Orthodox geopolitics and American national security
As the world turns its attention to Ukraine, the important but often overlooked issue of Orthodox Christian geopolitics has received renewed interest from Western media. Indeed, the importance of faith in political events in the Eastern Orthodox world can hardly be overstated. Before launching his invasion of Ukraine, Putin was sure to gain public support from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, granting his efforts religious “legitimacy”. Sadly, this is just the latest manifestation of a long-standing partnership between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
The symbiotic relationship between the Russian government and the Moscow Patriarchate began soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Kremlin abandoned communism’s militant atheism and instead chose to embrace Russia’s Orthodox Christian past. Unfortunately, this embrace was little more than a ploy to co-opt the ROC for the purpose of cultivating religious soft power. As public money poured into the church coffers, the Patriarch of Moscow had to offer his full public support to Vladimir Putin’s regime. The strategy has proven effective. With the help of Patriarch Kirill, Vladimir Putin slowly began to portray himself as the leader of mainstream Christian civilization. Putin presented himself as the international vanguard against progressive issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, saying the West had indulged in immorality and secularism.
This influence campaign proved effective, as right-wing fundamentalist and Christian groups across Europe and the United States embraced Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditional Christian values. In the United States, in particular, support for Vladimir Putin among evangelicals is disconcerting. Leaders such as Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, have shown support for Putin’s domestic policies and praise his public commitment to defending Christians around the world. Another troubling development took place at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, as Lauren Witzke (a GOP Senate candidate in Delaware) said, “Here’s the deal. Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. They are actually Russian Orthodox… I identify more with Putin’s Christian values than with Joe Biden. While the extent of support for Vladimir Putin on the religious right is still in question, it is clear that he has successfully used Russia’s religious soft power to implant a cultural Trojan horse in American politics.
In addition to polluting US domestic politics, Russian religious influence also poses a threat to NATO solidarity. Several members of the alliance, including Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, have predominantly Orthodox populations. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, a majority of respondents in each of these countries (except Montenegro, which was not surveyed) said a strong Russia was needed to counterbalance the influence of the West. Additionally, a majority of respondents in each country said that Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside Russian borders. Clearly, Russia has managed to gain considerable influence over the populations of several NATO member states. This influence poses a direct threat to the solidarity and stability of the very alliance formed in response to Russian aggression.
While the growth of Moscow’s religious prowess is troubling, the United States has an opportunity to challenge that authority. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EPC), currently headed by Patriarch Bartholomew I, is resolutely pro-Western. Within Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch is historically considered the first among equals (first among equals) among the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs. Certainly, the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has declined considerably since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. After the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church began to maneuver to lead the Orthodox Christian world, going so far as to declare itself the “Third Rome.” While membership of the Russian Orthodox Church today far exceeds that of Constantinople, the EPC still wields considerable influence due to its historical prestige.
The modern dynamic between Moscow and Constantinople is the result of a centuries-old competition to lead the Orthodox Christian world, with the most recent major chapter taking place in 2018. After years of petitions from Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has officially granted autocephaly, or independence, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, thus removing it from the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow. This decision was motivated in large part by Patriarch Bartholomew’s recognition of the Kremlin’s harmful influence on the Ukrainian Church. This move proved disastrous for the ROC, as almost 12,000 of its 36,000 parishes resided in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, recognizing this decision as a blow to his authority, responded by severing communion with Constantinople.
While the Ecumenical Patriarchate has proven extremely valuable to the United States for its balancing act against Moscow, it is currently fighting for its survival even under the thumb of the Turkish state. Decades of discriminatory laws and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist agenda threaten to cripple the EPC if the West does not intervene. The Halki Seminary, the traditional training school for the clergy of Constantinople, has been forcibly closed since 1971. In addition, Turkish law stipulates that the Archbishop (Patriarch) of Constantinople must be a Turkish citizen, which greatly limits the number of eligible candidates to replace the patriarch. Bartholomew. If the Turkish government succeeds in regulating the disappearance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Moscow’s leadership in the Orthodox world will remain unchallenged.
For the United States and its Western allies, this is a dangerous proposition. A healthy and independent Ecumenical Patriarchate is crucial to controlling Russian religious soft power. Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State, under the authority of the President, has the right to designate international violators of religious freedom as “Countries of Concern” (CPCs). Countries that do not meet each of the CPC criteria may instead be added to the Department of State’s Special Watch List (SWL). The CPC and SWL designations allow the United States government to impose economic sanctions against the offending government. Such a designation is sure to grab President Erdogan’s attention as Turkey’s economy continues to weaken ahead of his bid for re-election in 2023.
With the influx of Vladimir Putin’s soldiers into Ukraine, the Russian threat is perhaps the most acute since the end of the Cold War. If Russia captured kyiv, the spiritual capital of ancient Rus, its claims to Orthodox hegemony would be all the more legitimized. An emboldened Russian Orthodox Church threatens both American political stability and NATO solidarity. It is time for the United States to recognize the value of religion in international politics and to support the Ecumenical Patriarchate against the Turkish government’s efforts to stifle it. A stronger Ecumenical Patriarchate necessarily equals a weaker Moscow Patriarchate, and that is a victory for American national security.