The Bachelor Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the International Relations, at Georgian Institute Of Public Affairs
Author: Mikheil Korkashvili
Supervisor: Giorgi Koberidze
The topic of this research is “The role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kremlin’s Foreign policy.” The research aims to determine the Russian Church’s role in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation.
We have been observing the “rise of Russia” since the 2000s. Its economic development led to a cycle of military expansions in its neighborhood, notably – Georgia and Ukraine. Russia was also actively involved in the Syrian civil war, siding with Assad’s regime. Since the 2000s, the influence of the Russian Church has been rising as well. As a result, it is actively involved both in foreign policy and plays a significant role in Russia’s domestic policy as well.
The research found that the Russian Church and the Kremlin may have different foreign interests, but they still work together to resolve various issues. Furthermore, the study revealed that the Russian Church continues Russian policy. Russian foreign policy today is built on tradition and conservatism, preached by the Russian Church as well Hence, the Russian Church is an excellent tool of soft power. Albeit, the research also revealed that the Russian Church does not comply with all the directives of the Kremlin and is quite an influential institution inside the Russian Federation and abroad.
The Russian Church and the Russian government often had a special relationship. The Russian government has often used the religious factor to increase its influence in foreign policy. A similar symbiotic attitude continues into the 21st century. Especially important are the events that are happening since 2014 to the present. The research aims to understand the role of the Russian Church in the Kremlin’s foreign policy from the events from 2014 to the present.
Throughout the two-century history of the Russian Empire, Orthodoxy as an ideology has been the primary moral justification for the expansion of the empire’s foreign policy. This ideological doctrine was predominantly used in the southern Caucasus and the Black Sea regions of the empire, where the Ottoman Empire was considered Russia’s main competitor. The confrontation between Russia and the Ottomans took place eight times during these two centuries. It should be noted that both empires contained theological elements in their state principles. The monarch/sultan was at the same time the head of the official Church, and in this respect, both rulers shared political and religious authority. Consequently, the confrontation between these two empires was military-political and religious (Kuznetsov, 2021).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new stage in the history of the Russian Church began. Russia’s political leadership has recognized the Church as a partner, not an enemy. In the early 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin was president of the country, the revival of Orthodoxy was driven mainly by a power struggle between pro-Western liberals and pro-Soviet statists in Russia. During this period, the influence of the Russian Church on Russia’s foreign policy was minimal. However, he still managed to influence Russia’s foreign policy. For example, in the 1990s, when Russia sent a peacekeeping contingent to Yugoslavia: in Croatia, Kosovo, and Metohija, Russian peacekeepers not only defended the Orthodox Serb-populated area during the ethnic conflict but also physically guarded Orthodox monasteries and temples(Kuznetsov, 2021).
Since the change of the Russian political elite in the 2000s, led by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign policy has become more rigid and aggressive. Accordingly, the Russian Orthodox Church has become more actively involved in Russian foreign policy. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church has become an active soft power tool in Russian foreign policy. Although, in many cases, the Russian Church implements direct directives coming from the ruling circles, these directives are also in line with the agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, this is not always the case, and if the assigned mission is unacceptable to the Russian Church, it does not fulfill it.
Russia’s foreign activity, which began in the 2000s, has completely changed the situation in the region. The Russian military expansion in Georgia and Ukraine is an excellent example. Albeit, in the 21st century, every military confrontation is associated with more money. Technological progress and gradual digitalization made opportunities for countries to use the methods of soft power and disinformation more efficiently to change the mood of the population. Thanks to the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a mighty weapon in former Soviet countries such as Moldova. Moldovan high-ranking clergy, loyal and allies of Moscow, have fought tirelessly to prevent Moldova from integrating into the west (Higgins, 2016a).
In addition to soft power, the Russian Church is actively involved in domestic politics. Its influence and financial income allow it to impact the Russian Duma. However, it should be noted that most of the laws are in the state’s interest because the changes are aimed at making the Russian government more authoritarian.
