Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Ukraine as a blow to the Kremlin’s narcissism
It’s with regret and pain that Moscow has been observing the recent developments in the global political arena, along with the positive processes in the life of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
President Zelensky inviting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to visit Ukraine, and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal holding fruitful talks with His Holiness have become a powerful irritant for the Russian leadership and their backers in Ukraine.
With the zeal and fury of a cornered beast, Russia has intensified its resistance, including in the information space. At the same time, the Kremlin’s aggression is multilayered, applied at three levels at once: they shape the required agenda on own territory, pursue an aggressive campaign in Ukraine, and attack Ukraine’s partner states while trying to compromise Ukraine in the international arena.
The Russian Orthodox Church has long gained notoriety as a powerful ally for the Russian government in all spheres of public life. The Kremlin has realized that inviolable religious freedom is an integral part of any developed society, that every democratic government monitors strict observance of religious freedoms, and that this should be exploited in pursuit of own geopolitical benefits.
It is logical that the authorities in Moscow decided to make the most of the religious factor in the confrontation with their opponents.
ROC as a powerful ally for the Kremlin
Here’s where the Kremlin has made use of the ROC. Virtually unlimited in resources, this religious organization has launched its pro-active game in the international arena. Groups of ROC believers living outside Russia are increasingly, and brazenly, trying to impose the Kremlin agenda onto their respective governments.
Along with this, the Moscow Patriarchate joined the game in the information pitch. News agencies, websites, Facebook pages, and Telegram channels, all directly or indirectly set up and run by the Russian Orthodox Church, have become a powerful factor able to influence the information space.
In particular, Ukraine felt the might of the ROC’s information resources amid Crimea occupation and Russian aggression in the eastern regions of Ukraine.
The fact is that many modern Ukrainians are rather religious, as per a survey by the Razumkov Center. Its results have been laid down in an analytical piece titled “Peculiarities of religious and church-religious self-determination of Ukrainian citizens: Trends for 2000-2020.”
At the same time, the Church is still holding one of the top positions in terms of public trust (along with volunteer organizations and the Army). While people’s trust in volunteers and troops is a phenomenon that surfaced after the start of hostilities in 2014, the Church has consistently been one of the most trusted institutions in the country throughout the years of independence.
To exploit this factor to their own benefit, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine (UOC-MP, or ROCinU) maintain a pro-active stance in both national and international information spaces. Along with their official press services, they also cooperate with a network of media covering church affairs. Such cooperation can be transparent or concealed (when a religious organization hides the fact of handling or influencing a particular outlet).
Media covering church affairs as tools of Russian aggression
It is worth noting that in recent years, media covering church affairs have pursued a trend toward expanding the range of topics they address. More and more attention is being paid to socio-political issues, while the editorials are perceived by readers as the position of a religious organization or its leader. That’s even if the views expressed in such media are declared as personal and not reflecting the official position of the Church.
Outlets such as Tsargrad, SPZh, and Perviy Kozatskiy, claiming to be set up to cover church affairs, hardly even try to limit themselves to the reports on church or religious life. Canonical subtleties, worship, and church life events attract relatively small audiences. Thus, these media win readers with broader topics addressing a wide range of pressing issues to which readers can relate.
Audiences are fed comments by clergy on issues such as quarantine, vaccination, U.S. elections, local elections in Ukraine, lockdown, COVID-19, art, foreign policy. Also, naturally, a wide range of topics cover the events in the war-torn eastern Ukraine and the Russian-occupied Crimea.
Thanks to a variety of social topics that are being extensively covered, these news agencies, together with other similar ones, have won an audience from 200,000 to 1,200,000 readers.
It is noteworthy that both the ROC and ROCinU, once outlets they control gain certain momentum, start exploiting it to shape the required agenda, which best fits Russia’s interests.
Again, it is worth noting that little attention is paid to matters of faith, canons, and worship. This is due to the fact that the canonical differences, for example, between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church, are minimal. The church calendar of these religious organizations is almost identical. Thus, such media put on the top spot of their information policy state-level or national differences in the perception of certain domestic or international events.
The most striking example is the reaction of such news agencies to the invitation President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to visit Ukraine. The ROC and ROCinU’s outlets exploded with a barrage of criticism on the Ukrainian leader.
But even before that, the destructive activity on the part of the ROC and ROCinU had very specific negative implications for Ukraine.
