Religion and the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

Dr. Dmytro Vovk discusses the religious dimension of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict including the influence of religion on the conflict, threats to religious freedom in the territories affected by the conflict and church-state relations in Ukraine in the context of the conflict.

0:08 Religious context of the conflict

5:45 The Conflict and Russian Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine

8:15 Religious Freedom in Donbas and Crimea

15:41 Church-State relations in Ukraine and the conflict with Russi


Religious Context of the Conflict

In literature one can find a distinction between the peripheral and central influence of religion in wars and violent conflicts. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has manifested a more peripheral influence, which relates to the loyalties and identities of the players in the conflict, as opposed to a more central influence, which deals with the political goals of combatant parties. We see that all parties in the conflict—Russia, Russia’s proxies in Donbas (so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics), and Ukraine—use religion to promote their own political agenda. However, a closer examination reveals that the core goals of the conflict are primarily secular, which for Russia and its proxies is keeping control over Ukraine and preventing the country from a drift toward the West and European institutions, while for Ukraine, it is securing its independence and right to choose its own geopolitical vector.

I don’t mean to say that there is only rational logic behind the conflict—like economic logic, for example. Of course, the conflict has much to do with historical memory, with the imagination of the Russian state and Russian “civilization.” It has much to do with imperialism as a feature of the Russian political elites’ mind, and so on. But religion is just a part—and I would say not even the most important part—of this picture.

Of course we see some religious justification behind the conflict. For example, President Putin justified the annexation of Crimea, in particular referring to the fact that Crimea is a kind of “sacred place” for Russia and Russians because Kyievan Prince Vladimir, who baptized the Rus, was baptized in Crimea. It is a very controversial statement because Vladimir is a part of Russian history and Ukrainian history, but nevertheless we have seen some religious rhetoric.

Also we see that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has developed the doctrine of the Russian World (Russkiy mir) as a sphere of Russian political, cultural, and spiritual influence that includes Ukraine. However, an American historian of Ukrainian origin, Serhii Plokhy, in his book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, shows that the secession of Crimea was discussed by Russian politicians and officials in 1991, long before the Russkiy mir doctrine or this idea of the sacred role of Crimea was developed by the ROC and offered to the public.

Elizaveta Gaufman, a German and Russian political scientist, analyzed Vkontakte, the most popular Russian social network, in order to understand how ordinary Russian people perceive and interpret this conflict. She concludes that, within this popular sphere, the conflict lacks strong religious connotations; Russians (that is, users of Vkontakte) mostly interpret the conflict as a secular one, where religious issues, such as the grant of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), are just one more battlefield in this war between Russia and the West, or Russia and Ukraine.

In Donbas, in territories affected by the war, we have seen several paramilitary groups, such as the Russian Orthodox Army, fighting against the Ukrainian government. These groups had a clear religious identification—a clear subjective affiliation with Russian Christian Orthodoxy. However, their secularly argued Russian nationalism, including mythologems like Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” or the Ukrainian government as a fascist regime threatening Russians in the region, contributed to their willingness to commit violence no less than their religious identification. Again, we should be aware that this sort of religious identification goes beyond Christian Orthodoxy, goes beyond the Symbols of Faith or some traditional Orthodox doctrines or practices. It includes the sacralization of the Russian state and “Russian-ness” as a part of their identity—the special role of Russia in this world. In this sense, from the anthropological perspective, we should probably talk about faith rather than religion, as Catherine Wanner said in her interview for our blog, because it has as much more to do with the sacralization of secular issues then with Christian Orthodoxy.

The Conflict and Russian Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine

Both Russia and its proxies in Donblas (so-called People’s Republics) argue that they defend this Russian Orthodox Christian identity of the local population, which according to them is under threat or attack by the Ukrainian government. It is worth noting that Eastern Ukraine, including territories currently under the control of separatist republics, has always been dominated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP)—the part of Russian Orthodoxy that those militants came to fight for. Before the conflict began in 2014, there was no evidence of any threats to the dominant position of the UOC-MP in Donbas. Since the conflict began, the UOC-MP has continued to enjoy the status of being the majority religion in the region, including being favored by local authorities, elites, and the population in general.

However, in the context of Ukraine as a whole, the conflict itself has had a clear negative impact on the interests of the ROC in the country. For instance, social trust in the UOC-MP and its leaders has decreased significantly. About 500 UOC-MP communities have decided to leave the church and join the newly established OCU. The Moscow Patriarchate’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, has in essence become persona non grata in Ukraine; we can’t imagine him making a pastoral visit to the country in the short term or even in the middle term. Finally, the Ecumenical Patriarchate challenged the status of Ukraine as a canonical territory of the ROC, providing the OCU with autocephaly (ecclesiastical independence). This means that Russkiy mir (the Russian World) as a political doctrine of spiritual unity with Russia has lost its prominence in the country; now it is totally marginalized and is in no way an option in the public opinion of Ukraine.

Religious Freedom in Donbas and Crimea

This is one of the most tragic parts of the story. The conflict has had a significant impact on the situation with religious freedom, first of all in Donbas and in Russian-annexed Crimea. The People’s Republics have morphed into the territory with the most brutal violators of religious freedom in contemporary Europe and the post-Soviet era. A region that was one of the most religiously diverse in Ukraine became a territory where just one religious community is really welcome.