After strengthening the Russian state, the Kremlin considered it essential to transform the Russian Church into a global church. Western governments should not be ignorant and should not look at the Russian Orthodox Church as an ordinary church. For example, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy allowed the Kremlin to buy the building of the French Meteorological Institute near the Eiffel Tower. Moscow wanted to build a religious center and an orthodox church on the 8,400-square-meter plot worth $ 85 million. This was followed by the aggressive lobbying of the Russian ambassador, Alexander Orlov, succoured by Vladimir Kozhin, a former KGB officer. Kozhin was the head of the Kremlin president’s property management department, which employs fifty thousand employees. Once headed by Putin before he became director of the FSB, this department oversees not only the management of state property in Russia but also the property of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad. The new building is located not far from the Palais de l’Alma. According to the 2019 data, the Palais de l’Alma is home to the French Presidential Post Office, and sixteen apartments of the Presidential Office are located there (Herpen, 2019).
In order to better understand the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian foreign policy, it was necessary to find a variety of information that would allow me to understand the topic more comprehensively. Unfortunately, although this issue is relevant, Georgian literature on this topic does not exist.
First of all, the research needs to study the role of the Russian Church in the Kremlin’s foreign policy and understand why these soft power methods work incredibly effectively in Ukraine and Moldova.
One of the most crucial pieces of research about this topic is “The Foreign Policy Center” – 2015 study of traditional religion and political power: a study of the role of the Church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and Moldova. The study describes in detail the role of the Church in the politics of these countries and discusses the ties that these countries have with the Russian Church, how much influence it has in these countries, and the reason for this (Hug, 2015).
Following the annexation of Crimea, the concept of hybrid warfare was quickly given an essential role in analyzing the success of this military operation. As it is used today concerning Russia, “hybrid warfare” involves using a wide range of subversive instruments by Moscow, most of which are non-governmental, to further Russia’s national interests. Russian hybrid strategies are not new but updated for the twenty-first century.
The Role of Religion and Values in Russian Politics: The Case of Hybrid War. This study helps me analyze the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the concept of hybrid war and its characteristics (Antúnez, 2017).
Scientific papers dedicated to the Russian Orthodox Church argue that almost nothing has changed in church-state relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For some scholars, the Church is always a reliable weapon in the hands of the state. They think that because the Russian Orthodox Church does not have a clear foreign policy agenda, it does not need to discuss it separately from Russia’s foreign policy. Other scholars have suggested that the Russian Orthodox Church may have some autonomy, but its freedom is limited. For these groups, the foreign policy agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church depends entirely on the Russian state. Instead of analyzing how the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most scholars try to rely on familiar stereotypes. The most common assumption that scholars make towards the Russian Orthodox Church is that in the international arena, they support the agenda of the Russian Federation out of subordination and not out of similar foreign interests.
In order to differentiate between these views, I need to approach this issue coherently. Therefore, it is important to analyze not myths but facts that would allow me to understand the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kremlin’s foreign policy came from subordination, or they had common interests in foreign policy that would be beneficial for both. A source researching the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s foreign policy helped me analyze all this (Petro, 2018).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church and the broader Orthodox faith have had a growing influence on public and private life. The majority of the population (about 80%) consider themselves Orthodox, and many citizens believe that religion is a defining element of Russia’s national identity. Russian government officials – including ministers, senior military commanders and President Vladimir Putin – have openly acknowledged their orthodox faith.
The Russian Orthodox Church has a considerable influence on Russia’s domestic policy is a well-known fact and is not surprising. A lesser-known and stunning fact is that the Russian Church enjoys influence over Russia’s nuclear weapons complex, which is considered one of the strongest military structures in the world. For the past three decades, the clergy have penetrated all levels of leadership and positioned themselves as defenders of Russia’s nuclear potential. It is impossible to fully comprehend the strategic reality in Russia today without studying the excellent connection between the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces.
To find out and understand the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the Kremlin’s nuclear complexes, the source – “How the Russian Church Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb..” (Adamsky, 2019)
The concept of Русский мир dates back to the 11th century. It plays a vital role through Russian cultural diplomacy, which can be considered as an excellent soft power mechanism. Vladimir Putin created the Russky mir in 2007, which aimed to popularize Russian knowledge, language, and culture. In 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church officially joined Russky mir to create a positive attitude towards Russky mir in the world. The project has initially been aimed at developing political and economic relations in Russian-speaking former Soviet republics.
Nevertheless, soon it embraced a worldview that was coming into conflict with the West. In other words, if the Kremlin’s rhetoric has so far contradicted the negative consequences of Western actions around the world, their rhetoric has changed to portray the West in principle as a fundamentally individualistic civilization incompatible with Russian values and traditions. The Russian Orthodox Church has always viewed society as a collective organism; it has always been skeptical of the kind of individualism that liberalism preaches. Also, it is conservative in its social values and is especially sensitive if foreign religious groups in some way influence it. Moreover, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, long ago created the image of a cultural warrior. He created it before Vladimir Putin did it. Given that the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church extends beyond the territory of present-day Russia, the popularization of Russian soft power abroad in the form of the Russky Mir project naturally pushes church-state cooperation.
