Vladimir Putin suffered one of his biggest defeats in the long war for Ukraine this week. It came not on the battlefields of Donbass but in the venerable offices of Patriarch Bartholomew I, the archbishop of the city still known in the Orthodox Christian world as Constantinople.
In a decision fraught with geopolitical consequences, Bartholomew – who as head of the Constantinople (a city long since renamed Istanbul) branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the closest thing the Orthodox world has to a pope – declared on Thursday that he intended to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, ending centuries of deference to the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, who has led the body since 2009.
This is far more than a shuffling of church papers. In granting what’s known as autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Bartholomew has thrown the weight of his office behind Ukraine’s long struggle to free itself from Moscow. Millions of Ukrainians who have dutifully attended churches that deferred to Kirill, a close ally of Mr. Putin, may now feel more comfortable attending churches that look to Ukraine’s own archbishops for guidance.
Bartholomew’s move also tore a large hole in Mr. Putin’s image as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. It’s an image the Russian President has carefully cultivated through his country’s confrontation with the West, embracing an increasingly conservative domestic agenda – opposing gay rights and abortion, making a show of his own religious observance – as he sent troops into Ukraine and Syria.
Even Mr. Putin’s place in Russia’s history books is smudged by Thursday’s announcement. The leader celebrated at home for reclaiming Crimea – which Russia seized and annexed from Ukraine in 2014 – has now seen the Russian Orthodox Church lose millions of followers as an almost direct result.
Bartholomew also formally rehabilitated Ukraine’s Patriarch Filaret, who was excommunicated two decades ago over his efforts to break away from Moscow. Filaret is a harsh critic of the Kremlin, declaring shortly after the annexation of Crimea that he believed Mr. Putin was under the influence of Satan and on track for “an ignominious end and eternal damnation in hell.”
Concerns quickly spiked about how Mr. Putin might respond to the decision from Constantinople. “In the event that the events which are developing take the course of illegal activities, then of course, just as Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers – and Putin has spoken about this many times – Russia will defend the interests of the Orthodox,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow Thursday.
There were fears the Kremlin would stir up resistance to the move among Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians, particularly those who live in Russian-speaking regions of the country. Ahead of Thursday’s announcement, Hilarion, an influential Moscow bishop, was quoted as saying, “Of course, people will take to streets and protect their sacred sites” rather than hand them over to a newly independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
“Moscow wants that there would be resistance. We, Ukrainians, don’t want resistance,” Filaret said in Kiev.
A recent study found that about two-thirds of Ukraine’s 42.5 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was elated with Bartholomew’s decision, saying in a televised statement that it was “a victory of good over evil, light over darkness” that “finally dispelled the imperial illusions and chauvinistic fantasies of Moscow.”
Looking to boost his nationalist credentials ahead of an election next year, Mr. Poroshenko added that autocephaly for Ukraine’s church “is a question of our independence, national security, statehood, a question of world geopolitics.”
In another move that could be interpreted as a sign of Moscow’s displeasure, fighting surged this week in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, where Kremlin-backed separatists have established armed pro-Moscow enclaves. The Ukrainian army said four of its soldiers and six separatist fighters were killed Wednesday, just ahead of Bartholomew’s decision.
More than 10,300 people have died in the region since fighting began there in early 2014.
The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, suggested that allowing the Ukrainian branch to go its own way could lead to a full-blown schism within Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church has been centred in Constantinople/Istanbul since it broke with Western Christianity in the 11th century over a number of political and ecclesiastical issues, including the Patriarch of Constantinople’s refusal to recognize the primacy of the Pope.
The Russian church is the largest Orthodox grouping, with about 150 million followers. The Ukrainian branch has been under Moscow’s jurisdiction since the late 1600s.
“With its actions, Constantinople is crossing a red line and catastrophically undermines the unity of global Orthodoxy,” said Alexander Volkov, a spokesman for Kirill. Calling the decision “catastrophic,” Mr. Volkov warned that the Russian church would no longer regard the Constantinople patriarchate as “first among equals” if Bartholomew followed through with it.