Religion as Soft Power, Tolerance and the Russo-Ukrainian War

Note: This is the second in a series of posts prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University. 


By Catherine Wanner
Professor of History and Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University


If Ukraine is “ground zero” in the tensions between Russia and the West, the establishment of an independent Ukrainian church is “ground zero” in the war between Russia and Ukraine. After the hybrid war began in 2014 between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian Army in eastern Ukraine, tensions soared between Russia and Ukraine. None were more volatile than those resulting from the recent establishment of an independent, self-governing or “autocephalous” Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in January 2019. The decision to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox churches in Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, over the vigorous objections of the Russian Orthodox Church, has significant geopolitical repercussions. Who will wield this form of soft power in the region: Constantinople and Kyiv, or Moscow? The decision also has potentially serious consequences for the Russian Orthodox Church itself, because approximately one-third of its parishes are in Ukraine and their future is now unknown.

By severely curtailing relations with Russia, including first and foremost restricting the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and targeting its religious institutions for discriminatory treatment, these new Ukrainian policies court the possibility of institutionalizing the very Russian state practices of intolerance they condemn. It also ratchets up the stakes in the confrontation over values in Europe in an age of populism.  Is it preferable to have the Russian Orthodox Church as the protector of “traditional values,” with its overtures of cooperation with the Vatican? Or are European laws and policies, backed by the European Court of Human Rights, the path forward?  The choice stands before all Europeans but Ukraine, in particular, has reached an impasse and must decide.

An independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine ends over 330 years of Russian control over religious life in Ukraine. There are no liturgical or doctrinal disputes, the motivation for the split is purely political. Yet, some liken the split to the Protestant Reformation to signal that two Orthodoxies are developing. To the extent that differences in statecraft, geopolitical alliances, and political technologies continue to grow, and given the established pattern of a close church-state partnership in Orthodox societies, political differences could manifest as ecclesiastical, and perhaps even doctrinal, differences between the two Orthodox Churches. This new development puts pressure on political and ecclesiastical leaders in Eastern Europe with Orthodox majorities to take sides in the confrontation. Orthodox communities around the world must now also choose alliance with Constantinople or Moscow.

There had been several Orthodox churches in Ukraine all claiming to be national churches before efforts to consolidate came to fruition.  The largest by far in terms of the number of parishes was the Russian Orthodox Church. Two “schismatic” churches united under a self-proclaimed Kyiv Patriarch.[1] Neither was canonically recognized, and both formed in conjunction with aspirations for Ukrainian statehood, one after the Revolution in 1921 and the other in 1995 after Ukraine achieved independence. Additionally, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which predominates in western Ukraine, also has a Byzantine rite but its supreme authority is the Roman Catholic pope. The Orthodox Church associated with Moscow has the most property, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, allied with Kyiv, has the greatest number of parishioners, and the Greek Catholic Church has the most committed members, giving each a unique source of power and presence in society. Because they are doctrinally and liturgically similar, one-third of the population circumvents this fracturing by self-identifying as “just Orthodox” or “believers without a confession.”[2] They are “swing voters.” Their institutional disaffection, a parallel phenomenon to the rise of the “nones” in the U.S., is in part a response to the struggle of the four Eastern Christian churches in Ukraine to become the national church.

During the Maidan protests in Kyiv from November 2013 to February 2014, religious organizations demonstrated remarkable ecumenical cooperation in a variety of spheres — with the significant exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, which at that time existed in Ukraine under the name Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.[3] Instructions from Moscow precluded the participation of their clergy. Overall, however, the protests testified to the moral authority of clergy and the mobilizing power of religious sentiment. In the end, a pro-Russian Ukrainian president was ousted amidst popular insistence that Ukraine remain on the path of European-oriented democratic reform.

Prior to the war, a weak, dysfunctional Ukrainian state could not impede the development of pluralism. The splintering of Orthodoxy in Ukraine into competing denominations meant that no single religious organization had privileged access to state authorities, as is the case in Russia where the Orthodox Church is the first among the four confessions recognized as “traditional.” A strong state and state church in Russia have produced a weak civil society. This contrasts sharply with Ukraine where a weak state permits civil, news, and religious organizations to thrive. Religious activity across confessions in a variety of spheres (humanitarian assistance, educational institutions, publishing and so on) has flourished since 1991 as Ukraine became a “gateway” for a wide spectrum of religious groups seeking to establish or expand a presence in Eurasia.

