After five years of Russia’s escalating hybrid war against Ukraine, their multi-dimensional political, economic, civil, military and cultural conflict reached, in late 2018, eventually the religious sphere. The fundamental reconstitution of relations between the Russian and Ukrainian Christian communities expressed itself in early 2019, when Ukraine received a so-called “tomos”.
Kyiv says the document, issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, made Ukrainian Orthodoxy canonically independent from Moscow, Christine Borovkova and Andreas Umland wrote for VOX Ukraine.
When autocephaly happened, this momentous and historic action caused exaltation among many Ukrainians – even among those not affiliated to the OCU, Christianity or any religion. On the other hand, the OCU's independence from Moscow caused frustration and, partly, anger among many hierarchs of the ROC.
The ROC leadership only recognizes a Kyiv branch of itself, the so-called “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” linked to the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), as legitimate in Ukraine. On the eve of the OCU's acquisition of autocephaly, the ROC thus insisted that, in as far as the UOC-MP had not asked for it, there is no Kyiv subject to whom a tomos can be bestowed. Moreover, Moscow argues that Constantinople has no right to bestow autocephaly on the ROC's "canonical territory" which, according to the Moscow Patriarchate, includes Ukraine. In the ROC leadership's view, the only canonical local Orthodox Church in Ukraine was, is and can be the UOC-MP, i.e. the Ukrainian branch of the all-Russian Eastern Christian community supposedly led by Moscow.
Following this ecclesiastical logic, Moscow has accused Constantinople of advancing a split within Ukrainian Orthodoxy. The ROC also interprets the granting of an independent status to the OCU as a mere instrument used for Ukrainian domestic political battles.
ROC representatives even accused the Ecumenical Patriarchate of provoking, by its support of Kyiv's canonical independence, an alleged suppression of Orthodox believers by the Ukrainian state. In fact, Kyiv does not limit the activities of the UOC-MP in Ukraine. The Ukrainian parliament merely resolved, in December 2018, that the UOC-MP has to rename itself so as to make, in its official designation, clear that it represents a foreign national church.
The Moscow Patriarchate repeats tropes of disinformation and defamation to be found in the Kremlin’s foreign discourses. With regard to both religious and non-religious matters, post-Euromaidan Ukraine is portrayed as an aggressor state supported by a duplicitous West. In contrast, Russia and its agents abroad are introduced as victims of groundless accusations and ruthless repressions.
As a de facto branch of the Russian government, the ROC followed Putin in his futile attempt to redefine Russian geopolitics or even world politics, in the early 21st century. The way Constantinople and Kyiv reacted to the Kremlin's and ROC's challenging behavior in political and religious affairs was predictable. In fact, it was unavoidable, once the Moscow Patriarchate took the path it took.
Russia's recent political, diplomatic, economic and cultural isolation may further increase via gradual segregation of its religious life from the Slavic and wider worlds, the report concludes.