After processing the above literature, we can also catch similarities with how Russky Mir acted in the Crimea, Donbas, and Moldova, and the Middle East, particularly in Syria. The source “Putin’s Patriarch” gives us detailed information about the listed details and allows us to see some similarities about it. How the Church and the Kremlin act to strengthen their influence (Soroka, 2016).
Studies devoted to the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kremlin’s foreign policy have primarily considered the example of Ukraine and sadly overshadowed the case of Moldova. However, the similarities between the cases of Moldova and Ukraine are crystal clear. Both Moldova and Ukraine today have two churches fighting for influence. However, unlike Moldova, an independent church is already actively involved in Ukraine, although the part of Ukraine that supports Russia has a great deal of influence over the country.
We face a similar situation in Moldova. There are also two Orthodox churches in Moldova, one under Russian rule and the other under Romanian rule. Although the population of Moldova is divided between the Orthodox Church of Moldova and the Orthodox Church of Bessarabia, the majority (86%) of Moldovan Christians identify themselves as parishioners of the Orthodox Church of Moldova. At the same time, the rest support the Orthodox Church of Bessarabia. A paper on the subject, entitled “Orthodox Identity, the Russian Orthodox Church as a Tool of Soft Power in the Post-Soviet Space: The Case of Moldova,” explains precisely the situation in Moldova . (van de Kamp, 2017)
After analyzing this, I have better understood the situation in Moldova better. This document is also crucial in better analyzing the Moldovan political circle and ruling elites, and what methods are used to deploy Russian soft power in Moldova. This information also allows me to draw parallels with the current political agenda in Ukraine.
Description of the work performed
To understand the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, I conducted both primary and secondary research. The study uses a qualitative research method – in-depth interviews and data analysis.
Four respondents were selected for in-depth interviews – Tornike Sharashenidze, Giorgi Butikashvili, Nikoloz Gurgenidze, and Alexander Bidzinashvili. The specifics of the paper, which required political knowledge related to the topic, were taken into account when selecting respondents. I conducted the interview in a semi-structured method (see Annex 1). With the help of a questionnaire, I had predetermined the so-called guide that assisted respondents in orienting during the interview. The interview consisted of seven questions; however, due to the specialization of the respondents, additional questions were also asked during the interview process. It should be noted that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face meetings with respondents were not possible and interviews were conducted online.
I conducted the first interview with Tornike Sharashenidze, who is the head of the undergraduate and graduate programs in international relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and a professor with in-depth knowledge of Russian soft power. This interview was conducted through the platform Zoom. The interview started at 13:18 and lasted for 20 minutes. Mr. Sharashenidze, focused on the Russian soft power. He also explained why the traditional Russian face is more acceptable in the post-Soviet space and focused on the Russian language and culture, which is actively used in the region through soft power.
The second interview was conducted jointly with Nikoloz Gurgenidze and Alexander Bidzinashvili. Nikoloz Gurgenidze holds a Master’s degree in Canon Law from the Faculty of Theology of Aristotle University. Alexander Bidzinashvili is a student and researcher at the Tbilisi Theological Seminary at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Faculty of Humanities and History. The interview was conducted through the Zoom platform, which took place on May 5 at 22:00, and the duration of the interview was one hour and thirty minutes. Respondents focused on the influence of the Russian Church in the region, providing detailed information on its role in the concept of soft power. I was also provided with detailed information on the autocephaly of Ukraine and the controversy that exists in the orthodox world today. I was also informed about why this tension was created and what role the Russian Church plays in this.
The fourth interview was conducted with Giorgi Butikashvili. He is a program researcher at Tbilisi Free University and the University of Texas. His research topic is “Theories and Practices of Modern Russian War”. He also holds a Master’s degree in International Relations and International Economics from the German Catholic University. Giorgi Butikashvili was interviewed through the Messenger platform, where he was sent a pre-compiled questionnaire, which was to be answered within ten days. The questionnaire was sent via Messenger on May 9, and Mr. Butikashvili returned the questionnaire to me on May 18. He focused on why the Russian Church was not a classical church and its influence on Russian foreign policy. He also gave me detailed information on why the Russian Church preaches Russian imperialism and why it fights with the West so hard.
In addition to in-depth interviews, in order to study the topic “The Role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kremlin’s Foreign Policy” and to analyze the importance of this topic, I found and processed scientific literature, articles, publications, videos and interviews. The mentioned issue. Based on this information, I understood the role of the Russian Church in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, its goals, and objectives.
It should be noted that in processing interviews and sources, I often come across controversial views on this topic. Especially in the scientific community it was difficult to form common views. In any case, such articles made it more interesting to work on the topic.
To understand the relationship between the Kremlin and the Church, we must review the 90s. Communist rule weakened the once-powerful institution of the Russian Church. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Church began to strengthen both financially and institutionally. The Kremlin allowed the Church to import $ 75 million to $ 100 million worth of excise-free cigarettes in the mid-1990s, furthermore the Russian Church bought 40 percent of the oil-exporting firm “MES,” which sold raw materials abroad. Such allowances and compensations were set by the Kremlin. In 1996, the Russian Church earned $ 2 billion from the sale of these products (LaFraniere, 2002). In 1996, the Kremlin restricted the Church from importing and selling excise-free cigarettes, and “MES” soon went bankrupt, after which they found an alternative plan to make money in the water business. They also received rich funding from Kremlin-owned companies such as Gazprom and LUKOIL (LaFraniere, 2002). Nevertheless, today the Moscow Patriarchate is not much different from other state corporations such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Rostec, and others, with one difference: the Patriarchate is not a supplier of any raw materials, but a consumer of state funds. However, it is wrong to say that the Russian Church is entirely dependent on state funds. For example, it has its own bank, just like the Vatican. Peresvet Bank – Founded in 1992 (full name Charitable and Homeland Development Bank), the Russian Orthodox Church is the main shareholder (Kuznetsov, 2021).
In addition to financial empowerment, the struggle for influence in Russia has been unleashed during the same period. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, with each new decade, the influence of the Russian Church on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces increases. In the early 1990s, nuclear weapons became less of a priority for Russia. Accordingly, the military-industrial wing, which gave priority to nuclear weapons, was overshadowed. The Russian Orthodox Church, which sought to expand its influence over the military and government agencies, saw the possibility of increasing its influence. The Church defended the nuclear facility from political and social exclusion, lobbied for its funding, and assisted it. For a decade, the military nuclear corps incorporated religious ceremonies into its daily activities, building churches in its garrisons. From patriarchs to priests, the clergy interacted openly with nuclear commanders and industry representatives. The Russian Church assists elite units in recruiting recruits, and nuclear unit commanders see how credible and motivated they are. The Orthodox faith is so associated with national identity and patriotism that those who want to be promoted rapidly in the military and foreign political societies can openly acknowledge it.
However, the Russian Orthodox Church does not have a good relationship with just one particular military unit. On May 9, 2020, a new pompous church called the Church of Victory was opened, dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the victory of the “Patriotic War” and built by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The Church of the Victory is the third-largest in the Orthodox world. The initial cost of building the said Church was supposed to be $ 45 million, although it rose to $ 120 million according to various reports. The company “Kalashnikov” provided 1.1 million bricks for the construction of the Church. The new military cathedral is “decorated” with Soviet battle scenes and tools on display at the church entrance.” This Church was called the “Church of Mars” and not the Church of Christ (Herpen, 2019)
Since 2010, the Russian clergy has reached a new level of influence. Putin’s religious, ideological, and philosophical views seem to have matured and integrated into his geopolitical vision and policy choices. He and his entourage express a religiosity that seems somewhat true and has created favorable conditions for the Church to expand its influence in all dimensions of social and political life. For its part, the Church grants moral authority to the Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives. In addition, the clergy became part of the military, primarily as part of the Nuclear Command, where the clergy are now integrated at the tactical and operational levels, working in close proximity to weapons and participating in the ground, air, and naval exercises. (Adamsky, 2019).
After the Russian Church elected a new leader, Kirill, he named several aspects where the Russian Church could assist the Kremlin in pursuing domestic and foreign policies. In domestic politics, the Russian Orthodox Church wanted to collaborate on the following issues: the moral upbringing of youngsters, support for the institution of the family, preservation of cultural heritage, overcoming national and religious intolerance. Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox Church named fields where it could have helped Russian government in its foreign policy, namely: improving the situation of the Orthodox Churches around the world; Improving contacts with Russians living abroad; Expanding dialogue on religious issues in Russia with state structures and international organizations (Soroka, 2016).
Thus, several standing committees have been set up between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve their coordination. It is also noteworthy that with the support of the Russian government, on May 17, 2007, the connection with the Russian Diaspora American Schismatic Church was restored. On July 20, 1927, due to Sergianism, the Russian diaspora priests of the United States severed ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, in response to which the Russian Church declared them schismatics. In 2007, in a solemn atmosphere, a joint liturgy was performed in the Moscow Cathedral, and the Act of Unification was signed(The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia – Official Website.).
No wonder Vladimir Putin chose the path of close ties with the Church. The Russian Orthodox Church is very popular in Russia and is constantly among the top three institutions trusted by the Russian people. According to 2015 data, Vladimir Putin has 80% credibility, whilst 64% army and the Church 64% and 53% respectively . For comparison, it should be noted that only 21% of the population trusts the court and 18% the police (Soroka, 2016).
Speaking at the 2013 Valdai Discussion Club, Vladimir Putin said: “We see how many Euro-Atlantic countries deny their roots, including the Christian values that underlie Western civilization (Soroka, 2016). Such a view of Vladimir Putin gave the Russian Orthodox Church a good opportunity to further increase its influence in Russian domestic politics. For example, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2012, the Ministry of Education and Science added the subject “Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics” to the national curriculum. In addition, in 2012, the Russian Duma passed a law on foreign agents. In 2013, the Russian Duma passed a law against LGBT propaganda and insults to religious sentiments, and in 2015 a law against unwanted organizations (Soroka, 2016).
Since Putin was elected to a third term, the political elite has embarked on an ambitious geopolitical project with the Church to increase its influence in the Orthodox Church to move the location of the World Patriarch from Istanbul to Moscow. Which in turn meant that the Patriarch of Moscow would appear as the Patriarch of the Orthodox World. The implementation of this plan was planned for the summer 2016 session of the Orthodox Council. Due to the tense political situation of Russian-Turkish at that time, the Church of Constantinople decided to hold the meeting in a relatively neutral place. The island of Crete was chosen, where the semi-independent Church of Crete operates under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In order to influence the whole orthodox world, the Russian Church had to secure a majority of its representatives in the Pan-Orthodox Church, Which was to be attended by the commander of the fourteen autocephalous churches (Kuznetsov, 2021).
To this end, in 2011 began an artificial increase in the number of dioceses and priests in Russia with the establishment of 2-3 new dioceses and the mass appointment of vicars (dioceses without bishops) based on existing dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a result of such actions, the number of potential members of the Pan-Orthodox Church from the part of the Russian Orthodox Church tripled, which technically ensured a quantitative majority of the Russian Church among the other 13 Orthodox Churches. Moreover, the actions of the Moscow Patriarchate were fully supported and financed by the Russian political leadership, as the Patriarchate itself, without the help of the state, could not independently create such a bureaucratic structure to pursue artificially inflated geopolitical ambitions (Kuznetsov, 2021).
The Russian Church was motivated by other motives. At the 2016 meeting, they wanted to ask the question: Which should lead the World Orthodox Church, Constantinople or Moscow? Suppose we consider this issue in the context of broader global geopolitics. In that case, the next question arises, which country will be the ideological, cultural, and political successor of Byzantium and the center of the world: Turkey or Russia? In order to prevent this fact from happening, Patriarch Bartholomew, started an open conversation about Ukraine accepting autocephaly, which became a reality in just a few years. Nikoloz Gurgenidze noted that “in January 2016, World Patriarch Bartholomew told Kiril that if he did not attend the meeting in Crete, then the issue of Ukrainian autocephaly would be on the agenda.” With such drastic steps, the Church of Constantinople would be able to reduce the number of Russian supporters by a third. Therefore talk of a Christian revolution would no longer be in the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church. After receiving these signals, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to refuse to participate in the World Orthodox Church and, in order to prevent the Russian Orthodox Church from being isolated, The Moscow Patriarchate has called on the churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Serbia to take the same step. However, unlike others, Serbia announced a few days before the Synod that they would participate in the World Assembly (Kuznetsov, 2021).
In 1686, the Patriarchate of Constantinople transferred the jurisdiction of the Kiev Diocese to the Moscow Patriarchate. This was since the Moscow principality appropriated the territories of Ukraine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991, and the declaration of complete political independence of Ukraine, a significant part of the Ukrainian Orthodox community demanded secession from the Moscow Patriarchate. In June 1992, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate was established, uniting a section of the Orthodox community that actively supported the idea of Orthodox Church autocephaly and the political independence of Ukraine. The idea of a local Orthodox Church was developed by President Viktor Yushchenko. His efforts were aimed at separating the Orthodox Church in Ukraine from Moscow. Recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly was planned in 2008. To this end, Yushchenko has visited the World Patriarch in Istanbul several times. In 2008 he was invited to attend an event planned for the 1020th anniversary of the Christianization of Kiev. The Ukrainian Church, which was de facto subordinate to Russia, opposed both Yushchenko’s candidacy and its support for the 2004 Orange Revolution. The niche held by the Ukrainian Church, which was subordinate to the Kiev Patriarchate with Yushchenko, was actively fighting for the national consciousness of Ukraine. (Hug, 2015)
The Maidan events in 2013, sparked by the decision of Viktor Yanukovych not to sign the Association Agreement, the Ukrainian Church, which was subordinate to the Kiev Patriarchate, was seen as a supporter of these national protests. During the protests, the Church opened its doors and became a shelter for protesters. Also, the clergy of the Church actively participated in the Maidan protests and other rallies. In February 2014, the Church urged believers not to pray for the government or the president. Consequently, such involvement of the Church has become an essential component of the opposition’s success (Hug, 2015).
Since Russia assessed the developments in Ukraine as a coup d’etat from the West, the Russians began to prepare the ground for using the current chaotic situation. Massive disinformation and propaganda began to spread, involving all Russian agencies actively working with the pro-Russian population in Ukraine. The Russian Church and its satellite Ukrainian Church also played an essential role in these works. Church clergymen actively supported separatist movements in Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa, and other Ukrainian regions. Thanks to the clergy and Russian disinformation and propaganda, he came up with the idea of creating a “novarasia” in these areas of southern Ukraine. President Poroshenko has expressed concern and concern that almost 20 percent of Russian propaganda is religious in nature. At the same time, President Poroshenko also expressed hope that Ukraine would deal with information aggression and prevent the use of religious strife in political confrontation (Hug, 2015).
President Putin created a narrative about Crimea as if the annexation of Crimea was necessary not to endanger Russian identity. Vladimir Putin also said in a speech on December 4, 2014, that Crimea and Sevastopol were as sacred a place for Russia as Jerusalem because, according to Russian sources, Prince Vladimir was baptized in Chersonesos in ancient Tavria and baptized all Russians in the territory of Sevastopol today. Accordingly, the annexation of Crimea was part of Russky Mir narrative. This method was less used in the Donbass and Luhansk regions, as these areas were not strategic places for Russia, unlike in Crimea, where a substantial naval base is located. Likewise, the annexation of the Donbas and Luhansk territories was not in Russia’s interests, albeit this decision significantly hurt the Russian Church, which was gradually losing influence in Ukraine (Petro, 2018).
The loss of influence was further exacerbated by a decision in Crete in the summer of 2016. The Church of Constantinople decided that the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine should be on the agenda. Although at a joint conference of Patriarch Kiril and Pope Francis in the summer of the same year, the Pope expressed hope that a split in the Orthodox Church would be averted, on January 5, 2019, the Church of Constantinople still granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly. Which, indeed, caused a rift in the Orthodox world, as those churches which, according to theologians and experts, are considered to be under the influence of the Russian Church, refrained from making such a decision (Petro, 2018)
According to various sources, the visit of the World Patriarch to Ukraine is scheduled for August 2021, which will be a massive blow to both Russian foreign policy and the Russian Church (Ecumenical Patriarch to Visit Ukraine in August 2021, 2020). In addition, various individuals who have direct contact with the Russian Church have reported that if the world patriarch intends to visit Ukraine, they do not rule out that the situation in Ukraine may worsen.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova declared independence. From the day of independence, the confrontation between pro-Romanian and pro-Russian forces soon began. In the 1990s, the pro-Russian elite did not like the pro-Romanian ideas of the then Moldovan government, as the idea of a referendum aimed at the reintegration of Moldova into Romania became more relevant. Because of this, the pro-Russian elite declared independence in the Dnieper and created a separatist region through Russian efforts. A similar controversy between the pro-Russian Church and the pro-Romanian Church continues today in Moldova. The fact is that in recent centuries Moldova has been under the control of either Russia or Romania, so in terms of influence, these two countries have always had a significant influence on local politics and population, which naturally affected the Church as well.