In particular, until 2014, the information space in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as well as Donetsk and Luhansk regions, was filled with content circulated by Orthodox organizations headquartered in Moscow. The Ukrainian side had minimal representation at the level of parishes, while remaining practically invisible in the information space.
Therefore, local believers in the said regions of Ukraine had a single source of news to follow, which they over time started to perceive as the only true one. In 2014, trips across Ukraine by clerics with the St. Basil the Great Foundation, founded by Russian Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, carrying the shrine “Gifts of the Magi” were widely covered by ROC-affiliated media, which placed great emphasis on “unity of nations”, “one history”, and “one faith”. One of the most pro-active media in this regard was Tsargrad TV, also founded by Konstantin Malofeev.
The results of Russia’s “Gifts of the Magi” special operation are obvious: the onset of occupation in Crimea, and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions saw little to no resistance on the part of the local population.
Nowadays, the situation in the occupied territories is no better. It has even grown worse. The OCU and UGCC have practically no parishes there. It can be stated that Ukraine has been completely pushed out of the information space in the temporarily occupied territories.
Now, the ROC and ROCinU, through the information resources and channels they control, are actively promoting the following narratives:
Conflict in eastern Ukraine is a civil confrontation, rather than an act of external aggression;
A religious organization headquartered outside Ukraine is being persecuted and abused by the authorities and, as a rule, nationalists; and
On the canonical territory of Ukraine, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has committed an act of aggression against Russian Orthodoxy.
Such an information agenda is fully in line with the official position of the Russian government and the Russian media.
Diplomats and officials of Ukraine’s partner countries are well aware that such statements are totally unfounded. The conflict was provoked by the attempt to occupy the territory of sovereign Ukraine, while religious freedoms in Ukraine are traditionally observed.
But the average reader, be it in Ukraine or elsewhere, might quite likely get the impression that in Ukraine, indeed, part of the population is being persecuted by another, on religious grounds. In particular, this became possible due to the fact that the ROCinU positions itself as a “Ukrainian” religious organization and proclaims itself part of the Ukrainian society and information space.
Russia’s intelligence-related and subversive activity under ROC guise and diplomatic cover
At the same time, the destructive activity of Russian Orthodox information resources is not limited to the territory of Ukraine.
Attempts to influence or put pressure on local authorities have also been observed in other countries, including the United States.
In particular, in September 2020, head of the Russian overseas church, Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, protested against a ban on choral singing in California temples amid corona concerns. The cleric called such restrictions discriminatory in a statement immediately picked up by pro-Russian platforms.
In addition to outright “covid dissent,” the Russian Orthodox clergyman went far over the edge by comparing “discrimination and hypocrisy in California” to the times of “godless persecution in the USSR.”
So this shows how a religious organization put pressure on California authorities, challenging quite logical and justified restrictions, appealing to religious freedoms.
In the European space, the ROC, the ROCinU, and the media platforms they control have intensified their efforts on the issue of the recent recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine by the Cypriot Orthodox Church.
In particular, one of the epicenters of such malign efforts against the Church of Cyprus is the Russian-speaking Limassol Parish of St. Nicholas in Cyprus.
Since 2009, the co-chairman of the board of trustees of the church construction fund for the parish is former head of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, the current chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation. Also, among the parishioners is a Russian propagandist Alexander Borislavsky, an odious supporter of the “Russian World” concept.
For the most part, Borislavsky uses an alias Voznesensky. His opeds are imbued with hatred for Cyprus, Cypriots, and Greeks, while glorifying the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia in general. Most of the texts he reposts on his platform on Telegram titled “Religion and Politics”.
In addition, Borislavsky is most likely connected with the Russian Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev (owner of Tsargrad TV) and secretary of the ROC’s external church relations department, Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk.
This all shows how the mighty resources of the ROC and ROCinU-controlled outlets, websites, journalists and bloggers are being used to implement the Kremlin’s strategic plans. Meanwhile, religious freedoms strictly observed in Europe and the United States are being exploited by clerics as a fertile ground that guarantees impunity for such subversive action.
However, such impunity should not last forever. Exposing the wicked ways of information resources controlled by the ROC and ROCinU, as well as properly informing audiences in Ukraine and across the civilized community remains one of the main tasks of all pro-Ukrainian forces.