The devastation Vladimir Putin has unleashed in Ukraine has deep ideological roots in the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has thrown his spiritual weight behind the invasion, characterizing it as sacred mission to protect traditional Orthodox values from the decadent West. But how can this be when three-quarters of Ukrainians are Orthodox themselves?

To help make sense of this and other aspects of the fraught religious drama playing out in the conflict, UCLA’s Center for European and Russian Studies hosted a panel of international scholars and theologians this week who addressed topics ranging from Russia’s church-state alliance and the recent schism in the Ukraine’s Orthodox church, to the effects of the war on ordinary worshippers and on religious denominations worldwide.

The host of the virtual roundtable, Roman Koropeckyj, a professor of Slavic, East European and Eurasian languages in the UCLA College, kicked off the discussion by citing a 2018 speech by Putin in which the Russian president bemoaned the establishment of the independent and nationalist-minded Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which broke from the traditional and Moscow-loyal Ukrainian Orthodox Church (called the Moscow Patriarchate) in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. At the time, Putin alluded to Western meddling and said there could be “bloodshed” if the property of the Moscow Patriarchate was redistributed to the new church.

“To our peril, what we had assumed was Putin’s blustering and bragging was actually a game plan,” said Koropeckyj, who believes the religious motives that Putin — channeling Kirill — used to justify the war were actually monetary ones under the guise of spirituality.

The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church under Kirill have moved in lockstep on the Ukrainian war and in religious and political life in general, jointly promoting the ideology of Russky mir, or “Russian world,” under which Russia is destined to lead the eastern Slavic world, including Ukraine, politically and spiritually, and protect it from the “decadent, liberal, feminist West,” noted José Casanova, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Nowhere is this philosophy better illustrated than in Moscow’s opulent Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, said Sean Griffin, a research fellow at the University of Helsinki and author of “The Sacred Reign of Vladimir Putin.” The mosaics in the opulent $86 million church, built in 2020, promote “an ideology of holy war” against Russia’s enemies, he said, that comes directly from the specific strain of Orthodoxy promoted by Kirill.

And it is this ideology, Griffin said, that theologically and politically undergirds Russia’s war in Ukraine, where the government’s political overtures toward Europe and the West, and the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine’s abandonment of the traditional Moscow Patriarchate, are seen as direct threats to Russia’s sacred mission.

In fact, Putin’s claims that Moscow Patriarchate parishes in Ukraine were being oppressed by the Western-oriented Orthodox Church of Ukraine were used, in part, as justification for his invasion — although “this kind of pretext was artificially created by the Kremlin,” said Cyril Hovorun, a Ukrainian-born professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at University College Stockholm. “The skin, the flesh and the bones of the church were used by the Kremlin to justify this aggression.”

The true relationship between the two Orthodox churches in Ukraine, Hovorun said, was much more amicable. Still, he noted, while the leadership of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has spoken out loudly against the invasion — as have the smaller Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and many members of the country’s Muslim, Jewish and Protestant minorities — few bishops or clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate have objected publicly.

This creates a situation in which ordinary Orthodox worshippers in Ukraine, many of whom pay little mind to whether they live in parishes of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine or the Moscow Patriarchate, will begin to question the silence, said Frank Sysyn, director of the Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and a professor in the department of history, classics and religious studies at Canada’s University of Alberta.

“The more casualties there are among the Ukrainian army, the more that are returned to their native villages or small towns to be buried, the more congregations — and above all, parents and families — are going to be moving against the Moscow Patriarchal clergy if they have no resolution of this problem,” he said.  

Several panelists noted that while public dissension has been rare among members of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church, social media platforms like Telegram have provided an outlet for their protests.

“Anonymous clerics are satirizing and criticizing Kirill and the Moscow Patriarchate in a way that was absolutely impossible before,” Griffin said. “That, in my opinion, is where the most important and creative forms of dissent are going on.”

What the conflict means for means for religious minorities in Ukraine remains to be seen, but Casanova predicted that, based on what has happened in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, minorities in areas occupied by Russian forces “are going to suffer serious oppression.”

The war has also split Orthodox churches globally and even within other countries. Hovorun shared an example of a priest from a Moscow-supporting Russian Church Outside of Russia, or RCOR, refusing to walk on the same side of the street as a priest from a Ukrainian Orthodox Church parish in Boston. Sysyn added that many Ukrainian refugees will come to the U.S., inevitably changing the landscape of Orthodoxy here.

All the panelists predicted that Ukraine will ultimately emerge from the war as an independent nation, either with its current territory intact or as smaller state, but one in which the Moscow Patriarchate will have to reckon with its past and find a way forward if it is to continue to exist. And for Ukraine itself, it will mean existing in the shadow of Russia’s renascent imperial identity.