Ukraine shudders as Putin promises to ‘defend’ Ukrainian believers
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that Russia will “do everything to defend” the rights of believers in Ukraine. His words, coming almost five years after Moscow began ‘defending’ the rights of Russians and Russian-believers in both Crimea and Donbas, felt more like a threat than a promise.
Putin was speaking at a huge event put on at the Kremlin Palace to mark the first decade since Kirill became Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Kirill has strongly supported the ‘Russian World’ narrative used to justify Russia’s aggression, giving it a supposedly religious coating. In talking about this ‘Russian world’ in 2009, for example, Kirill claimed that ““if we consider its only centre to be the Russian Federation with its present boundaries, then we have sinned against the historical truth and artificially cut off millions of people who are aware of their role in the fate of the Russian World and consider its creation their main deed.”
This supposed ‘Russian world’, according to both Putin and Kirill, includes Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate reacted very angrily to the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to support an autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Putin immediately called a meeting of his Security Council and, a few days later, the Russian Orthodox Church announced it was severing relations with the Church in Constantinople.
The Kremlin’s reaction was understandable. As British political analyst James Sherr put it, “the establishment of a unified, independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has not only rippled the Russian World project, it has all but demolished the claim that Ukrainians and Russians are ‘a common people”.
Sherr is not alone in believing that none of this would have happened, “had the Russian Orthodox Church not flagrantly overplayed its hand”. The Church in Ukraine under Moscow received special treatment under the regime of Viktor Yanukovych and it was the only Orthodox Church that opposed the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan). Although it claimed to take no side in the conflict in Donbas, this was clearly not the case, with members of the Church seen blessing prominent militants such as former Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin and Igor Plotnitsky. Sitting next to the notorious Russian Orthodox ‘priest’ Vsevolod Chaplin last year, Girkin asserted that his personal guard had been made up of monks and priests from the Svyatohorsk Lavra. The 2015 study ‘When God becomes the weapon’ provides considerable evidence of religious persecution by militants in Donbas, as well as the role played both by Russia and armed criminal ‘Orthodox crusaders’ in crimes against humanity in the region.
The emergence of a united Ukrainian Church will seriously diminish Russia’s political and cultural influence on Ukraine. Since the Church under the Moscow Patriarchate until quite recently had the largest number of parishes of any Church in Ukraine, the fact that many have already decided to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will also deal an economic blow to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Small wonder that both the Kremlin and Kirill have condemned what they refer to as ‘political developments’ in Ukraine. During the event on 31 January, Putin spoke of the close “brotherly inter-church links” which have alleged served to develop equal relations between Russia and many foreign countries.
There are, however, exceptions, he went on to say, before plunging into an attack on Ukraine, where, in his view, “politicking and parasitical uses of questions of religious life are dividing people and provoking anger and intolerance”. He expressed regret that Constantinople should have been “drawn in” to what he claims is about a struggle for power.
Putin, a former KGB officer, addressing Kirill, believed to have been a KGB agent for many years and other Church leaders, condemned what he claimed was “blatant interference in church life” in Ukraine.
It was the next words that caused many Ukrainians to shudder. While purportedly rejecting any interference in church affairs, Putin went on to say: “Nonetheless, we reserve the right to react and will do everything to defend human rights, including freedom of religion”. His words were clearly not intended to refer to occupied Crimea where over 30 Crimean Muslims have faced persecution for their faith, nor the prison sentence awaited in Russia on 6 February against Dennis Kristensen, the first of many Jehovah’s Witnesses who are imprisoned on ‘extremism’ charges in Russia.
No, Russia “reserves the right to defend” believers in mainland Ukraine, where there is no evidence that they need to be defended. There have been a few cases of conflict between priests and their congregation about whether to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, There were also searches carried out of some churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, which Ukraine’s Security Service reported as connected with an investigation into alleged incitement to enmity (Article 161 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code). Nothing to warrant the dire claims from Russian leaders and the state-controlled media about bloody conflict, mass persecution, etc.
There probably are legitimate questions to be asked about some property ownership, however in an interview given to RFERL in early November 2018, Patriarch Filaret, Head of what was still the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate, specifically rejected any illegal seizures of church buildings. “This is what Moscow wants”, he said, “raider seizures that create the grounds for interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine.”
After long denying that the soldiers without insignia who seized control in Crimea on 27 February 2014 were Russian, the Kremlin then claimed that Russia had been forced to intervene “to defend the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers”. The same claims have been constantly made about the conflict in Donbas.
There was no evidence of persecution or imminent bloodshed in either part of Ukraine to back such claims. The bloodshed came together with the ‘defenders’.