The fight over the Church goes back to a single event that took place more than 1,000 years ago. In 988, Vladimir the Great, the prince of an empire known as Kievan Rus (and Putin’s namesake), converted to Christianity in what is now Ukraine. Russia claims that empire as the birthplace of its historical heritage as a nation. But Ukraine does, too, and Ukraine is the country that actually has Kiev in its territory.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. In a speech at the Kremlin, Putin argued that Crimea belongs in Russia, since ethnic Russians form a majority there. His reasoning also extended beyond Crimea: He seemed to declare that Ukraine and Russia (and Belarus, a smaller player in the ongoing geopolitical tensions) have always been joined together as “one people” through the Church. “Kiev”—the Ukrainian capital city, in the middle of the country, far from Crimea and Russia—“is the mother of Russian cities,” Putin said. All of this, he explained, stemmed from Prince Vladimir’s “spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy” more than a millennium ago.
If this battle of religious and national autonomy has been raging for so long, why is it reaching its climax right now? Ukraine first sought Church independence in 1921, after World War I, but the movement has steadily grown since the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine again became a sovereign nation. Now, Younger explained, “the catalyst is a calculation by Poroshenko,” who can leverage Thursday’s announcement—for which he spent months lobbying—in the lead-up to presidential elections next March. “The creation of a canonical … Church in Ukraine would be a major win for [Poroshenko],” Younger said. “I get the sense that the administration is casting about for a win.”
A spokesperson for the Moscow Church, Vladimir Legoyda, said last month that Russia “will break the Eucharistic communion” with the Church’s central body in Istanbul if Ukraine receives independence. Despite Russia’s stern warnings, Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou, the Fordham professors, don’t think it will take that severe step. Instead, they believe the other independent Churches will slowly line up to recognize Ukraine’s Church, even though it might take Moscow several generations. “You have to understand,” Demacopoulos said, “that this is a 2,000-year-old Church, so that’s not that much time.”
The Orthodox Church might recover, but Russia-Ukraine tensions will likely deteriorate even further. It boils down to whether Russia can continue to be, as Putin portrays it, the standard-bearer of the Orthodox tradition, even with far fewer adherents and far less territory than it previously enjoyed. Framing himself as “the political defender of Christians” has helped Putin rally national support, Demacopoulos told me. It’s no surprise that he isn’t prepared to relinquish that part of his image.