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The Voice of Orthodoxy in Europe: The Battle for Ukraine

By Jacob Nekoranec

Impact of Russia's War in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has united the once divided Orthodox church in Ukraine. Priests from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) have voiced their opposition to Russia’s unprovoked invasion. The UOC-MP has begun to splinter from Moscow. According to the Union of Orthodox Journalists, 15 dioceses have authorized the omission of Patriarch Kirill’s name from prayers during worship.[i]

“It can be said that Orthodox Christianity is a key part of Russia’s strategic narrative: ‘a core component of the Russian state itself, shaping its own self-conception and setting expectations on Russia’s role in the world and how it should be recognized’.”[ii] It should not be ignored that Patriarch Kirill has become a mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s soft power with the potential influence he has over Orthodox Christians within Moscow’s area of influence.

Patriarch Kirill, in his 7 MAR 2022 sermon, supported the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukraine was engaged in the extermination of Russian loyalists. He stated that an unnamed world power is testing for loyalties of countries by demanding gay pride parades be held. Kirill’s sermon and public words are in line with the Kremlin narrative, clearly positioning the Orthodox Church against Ukraine. Kirill, in his sermon, blames Ukrainians for Russia’s war. He demands Ukrainians seek forgiveness from Moscow and the Kremlin.

Kirill frames the violence of the Russian invasion as necessary for human salvation. He stated: “And so today, on Forgiveness Sunday, on the one hand, as your shepherd, I call on everyone to forgive sins and insults, including where it is very difficult to do this, where people are at war with each other. But forgiveness without justice is capitulation and weakness. Therefore, forgiveness must be accompanied by the indispensable preservation of the right to stand on the side of the world, on the side of God’s truth, on the side of the Divine commandments, on the side of that.”[iii] Kirill’s sermon focused solely on the Donbass region and failed to address Russia’s military actions throughout Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill’s vocal stance on the current Russian invasion is a different approach from the silence he maintained when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It may be that Patriarch Kirill is attempting to solidify his hold on power within Moscow. It is known that President Putin views Metropolitan Tikhon as his personal religious leader and sees Patriarch Kirill as a government minister.[iv]

Structure of Orthodox Church

There are fourteen Orthodox Autocephalous churches globally. The Constantinople Autocephalous is recognized as the first among equals. The other thirteen Autocephalous churches are equal, independent, and self-governing. Key people are Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

OCU Autocephaly

The OCU was granted autocephaly on 5 January 2019 by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew. The OCU and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church merged as a result. The autocephaly formalized the split between the OCU and the ROC. This move reduced the influence of the ROC in Ukraine and undermined the Kremlin’s identity politics in the region. The recognition of OCU independence undermines the Kremlin’s soft power influence in Ukraine and throughout the region. The ROC, in response, has been pressuring other patriarchates to sever ties with Constantinople.

OCU’s independence from Moscow supports the political objectives of Ukraine to become independent from the Kremlin. The numbers of Orthodox who attend weekly worship service remain low at 12% with 28% saying they pray daily.[v] Orthodoxy is commonly seen as a component of national identity with 51% of Ukrainians stating it is very to somewhat important.[vi] The independence of the OCU was a blow to the soft power Moscow attempted to exert over Ukrainians prior to the invasion of 2022.

Moscow Patriarch Kirill dismissed the OCU autocephaly as an illegitimate schism. This is important because the ROC will lose parishes, bishoprics, income, and influence. The influence lost extends to the global Orthodox Church as Ukraine is home to approximately 35 million Orthodox Christians, second only to Russia.[vii]

OCU independence is a severe blow to the Kremlin’s projection of soft power throughout Ukraine and the world. Furthermore, the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukrainians and Russians are one people suffered a blow as Ukrainian political and economic independence was joined by religious and cultural independence. ROC has predictably responded strongly to the autocephaly decree.

