After some initial caution, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) has become a slavish propaganda tool for President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Overall, this shift has done nothing to stem the decline in the church’s influence in Russian society and has exacerbated its demise in the post-Soviet states, which Moscow still views as part of its exclusive canonical territory (see EDM, June 2; Sibreal, December 5). Events in recent days suggest that the church will not be able to recover either domestically or overseas, even if the ROC MP were to change its position again, further reducing its utility as an ally in the Kremlin’s push for traditional values at home and as an adjunct to Russian revanchism in neighboring countries. As a result, the Moscow church now appears to be on track to lose much of its influence and power at home as well as its aspirations to be more than a church limited to its own country and its co-nationals abroad.
After dramatic growth following the fall of communism, which brought new and more liberal factions into the ROC MP, elements that the hierarchy is now seeking to purge (Ruskline.ru, July 21), the ROC MP has been losing support ever-more rapidly. Accelerating this trend are the war against Ukraine and the positions of Patriarch Kirill specifically and the ROC MP more generally, with some viewing the church as an irrelevant branch of the Russian state and others arguing that the ROC MP has taken a page from Islamist extremists rather than following the gospels (Kasparov.ru, August 18; Afon.org.ua, October 6). Meanwhile, the ROC MP has lost support in the West, not only because of its strident backing of Putin’s war but also because of its readiness to serve as a cover for, or even an arm of, Russian intelligence operations directed against North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries (Novaya gazeta, October 22).
But it is in Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics that the collapse of the ROC MP has gone a step further. In Ukraine, not surprisingly, the collapse of the church’s influence has been the greatest. The share of Ukrainians saying they follow the Moscow church fell from 18 percent in 2021 to only 4 percent after the invasion on February 24, while the share backing the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine has risen from 42 to 54 percent (Thinktanks.by, August 7). As a result, in a move many see as a step toward a complete ban, Kyiv has felt free to restrict the activities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, even though the entity has declared itself against the Russian invasion and administratively independent from Moscow (Graniru.org, February 12; Apostrophe.ua, December 2; Vz.ru, December 2).
But Ukraine is far from the only place where the ROC MP has been losing ground at an accelerating rate since Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine. The church has been in retreat not only in other traditionally Christian Orthodox countries, such as Belarus, but also in places where the ROC is small, such as the Baltic states, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (see EDM, August 12, 2021). As a result, earlier this year, the Moscow church established a special Office for the Affairs of Dioceses in the Near Abroad to try to stop or even reverse this trend. But since then, most informed observers say this move amounted to too little, too late (Patriarchia.ru, March 24; Ahilla.ru, March 25; Novaya gazeta, March 27).
Today, the focus of the struggle between the ROC MP and those in other countries who seek independence for their Orthodox churches has become Moldova, a country where 97 percent of the population is Christian Orthodox, but where competing Orthodox hierarchies exist, one loyal to the ROC MP and the other loyal to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Chisinau has been tilting toward the latter over the past decade, and current Moldovan President Maia Sandu has become ever-more supportive of the Romanian church and ever-more hostile to the Moscow one, an approach that reflects her desire to escape from Russian domination and integrate her nation with the West in general and Romania in particular. (For background on this, see EDM, August 12, 2021). Russian citizens and those still part of the Moscow Patriarchate church in Moldova are outraged, but their anger seems to have grown in proportion to the losses they have been suffering on the ground.
In describing this situation with a combination of anger and regret, Maksim Kammerer, a commentator for the pro-Moscow RuBaltic, says that, at the moment, “official Chisinau is doing everything possible so that Moldovans will be under the control of the ‘correct’ Romanian church” rather than remain within the orbit of the ROC MP. This is a policy that the Moldovan government has pursued with increasing vigor over the past decade as part of its plan to break completely with Russia and become more integrated with the West (RuBaltic, December 4).
As Kammerer notes, Chisinau is now backing the Bessarabian Metropolitanate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which was established in 1992 but remained unrecognized until 2002. Then, on the recommendation of the Council of Europe, Chisinau recognized that hierarchy as legitimate within Moldova. The Bessarabian Metropolitanate within the country controlled only about 3 percent of all Moldovan Orthodox faithful in 2003, a share that rose to 20 percent in 2020. Now, that figure has undoubtedly jumped, though Kammerer does not provide more recent figures. In recent years, Chisinau has pressed for autocephaly of the Moldovan church as the only way to not have a Romanian church on its territory. Moscow, however, remains just as opposed to that as it is to the currently changing status quo.
But now, in the wake of Kyiv’s actions, it appears likely that Chisinau will seek autocephaly more actively and may very well receive it. If that happens, Moscow and the ROC MP will have lost yet another Christian Orthodox country and will be on their way to having a national church without the basis for more expansive claims. In that event, such collateral damage from Putin’s war will cast a shadow on Russia’s future, dramatically limiting Moscow’s possibilities for influence beyond its borders, or even within them.