The geopolitics of the New Independent Church of Ukraine

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BESA Center Perspectives Paper n ° 1,033, December 11, 2018

ABSTRACT: The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is experiencing problems in Ukraine. Areas once considered the undisputed territory of the Russian Patriarchate are now becoming autocephalous (independent), adding yet another dimension to the geopolitical challenges facing Russia in the confines of the former Soviet space.

Russian history in recent centuries has been marked by battles in territories stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea in the south, and then to the South Caucasus in the east. These are the lands for which the Russians fought the Swedes, Poles, Turks, Napoleon’s armies, Nazis and Iranians. The Russians succeeded in pushing back their geopolitical challengers, hampering European advances in the arc of land around the heart of Russia where most of its industrial and human potential lay.

When it comes to direct military confrontation, the Russians were not fundamentally weaker than their European or Asian rivals in any of these cases. There were, however, deficiencies in the organization of the Russian military machine, as well as a lack of up-to-date military capabilities. Yet these problems were mitigated by Russia’s geography, a large landmass, and poor road infrastructure which made the territory difficult to penetrate.

Like its background, the modern Russian military is not fundamentally lagging behind its Western competitors. The gap has historically been so small that neither Russia nor any of the European powers has ever been completely dominant on the continent for an extended period.

It is therefore somewhat disconcerting to hear that the Russians fear NATO expansion near their borders. It is true that no power rejoices in the prospect of rival armies near its own periphery, and Russia is no exception. But why should NATO’s expansion near Russian border lands indeed differ from previous invasions by European commanders?

The seriousness of the threat posed by NATO troops in Moscow is indeed questionable. NATO troops are already in the Baltic states and Turkey is a long-standing member of the Alliance. Given modern military technologies and Russia’s ability to defend itself, it is surprising how much Moscow continues to emphasize military aspects even as critical developments take place in border regions in the United States. economic and cultural areas – areas where Russia is losing its grip. .

For centuries, Western economic reach in Russia’s border regions was limited, and Moscow only faced military threats it was able to repel. Over the past twenty to thirty years, however, Western powers have been able to expand their economic reach. The EU has attached former Soviet protectorates to Eastern Europe as well as to the three Baltic states. In addition, the EU is active in Ukraine, Moldova and the South Caucasus – so much so that much of the trade of these countries is now associated with the West.

Beyond the economy, the geopolitical landscape tilts towards the West at the local level. The elites of Ukraine and Georgia are reoriented towards the West through economic and political incentives. Young people, when choosing from study abroad options, mostly go to Western universities. When they return to their home countries, they often occupy key government positions.

In the spiritual realm, the Russian Orthodox Church has been predominant for centuries, claiming its right to unite Orthodox Christians over large swathes of the Eurasian landmass. Today, however, he is experiencing problems in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was canonically under the jurisdiction of the ROC, but since the Ukrainian conflict in 2014, Kiev has distanced itself from the Russian Church. Ukrainians claim that the transfer of the metropolitan headquarters of Kiev at the end of the 17e century in Moscow was illegal.

A meeting held on August 31 between Russian Patriarch Kirill and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew signaled that the Ukrainian Church would gain autocephaly (independence). Indeed, the measures taken in September and October by the Patriarchate of Constantinople led to the recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a decision immediately hailed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko but described by Moscow as “catastrophic”.

Religion may not be a decisive factor in the battle for the borders between Russia and the West, but it is nonetheless important in that it culturally cuts Ukrainians off from the “Russian world”. The autocephalous movement in Ukraine has mingled with other attempts by the country to increase its geopolitical independence from Moscow. This time the attempt paid off, again serving as an indicator of the extent to which Russian influence may wane in its immediate vicinity.

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Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting firms and currently publishes articles on military and political developments in the former Soviet space.

The BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published thanks to the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler family


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