The decision of Universal Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I to move toward granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (see EDM, September 13) is an existential threat to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his conception of a “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”). For one thing, the decision on Ukraine has already led Constantinople to also reject Moscow’s claims to having Belarus and Moldova as part of its canonical territory. These losses mean the Kremlin will now have far fewer levers to block moves away from Moscow not only in Ukraine but also in the two other countries of the former Soviet west. Consequently, Putin is now much more likely to launch a new wave of aggression against Ukraine; additionally, he may feel compelled to move even more quickly to absorb Belarus into the Russian Federation and to seek new ways to block Moldova from integrating more closely with the West. And these dramatic steps are all the more probable considering the fact that, as many experts believe, Putin may be under the impression that he can revive his flagging popular support at home by employing such strong actions abroad (Censoru.net, Ekho Moskvy, October 16; Iarex.ru, October 15).
Both the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate have promised “a harsh response” to the Kyiv Patriarchate’s moves toward autocephaly lest they lose their power and influence. But today, they have far fewer levers than many seem to think either against Constantinople or Ukraine. In response to the latest decision on the Ukrainian Church, Moscow has broken with the Universal Patriarch, charged him with being an American agent, and even sought to have Ankara expel him from Istanbul (Gazeta.ru, October 15). But none of these activities is likely to restrain Bartholemew from taking the next step and extending a tomos of self-government to an independent Ukrainian Church. Even if Putin manages to slow down the process, Ukrainians remain committed to moving toward autocephaly and now have the legal basis to do so on their own. In Ukraine, Moscow can organize provocations in an attempt to cast blame on the Ukrainians; but Kyiv is prepared for that and has warned the world that this is, in fact, what the Russians are up to.
Yet, unless Moscow intervenes militarily—most likely again in a “hybrid” fashion by seeking to organize conflicts among Ukrainians—it has few other levers in this situation. Moscow seems to implicitly recognize this reality: Last week (October 12), the Russian Security Council met to discuss how the government would respond to this crisis (Censor.net.ua, October 13; Credo.press, October 12, 13). Specifically, it promised to “defend the interests of the Orthodox in Ukraine” (Qha.com.ua, October 12), after which it expanded its criticism of the United States for this intra-Church development (Credo.press, October 12).
Putin certainly knows that another overt Russian move into Ukraine would invite additional sanctions, something he wants to avoid if he can; but such a move will also have another consequence that may be more important for him. Western and especially European governments can be expected to respond to any violence by seeking to end it; and they may be quite willing to put pressure on Kyiv and Constantinople to slow down, if not completely stop, the march to autocephaly as a means to that end. Given that the loss of Ukraine as a result of independence for the Orthodox there represents an existential threat to Putin and his “Russian World,” he may be prepared to suffer sanctions in the hope that he will at least not face an independent Ukrainian Church.
And now the Kremlin leader has two additional reasons for making that calculation. First, ever more commentators are suggesting that the Belarusian Orthodox will follow the Ukrainian lead in seeking autocephaly (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, October 14; Polskieradio24.pl, October 15). Moscow certainly did not achieve what it hoped for by, on October 15, having the Holy Synod meet in Minsk, where the Russian Orthodox Church decided to break off relations with Constantinople. While Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka voiced calls for Church unity (Ritmeurasia.org, October 15), many Belarusians took note of the fact that not a single ethnic Belarusian attended this Synod meeting, a sore point in that country (Thinktanks.by, October 15). As a result, an increasing number of voices in Moscow suggests that annexing Belarus is the only way out for Putin because it would allow him to kill three birds with one stone: ending any talk of Belarusian autocephaly, reaffirming Russian power in the former Soviet space against the West, and winning back some of the popular support among Russians that he has lost over the last few months (Rosbalt.ru, October 12; Ekho Moskvy, October 15).
Second, growing numbers of Orthodox faithful in Moldova are raising the specter that they too will follow the Ukrainian path to autocephaly. Izborsky Club ideologue Vladimir Bukarsky warns this is all part of the war of the global West against Russia and says Moscow must respond to it in the clearest way. In his view, intervening in Ukraine and absorbing Belarus would be enough to block such a move in Moldova, especially as the Orthodox Church there, currently part of the Moscow Patriarchate, is relatively small (Ruskline.ru, October 15).
Moscow is being forced to confront the fact that Russian influence across Europe’s East, including the influence it has thanks to Orthodoxy, has been reduced to “pre-Petrine” levels (Novaya Gazeta, October 14) and that the Moscow Patriarchate has few real allies remaining in the Orthodox World (Politcom.ru, October 15). In such a situation, Putin may well conclude, as he has in the past, that rearranging the playing field by using force is his best option. This is especially likely if Western countries do not stand up to him because they do not understand the extent to which independence for the Orthodox of Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova represents the end of the world as Putin wants it to be (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, October 13).