aligns itself with their nation’s enemies. By highlighting the dangers posed by continued Russian Orthodox influence in the country, it has also made the creation of an international recognized independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church a matter of national security.