Today Ukraine has three branches of the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), and the Greek Catholic Church. Greek Catholics draw on Roman Catholic social teachings to inform rule of law and politics. OCU identifies with Ukrainian nationalism. UOC-MP has attempted to sit between Ukrainian nationalism and deference to patriarch Kirill and Moscow. Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed these branches towards solidarity. The comments of Patriarch Kirill have pushed them further from the Moscow Patriarchate.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has the potential to push the UOC-MP away from Moscow and towards Kyiv. This move would severely impact the Kremlin’s soft power and work to discredit the Kremlin narrative of Russians and Ukrainians as one people. This is a position that is tenuous at best. According to Pew Research Center in a survey conducted in 2017, only 22% of Ukrainians look to Russia to counter the West.[viii]

A shift in power within the Orthodox Church is imminent. Moscow continues to isolate itself from the Orthodox world which will open the door for new leadership and a new voice of the Orthodox Church. It is likely that the OCU will fill that vacuum, becoming the voice of Orthodoxy in Europe.

Patriarch Kirill declared in 2014 that “’Russia belongs to a civilization that is wider than the Russian Federation. We call this civilization the Russian world. This is not the world of the Russian Federation, nor Russian empire, The Russian world starts at the Kievan baptismal font. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians belong to it.’”[ix] These words, an extension of the Kremlin’s soft power, should be viewed differently in the current context. Patriarch Kirill, in a 2018 meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, said: “’Your All-Holiness, if you give autocephaly to Ukraine, blood will be poured out.’”[x] Additionally, the potential for Russia’s current military invasion to push Ukrainian Orthodox Christians further from Moscow cannot be overlooked. Nor can the shift in religious soft power within the region be ignored.

One country, one church is the norm for Orthodox Christians worldwide. This is especially true in countries with Orthodox majorities. It is this fundamental belief that the soft power of the Kremlin seeks to exploit. The Moscow Patriarchate has frequently portrayed the Orthodox Church to be in opposition to Western institutions and values. Patriarch Kirill has voiced these sentiments in recent homilies. Additionally, Patriarch Kirill has maintained that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is a puppet of western institutions. Putin’s message has been similar, stating that the US and Constantinople have worked together to divide the Russian people and the Russian church, implying that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.[xi]

Further ROC isolation and denial of the legitimacy of Ukrainian autocephaly will have secondary and tertiary effects. “One Greek metropolitan has argued that: ‘rejecting the way the Patriarchate issued the Tomos of Autocephaly of Ukraine will call into question the Autocephalous Church of Greece since they were granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.’”[xii] ROC has independently established a Patriarchal Exarchate in Africa, further alienating the other Orthodox Autocephalous churches.

Moscow’s decision to challenge Constantinople has left Moscow isolated. This isolation would be further compounded if Russia fails in its current military operations in Ukraine. It is evident that Moscow will continue to support anti-Western voices within the Orthodox Church. However, if Russia loses influence in Ukraine, it is a blow to the Kremlin’s soft power that will be difficult to recover. The ROC will “lose its last claim to internationality; it will now become Russia-centric and even closer to the state than it was-which [in the longer term could] result in a violent anti-clerical backlash.”[xiii] The risks associated with Russian victory in Ukraine are numerous to global security. Not to be minimized is the impact on control of the Orthodox Church both in Ukraine and globally. It is likely that Russia will silence dissident voices within the church in order to consolidate gains and portray a unified “Russian” church in Eastern Europe.

It is evident that the Kremlin sees violent action as necessary to keep Ukraine from Western influence; however, the Kremlin has overestimated its capacity for soft power in promoting the anti-NATO narrative. The result of the war in Ukraine is that the people move further from Russia in terms of politics, military, economy, and religious affairs. This break put the OCU in a position to become the voice of Orthodoxy in Europe as the isolation of Moscow intensifies.

The Kremlin utilizes religion and culture to shape and influence regions determined to be of strategic importance. This continues the increasing trend of the Kremlin to utilize soft power to shape the battlespace. The Kremlin has embraced and weaponized the Russian Orthodox Church, utilizing it to aggravate religious tensions.