With serious challenges to Ukraine’s sovereignty from Russia, efforts to secure an independent church became a Kalashnikov of a weapon for a weak state mired in a hybrid war. Ukrainian autocephaly deals a blow to Russian Orthodoxy, and by extension to Putin’s standing, in retaliation for the annexation of Ukrainian territory. Individual communities of the Moscow-affiliated Church are allowed to vote on reaffiliation. Over 500 shifted allegiances to Kyiv in the first three months after autocephaly.[4]

Under conditions of war, will the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine take a lead from its northern neighbor and become “the handmaiden of the state?” This is a distinct possibility, given the pronounced role Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko played during negotiations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople that allowed for Ukrainian autocephaly in the first place. As Ukraine struggles to retain its sovereignty and protect its borders amidst armed struggle, religious independence is a hard weapon against Russian soft power. It forces a rewrite of Russia’s national origin myth that includes Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities;” it challenges its imperial political vision of the “Russian World,” a political concept that justifies linking Slavs across Eurasia under a single Russian Orthodox Church; and it denies Russia a key source of regional hegemony.[5]

Several initiatives surrounding the new Ukrainian Church are indicators of how tolerance and pluralism will likely play out. So far there is political will to continue the ongoing tolerance for the pluralism that has developed to date – with one exception – the Russian Orthodox Church.  After the creation of the Ukrainian Church, the Ukrainian government mandated that the Orthodox Church connected to Moscow, the largest denomination in Ukraine with over 12,000 communities, rename itself as the “Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”  Ukrainian authorities charged that the Russian Orthodox Church is a threat to national security, citing its role in spreading Russian propaganda and aiding separatist fighters. They passed legislation obliging any religious organization whose governing center is in a country waging war or occupying Ukrainian territory to indicate its extra-national seat of power in its name, which is obviously targeted specifically at the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian government also barred clergy from the Moscow-affiliated church from serving as chaplains.  One of the earliest initiatives to grow out of the extensive clerical involvement in popular protest in 2013-14 was to radically expand the chaplaincy once the war began. Byzantine Catholic and Protestant congregations, with help from their co-religionists abroad who have extensive experience in training chaplains, took the lead.  Initial efforts to develop chaplains to serve in battalions exponentially grew to include chaplains in prisons, hospitals, transportation centers and elsewhere, with resources often devoted to constructing Eastern Christian chapels in these state institutions.  As of this writing, chaplains affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine are barred from each of these humanitarian and social service endeavors.

Other issues, such as LGBTQ rights, enter the tug-of-war between Orthodox traditional family values and secular European tolerance.  In order to secure visa-free travel to the European Union, the Ukrainian government passed legislation banning discrimination in the workplace in 2015. This was the same year the Gay Pride Parade saw violent protests. In 2018 President Petro Oleksiyovyc Poroshenko made a statement of demonstrated European orientation when he asked religious institutions of all confessions to hold back protesters, allowing a gay pride parade to occur without incident. Approximately 5,000 marched, backed by a formidable police presence and a small army of volunteers calling themselves “dialogue police” or “civic monitors.” One year later, in 2019, the March of Equality, as gay pride is known in Ukraine, swelled to its largest ever with 8,000 participants. Although there were counterdemonstrations, the event was peaceful.

There is still considerable endorsement in Ukraine of the positive role religion can play in terms of fortifying individual morality, social stability and nation-building projects. This translates into a certain tolerance for religious minorities and considerable visible pluralism, which is popularly accepted. A single Ukrainian Orthodox Church introduces the possibility that the progress Ukraine has made since 1991 in establishing a significant degree of religious freedom, backed up by legislation that favors religious pluralism, could be jeopardized. Since the outbreak of the war, this tolerance does not extend to the Russian Orthodox Church. It is difficult to maintain partial tolerance, let alone in a crisis situation. By severing relations with Russia and targeting its religious institutions for discriminatory treatment, Ukrainian policies suggest that the “bridge capital” religious organizations offer for building social solidarity and social stability could be compromised. Incentives should be given to discourage the use of religion to advance an ethnonational political agenda in favor of continued use of religion as a platform for exchange and openness capable of fostering pluralism of all kinds.


Works Cited

[1] Although there are schismatic groups in other Orthodox countries, such as Old Believers, Ukraine is unique in having multiple Orthodox churches position themselves as the national church.

[2] Region, Nation and Beyond Survey (2013), Last accessed 5 July 2019.

[3] Wanner, Catherine, “’Fraternal’ Nations and Challenges to Sovereignty in Ukraine:  The Politics of Linguistic and Religious Ties” American Ethnologist 41(3): 427-439.

[4] Last accessed 5 July 2019.

[5] For a collection of essays on the implications of Ukrainian autocephaly, see Last accessed 5 July 2019.