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Why the Russian Orthodox Church Supports the War in Ukraine

By using force to try to keep the splintering parts of the once-unified ROC together, Patriarch Kirill is only driving them away.

Published on January 31, 2023

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) did not hesitate to throw its support behind the Kremlin’s war against a neighboring Orthodox nation. Far from wavering, that support has only grown more strident as the war progressed. 

The reason is not just that the church is used to giving its blessing to any actions taken by the country’s leadership. Quite simply, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the ROC, is betting on Putin’s tanks to preserve the institution of the church throughout the fallen empire.

Yet the more militant the patriarch’s rhetoric and the more visible he becomes in Russian propaganda, the more bigoted he looks from the outside and the stronger the centrifugal forces within the church. By using force to try to keep the splintering parts of the once-unified ROC together, the patriarch is only driving them away. 

The ROC is the only Moscow-centered institution that has managed to continue operating across the entire expanse of the former Soviet Union since its collapse. Indeed, it traces its lineage back to the pre-revolutionary ROC, making it bigger and older than the state.

For this reason, both post-Soviet patriarchs—Alexy and Kirill—ignored the new political reality as far as possible. For them, the entire “canonical territory” of the ROC remained a unified Orthodox space and area of canonical responsibility, and any attempts to change that were extremely unwelcome.

Of course, the conditions in which the ROC exists vary greatly across the former Soviet Union. In some countries, like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, it is the dominant religion; in others, like the Baltics and Central Asia, it is not. In each country, the canon law of the ROC has to coexist with state legislation on religion.

From a legal point of view, all of these church communities are separate, independent structures registered within the individual state rather than branches of one organization with its headquarters in Moscow. According to canon law, however, and the church’s own decrees, the structures have all always been part of the Moscow Patriarchate, though in varying (and confusing) formats that generally arose spontaneously following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian, Latvian, Estonian, and Moldovan Orthodox churches, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, are autonomous churches within the ROC. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is an exarchate: a much lower degree of autonomy. Similarly, Lithuania simply has its own eparchy, or diocese, of the ROC, while Central Asia and Kazakhstan are home to metropolitan districts of the ROC. 

The Moscow Patriarchate has only ever had an exclusively Russian perspective, insisting on Church Slavonic as the language of church services, the veneration of the Russian pantheon of saints, the use of the Russian language for church documentation, and so on, regardless of the changes taking places in other countries. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 left all the constituent entities in the complex structure of the ROC facing a dilemma: speak out against Patriarch Kirill for his support of the war, or remain loyal to the church leadership and risk becoming seen as Kremlin agents in their own countries, with all the ensuing legal and reputational ramifications. As far as it is known, the Moscow Patriarchate has not offered any recommendations to its churches on this matter. 

Under church law, these constituent churches cannot independently separate from the ROC: they would be considered schismatics. In theory, they can arrange with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople—the “first among equals” of the Eastern Orthodox Church—to be recognized as separate entities, but that’s far easier said than done, especially in countries where parallel jurisdictions already exist, such as Estonia and Moldova.

It is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), of course, that finds itself in the most difficult situation. It has declared independence from the ROC, but has failed to formalize the process under canon law. Several senior clergymen have left Ukraine for Russia, and others are under investigation for treason in Ukraine, but overall, the UOC has condemned the war and stopped praying for Patriarch Kirill as its primate.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church, on the other hand—or at least its primate, Metropolitan Veniamin—supports the war. Kirill’s sole foreign trip since the invasion was to Belarus.

The outposts of the ROC in other countries, however, are having to carve out a new status for themselves, finding a precarious compromise between canon law and the increasing demands of the secular authorities.

In Lithuania, Metropolitan Innokenty was quick to speak out against the war, condemning it back in March. At the end of May, he asked the Moscow Patriarchate to grant the Lithuanian eparchy the status of an autonomous church, and the ROC Synod set up a commission to look into the matter. There are no representatives of Lithuania on the commission, however, nor is there any news of progress.

Meanwhile, it looks as though a new structure will be established in Lithuania under the Constantinople Patriarchate. This is clearly something the secular authorities would like to see: it was Lithuania that proposed introducing personal sanctions against Patriarch Kirill at the EU level, and when it was unsuccessful, banned him from entering the country. 