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 by Russia has increased the stakes of who controls the soft power of the Orthodox Church throughout Europe. The victor of the war in Ukraine will be the voice of Orthodoxy in Europe. If the Kremlin prevails, “heretic” Orthodox priests and churches will be silenced and dealt with harshly. Moscow will claim the role of truth and justice for European Orthodoxy. If Ukraine prevails, Moscow will be forced to further withdraw from communion with the global Orthodox Church. Moscow will be forced to continue to establish Exarchates outside the purvey of the global Orthodox Church. There is much at stake with the Orthodox Church caught in the crosshairs of politics and power.

Civil Affairs Operations

Civil Preparation of the Battlefield (CPB) must encompass religious dynamics and religious impact in conjunction with analysis and evaluation of the social and political fields. A comprehensive approach to CPB will assist commanders in their efforts to “enhance, enable, or provide governance and, ultimately, stability.”[xiv] The CPB enables decision-makers to select courses of action that align with lines of effort in support of irregular warfare’s (IW) indirect approach seeking to reduce an adversary’s power, influence, and will to resist. The Kremlin’s usage of religious soft power is an example of state-sponsored IW. “Much like insurgent adversaries, states blend separate instruments of power to offset military weakness, weaponize narratives to ease strategic progress, and exploit social and political contradictions to undermine and divide target societies.”[xv]

The Kremlin’s attempt to shape the battlefield through the implementation of religious soft power through the ROC can be understood by a thorough threat analysis that encompasses the influence of religion and religious leaders. GTA 41-001-005: Religious Factor Analysis (RFA) provides guidance to CA Teams in this process. Across the competition continuum, understanding religious factors is critical for anticipating human responses…. Attempting to influence the population of any host country without understanding its religious beliefs and identities can result in adverse and unintended outcomes. Combating religiously motivated combatants without understanding religious factors can limit or impede mission effectiveness.[xvi]

CA Teams in future operations cannot afford to ignore the influence of religion on strategic affairs, especially during IW. While religion may not be the primary factor, its influence should not be overlooked. Additionally, as the Kremlin continues to intentionally integrate religion into its soft power arsenal, the importance of RFA to CBP will be amplified. The significance of religious soft power will not lessen as the ROC continues to be isolated from the global Orthodox Church. In fact, the human landscape will become more complex as church power shifts between the ROC and the OCU. CA Soldiers, as a result, must be able to differentiate between a Western understanding of religion and politics and varying viewpoints throughout the rest of the world.

A key tenant of the modern Western view is the idea of the separation of church and state. This view often minimalizes religious factors. The Western worldview is shared by less than one-sixth of the world’s population, and it is foreign to the indigenous populations of most of the world.[xvii]

While the current circumstances in Ukraine are above the threshold of a military direct response, it would appear that CA Teams will not operate in Ukraine until adversarial behavior falls below that threshold. CPB can identify the root of the conflict and the social and political contradictions the threat exploits in order to either erode or build legitimacy. Including religion when identifying the grievances and resiliencies in addition to the key influences will assist in creating a comprehensive understanding of the factors of stability and instability. Including religion in the CPB assists in understanding frame and narrative and emphasizes the importance of messaging that is able to “build and erode legitimacy, constrain government options, and change fundamentally the balance of strategic power.”[xviii]

As Civil Affairs moves between CPB and Civil Affairs Operations (CAO), understanding the threat becomes more important. Three questions that should be understood are: “What is the threat seeking to achieve, how is it reaching that objective, and what resources are used?”[xix] These questions seek to identify the threat’s center of gravity and critical vulnerabilities bridging the means and ends.

CAO assist in continuing to build the CPB in order to leverage resistance potential. “Given the complexity and potential power of religion, it can affect human aspects of the operational environment” therefore religion must be a part of the CPB.[xx] A CPB that includes religion increases the effectiveness of operations and reduces the possibility of unintended outcomes.

