Ukraine’s de­fi­ance is a blow to the Krem­lin’s idea of one Rus­sian world

The Observer - - World - Si­mon Tis­dall

Don­ald Trump seems strangely in awe of Vladimir Putin. Theresa May’s at­tempts to face down the Krem­lin af­ter Sal­is­bury have had lim­ited im­pact. But has Putin fi­nally met his match in Bartholomew I, the 270th arch­bishop of Con­stantino­ple-New Rome, ec­u­meni­cal pa­tri­arch, and “first among equals” of the East­ern Ortho­dox church?

In the 2,000-year strug­gle be­tween church and state, Bartholomew chalked up a no­table vic­tory last week. De­fy­ing protests from the Krem­lin and Rus­sia’s clergy, the arch­bishop granted Ukraine’s wish to es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent church that will no longer an­swer, as it has since 1686, to the Moscow pa­tri­ar­chate. The de­ci­sion was taken at a synod at Ortho­dox “head­quar­ters” in Is­tan­bul, for­merly Con­stantino­ple.

This was about more than ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal ri­val­ries. Bartholomew faced in­tense pres­sure from Ukrainian be­liev­ers and their sec­u­lar brethren to grant au­to­cephaly (in­de­pen­dence). Politi­cians in Kiev say the Moscow pa­tri­ar­chate is a ve­hi­cle for ad­vanc­ing Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence, nor­mal­is­ing its 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and jus­ti­fy­ing Putin’s sup­port for sep­a­ratists in east­ern Ukraine.

“The de­ci­sion of the ec­u­meni­cal pa­tri­arch and synod fi­nally dis­pelled the im­pe­rial il­lu­sions and chau­vin­is­tic fan­tasies of Moscow,” Ukraine’s pro-western pres­i­dent, Petro Poroshenko, said. “It is a ques­tion of our in­de­pen­dence, na­tional se­cu­rity, state­hood, a ques­tion of world geopol­i­tics.” He is ex­pected to trum­pet the move in his re-election cam­paign next year.

Bartholomew’s act of de­fi­ance is a se­ri­ous blow for Putin, who has used the Moscow branch’s dom­i­nance – it over­sees about half of the 300 mil­lion-strong Ortho­dox com­mu­nion – to bol­ster his regime’s claim to be the heir to the tsarist im­perium. A Krem­lin spokesman said Putin was “ex­tremely con­cerned”, and warned that Rus­sia would “de­fend the in­ter­ests of Ortho­dox be­liev­ers” in Ukraine in case of “il­le­gal ac­tions”. An­a­lysts were quick to point out that “de­fend­ing” Rus­sian-speak­ers was used to jus­tify the in­va­sion of Crimea.

While reli­gion was broadly dis­cour­aged in the Soviet era, Putin has pro­moted the Moscow pa­tri­ar­chate as the global cap­i­tal of Ortho­dox Chris­tians and the re­li­gious man­i­fes­ta­tion of Rus­sia’s re­turn to global great­ness. This idea of a “Rus­sian world” with one church and cul­ture, en­dorsed by Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill, head of the Rus­sian Ortho­dox church, is now in jeop­ardy. Kir­ill has threat­ened to break off re­la­tions with Bartholomew if the sep­a­ra­tion goes ahead. This is the rough equiv­a­lent, in Angli­can terms, of a rup­ture be­tween the arch­bish­oprics of York and Can­ter­bury. In re­cent months Rus­sia’s church has likened Ukraine’s move to the “Great Schism” of 1054, when Chris­tian­ity split into ri­val camps in Rome and Con­stantino­ple. It said Bartholomew had ex­ceeded his pow­ers and his de­ci­sion could en­cour­age Ortho­dox branches in other coun­tries to fol­low suit.

Bishop Hi­lar­ion Alfeyev of Moscow’s Holy Synod said on state tele­vi­sion: “We the Rus­sian church will not recog­nise this au­to­cephaly, and we will have no choice but to sever ties with Con­stantino­ple. The pa­tri­arch of Con­stantino­ple will no longer have any right to be styled as he is now, the leader of the 300 mil­lion Ortho­dox pop­u­la­tion of the planet. At least half the pop­u­la­tion will not recog­nise him at all.” Time will tell whether Putin and his cler­ics make good on this pub­lic threat. It also re­mains to be seen whether ri­val Ukrainian churches will unite now that all are free of Moscow’s em­brace.

Hi­lar­ion claimed the whole af­fair

Moscow likened the church break­away to the Great Schism of 1054 when Rome and Con­stantino­ple split

was the re­sult of an Amer­i­can plot – an in­ter­pre­ta­tion many in Rus­sia may share. Spo­radic fight­ing in east­ern Ukraine be­tween Rus­sia-backed sep­a­ratists and govern­ment forces is con­tin­u­ing, with lethal clashes re­ported in Au­gust. More than 10,300 peo­ple have died since 2014.

The po­ten­tial for fur­ther vi­o­lence is real. The lat­est cease­fire, agreed in De­cem­ber, has been re­peat­edly vi­o­lated. An Au­gust meet­ing be­tween Putin and Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel failed to pro­duce progress and, last week, days be­fore the Is­tan­bul synod, huge ex­plo­sions tore through an am­mu­ni­tion de­pot east of Kiev, forc­ing the evac­u­a­tion of 12,000 peo­ple.

Blam­ing sabo­teurs for the in­ci­dent, Ukraine’s deputy prime min­is­ter linked the ex­plo­sions to Rus­sian anger over the church schism. God be praised, there were no ca­su­al­ties – this time.

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