As the world turns its attention to Ukraine, the important but often neglected issue of Orthodox Christian geopolitics has received renewed interest from Western media. Indeed, the significance of faith in the political events of the Eastern Orthodox world can hardly be overstated. Prior to launching his invasion of Ukraine, Putin was sure to secure the public backing of Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill, thus granting his efforts religious “legitimacy.” Sadly, this is only the most recent manifestation of a long-running partnership between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
The symbiotic relationship between the Russian government and the Patriarchate of Moscow began shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the Kremlin abandoned the militant atheism of communism and instead chose to embrace Russia’s Orthodox Christian past. Unfortunately, this embrace was little more than a ploy to co-opt the ROC for the purpose of cultivating religious soft power. As public money flowed into church coffers, the patriarch of Moscow was expected to offer his full public support to Vladimir Putin’s regime. The strategy proved effective. With Patriarch Kirill’s assistance, Vladimir Putin slowly began to cast himself as the leader of traditional Christian civilization. Putin presented himself as the international vanguard against progressive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, arguing that the West had given itself over to immorality and secularism.
This campaign for influence proved to be effective, as right-wing, and Christian fundamentalist groups across Europe and the United States embraced Vladimir Putin as the defender of traditional Christian values. In the United States, especially, support for Vladimir Putin among evangelicals is unnerving. Leaders such as Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, have shown support for Putin’s domestic policies and laud his public commitment to defend Christians across the globe. Another troubling development took place at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, as Lauren Witzke (a GOP Senate candidate in Delaware) stated, “Here’s the deal. Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. They’re actually Russian Orthodox… I identify more with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.” While the full extent of support for Vladimir Putin on the religious right is still in question, it is clear that he has successfully wielded Russia’s religious soft power to plant a cultural trojan horse within American politics.
In addition to polluting America’s domestic politics, Russian religious influence also poses a threat to NATO solidarity. Several alliance members—including Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece—have majority Orthodox populations. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, a majority of respondents in each of these nations (excluding Montenegro, which was not polled) said that a strong Russia was necessary to balance against the influence of the West. Additionally, a majority of respondents in each nation stated that Russia had an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside of Russia’s borders. Clearly, Russia has managed to gain wide-reaching influence across the populations of several NATO member states. This influence poses a direct threat to the solidarity and stability of the very alliance that was formed as a response to Russian aggression.
While the growth of Moscow’s religious prowess is troubling, the United States has an opportunity to challenge that authority. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EPC), currently led by Patriarch Bartholomew I, is decidedly pro-Western. Within Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch is historically considered to be the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs. Admittedly, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s authority has declined dramatically since Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in AD 1453. Following the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church began to maneuver for leadership of the Orthodox Christian world, going so far as to declare itself the “Third Rome.” While membership in the Russian Orthodox Church today far outnumbers that of Constantinople, the EPC still wields considerable influence as a result of its historical prestige.
The modern dynamic between Moscow and Constantinople is the result of a centuries-long competition to lead the Orthodox Christian world, with the most recent major chapter taking place in 2018. After years of petitioning by Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, the Ecumenical Patriarchate formally granted autocephaly, or independence, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, thus removing it from the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow. This move was motivated in large part by Patriarch Bartholomew’s acknowledgment of the Kremlin’s malign influence over the Ukrainian Church. The move proved to be disastrous for the ROC, as nearly 12,000 of its 36,000 parishes resided in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, recognizing the move as a massive blow to his authority, responded by severing communion with Constantinople.
While the Ecumenical Patriarchate has proven to be hugely valuable to the United States for its role in balancing against Moscow, it is currently fighting for its very survival under the thumb of the Turkish state. Decades of discriminatory laws and the Islamist agenda of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to cripple the EPC if the West does not intervene. Halki Seminary, the traditional training school for Constantinople’s clergy, has been forcibly closed since 1971. Furthermore, Turkish law stipulates that the archbishop (patriarch) of Constantinople must be a Turkish citizen, thus severely restricting the number of candidates who are eligible to replace Patriarch Bartholomew. Should the Turkish government succeed in regulating the Ecumenical Patriarchate out of existence, Moscow’s leadership in the Orthodox world will go unchallenged.
For the US and its Western allies, this is a dangerous proposition. A healthy and independent Ecumenical Patriarchate is crucial to checking Russian religious soft power. According to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the secretary of state, under the authority of the president, has the right to designate international religious freedom violators as “Countries of Concern” (CPCs). Countries that do not meet each of the CPC criteria can instead be added to the State Department’s “Special Watch List” (SWL). Both CPC and SWL designations allow the United States government to levy economic sanctions against the offending government. Such a designation would be sure to catch President Erdogan’s attention as Turkey’s economy continues to weaken ahead of his 2023 reelection bid.
With Vladimir Putin’s soldiers pouring into Ukraine, the Russian threat is perhaps the most acute it has been since the end of the Cold War. Should Russia capture Kyiv, the spiritual capital of the ancient Rus, its claims to Orthodox hegemony will be all the more legitimized. An emboldened Russian Orthodox Church threatens both American political stability and NATO solidarity. It is time for the United States to recognize the value of religion in international politics, and to support the Ecumenical Patriarchate against the efforts of the Turkish government to smother it. A stronger Ecumenical Patriarchate necessarily equals a weaker Patriarchate of Moscow, and that is a win for American national security.