Religion can provide a framework for individuals and communities to understand stability and instability, death, war, and acceptable behavior in war. Religion can provide motivation in combat. It can intensify division and conflict. Religious leaders are community leaders and organizers. Religion offers ideology, authority, and conflict resolution, and can contribute to humanitarian efforts. Countries with Orthodox majorities see religion as an important component of cultural and national identity. This correlation is manifest through a connection between religion, politics, and warfare. Similar to Osama bin Laden’s exploitation of religious edicts against the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, the ROC-Kremlin partnership seeks to link religious and political ideology in opposition to U.S., NATO, and Western European objectives.

Dmitry Adamsky, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy, and Ron Hassner, Religion on the Battlefield, both advocate for the development of religious intelligence in order to facilitate CPB. “In Central and Eastern Europe, and in the near abroad, where large Orthodox populations reside, the ROC used local churches and clergy affiliated with Moscow to preach sympathy toward the Kremlin’s course, orienting the flock away from the West.”[xxii]

The Russian World, as defined by the ROC, includes Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. It also includes the diaspora of Russians worldwide. Support for this new definition of the Russian World has spread quickly throughout Russia. “Russian officials were open about their intent to operationalize the concept [of the Russian World]. In 2010, reflecting on the Russian role in world politics, ROSATOM’s (Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation] deputy head argued that the ROC should position itself as the church not only of the Orthodox believers in Russia but of all Orthodox Christians worldwide.[xxiii] This is what is at stake as Russia continues to pursue its political objectives in Ukraine. Clearly, the Kremlin and the ROC see religion as a component of the battlefield and actively seek to implement religion as a soft power throughout the entire spectrum of conflict.

CA Soldiers working to identify threats to civil societies and working to mitigate their effects must understand the role of religion. Effective analysis of religion further clarifies the civil environmental factors and operational variables in order to prepare the battlefield for CAO. Understanding the influence of the ROC acting as a state-sponsored agent will assist CA Teams in identifying formal and informal linkages between religious leaders and communities; identifying which religious leaders to empower and which to isolate; defining linkages between religion and economics; defining areas and organizational structures controlled by influential religious leaders, and increase cultural awareness of Soldiers. Unit Ministry Teams (UMT) should be consulted as CA Teams prepare CPBs. UMTs have been trained in RFA, and when utilized, are a combat multiplier enabling CA Teams to better understand the operational environment. UMTs are capable of evaluating religious factors and contributing to successful CAO.


· Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) autocephaly means the OCU no longer answers to Moscow Patriarchate Church.

· Autocephaly of OCU reinforces Ukraine’s independence from Russia and signals a political loss for the Kremlin.

· Tensions between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) influence the current ROC response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

· Russia’s war in Ukraine has sped up the process of international recognition of OCU independence.

· Competing narratives are being issued from OCU and ROC.

· OCU may be left as the leading voice of Orthodoxy in Europe as ROC continues to isolate and break communion with other Autocephalous churches.

· Kremlin’s capacity for religious soft power is decreased.


· 1996 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew grants independence to the Estonian Orthodox Church.

· 2014 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow adopted a neutral stance on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russian Orthodox priests in eastern Ukraine openly sided pro-Russia. Patriarch Kirill’s silence undermined Kremlin’s soft power internationally. US government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea and considers Crimea part of Ukraine.

· 5 JAN 2019 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople issues Tomos declaring autocephaly for Ukraine

· 7 JAN 2019 Russian state TV labels OCU as “’an uncanonical religious organization’”.[xxiv] Moscow breaks communion with Constantinople, Alexandria, Athens, and Nicosia.

· NOV 2018 Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) warns that “Russian security services ‘targeted instigation’ of interconfessional conflicts in Ukraine could become the pretext for an ‘open military invasion by the Russian armed forces.’”[xxv]

· 29 DEC 2021 Moscow Patriarchate establishes Russian Exarchate for the entire African continent

· 24 FEB 2022 Russia invades Ukraine

· 6 MAR 2022 Patriarch Kirill takes a pro-Kremlin stance in a homily.

