Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Long before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and unproclaimed war in the Donbass, Ukraine had become a religious battleground. Despite the warning of Yurii Chernomorets, Cyril Hovorun, and other observers, none of the leading Ukrainian and Western politicians foresaw the threat posed by an increasingly aggressive form of Orthodox Christianity being promoted by Moscow. As events in Ukraine have now shown, Orthodox fundamentalism is no less aggressive than Islamic fundamentalism, and the “Russian Spring” is no less bloody than its Arab counterpart.

The facts speak for themselves: Greek Catholics and Kiev-patriarchate Ukrainian Orthodox churches have become de facto ­il­legal entities in the annexed Crimea; in the Donbass region, an “Orthodox army” is active; dozens of Protestant ­churches have been seized; there have been cases of kidnapping, torture, and killing of pastors; ­Moscow-patriarchate priests openly bless terrorists and refuse to pray over deceased Ukrainian soldiers; Patriarch Kirill of Moscow predicts the downfall of Ukraine as a “kingdom divided against itself.”

Russia’s war against Ukraine has exacerbated a series of international, interethnic, and interconfessional conflicts. It is the religious aspect of the conflict that may prove to be the most significant, because Moscow Orthodoxy has been presented as the thing holding the “Russian world” together, and thereby as the main actor in the bloody Russian Spring.

Putin has justified the annexation of Crimea by saying that it has “sacred meaning for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Muslims.” He calls it “the ­spiritual source of the formation of the ­multifaced but monolithic Russian nation. . . . It was on this spiritual soil that our ancestors first and forever recognized their nationhood.”

There is a nineteenth-century saying: “To be Russian is to be Orthodox.” This is becoming the main motive for the consolidation of “Russians” and the defense of the “Orthodox.” The Declaration of Russian Identity, passed at the end of the 2014 Global Russian National Assembly, asserts: “Claims that every Russian must acknowledge Orthodox Christianity as the basis of their national culture are both justified and fair. Rejection of this fact, and even worse, a search for a different religious basis for the national culture, testifies to a weakened Russian identity, to the point of its loss.” In short, Putin has reversed the old principle “Whose realm, his religion” (cuius regio, eius religio) that settled religious loyalties in post-Reformation Europe by allowing the ruler’s Protestant or Catholic commitment to define the religion of the realm. Now Putin seems to presume an expansionist principle: “Whose religion, his realm.”

“The conflict in Ukraine has a clear religious underpinning,” wrote Patriarch Kirill to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in a letter published on the website of the Moscow patriarchate. “Uniates, and schismatics that have joined them, are trying to seize the upper hand over canonical Orthodoxy in Ukraine. . . . I ask Your Holiness to do all you can to raise your voice in defense of the Orthodox Christians in eastern Ukraine who, in a situation of increasing violence on the part of Greek Catholics and schismatics, live in daily fear.”

For the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, there are no other Orthodox churches—they are all impostors and schismatics. Additionally, the patriarch hides the well-known fact that even if one accepts the notion of “canonical territory,” Ukraine is on disputed canonical territory and belongs more rightly to the ecumenical patriarchate than to the Moscow patriarchate.

The identification of Orthodox faith with the Moscow patriarchate is becoming a mighty propaganda tool. The Orthodox militant Igor Druz, adviser to the minister of Defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic, remarked:

On the Ukrainian side there are no Orthodox at all, because not a single churched Orthodox individual would go to fight against New Russia, because they know that the unity of Holy Rus is pleasing to God. All saints who have spoken on this topic are unanimous in saying that Holy Rus must be united. Meanwhile Ukrainian fascists are the real separatists and they want to divide New Russia from Holy Rus and unite it to the decaying warmongering West. Therefore there are no church people on the Ukrainian side at all. Their battalions are made up mainly of uniates, schismatics, neo-pagans, and sectarians.

In July 2014, Metropolitan Onuphrius of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate addressed a personal letter to Ukrainian president Petro ­Poroshenko, explaining that he was “forced to draw attention to the violation of the rights and freedoms of believers and interference in the work of the parish of the Donetsk diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine.”He did not mention the problems of other confessions or abuses by the occupying forces and terrorists. Thereby the UOC-MP confirmed not only its spiritual, but also its political dependence on Moscow. In a conflict between an Orthodox empire that swallows Ukraine and a nation, between imperial ideology and civil society, the “Ukrainian” Orthodox Church has chosen its side.

In one sense, it is no longer Russia as a country, but Russian Orthodoxy as a supranational movement, that is becoming a geopolitical factor. Claiming to defend “true” traditional canonical Orthodoxy, Orthodox leaders justify the actions of the “Orthodox army” in the Donbass region.

Through the efforts of Russian Spring ideologues, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, between Moscow Orthodoxy and Ukrainian “Uniates, schismatics, and sectarians,” is portrayed as part of a global conflict, represented as a contest between the “Russian world” and the “decaying West,” between “traditional values” and “gay Europe,” between salvific spirituality and ­corrupting secularity.

Moreover, as the main unifying force for the New Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church today is trying to create an alliance with those Protestants, Jews, and Muslims who agree with the Orthodox view of Russian history and accept without a murmur their own subservient position. As the director of external communications for one of the Protestant denominations in Russia told me, “We Protestants understand that all the seats at the government table are taken, but we don’t object to feeding on crumbs that fall from the table.”

These allies of “true Orthodoxy” will soon become the next victims. Indeed, they already are. While Protestant leaders are participating in government councils and receiving presidential awards, their churches are being mercilessly persecuted.

The defense of “purity of faith” is being put forward in order to justify the horrors of the Russian Spring in Ukraine. Only the defense of mythical traditional values can cover up the imperial ambitions of Moscow Orthodoxy. Only a fanatical faith in the faith itself and in its own exclusivity could close its eyes to the commission by Orthodox crusaders of unmentionable crimes against humanity, against Ukraine and the world, against God and their neighbors.

Sooner or later the global community will have to acknowledge the fact of “political Orthodoxy” and the “Orthodox terrorism” connected to it, supported by Russia and destabilizing all of Eurasia. The sooner this happens, the better—for regional and global security, for defense of religious freedoms and civil rights, and for the self-determination of individuals and nations. One of the first steps in this direction should be the recognition that the “Orthodox” people’s republics that have formed in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Lugansk) are terrorist organizations. Such honesty would bring clarity to the situation and allow a nonpolitical and nonaggressive Orthodoxy to separate itself from the political and aggressive pretender to the Slavic world’s Christian inheritance.

Mykhailo Cherenkov, a Baptist theologian, is the former provost of Donetsk Christian University, which was seized by pro-Russian terrorists in 2014. He now is associate professor of philosophy at Ukrainian Catholic University.