Moscow Losing Church War in Ukraine and More Broadly

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 35

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (Source: Kremlin)

In what may be as important as any other battlefield in Ukraine, Moscow is losing the Church war in that country. The autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has notably come out strongly in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, whereas the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has adopted a pacifist stance, calling for an end to the fighting rather than Ukrainian resistance to the Russian onslaught. Thus, in war-time Ukraine, the former is gaining ever higher levels of support, while the latter is approaching a state of collapse. In short, many Ukrainians view the Moscow-oriented Church’s position as treasonous and are shifting their allegiance.

Seemingly oblivious to these fast-moving trends, many pro-Kremlin commentators (largely in Moscow rather than in Ukraine itself) are upset that the UOC-MP has failed to adopt a more pro-Russian position. Yet it is precisely as a result of its hedging stance—and further enflamed by the chauvinistic rhetoric coming from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill—that the pro-Moscow UOC-MP is suffering major defeats. Meanwhile, the homegrown OCU is winning enough victories that Russian propagandists have gone into overdrive to try to explain them away.

Tracking the course of this fight is more difficult than monitoring the ongoing military clashes. All too often, Western observers simply report that the OCU has only 7,000 parishes and the UOC-MP maintains 12,000, suggesting that the Moscow-affiliated Church remains dominant in Ukraine. However, these figures are both out of date—the first number is rising rapidly and the second falling significantly—and inaccurate in two other ways. On the one hand, most Ukrainian parishes are far larger than the Russian ones, meaning that the OCU has more faithful; and on the other hand, the cited numbers are lagging indicators because the UOC-MP has stubbornly refused to recognize many requests to transfer jurisdiction (Radio Svoboda, April 24, 2021;, March 9, 10, 2022).

A far better measure of where things stand in this Church war is a recent poll, published on March 10, by the Rating Sociological Group. It found that among Ukrainians, 63 percent favor breaking completely with the UOC-MP, with only 10 percent opposing such a move, 18 percent polling as indifferent, and 9 percent choosing not to answer (, March 10). Even more strikingly, these pollsters found that even among those who are currently parishioners of the UOC-MP, more than half favored breaking relations with the Moscow Patriarchate due to its position on the war (, March 2, 10).

Why does this matter? Because it shows that Ukrainians are completely opposed to one of Moscow’s key (though unofficially expressed) war aims: namely an end to the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Putin has rejected autocephaly in Ukraine since it became a lively issue in 2014 (see EDM, October 16, 2018). And in recent weeks, pro-Kremlin commentators have stressed that Putin chose to send troops into Ukraine to end the division of the Orthodox Church there and to restore Moscow’s full control over all Ukrainian bishoprics, parishes and other religious operations (, February 25, 2022). Moscow Patriarch Kirill has fanned the flames on this issue. Not only has he insisted that the decline of the UOC-MP is due to Ukrainian extremists, as opposed to changes in the positions of Ukrainian believers, but he has also declared that the Russians and Ukrainians are one people with one religion—a statement that enrages most Ukrainians now facing Russian guns (, March 13; RIA Novosti, Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 10;, March 14).

Putin and his spokespeople may contend that the fighting in Ukraine is going according to plan, but in the religious sector, that is also certainly not the case. The UOC­-MP is now highly unlikely to survive if the Ukrainians win on the battlefield; and there is little chance that Moscow will allow the OCU to remain independent if Russian forces win out—a prospect that only deepens the divide between the two nations. At the same time, however, this means that if Moscow manages to conquer Ukraine, it will face a population that is not only hostile but organized, at least in religious terms, and capable of further resistance (, March 11).

In the bigger picture, Moscow is losing more than just the hearts and minds of Ukrainian believers. First, some Orthodox congregations in other countries are announcing their own intentions to transfer their allegiance from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, which could weaken the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as an aide to the Kremlin in the latter’s foreign policy efforts. The Moscow Church has sought to play this down but is obviously alarmed (, March 14).

Second, religious groups around the world have been suspending their ties with the Moscow Patriarchate over the war. They view Kirill and his subordinates as sharing in the blame with Putin for the Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine (Ukrayinska Pravda, March 14).

Third, and from Kirill’s perspective likely the most important, the Orthodox World more broadly is turning away from his Russian Orthodox Church. With the loss of its parishes and faithful in Ukraine, the Moscow Church is no longer as intimidating by virtue of its size as it once was. Before Ukrainian autocephaly in 2019, approximately half of all ROC congregations were in Ukraine. Additionally, Kirill’s own imperial agenda—both in Ukraine and in Africa, where he has created an exarchate in violation of canon law (see EDM, February 3)—has sparked new resistance to Moscow’s pretensions to become what some call “an Orthodox Vatican.” A Greek Orthodox prelate has even suggested stripping Moscow of its autocephaly for five years as punishment for Moscow’s actions in Africa. That statement provoked a knee-jerk response from the ROC that it may come to regret (, February 11).

Specifically, Metropolitan Ilarion, the head of the ROC’s foreign relations department, retorted that once an Orthodox Church has received autocephaly, that status cannot be suspended or reversed. Yet this is precisely what Moscow has done twice before: in Georgia in 1811 and in Poland in 1924, and apparently is now set to do in Ukraine (, accessed March 15;, February 21). As a whole, this raises the stakes in the Church war in Ukraine. If Moscow loses this battle for control of the Orthodox in Ukraine, it will likely lose much more, regardless of whether the Ecumenical Patriarch or other Orthodox patriarchates have much stomach for actually suspending Moscow.