The current conflict that embroils Russia and Ukraine is one which has brought untold suffering in the Ukraine’s Donbas region and in the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. It has also brought into sharp focus the existential reality of Ukraine in terms of its sovereignty, its political stability, and its economy. And, in a way perhaps unlike any other European conflict since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, it is a conflict that has had a direct impact on the religious character of the country and its people.
The religious situation in Ukraine is entering upon a critical stage. The situation is a three-vectored issue that involves Constantinople, Moscow, and Kyiv. The Russian Orthodox Church has always been a tool in the hands of the tsars, the commissars, and the new bare-chested star of the Kremlin. After the fall of the USSR and the ideological vacuum that this created in Russia, the Church was again pulled into an intimate relationship with the Kremlin, especially under Vladimir Putin, to offer a conservative and nationalist vision known as “the Russian world”.
Russia failed to anticipate that its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 would cost it one of its most powerful levers of influence over its neighbor: the formal authority of the Russian Orthodox Church over its Ukrainian counterpart. But it has done so, and that unintended consequence could lead to others: a decline in Russian influence within the Eastern Orthodox world, a deeper division in the Orthodox community—and even perhaps the largest schism in Christianity since 1054. The international community has a key role in determining how this unfolds and must act to ensure the worst scenarios don’t come to pass.