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Religion As The Kremlin's Dagger

Russia's attempts to influence politics beyond its borders is now a staple topic of public discussion in the West. Yet on Russia’s own borders, the Kremlin has taken a different approach, instead pushing the idea of shared identity and values. The Orthodox Church has been a particularly useful partner in this strategy. Having been aggressively oppressed under the Soviet Union, a resurgent Orthodox Church has firmly reestablished itself in the Russian Federation, with 15,000 churches newly-constructed or rebuilt from ruins. Likewise, the country's Orthodox adherents rose from 30 per cent to 71 per cent between 1991 and 2015.

While this is undoubtedly an impressive rediscovery of Russian culture and national identity — as well as a rejection of soulless Communist dogma — the Church has made no secret of its political ambitions, with the Patriarch of Russia openly endorsing Putin's government in 2012. The Kremlin, in turn, has granted state-owned land to the Patriarchate, some of which had been seized by the Soviet authorities decades earlier.

This partnership between Church and state has also developed into a counter to ‘Western influences’: the social liberalism of the West is seen as being directly opposed to Orthodoxy, which in turn is almost synonymous with national traditions.

Photo from the State Security Service of Ukraine

Take Russia's loud and violent opposition to calls for equality from the LGBT community; this resurgent traditionalism has even led to the introduction of an 'anti-gay law' — legislation ostensibly designed to protect children from what the Kremlin dubs 'homosexual propaganda'. Orthodox Christianity, in turn, has been helpful to President Putin, establishing him as a political force that will defend Russian culture. But the faith has also been a useful tool in the former Soviet satellites.

While Orthodox countries have their own national religious authorities, some of these fall under the direct influence of the Russian Church. Moldova witnessed the election of an openly russophilic president in the form of Igor Dodon in 2016, defeating a pro-Western incumbent. Dodon was openly backed by the Moldovan Orthodox Church during his election campaign – a Church whose Archbishop, Marchel Mihaescu, was directly appointed to the post by the Russian Patriarch himself. Orthodoxy is demonstrably politically and culturally analogous to Russian influence.

Ukraine's own Orthodox tensions have run in tandem with its political crises. As the Euromaidan protests of 2014 erupted into a revolution against the incumbent Russian-aligned authorities, the Kievan Patriarchate backed the pro-Western protestors, while the Russian Patriarchate supported the eastern Ukrainian 'separatist' movement and Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. However, Kiev's Orthodox woes are at least more straightforward than their counterparts in Georgia.

The Caucasus, as a gateway region between Europe and Asia, has witnessed conflict throughout its history — the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan being only the latest example. Georgia, for its part, has been free from conflict since its 2008 war against Russia over two separatist territories, but pro-Russian factions in the county remain active. Georgia's ruling party, Georgian Dream — which won reelection this weekend — has been accused of pro-Russian sympathies and collusion with Kremlin-friendly factions. These allegations stem partly from Georgian Dream's founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his billions in Russia, but also from the conduct of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Pro-Russian materials found during a search of a church in Ukraine. Photo from the State Security Service of Ukraine

Most politicians have been careful to avoid antagonising the Church — indeed, an endorsement from the incumbent Patriarch, Ilia II, was seen as a contributing factor to Georgian Dream's election to power in 2012. Yet as is true elsewhere, the Church is seen as having close ties to Russia. Certainly the Church in Georgia has never condemned their Russian counterparts from endorsing anti-LGBT activity; in 2012, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Georgian priests were amongst the most prolific of protestors against the LGBT demonstrators, their actions motivated by their belief that Western tolerance for sexual minorities is not compatible with traditional values.

The leader of the opposition Republic Party Khatuna Samnidze is one of the few politicians willing to criticise the Church, arguing its Russian links are barely concealed, with some priests openly championing the Kremlin. 'One of the key pieces of proof of Russian influence is in the sermons of the priests — there have been some public sermons, and others that we know of from people who attended them, in which they actually openly promote pro-Russian ideas,' Samnidze argues. 'They openly say "We don’t need Europe because it’s perverse and because of its pro-LGBT rights; that’s why we have to turn to Russia".'