Both the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR/LPR) try to imitate the Russian model of church-state relations, implying the existence of an official or endorsed religion and significant restrictions on religious competition in favor of the official church (UOC-MP). Yet affiliation with the UOC-MP does not necessarily secure protection for a politically disloyal person—for example, a politically disloyal priest—in all such cases. The Russian Orthodox identification plays in concert with, or even as a part of, being loyal to the People’s Republics. From this perspective, being Russian Orthodox means also being supportive of the regimes in the People’s Republics and their independence from Ukraine, while a pro-Ukrainian political stance means that a person is not truly a Russian Orthodox Christian.

There are also religious minorities that suffer severe pressure and persecution committed by the People’s Republics authorities because they consider these religious minorities alien or harmful to the local population, or because they think they are disloyal for some reason. These include Ukrainian churches, such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and churches that are associated with both Ukraine and the West: for example, Protestant churches like Baptist communities, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, in addition to some Eastern religions like Krishnas.

However, unlike in Russia, where the legal system is stable and relatively effective (though Russian religious legislation is often unfair and violates standards of international human rights law), the DPR/LPR legal rules and procedures can be spontaneously replaced by purely arbitrary exercises of power and violence. This was the case especially in 2014 and 2015, when militant groups operating in the People’s Republics could just confiscate several church buildings for bases and firing points, seize church property for their needs, and so on.

We know cases, for example, of murders and kidnappings of priests and believers. We know many cases of torture of religious leaders and activists. For example, there was a case of a Greek Catholic priest, Tyhon Kulbaka, who was forced to suffer his own mock execution. We know many situations where religious minorities’ property was confiscated. We know examples of discrimination against and stigmatization of religious minorities. There are several cases of manifestations inspired or likely organized by the People’s Republics authorities against religious minorities—such as Greek Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptists—labelled as harmful sects or cults in the region. In other cases, there have been deportations and bans on entering DPR/LPR territory and acts of vandalism and humiliation against religious minorities. For example, a Baptist priest, Vitaliy Sorokun, told me about a case where militants entered a Baptist church and used Baptist property and copies of the Bible to keep a fire going and to cook food.

Crimea has transitioned from relatively liberal regulation of religion in Ukraine to the intrusive authoritarian regulation of the Russian legal system. Religious pluralism has significantly decreased in the region following the annexation of the peninsula. Several religious leaders (for example, Protestant pastors) left or were deported from the peninsula. Restrictive and vague Russian legislation—especially extremist legislation, which provides the state with legal tools to prosecute effectively every religion in the country—has undermined institutional freedom, missionary work, and any public activities of religious minorities, including their social services for the poor, for example. Again, it has less to do with religious motivations and more to do with political reasons and factors such as the “reliability” of religious minorities and certain political motives and considerations. For example, the OCU is under heavy pressure while the Greek Catholic Church is under less pressure because of its links with the Vatican, with which the Kremlin would like to maintain good relations.

In general, the Crimea situation is similar to that of Russia, where the contemporary norm is securitization of religious issues (framing religious issues through the lens of national security), oppression of religious minorities, and endorsement of the ROC as the de facto official religion. Religious freedom in Russia is a separate and difficult topic. I will just mention two examples that happened during the conflict. The first is the infamous Yarovaya Law, which put virtually any religious activity, including the private sharing of beliefs, under the state’s control. And in 2017, the Russian Supreme Court completely banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Russia as extremist. I think that is the first case where a well-known religious minority was not just persecuted by the government but was totally banned.

Religion-State Relations in Ukraine and the Conflict with Russia

The language of the Ukrainian Constitution is quite similar to the language of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. There is both a free exercise clause and an establishment clause in Article 35 of the Ukrainian Constitution, as opposed to many European constitutions where there is only a free exercise clause. However, since independence in 1991, there has been greater rapprochement between the state and religion, which intensified in 2014 when the conflict began. The main Ukrainian religions, with the exception of the UOC-MP, have strongly supported the Ukrainian government in the conflict with Russia and promoted its vision of the conflict both inside the country and abroad—for example, in European Union institutions and in the United States.

Considering religion as a matter of national security, the Ukrainian government was deeply involved in the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and negotiated its autocephaly (ecclesiastical independence) with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The government implemented several restrictions and limitations against the Moscow Patriarchate. For example, the UOC-MP is prohibited from sending its chaplains to the Ukrainian army. The government also simplified the process for UOC-MP communities transferring to the OCU. And finally, the government wants the UOC-MP to be renamed. Now the official name of the church is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, full stop; no Moscow Patriarchate is mentioned in its name. The government wants the church to be renamed something like the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This measure, however, which is quite controversial from the perspective of international human rights law, has not been enforced yet.

There are some other signs of a more cooperative model of church-state relations in Ukraine. For example, in 2015, the state granted religious organizations the right to establish educational institutions, including universities, secondary schools, kindergartens, and so on. The government also recognized theologian schools’ academic degrees as state-granted academic degrees, with certain financial benefits for those who obtain those degrees.

However, if we compare Ukraine with other post-Soviet Orthodox-majority countries like Georgia, Moldova, and especially Belarus and Russia, we conclude that Ukraine has not reached the level of closeness between the state and the church that has developed in those countries. The relations between the state and the Orthodox church are not as close because of the split within the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and because there are several churches in the country pretending to be a national or the national church of Ukraine. Also, there several influential religious minorities with political representation in different levels of the government. And the Ukrainian religious legal framework is still quite liberal—probably one of the most liberal in the post-Soviet era—because Ukraine cannot ignore European standards of religious freedom as the state declares its vision or its goal to join the European Union.