On January 5, 2019, Bartholomew I signed a tomos (decree) granting autocephaly or ecclesiastical independence to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which came under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686.
The Ukrainian Church’s desire for spiritual independence reflects the Kiev government’s own attempt to escape Moscow’s orbit, to which Putin responded with an invasion and proxy war that killed around 13,000 people and 1.5 million Ukrainians were evicted from their homes.
When the Ecumenical Patriarch announced its intention to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Church in October 2018, his declaration sent shock waves across the Orthodox world. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Putin even said the decision could “lead to bloodshed”.
The Russian state and the Russian church do not agree on all points – the appreciation of the “Soviet achievements” by the Stalin regime is an example of this. But they forged a kind of ideological marriage of convenience. While the Russian government advocates “traditional values” – e.g. B. Opposition to LGBTI groups and feminism – the Church supports Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. A pillar of this philosophical fusion is the 15th century concept of Moscow as the “third Rome,” meaning that Moscow became its spiritual and indeed political successor after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.
The term Moscow as the third Rome complements a more important concept in Russian foreign policy: derzhavnost or “great power status”; in other words, recognition that Russia demands respect in world politics. Russia’s identity as an “orthodox power” is kept behind the scenes, but comes into the limelight when geopolitical aspirations and church interests grow together, as in Ukraine.
The granting of autocephaly by Bartholomew I to the Ukrainian Church ensured such a convergence. It reaffirmed Kiev’s quest for political independence and robbed the Russian Orthodox Church of a third of the parishes in the Moscow Patriarchate, over 12,000 in total in Ukraine. Both institutions felt they had to act.
In the run-up to Bartholomew I’s decision, Russian hackers known as “Fancy Bear” began targeting Bartholomew and his best assistants. The group had already attacked the Democratic Party in the United States and US intelligence officials. In October 2018, US prosecutors accused Russian military intelligence officials of using Fancy Bear as a front for their own criminal activities.
As part of a disinformation campaign, Moscow also propagated conspiracies around the motives of Bartholomew I. Russian-speaking journalists stated that the Ecumenical Patriarch was a representative of American and NATO interests. That year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added fuel to the fire, telling the media that Bartholomew I, “apparently prepared by the Americans … is to bury the influence of Orthodoxy in the modern world”.