Russia's religious soft power and the war in Ukraine

A picture shows military ammunition and Christian icons layed at a monument to fallen soldiers outside the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on March 7, 2022, 12 days after Russia launched a military invasion on Ukraine.
6 min read
22 March, 2022
In-depth: Putin has instrumentalised religion as a soft power tool to achieve political goals, but the invasion of Ukraine could undermine Moscow's narrative as a protector of the Orthodox faith.

The Christianisation of Kievan Rus, an eastern Slavic state now comprising Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, in the late 10th century signalled the historical bonding of Orthodox Christianity and Russian identity.

Five centuries later following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the marriage of Ivan III of Russia with Byzantine princess Sophia Palaiologina foreshadowed the dominant role of the emerging Russian empire across the Orthodox world.

Religion became a key tool of foreign policy, especially in the Balkans. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great’s so-called Greek plan embodied a Christian-focused Russian agenda through advocating the partition of the Ottoman empire between Russian and Hapsburg rulers.

Led by the Orlov brothers in 1770, a failed Greek uprising against the Ottomans created hope that the great Russian empire would always protect and assist fellow Orthodox Christian nations.

"Putin's rule has strengthened the status quo of Russia as an Orthodox power by decisively instrumentalising religion as a soft power tool to achieve political goals"

This feeling has been maintained over the centuries in several Orthodox Balkan countries. Following a break during the secular Soviet Union era, this religious narrative started gaining momentum again in the mid-1990s.

The first president of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin significantly strengthened the position of the Russian Orthodox Church via state law.

NATO’s role in the Bosnian conflict and the Kosovo war during the 1990s further pushed many Serbs to view Russia as a great Orthodox power that would protect their interests.

Putin's rise and Orthodox soft power

Vladimir Putin’s rule further strengthened the status quo of Russia as an Orthodox power by decisively instrumentalising religion as a soft power tool to achieve political goals.

In 2005 and 2016, Putin visited Mount Athos (Holy Mountain), the holiest Orthodox site in Greece and of significant interest to the Kremlin. St. Panteleimon’s Monastery, known as the  Russian Monastery, is a favourite destination for senior Russian officials, with prime minister Mikhail Mishustin among them.

These cultural visits are examples of how the Orthodox faith can be used as an unofficial diplomatic tool. This perception has also been growing in Greek society, with many people favourably viewing the Russian nation and maintaining hopes for Russian support in a wide range of issues, from the economy to defence and diplomacy.

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Likewise in Serbia, religion has been an essential element of connection between the two countries. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, one of the most influential allies of the Russian president, holds close ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In visits to Belgrade, Putin often highlights common Orthodox traditions and is enthusiastically welcomed by most Serbs. The political-religious complex fuelled by the Kremlin in Serbia and beyond has been particularly influential in Montenegro.

In late 2019 the Montenegrin parliament approved legislation seen as promoting the Montenegrin Orthodox Church at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This development not only mobilised massive popular protests nationwide but also prompted Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to openly call for Moscow’s support.

A burnt-out car and a damaged church caused by a Russian military attack near Irpin on 9 March 2022. [Getty]

Similar tactics of religious instrumentalisation have been followed by the Kremlin in Syria during Moscow’s intervention to support Bashar al-Assad, with Russia and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill claiming that Moscow has protected the Christian minority.

Putin accompanied the Syrian president to a church service in the Greek Orthodox Mariamite Cathedral in Damascus in 2020. The visit came after the Turkish conversion of the emblematic Hagia Sophia to a mosque, with Russia vowing to help Assad build a new Hagia Sophia in Syria.

The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society represents another example of how Russia is trying to extend its geopolitical influence abroad through religion, particularly in the Middle East.

Ukraine and the clash of the Patriarchs

But this centuries-old narrative is now being challenged by the invasion of Ukraine.

The Orthodox Church is organised into Patriarchates, categorised into four Primeval Patriarchates and five Latter Patriarchates, according to the time of establishment.

Unofficially, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople traditionally holds the most important position in the first category, while the Church of Russia is the most contemporary in terms of power and influence.

Until recently Ukraine’s Orthodox Community was split among the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), with the latter being directly influenced by the Kremlin.

"Adding to the growing upheaval since 2018 across the Orthodox world, Putin's full-scale attack against a neighbouring and fellow Orthodox nation has provoked scepticism about Russia's motives"

By late 2018 the first two entities merged into the Orthodox Church of Ukraine after a long and gradual process that started following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, with its motives largely political.  

This change was fiercely supported by then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and was formally recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on 5 January 2019, broadening divisions not only between the Orthodox community in Ukraine and Russia but also across the entire Orthodox world.

These developments essentially created a considerable rift between the leading Patriarchates of the Orthodox world (Constantinople and Moscow) with the remaining Orthodox entities having to choose sides in an unprecedented situation compared to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The political implications of this were apparent in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine when President Volodymyr Zelensky contacted Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in the very first days of Russia’s invasion and warmly thanked him for sympathising with the plight of the Ukrainian people.

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The fallout from Putin's war

Adding to the growing upheaval since 2018 across the Orthodox world, Putin’s decision to authorise a full-scale attack against a neighbouring and fellow Orthodox nation has provoked scepticism about Russia’s motives, even in countries where Putin has traditionally enjoyed significant popularity rates such as Greece.

“Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space, […] relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties,” Putin said on 21 February.

Expecting Russian military objectives to be achieved quickly and underestimating the reaction of the Ukrainian people, Putin’s invasion has undermined Russia’s narrative as an Orthodox protector and could limit the impact of Moscow’s soft power in the wider region.

On top of that, the fact that hard-line Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and Syrian militants are joining forces with Russia on the battlefield further discredits the religious propaganda which the Kremlin has been building for decades.

As the war in Ukraine continues, protracted fighting will challenge Russia’s religious soft power narrative in the region, with the impact likely to become clearer in the coming months and years.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris