‘Kremlin's agents in robes’ – or the role of Russian Church in the Ukraine war

The Russian Orthodox church has long played an important role under president Vladimir Putin's rule. It is also serving as an instrument in the country's hybrid war against Ukraine, writes journalist Oleksii Platonov.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is now in its fifth month, with Ukraine managing to counter enemy forces thanks to its army and the help of the international community – including NATO-style offensive weapons. 

But let’s look at the less obvious army working, the fifth column in robes.  The war has heightened a long-running feud between Ukraine and Russia’s Orthodox churches, with branches once loyal to Moscow becoming an increasing source of distrust.

The Russian Church, under the guidance of the country’s special services, has been prepping its Ukrainian supporters with talks of humility, pacifism, and obedience, according to Ukrainian intelligence.

It comes as new details about the cooperation between the church employees and the Russian special services are constantly being revealed, with authorities investigating priests for providing targets for Russian artillery fire.

To understand where religion meets politics and war in Ukraine, one first needs to look back at the recent sources of tension between its Orthodox churches.

A bit of history

Ukraine has two Orthodox churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and the recently formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was granted independence in 2019, much to the anger of Russia.

Not having an official independent church before 2019 meant that the majority of religious Ukrainians had to attend churches governed by Moscow.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signs decree granting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine independence, 3 November, 2018. (Credit: President.gov.ua)

While the granting of the church's autocephaly (self-government) might have looked like an overnight success, in reality, it was many years in the making.

All but one (Ukraine’s fugitive pro-Russian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych -ed.) of Ukraine’s former presidents had appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I – the leader of the global Orthodox church – for independence. In 2016, the then-president Poroshenko flew to Istanbul, where he personally met Barholomew for the first time.

Things finally moved forward in 2018, when Poroshenko appealed for a local Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Poroshenko referred to the matter of church independence as a “question of national security”, “component of state independence”, and even part of the formula for Ukraine’s “national identity.”

An official ceremony was finally held early on 6 January at the St. George's Cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey, the official residence of Patriarch Bartholomew. This was a sort of a Christmas miracle for Ukraine, a country that celebrates Christmas on 7 January.

Quite naturally, Russia got nervous after these events, which meant losing control over millions of Ukrainian churchgoers who subsequently switched to the new, officially recognised church.

Some days before the decree – or tomos as it is known - the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, wrote an angry letter to Bartholomew condemning his support of Ukraine’s church independence.  (It is worth adding that Kirill has a history of working for Russia’s state security services, as an agent of the KGB and later FSB.)

Kirill slammed the decision as “uncanonical” and threatened the ecumenical patriarch with “the day of reckoning”. A big part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church supported this rhetoric from their spiritual leader. The church’s local leadership (in Kyiv) even demonstratively reprimanded two bishops for going against the official church line. The threats from Russian president Vladimir Putin went even further than Kirill’s.

In the months since the beginning of the war, the UOC-MP has come under increasing  pressure with several hundred parishes defecting and over 400 priests condemning Kirill’s pro-war rhetoric, which they termed as “heresy”. In May, the UOC-MP declared “independence”, though not a full autocephaly.

However critics question the credibility of this move, with numerous reports suggesting that many of its branches remain an instrument in Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.

Since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014, priests from the UOC-MP have actively asked Ukrainian soldiers to give up their arms or face “cursing”. There have also been multiple reports of UOC-MP churches hiding both Russia-led militants and Russian weapons, in particular, the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery in the Donbas.

In summary, the UOC-MP has been carrying out various goals and tasks set out by Russia’s special services. These include active propaganda, with phrases such as, “it’s not Russian aggression, it’s a civil war” – and Crimea is not occupied because “we’re one people”.

There have also been Indirect calls on Ukraine to capitulate by using the phrase “fight for peace” and denouncing the existence of the Ukrainian nation outside of the “Russian world”. What’s more, the government of Ukraine has been actively discredited and libelled before international organisations.

Since 24 February, this agenda has expanded, with churches in regions occupied by Russia – Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Mykolaiv – allegedly assisting the military in resettling Ukrainian refugees in Russia.

As many as seven dioceses are still working in Ukraine under the Russian Orthodox Church. In each of the regions, the Russian Church has a powerful lobby in local self-government bodies. Behind each of the dioceses, there are militant groups camouflaged as public organisations which consist of Cossack organisations and retired security forces and provide force support to the Russian Church.

In the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a historic Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery, is still legally under Moscow’s control. Just like the Pochaiv Lavra, it works for the FSB.

Ticking time bomb in the west of Ukraine

The UOC-MP has recently become significantly more active in the west of Ukraine – historically the stronghold of opposing Moscow’s aggression – where it is taking subversive actions.

According to social media and the local diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a church march was organised and held by the UOC-MP on 16 July in Bukovyna, west of Ukraine. The fact that it coincided with the marches held in Russia in honour of the memory of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra shows that the aim was to create an image of parishioners who pray to Russian heroes as opposed to the victims of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

What next?

The world community has already reacted to the criminal actions of the Russian Orthodox Church. The UK, in particular, introduced harsh sanctions against Patriarch Kirill and his entourage, which caused hysteria in the Kremlin.

Today, it is necessary to ensure maximum security on the church front and disperse the fifth column in robes.