Stories such as these might be dismissed as the actions of a few priests were it not for the Georgian Patriarch officially receiving the former Mayor of Moscow in 2017. The timing of the Russian politician’s visit was deeply concerning for the leader of the Republicans. 'This was just a few days after Vice President Pence visited Tbilisi,' Samnidze stresses. 'Along with some members of the Georgian government, Vice President Pence made very strong pro-Western statements… so the Patriarchate had to balance the situation.'

Ukrainian law enforcement officers raided the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery compound. Photo Credit; Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Laura Thornton, the former regional director of the National Democratic Institute — a Washington-based NGO chaired by Madeleine Albright, who served as Secretary of State in the Clinton administration — agrees with Samnidze's conclusions about the Orthodox Church's message:

They’re definitely peddling a message of 'Orthodox brotherhood' and shared values. But they’re not peddling in pro-Russian narratives — they’re peddling pro-Georgian, pro-tradition, pro-church messages. And that’s a stepping stone to more overt pro-Russian sentiments. They know that open pro-Russian rhetoric won’t work, so they tap into tradition and church as a counter to the West, and give this idea that the West is hurting the Church and wants to destroy it.

Yet the greatest hint of potential government and Church collusion with Russia came in 2019 when it was decided that a meeting of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy — an international body for parliaments of Orthodox-majority countries — would be held in Georgia's capital of Tbilisi. The chairman of the Assembly, Sergey Gavrilov, is a sitting MP in the Russian Duma: an odd twist to the tale is that Gavrilov is a member of the Communist party; how he has managed to reconcile adherence to Communist doctrine while professing belief in the Christian faith remains a matter of speculation.

Outrage hit the city when Gavrilov took the seat of the speaker in parliament in 2019. That an MP of a country occupying two of Georgian regions should be allowed to take the seat of one of the country's most powerful politicians was enough to convince many Georgians of their government's underhand subservience to Russia, despite repeated claims of Western orientation. Over 30,000 people violently protested, which resulted in almost 250 people being injured, two of whom were partially blinded by police rubber bullets.

Cracks have begun to show in Georgia’s previously unanimous support for Western integration. The continual delays in accession to Nato and the EU has also coincided with the emergence of political parties and social movements openly supportive of returning into the Russian fold. Though these remain small, the fact that they have emerged at all — and their sources of funding — is a major cause for concern; in years prior, the idea of any pro-Russian faction being democratically elected would have been unthinkable, but this came to pass in the parliamentary of contest of 2016 when the Alliance of Patriots party won six of the country's 150 seats. Any spread of pro-Russian sentiment should be concerning to the West, since the need for strategic allies and outposts is greater now than ever, with Putin and Erdogan both becoming increasingly bellicose.

Photo from the State Security Service of Ukraine

More recently, pro-Russian sources and media have the position that this is an attack on the religious freedoms of Ukrainians. While this would be cause for concern, when the layers of the church are pulled back, it is not so simple.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) has been used by the Kremlin to wage an information war against the citizenry in Ukraine. The goal of this is to drive an anti-war and in some ways an anti-Zelensky regime movement so as to frame the country as more sympathetic to Moscow's goals that it actually is. Ukrainian intelligence and police have routinely posted updates with members of the UOC MP with various propaganda materials, encrypted communications devices, and in some cases even weapons.

This is something seen in Georgia where movements such as Georgian Power, Conservative Movement, and Alt-Info use their connection to the church and the religious connection to Moscow to show that Russia is the true bastion of conservatives and traditional values. Counter to this, Europe and the West is the antithesis to this and should be avoided. MikeReports has seen this firsthand and the thought process these members have is beyond what anyone would call simply “flawed.”

This is not to say that religion serves an important place in communities. The Kremlin has long used this Orthodox Church network against those that seek integration with the West, just as much if not more so than military force since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The decision by Kyiv to remove the UOC MP is not an anti-religious move, but rather a move that, by all available information, is an attempt to curtail Russian anti-Kyiv influence in daily society. To say this is unique is to turn a blind eye to the actions of the Kremlin against any pro-Ukraine voices within its own borders.

Sowing division and doubt have been staples of Russian foreign interference since the days of the KGB. Yet while cyber warfare may be Russia's weapon of choice against its Western rivals, in theatres of conflict closer to home, the Kremlin has a culture war of its own to fight — and the Orthodox Church is leading the charge.

This is a collaborative article, co-authored by Mike Godwin and Tim Ogden of MikeReports

Cover Photo from the State Security Service of Ukraine

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