Russian Orthodoxy extends ‘soft power’ hand to Mother Russia’s fight in eastern Ukraine

Russia is more than adept at using trade threats, sanctions and even trade wars to punish those like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia who want to move away from it and ‘reward’ Russian-made enclaves like Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria (wine is a case in point). Energy is another lever, but one that has often been overlooked is the role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and its leader, Patriarch Kirill. It can certainly be seen as an example of ‘soft power’. Ukraine, which has the biggest number of ROC believers (at domestic level, Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate) has a big flock that tithes generously. It also has two other (competing) branches, the more pro-Europe Kyiv Patriarchate (which supported the 2004 Orange Revolution and recent Maydan movement) and independent Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

But the Moscow branch of Ukrainian Orthodoxy does little to hide how very pro-Moscow it is and how closely it is tied. In fact, on 13 August it received a new head, Patriarch Onufriy. Church experts suggest he is unlikely to hold talks toward moving the three branches towards unity. Kirill’s comments support the Kremlin line that the ROC is canonical and unwilling to hold such discussions. Though he is a traditionalist, Kirill is also a modern-day communicator.

Slick Facebook image

He joined Facebook on 15 May 2012, a week after Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for a third term. Posts on Kirill’s Facebook page and other public statements over the last two years show that the church’s public exhortations often coincide with or complement state policy, whether Putin’s conservative agenda at home, a purported “information war” with the West, and Russia’s aggressive new foreign policy, as seen in Ukraine.  Kirill appeared to publicly endorse Putin just weeks before the 2012 presidential election when he said Russia’s leaders had performed a “miracle of God” in delivering the country from the chaos of the 1990s. (“Vesti Nedeli” weekly news programme; 12 Feb 2012). Kirill has openly praised the Russian Foreign Ministry for its adherence to “morality and international law”( and his deeds have complemented Russia’s new official policy abroad, as set out in the new Foreign Policy Concept.  Approved by Putin in February 2013, the document puts new onus on the need to ‘integrate’ with states of the former Soviet Union (CIS), and to use ‘soft power’, or cultural influence, as an instrument of foreign policy.

Kirill attacked Catholics on eve of Independence Day, as army countered

Religion and politics, like oil and water, definitely do not mix, but that does not stop Kirill sometimes sounding like a Kremlin mouthpiece. On 16 August he made a verbal attack on the other big church in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, whose heartland is the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Europe west of the country. He wrote to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the head of Eastern Orthodoxy, that “as early as last autumn, at the beginning of the current political crisis in Ukraine, representatives of the Greek Catholic Church and sectarian groups on Kyiv’s Maydan openly preached hatred of the Orthodox Church”. Pointing at Greek Catholics he said “they started carrying out direct aggression against clergy of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the east of the country under the guise of the anti-terrorist operation”.  The letter turned into an appeal to the UN and Council of Europe to defend Orthodox Christians in Donbass, but it could have been scripted in the Kremlin.

Kirill’s church has also been the target of criticism.  On 18 May 1+1 TV reported Patriarch Kirill had “blessed the bloody clashes in the east of Ukraine”, and that his church was serving as a cover for Russian special forces planning subversion. The report accused clergymen of playing their part in the then “hybrid war” between Russia and Ukraine, actively helping Russian militants in eastern Ukraine by turning local believers against their homeland and turning properties owned by the church into military bases. And earlier, on 9 May, the Ukrainian government had displayed its concern about the influence of Russian church leaders when Metropolitan Illarion, head of the ROC’s external relations department, was barred from entering Ukraine. (

Kremlin mouthpiece

With Ukrainian forces making inroads in the east, Putin did not send his congratulations to Ukraine on Independence Day (not that they are needed when his troops and mercenaries are killing Ukrainians) but, strangely, Kirill did. On 24 August he called for peace and unification around Christian values and “national dialogue through which the people of different views and conviction, divided by confrontation, could in practice be involved in determining the fate of their homeland.” Sounds like something written in the Kremlin that Putin or Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov trundle out routinely every other day.  He was spouting Kremlin speak when he urged Ukrainian President Poroshenko to stop shelling of churches as “churches could not have been shelled by chance….those who did it were probably targeting all of Russia.” The tone sounded breathtakingly arrogant.

Let’s remember that Putin and Kirill meet regularly. In a speech on 28 July Kirill echoed Putin when he said that the country’s “core” was under threat from outside and inside. He is also a slick mover. Kirill and his church have grown increasingly influential under Putin and its statements are often reflected in government policy. But he was astute enough to stay away from the Kremlin ceremony in March at which Russia’s annexation of Crimea was formalized.

Walking a tightrope on Donbass war

The ROC has so far been cautious about positioning itself too closely to the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to religious affairs commentator Boris Falikov. He noted that ROC officials are yet to lend public support, despite the fact that the self-proclaimed “Donetsk people’s republic” says in its constitution that its dominant religion is Orthodoxy, as espoused by the Russian Orthodox Church. “Just listen to the public speeches made by the Donetsk separatists… you will hear all manner of Orthodox, imperial and anti-Western cliches, only presented in an uneducated manner,” Falikov said in an article on the Russian news website “But those in Russia who provide them with ideological support have fully mastered clerical newspeak, flavouring it with bold geopolitical slang.” (

On a conceptual level, Kirill has publicly promoted the idea that Russia is a “country-civilization”. In this worldview, it is not just a country delimited by narrow geographical or ethnic boundaries, but a civilization defined by Russian Orthodoxy, language and culture. Defending the rights and interests of compatriots abroad in this “Russian world” is a recurring theme in Russia’s new foreign policy concept, (Text of “Russian Federation Foreign Policy Concept, approved by Russian Federation President Putin 12 February 2013” published in Russian on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on 18 February 2013, section I.4.(zh)) and a principle clearly invoked in the growing use of the Russian military in Ukraine.

It seems Kirill’s church is just an extension of Putin’s power and his policies, domestic and foreign. Kirill is using his stature and position to act as a mouthpiece and to exert ‘soft power’ as he knows the flock can be led by his words. No less important is money. Aleksandr Nevzorov, Russian TV presenter and critic of the ROC, has said it is primarily worried about losing revenue.  “For the ROC, Ukraine is not just a bread-basket. Its 11,000 parishes, pretty much the main source of income, the place, other than the state, from where the ROC raises its funds,” he said. “For the ROC, losing Ukraine would lead to a starvation diet.”

‘Soft power’ and propaganda comes in all shapes and sizes but to save itself in the current conflict Ukraine will have to learn quickly how to deal with it, even when it comes from a church pulpit.

Peter Dutczyn, Ukraine Crisis Media Center