According to the canon, there should be only one Orthodox Church in the country. However, Moldova is an exception, as there are currently two autonomous Orthodox Churches in Moldova: One is the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is an autonomous church and is subject to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the other is the Bessarabia Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Romanian Orthodox Church. However, the Moldovan government did not officially recognize the latter until 2002, and only after the Bessarabian Church was forced to do so by the European Court of Human Rights (Sprinceana, 2014).
Given that 95% of Moldovans consider themselves orthodox Christians, there is a strong connection between the Moldovan people and the Moldovan Orthodox Church, giving the Russian Orthodox Church an excellent and effective way to develop their Russky Mir’s narrative, which is well developed in Moldova. Moreover, most of the Moldovan clergy have been educated in seminaries in Russia. This provides an excellent opportunity to Russify the Moldovan clergy. Because they were educated in Russia, the Moldovan clergy have precisely the same views as in Russia, which naturally leads to the transfer of the Russian narrative to Moldovan politics (van de Kamp, 2017). For instance, Bishop Marcel Mihescu, in an interview with the New York Times, noted that liberal and Western values may lead to the turning of the backs of orthodox people to God and “mother Russia.” He added that “Russia is a defender of Christian values” (Higgins, 2016).
In 2013, the Moldovan government adopted the Equal Opportunities Act, part of a deal between the Moldovan government and the European Union. In order for Moldovan citizens to obtain visa liberalization. However, the adoption of this legislation was met with significant opposition from the Moldovan clergy and other orthodox groups. Many Moldovans feared that the law would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage and therefore actively objected to it (Całus, 2016). Shortly after the law was passed, the Russian Orthodox Church sought to put pressure on the government to enact the law. Patriarch Kirill asked the Moldovan government to repeal the law. The Russian Orthodox Synod has issued a statement condemning a law passed in Moldova stating “an attempt to promote sexual perversion and immoral behavior and calling for changes in the law” (van de Kamp, 2017)
In 2009, a pro-European government deepened relations between Moldova and the EU. During this period, 65% of the population had a positive attitude towards the EU. In order to reduce Russian influence in the region and Moldova, an agreement was reached between Moldova and the EU to prepare a reform package for the Association Agreement with the EU, which was signed in 2014. However, in 2015, 1 year after the signing, the population’s sympathies towards the EU decreased almost twice. This, of course, has an explanation, which is that the reforms carried out by the government during this period were not effective, corruption remained a significant challenge. The Russian media, along with the Moldovan Orthodox Church, began to spread misinformation and propaganda among the population. (Całus, 2016)
From the very first day, the Moldovan Orthodox Church opposed Moldovan integration into European society. For them, EU institutions are associated with opposition to Orthodoxy. Metropolitan Vladimir said in an interview that “the EU is trying to impose its European laws, which are foreign to our spiritual and moral traditions.” Therefore, when Moldova was in the process of signing an association agreement with the EU, the Moldovan Orthodox Church sought to influence the Moldovan population and instill in them a fear of the EU in their local parish’s (Całus, 2016).
Since Moldova signed the Association Agreement in 2014, Russia used all the trump cards to bring their influence back to Moldova. They needed the Moldovan Orthodox Church to carry out this plan. Although the Moldovan clergy have no official right to interfere in political life, many priests and other clergymen have openly expressed their sympathy for pro-Russian parties. In the 2016 presidential election, church leaders openly supported Igor Dodon and questioned Maya Sandu’s sexual orientation. The 2017 Freedom House report states that the Orthodox Church played an essential role in the 2016 presidential election, reflected in the election results. According to Freedom House, the 2016 elections were the dirtiest in Moldova history (van de Kamp, 2017).
The difference between the interests of the Kremlin and the Russian Church
Russia’s foreign policy uses the moral framework of the Church. The Church supports it because it is confident that it will help the Russian government to establish an “innate international order” that will help the Church fulfill its mission to save the souls of people, save all cultures baptized as Christians, and save all of humanity (Petro, 2018).