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte wrote to Bartholomew I of Constantinople to say that her government supported the wish of some Orthodox congregations to separate from Moscow, since they “have the right to practice their faith without a conflict of conscience.” After all, the country’s Orthodox diaspora also consists of Ukrainians and Belarusians who no longer want anything to do with the ROC. A senior Constantinople Patriarchate bishop subsequently visited Vilnius in December.

Any new structure is unlikely to have many congregation members right away: in other former Soviet countries where parallel jurisdictions are in place, the ROC generally retains most worshippers. Churchgoers fear becoming schismatics and losing grace (standard ROC propaganda), and don’t believe themselves capable of making decisions on their own religious affiliation. But the very existence of an alternative and competition changes the situation, especially when the state organs also have an interest.

In Latvia, the government has taken even more decisive action. Under the country’s laws (and in contravention of EU law), there can only exist one Orthodox church, one Catholic church, one Lutheran church, and so on. Each confession effectively has a monopoly on that “brand,” and alternative congregations are unable to register.

In September, President Egils Levits introduced a bill to grant the Latvian Orthodox Church autocephaly—complete independence—from the Moscow Patriarchate. The bill was passed by the Latvian parliament, but from the point of view of canon law, the head of state cannot grant autocephaly. In practice, all the new law does is prevent Moscow from interfering in the process of appointing and dismissing senior church clergy.

In October, the Latvian Orthodox Church council voted almost unanimously (160 out of 161 votes) to formally ask Patriarch Kirill for autocephaly. It is not clear when the ROC will make a decision on the matter.

In Estonia, the situation is more complicated, since there has long been a parallel Constantinople Patriarchate jurisdiction in place: the Estonian Apostol Orthodox Church. Estonian Orthodox believers are essentially divided into two different churches—an Estonian national church, and another for the Russian-speaking population—with different traditions.

The Estonian Orthodox Church (EOC), which is part of the ROC, currently has a congregation at least seven times bigger than that of the EAOC, making it the most popular religion in the predominantly atheist Baltic state. For now, therefore, it’s unclear how the Estonian government will solve the problem of the church’s affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Some politicians in Estonia have called for the EOC to be banned, but that’s impossible, given that it would be a violation of the rights of hundreds of thousands of citizens. Instead, therefore, Estonia will likely continue to use bureaucracy to isolate the EOC from Moscow, refusing entry to ROC stooges, thereby forcing the EOC to fill positions from within the country. 

In Moldova, the primate of the country’s Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Vladimir, is a Russian citizen, and his pro-Russian views are well known: he even campaigned for the successful pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon in the 2016 presidential election, and visited Moscow and the Patriarch as recently as October. 

Much of Moldova’s Orthodox clergy is fairly conservative and has no wish to separate from the ROC, though the church has officially condemned the invasion. Orthodoxy is the main religion in Moldova, with a full 90 percent of the population identifying as Orthodox. Most of those people belong to the Metropolis of Chisinau and All Moldova under the ROC, while one-fifth belong to the rival Metropolis of Bessarabia under the Romanian Orthodox Church.

While unlikely, a religious conflict in Moldova could have very serious consequences due to Russia’s influence there, smoldering tensions in Transnistria, and the country’s geographical proximity to both Ukraine and the EU. For this reason, both the Moldovan government and church are for now treading carefully in order to avoid a conflict.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow identifies entirely with the Russian regime and Putin’s political elite. He cannot envisage a future for the ROC that does not reach the outer borders of the Soviet Union. For almost a year now, he has been supporting the war, demonstratively appearing at Kremlin events, giving his blessing to murder, and justifying aggression. He isn’t thinking about the situation he is creating for all the other Orthodox constituent entities of the ROC that are outside of Russia’s jurisdiction: the bishops, priests, and millions of congregation members, including victims of the war.

On December 29, the ROC Synod indefinitely postponed the next meeting of the Council of the Primates. Quite simply, that meeting is now impossible: neither the Ukrainian nor European primates will attend, meaning there will not be a quorum. In its current state, the ROC is becoming ungovernable, and can only be preserved if Russia conquers all those countries by force. This is why the ROC’s support for the war is only getting stronger, to the detriment of its constituent parts in other countries.

It’s not impossible that these centrifugal processes will at some point come to a halt, after which some kind of new Orthodoxy in the Russian tradition will emerge: without the ROC and without Putin. First, it remains to be seen how the Patriarch will solve the unavoidable issues—such as the status of the Lithuanian Church, and autocephaly for the Latvian and Ukrainian churches—and whether, by that time, his decisions will even carry any weight.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.