As the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople signed the Tomos – a document that grants independence within the Orthodox Church – decreeing the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, he marked one of the most significant divides within Orthodoxy since its Papal breakaway in 1054. Signed in early January, the independency from former Moscow Patriarch rule has already formed serious rifts between the two nations, and has the potential to not only form theological conflicts, but also new geopolitical fault lines.
The creation of Orthodox Christianity within Ukraine was independent from Russian influence – in fact, the power relations were flipped. Established in the 10th century under the Kievan Rus’, the now capital of Ukraine was then the epicentre of Christianity in the Slavic World, stretching from the Balkans to the present-day Caucasus. It was not until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century that the power of Orthodox Christianity relocated to Constantinople, where the Ecumenical Patriarch, pressured by the Russian Czar, shifted Kiev’s authority from itself to Russia.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, therefore, has always had the farsighted aim – as any nation state – to return to the hegemonic greatness and autonomy that it once possessed. However, the intertwining of the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches over the course of over 800 years has created unsavoury post-Tomos conditions for Moscow. An estimated one third of the Russian Orthodox Church’s followers are believed to be Ukrainian, and if a majority of the Ukrainian parishes choose to join the newly independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow could not only lose millions in estate value from the congregation, but also the mighty political grapple that its Church possesses. Indeed, both Ukraine and Russia have been accused by their Orthodox citizens of using religion as a political tool, but the reality is that Russian Orthodoxy has been innately tied to its foreign policy for centuries. Up until 1917, the Russian Czar was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, tying itself to the nation’s idea of Russkiy Mir, where Russia’s natural land borders are envisioned as the Baltics and Black Sea. This is reiterated by the neglection from the Russian Orthodox Church to comment on Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, being especially disrespectful considering 68.8 percent of people in Ukraine classify themselves as Orthodox.
This is obviously not the beginning of a new conflict by any means. Since 2014, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been at the centre of the international stage, and the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Eastern regions of Ukraine is continuously escalating tensions within the region which can definitely lead to more violence and wider geopolitical consequences. With Ukraine’s Presidential elections taking place in March, Petro Poroshenko – the current leader – is relying on strengthening Ukrainian national identity through whatever means, the most effective one being through religion. Similarly, the outrage voiced in Russia by both senior levels of government and the Russian Orthodox Church over the Tomos are linked to Russia’s innate concern of national unity. In a country where 18% of its population is Muslim and its vast land mass spans dozens of different ethnic groups, Putin views the Russian Orthodox Church as a reliant tool to uphold national identity. Losing not only a third of its following, but also the possibility of control over the Ukrainian congregation in Russia would be devastating to a country always threatened by its diversity.
When it comes to the geopolitical implications, one cannot ignore the irony of the decree being proclaimed in Istanbul. Despite being home to only 3000 Orthodox Christians, Turkey is yet again at the front of another Russian conflict – e.g. Syrian proxy fighting, shooting down fighter jets. Perhaps this is NATO’s humorous way of influencing Ukraine on the other side of the Black Sea, away from Crimea and the hazards that accompany the region. Nonetheless, the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church marks a shift in the five-year long conflict; Russia may have annexed Crimea, but they have now conclusively lost Ukraine.