Stratfor: Russia: Watching the Orthodox Church for Signs of Dissent

Russia: Watching the Orthodox Church for Signs of Dissent

June 11, 2015 | 00:36 GMT

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis in Rome on Wednesday. The meeting was the second between the Russian president and the religious leader. Russia and the Vatican restored diplomatic relations only six years ago, after years of pressure on the Vatican by both the Kremlin and then-Italian President Silvio Berlusconi. The goal then was to first restore Moscow's relations with the Vatican and then use the Kremlin's new relationship as the catalyst for an eventual rapprochement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Two issues stood in the way of a rapid understanding between the churches six years ago. First, the Russian Orthodox Church was going through a profound transformation after Patriarch Alexei II, the church's leader of 18 years, died at the end of 2008. His successor, Patriarch Kirill, viewed the church's role in Russia and the Kremlin's foreign relations in an aggressive, almost hawkish way. Second, there has been a long and intense competition between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church that stretches beyond religion and into geopolitics. As the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Russian Orthodox Church considers itself the modern heir to the Byzantine legacy and therefore a rival to the Vatican. The Vatican does not agree. 

It was Putin's 2013 trip to the Vatican that gave momentum to a possible Vatican-Russian Orthodox reconciliation. Putin and Francis discussed a possible meeting between the pontiff and Kirill and even the possibility of Francis visiting Russia. No pope has ever visited Russia, and Kirill has long pursued such a historic meeting.

At the time, Kirill had been reaching out to numerous religious leaders, holding meetings with his counterparts in Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia and Greece. The Russian Orthodox Church even set up a joint department with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Kirill was also increasing the church's investments to branches abroad following the 2007 reunification with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a rival faction set up in the West after the Russian Revolution.

For Kirill, these acts were not just about proselytizing or spreading Orthodoxy, they were about increasing influence for the Kremlin. The patriarch strategy differed from his predecessor's because Kirill — allegedly a former member of the KGB — has been deeply involved with Russia's Federal Security Services (FSB), and he thinks geopolitically. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has used the political nature of the church to consolidate influence at home and reach out for influence abroad.

The building momentum for a possible meeting between Kirill and Francis seemed to halt in 2014, when Russia became entangled in Ukraine. By mid-year, Francis had sent a note to Kirill with an invitation to meet, but the Russian side has done little to respond. Moreover, ahead of Putin's meeting with Francis, there was little mention of negotiations between the pope and the patriarch. The issue seems to be on the back burner for now.

This is another indication that there could be greater tension brewing between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, particularly Putin. As we said in our recent Kremlinology series, studying Russia's inner political workings involves watching seemingly unconnected events and attempting to piece together a narrative.

When Russia annexed Crimea, Putin gave a landmark speech in which he heavily borrowed from Kirill's 2009 speeches on the importance of the Black Sea peninsula, where Grand Prince Vladimir of Rus was baptized in the year 988. In particular, Putin alluded to Kirill's previous comments that Orthodoxy transcended borders, uniting Russia with Ukraine, Belarus and the rest of the Russian world. But oddly absent from the speech was Kirill. Lower-level priests gave a blessing beside Putin at what should have been Kirill's shining moment. It's possible that this was because the patriarch may see a starkly different landscape than the president.

Orthodoxy in Ukraine is split among three patriarchates: the Kievian, the Moscow and the minor Autocephalous. During the past decade, the Moscow patriarchate's presence in Ukraine has slowly diminished — before 2014, membership dropped from 70 percent of all parishioners to 40 percent. With the annexation of Crimea and Russia's support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine, there have been reports that droves of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians from the Moscow patriarchate are converting to the Kievian. The exodus could deal a powerful blow to the Russian Orthodox Church's influence in Ukraine, Kirill's foreign policy strategy, and his church's membership. The loss of parishioners could explain Kirill's relative silence on issues related to Ukraine, other than blessing the soldiers and government during his regular masses.

Kirill's silence could also stem from a rift between the FSB and Putin over Ukraine. When Putin "went missing" for several days in March, the senior members of the intelligence service were busy holding meetings with important people and representatives of crucial sectors. One of these meetings was between Kirill, the FSB-connected Presidential Administration Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, and FSB-connected and Orthodox ultra-loyalist Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Most of Kirill's closest loyalists are from the FSB. One of the theories about Putin's disappearance centers on the idea of a power struggle involving the intelligence arm. If the agency was considering overturning Putin, whether publicly or behind the scenes, it would need the church on board.

Approximately 75 percent of Russians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, and it has deep ties with other faiths in the country as well. The church also has a web of influence spanning the globe. In any power struggle, the FSB would use the church to help reassure the people and validate its claim to power. Though the power struggle within the Kremlin elite is still murky at best, the Russian Orthodox Church is one more stakeholder to keep a close watch on.