Editor's Note: The survey data below is used to illustrate the author's mix-methods approach to the article and to showcase, as an example, important demographics for those who consider and incorporate Civil Preparation of the Battlefield as part of the mission analysis to the Military Decision-Making Process.

Pew Research Center Data

Note all surveys conducted prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

About the Author

Jacob Nekoranec is an Army Reserve chaplain with the 415 Civil Affairs Battalion out of Kalamazoo, MI. He received his Master of Divinity from Luther Seminary. He also received a Master of Military History from American Military University. His article “Cavalry on the Right: The Battle for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge” was published in Gettysburg Magazine, July 2014. His unpublished manuscript “The Hunt for J.H. Morgan: A Study of the 18th and 19th July 1863” is archived at the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office and has been cited by multiple authors. He has worked as an educator for 24 years and also works as a civilian pastor.

Standard Disclaimer. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

Endnotes [i] Peter Smith, “Moscow Patriarch Stokes Orthodox Tensions with War Remarks”, Associated Press (9 MAR 2022), 2. [online] Available from [ii] Bentzen, ““Ukraine: Religion and [geo-]politics Orthodox split weakens Russia’s influence”, 5. [iii] Patriarch Kirill, “Patriarchal Sermon on Cheesefare Week after the Liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior”, Press Service of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Russian Orthodox Church (6 March 2022), 2. [online] Available from [iv] Kadri Liik,, Defender of the Faith? How Ukraine’s Orthodox Split Threatens Russia, European Council of Foreign Relations, May 2019, 6. [online] Available from [v] Alan Cooperman,, Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century, Pew Research Center (8 November 2017), 28. [online] Available from [vi] Alan Cooperman,, Eastern and Western Europeans Differ on Importance of Religion, Pew Research Center (29 October 2018): 7. [online] Available from [vii] Bentzen, “Ukraine: Religion and [geo-]politics Orthodox split weakens Russia’s influence”, 3. [viii] Alan Cooperman,, Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe, Pew Research Center (10 May 2017), 15. [online] Available from [ix] Liik, Defender of the Faith, 8. [x] Liik, Defender of the Faith, 14. [xi] Liik, Defender of the Faith, 13. [xii] Liik, Defender of the Faith, 21. [xiii] Liik, Defender of the Faith, 24. [xiv] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Civil Preparation of the Battlefield (TC 3-57.51), November 2021, 1-1. [xv] David H. Ucko and Thomas A. Marks, Crafting Strategy for Irregular Warfare: A Framework for Analysis and Action (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, July 2020), 3. [xvi] Department of the Army, Religious Factor Analysis (GTA 41-01-005), Washington, D.C., February 2013, 3. [xvii] Department of the Army, Religious Factor Analysis, 4-5. [xviii] Ucko, Crafting Strategy for Irregular Warfare, 21-22. [xix] Ucko, Crafting Strategy for Irregular Warfare, 24. [xx] Department of the Army, Religious Factor Analysis, 2. [xxi] Department of the Army, Religious Factor Analysis, 3. [xxii] Dmitry Adamsky, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 182. [xxiii] Adamsky, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, 184. [xxiv] Naja Bentzen, “Ukraine: Religion and [geo-]politics Orthodox split weakens Russia’s influence”, European Parliamentary Research Service (February 2019): 5. [online] Available from [xxv] Bentzen, “Ukraine: Religion and [geo-]politics Orthodox split weakens Russia’s influence”, 7.


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Your post tells about the voice of Orthodoxy in Europe the battle for Ukraine. Orthodox Christianity, according to one scholar, "is a crucial element of the Russian state itself, forming its own self-conception and setting expectations on Russia's place in the world and how it should be acknowledged." [ii] Given his potential influence over Orthodox Christians inside Moscow's sphere of influence, Patriarch Kirill has evolved into a spokesperson for the Kremlin's soft power. If you need an assignment then I suggest that you should contact the case study help service. Because I also use this service for my assignment.

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