The Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christian figures, The Associated Press has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine.
The targets included top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who often is described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders, AP reports.
The Istanbul-based patriarch is currently mulling whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to tear that country’s church from its association with Russia, a potential split fueled by the armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The AP’s evidence comes from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied last year by Secureworks, a subsidiary of Dell Technologies.
The Associated Press has found that Russian hackers have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of the world’s most senior Christian Orthodox figures. Kiev and Moscow have been wrestling over the religious future of Ukraine. (Aug. 27)
The targeting of high-profile religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies.
Patriarch Bartholomew claims the exclusive right to grant a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or full ecclesiastic independence, sought by the Ukrainians. It would be a momentous step, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and severely eroding the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.
Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as next month.
“If something like this will take place on their doorstep, it would be a huge blow to the claims of Moscow’s transnational role,” said Vasilios Makrides, a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany. “It’s something I don’t think they will accept.”
The Kremlin is scrambling to help Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill retain his traditional role as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and “the more they know, the better it is for them,” Makrides said.
The Russian Orthodox Church said it had no information about the hacking and declined comment. Russian officials referred the AP to previous denials by the Kremlin that it has anything to do with Fancy Bear, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flew to Istanbul in April in an effort to convince the patriarch to agree to a split, which he has described as “a matter of our independence and our national security.” Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill is flying to Turkey later this week in a last-ditch bid to prevent it.
Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use email, those church officials told AP. But his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their Gmail accounts.
Among them were several senior church officials called metropolitans, who are roughly equivalent to archbishops in the Catholic tradition. Those include Bartholomew Samaras, a key confidante of the patriarch; Emmanuel Adamakis, an influential hierarch in the church; and Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, who heads a prestigious seminary on the Turkish island of Halki. All are involved in the Tomos issue; none returned recent AP messages seeking comment.
Spy games have long been a part of the Russian Orthodox world.
The nexus between Russia’s intelligence and religious establishments survived the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s reorganization into the FSB, according to Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
“Our church leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits,” Oreshkin said. “They provide Vladimir Putin’s policy with an ideological foundation.”
That might make one target found by the AP seem curious: The Moscow Patriarch’s press secretary, Alexander Volkov.
But Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a Russian group spying on targets close to home, saying, “they’re probably checking him out just in case.”
Volkov did not return AP emails seeking comment.
Hovorun is unusually qualified to speak on the issue. In 2012 he — like Volkov — was an official within the Moscow Patriarchate. But he resigned after someone leaked emails showing that he secretly supported independence-leaning Ukrainian clergy.
Hovorun has since been targeted by the Russian hackers, according to the data from Secureworks, which uses the name Iron Twilight to refer to the group.
Hovorun said he believes that those who published his emails six years ago weren’t related to Fancy Bear, but he noted that their modus operandi — stealing messages and then publishing them selectively — was the same.
Priests and prelates don’t make obvious targets for cyberespionage, but the stakes for the Kremlin are high as the decision on Tomos looms.
Granting the Ukrainian church full independence “would be that devastating to Russia,” said Daniel Payne, a researcher on the board of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas.
“Kyiv is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people,” Payne said. “That’s where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are ... it’s sacred to the people, and to Russian identity.”