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Vladimir Putin, who after a sham “referendum” completed his aggressive seizure of Crimea, denies he has plans to invade Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, he is increasing the number of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border and sending provocateurs and criminals to incite ethnic tensions in Ukraine. At a minimum, Putin wants to destabilize Ukraine politically and use the ensuing disarray to manipulate the presidential elections, which are scheduled for May 2014. The worst-case scenario is that he wants to provoke a war to continue his “Eurasian” expansion. Whatever the case, the Russian Orthodox Church—less a handmaiden of Putin than commonly believed—must bear witness.

In the beginning of the Crimean crisis, on March 1, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of the Relations between Church and Society, archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, issued a statement that the Russian troops were engaged in a “peace-keeping” mission in Ukraine and that “Russian people had the right to be re-united in the same political body.” Many Orthodox believers, both within and outside Ukraine, were outraged by this justification of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and, in principle, anywhere else in the world where Russian nationals did not share “the same political body.” (The “historically Russian” land of Alaska comes to mind.) The next day, which happened to be the beginning of Orthodox Lent, I wrote the following Open Letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church:

2 March 2014, Forgiveness Sunday

To His Holiness Kirill

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

Your Holiness,

On the Sunday of Forgiveness, we, the clergy and faithful representing different Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, are asking you to influence the normalization of the situation in Crimea and the restoration of peace between Russia and Ukraine. The intervention of the Russian Army on the territory of Ukraine is an act of military aggression, which increases ethnic tensions between Russians and Ukrainians. We beseech you, while there is still time, to demand from the President Vladimir Putin to withdraw the Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula, in order to prevent bloodshed. Let the peoples of Ukraine and Russia hear the Russian Orthodox Church’s prophetic call to peace, love and mutual forgiveness.

The letter was co-signed by a dozen clergy and university professors of different Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. Some bishops and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sent similar messages to Moscow. On the same day, in his public statement addressing the Crimean crisis, patriarch Kirill noted that “the Church does not take sides in a political struggle” and assured the Ukrainian faithful that he would “do everything possible to convince people in power to abstain from shedding blood of the peaceful citizens of Ukraine.” He spoke of the brotherly unity between Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples and emphasized that the growing ethnic polarization of Ukrainian society must be prevented.

What is one to make of the patriarch’s response? Some Ukrainian commentators have interpreted Kirill’s statements as cowardly and evasive. The Western observers see the Russian patriarch as subservient to the Russian president. To be sure, strong parallels can be found between Putin’s pet project of the “Eurasian Union” (an anti-European military and economic association of Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia) and Kirill’s project of Russkii Mir (“the Russian World”), which is a quasi-ecclesiastical unification of the Eastern Orthodox Slavs on the so-called “spiritual space” (whatever that means) of the same triad of Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia. The project of Russkii Mir has recently been revived in the official rhetoric of the Moscow Patriarchate. Based on these compelling parallels, Putin’s Crimean “Anschluss” appears to be aiding militarily what Kirill wished to accomplish jurisdictionally.

But the matter is not quite as simple as it seems.

In reality, Putin’s invasion of Crimea presents formidable challenges for the Moscow Patriarchate. Most urgently, the patriarch has to address the status of the Russian Orthodox parishes within the territory of Crimea. Should these parishes continue to belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), or should they become a part of the Russian Orthodox Church, as would be expected from such parishes on the territory of the Russian Federation? If the patriarch changes the status of these parishes, this would be taken as his “blessing” of the Crimean annexation, news which will not be favorably received in other parts of Ukraine, where close to 13,000 parishes still belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. The grassroots movement towards one autocephalous (self-governing) Ukrainian Orthodox Church is stronger than ever. Another significant ecclesial body with more than 4500 parishes in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyivan Patriarchate), has recently doubled its efforts to promote the canonical reunion of Orthodox churches in Ukraine in one national autocephalous church. By “annexing” the Orthodox parishes in Crimea to the Russian Orthodox Church, the patriarch Kirill risks alienating and ultimately losing his parishes in the rest of Ukraine.

Despite a widespread Western conviction to the contrary, Kirill is not Putin’s man. Kirill was elevated to the post of the patriarch by the wife of Dmitry Medvedev in 2009, when Medvedev was the Russian president and Putin served as the Prime Minister. During those years Kirill was perceived as Medvedev’s counterweight to Putin. Now, in Putin’s third term as the Russian president, the balance of power seems to have shifted rather sharply toward Putin and away from Medvedev, but the psychological and political tension between Putin and Kirill still remains.

There is another, darker side to Putin’s manipulation of the political and civil order in Ukraine. There could be forces within the Moscow Patriarchate, as there are forces in the Russian government, that would be interested in the annexation of Eastern and Central Ukraine, for it is only after such an annexation that Putin’s Eurasian pretensions would coincide with Kirill’s Russkii Mir.

As the Greek Catholic bishop Borys Gudziak said in a recent interview: “In Ukraine people are dying for European values. [But] the resolution of Europe is yet to be fully demonstrated.” Taking Putin’s lies for what they are, the European Union and the United States must continue their pressure on Moscow by expanding economic sanctions before it is too late.

Paul L. Gavrilyuk is Aquinas Chair in theology and philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America.

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