If Moscow absorbs Crimea, as now seems likely, this illegal act will pose a serious threat to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, the annexation of Ukrainian territory will likely lead to the formation of a single autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church and thereby deprive the Moscow Patriarchate not only of nearly half of its parishes and much of its wealth but call into question the Moscow Church’s repeated claims that its canonical area does not have to be modified by changes in political borders (365news.biz/news/obschestvo/888-sudba-krymskih-eparhiy-pod-voprosom.html; rufabula.com/articles/2014/03/12/dual-citizenship-for-ukrainian-church).
Since the August 2008 war in Georgia, Orthodox Churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have routinely sought to become subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate rather than to Tbilisi. But the Moscow Patriarchate has rejected such calls because of the precedent it would almost certainly create in Ukraine, where so much of its domain is concentrated. But now it faces another aspect of this problem: what to do if the Russian Federation expands?
Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky, the official spokesman of the Moscow Patriarchate, has repeatedly said that “canonical territory must not be changed.” At present, “in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate are 15 countries,” Vigilyansk noted. But a week ago, he acknowledged that in the case of Crimea, any “final decision” will reflect the result of negotiations and will be announced by “the diplomatic department of the Russian Orthodox Church” (izvestia.ru/news/567321).
The Church faces a “Hobson’s choice.” If the Moscow Patriarchate insists that the Orthodox churches in Crimea must in that case be subordinate to itself, then at least some Orthodox bishops and congregations in Ukraine are likely to insist that Moscow accept their membership in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the expansion of the role of that Church as an element of the Ukrainian nation. This is something many Ukrainians would like to see, but it would weaken the Moscow Patriarchate considerably.
But if the Moscow Patriarchate does not demand complete control over the Orthodox churches in Crimea or any other regions Russia may seize in the coming days, then many Russians and especially Russian nationalists are likely to view that as an act of betrayal by the Church that has been positioning itself as the main partner of the Kremlin in defending Russian interests.
Consequently, whatever choice it makes, the Moscow Patriarchate is likely to lose something it values: either income and its claims to being a major tool for the Kremlin abroad, or the appearance of hypocrisy and the loss of faith at home. Either alternative could reduce its utility for Vladimir Putin and his offensive foreign policies.
Those difficulties arise not only from the logic of the situation but also from the attitudes of other religious leaders. The Russian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate has already said that it has no intention of transferring its bishopric in Crimea to the Moscow Patriarchate but will instead, if Crimea becomes part of the Russian Federation, seek to register that see as a separate and independent religious organization with the Russian authorities. Whether the Russian state or even the Moscow Patriarchate would agree to that, however, remains far from clear.
The Kyiv Patriarchate has sharply criticized Moscow’s interference in Ukrainian affairs and opposes the transfer of Crimea or any other part of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. Consequently, the optimism of some Ukrainian churchmen, including the head of the Kyiv Patriarchate’s spokesman, Archbishop Yevstrati Zorya, that Moscow would agree to the establishment of a separate Crimean Church appears misplaced. At present, the Kyiv Patriarchate has only one bishopric inside the Russian Federation whose seat is in Noginsk in Moscow oblast, although it does have other bishoprics abroad in North America.
Indeed, it seems likely that the wave of Ukrainian nationalism that Moscow’s intervention in Crimea has provoked is likely to increase the number of demands for the formation of a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church under a Kyiv patriarch. Furthermore, it may even lead to demands for a change in the current level of communion with the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, demands that will make it more rather than less difficult to prevent Crimea from becoming a disaster for the latter.
As Kseniya Doroshenko of Portal-Credo.ru argues, what the Kremlin has done by sparking and exacerbating conflicts between Ukraine and the Russian Federation in the political sphere has “driven the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate into a hopeless position” and as a result made “the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Church inevitable” (portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=2074). As a result, this fight over what may seem to many as a minor issue is likely to play a key role in the final divorce between Russians and Ukrainians and thus make impossible Vladimir Putin’s dream of a restored empire in the Soviet space.