In October, Eastern Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Bartholomew I declared the Ukrainian Church’s independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Istanbul-based leader, considered “first amongst equals,” granted the Ukrainian Church a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” which allows the Ukrainian Church full independence. This has resulted in the largest schism in the Orthodox community in over 300 years. Following Bartholomew’s decision, Ukrainian religious leaders held a unification assembly establishing the new Ukrainian Church and a new leader. Ukraine’s drive for an independent Church increased in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, and Russian-backed separatists seized territory in Eastern Ukraine. The decision has been met with resounding approval from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and has infuriated the Russian Church and the Kremlin. Reactions from both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have increased tensions that have persisted since 2014.
On the Ukrainian side, Poroshenko has applauded the decision of Bartholomew on the basis of religious and national security. Poroshenko’s approval rankings have increased since the decision was made, which has timely effects on the national election scheduled in March 2019. Ukrainian Orthodox leader, Patriarch Filaret, has said that there cannot be an independent Ukraine without an independent Church. Of the 30 million Orthodox believers in Ukraine, some 39% approve of the decision from Istanbul, and only 29% are against. Contrastingly, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has warned that the decision in such a delicate environment may have heavy consequences. Echoing Putin’s disapproval, the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate refused to participate in the unification assembly that created a new independent Ukrainian Church. Furthermore, the decision has had greater geopolitical ramifications, with Churches of Poland, Serbia, and Syria backing Russia’s position. With wider state actors choosing sides it will certainly escalate tensions and potentially increase conflict in the region.
The decision made by Bartholomew comes at a crucial time in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Recent developments include: more numerous minor engagements between the two countries, military war games exercised by both countries, an increased military presence near the borders, and a Ukrainian national election scheduled in a few months time. Experts believe short term violence is unlikely, but with many factors increasing pressure on the situation, a tipping point may be reached after Ukraine’s election, where opportunities may be sought by either nation depending on the result.
Granting the Ukrainian Church independence from Russia is another pivotal piece in the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has persisted since 2014. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, more than 10,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Most recently, Russian forces seized Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait and captured 24 Ukrainian soldiers. In response, Poroshenko declared martial law in 10 regions of Eastern Ukraine. Additionally, Ukraine has held war games alongside Canadian and U.S. army commanders near the Russian and Belarusian borders, while increasing military presence in Eastern Ukraine. Likewise, along the Belarusian-Ukrainian border Russia held war games, while sending anti-ship missiles towards the Kerch strait. Bartholomew’s decision for an independent Ukraine Church has underpinned an uptick in military activity.
Although only minor skirmishes have occurred recently, the situation will continue to be closely monitored leading up to and following Ukraine’s national election in March. Following military, political, and now religious action, tensions continue to escalate the divide between the two nations. The approval of an independent Ukrainian Church has expanded the conflict beyond Ukraine and Russia, bringing in the interests of other nation states. With increased investment from other countries, the complete geopolitical ramifications of the decision will continue to be played out in this sensitive region.
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