In 2012, Vsevolod Chaplin, who was chairman of the Synodal Department for Church-Community Cooperation, launched what is arguably the biggest challenge to Russia’s political order. He said the Orthodox Church considered itself “equal to the state” and that they should have the same powers as the government when it came to “making decisions concerning the church’s interests or the moral or spiritual dimension of life.” Chaplin ignored the Russian Constitution, which speaks of the separation of Church and state. “Our vote is the vote of the majority, and it should be decisive in any decision. “No one has the right to refuse us.”No one from the Orthodox Church, including Patriarch Kirill, considered it necessary at that time to criticize Chaplin for his constitutional insult to Russia. However, this is also natural, because in many cases, the Russian Church and government have entirely different interests (Bennetts, 2015).
Russian Orthodox officials have reacted differently to the Ukraine crisis, with some supporting the Kremlin’s actions and others criticizing them. Kirill did not choose the side and said that “the children of our church are people of different political views and beliefs, including those who are on the opposite side of the barricades in Ukraine today.”Although the Kremlin decided to annex Crimea, the Russian Church was against it, as in 2014, a large number of Ukrainian churches were subordinated to the Russian Church. For the Russian Church not to lose its influence over Ukraine completely, the Russian Church decided not to annex the Crimean churches under their subordination (Soroka, 2016).
Kirill was an active supporter of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. However, the goals of the Kremlin and the Church were still different here. The purpose of the Church was not to support Assad or to maintain the balance of power in the region but to protect Christians from radical Islamist groups (many Christian churches in Syria belong to the Orthodox Church of Antioch). However, according to ria.ru 2020, the priest, punished by the Russian Church, Bishop Flavian Mitrophanov, publicly admitted that in 2018-2019, on the instructions of the Moscow Patriarchate, he visited the Patriarch of Antioch, John X, and paid a bribe in exchange for a bribe. The Patriarchate of Antioch did not recognize the Autocephalous Church of Ukraine (Запрещенный в служении епископ Флавиан не ездил в Сирию, уточнили в РПЦ, 20201218T1719).
The Russian Church is a good tool for increasing the Kremlin’s influence in the post-Soviet space. The conservative and traditional ideas that the Russian Church preaches today are the face of Russian politics. It can easily present these views differently if it has become necessary. As Giorgi Butikashvili noted in an interview, “The Russian Church cannot be a church qualitatively, it can formally have a religious hierarchical structure, it conducts services, participates in church liturgies, but at the same time, it is raised in state institutions. The Church is the generator of conservatism, the agitator of the idea of a great Russia, which feeds the Russian society with false teachings, cooperates with state structures and is the richest”.
The influence of the Russian Church plays an important role in political life in Ukraine and Moldova. In many cases, the Russian Church in Moldova directly interferes in political life. It will continue to do so as long as their representation and pro-Russian parties are actively involved in Moldovan political life. In Ukraine, it is true that the Russian Church is gradually losing influence, however, it still plays an important role in stirring up pro-Russian narratives. During the visit of the World Patriarch in August 2021, the world will see better what forces the Russian Church and the Kremlin have left in Ukraine and what retaliatory actions they will be able to carry out.
The research conducted shows that the main force of the Russian Church is the conservative and traditionally thinking society living in the post-Soviet space. The Russian Church is a kind of nourisher for such people. Since the 21st century, modern Russian films, literature, and art are not very popular globally; it has found its niche in tradition and conservatism. The Church is an institution that usually expresses such a narrative. The Russian Church has the ability and power both inside and outside the country to gain popularity through conservatism and traditions. Moreover, he has the opportunity to establish a stereotype of what a modern Russian should look like.
The Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin may have different foreign goals. Nevertheless, they still collaborate often. Nor can we say that the Russian Church is an institution subordinate to the Kremlin. Its influence in military institutions is relatively high. The Russian Church is financially rich. To some extent, it may pursue its agenda, but in the end, he still obeys the directives of the Kremlin. Although, as Samuel Hamilton wrote in The Clash of Civilizations, there has historically been a rift between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the West, and elsewhere in the world they are inseparable, he said: “In Islam, God is Caesar, in China and Japan, Caesar is God, and in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner.”
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- Do you think the influence of the Russian Church is growing? how it operates in the region?
- Do you think the Russian Church has an influence on Russia’s foreign policy?
- What do you think is the role of the Russian Church in the Russian Federation?
- Can we consider the Russian Church as the main driving force of soft power in the post-Soviet space?
- What impact will it have on the region if tensions between the Russian Church and the Church of Constantinople continue?