Previously published in Worship 97 (April 2023).
False Neutrality and Complicity on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
By Nicholas Denysenko
The one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has passed. Intelligence agencies warned us about the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, but most of us were still surprised when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Predictions of Ukraine’s surrender and a swift end to the war were wrong. The global audience grimaced at images of Ukrainian citizens rushing into bomb shelters as Russian missiles destroyed hospitals, schools, and homes in addition to “military targets.”
Global leaders condemned the attack and imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The United States and NATO supplied Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, and training. Experts predicted that the weight of economic sanctions would force Russia to arrange a compromise with Ukraine. Instead, Russia doubled down. Not only did they relentlessly bomb cities and civilian targets, but Russian soldiers committed war crimes by executing civilians in cities like Bucha and Irpin, trying to conceal these evil acts in hastily arranged mass graves. (1) War crimes investigators have reported teenage soldiers raping and impregnating women old enough to be their mothers and girls as young as nine years old.
A reality check beckons us to acknowledge the cold geopolitical realities of Russia’s invasion. Multiple countries maintained a neutral stance on the war. Countries like Hungary, India, Israel, and China maintained neutrality and often admonished observers to consider “both” sides of the story before rushing to condemnation. Iran has recently created an alliance with Russia. It seems that Vladimir Putin is hoping that Western support for Ukraine will waver, and NATO will push Ukraine into an agreement favorable for Russia. Russian’s relentless attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure expose the hope that the cold winter will force Ukraine to submit.
No one will lament a lasting ceasefire in Ukraine. Many will bemoan the unnecessary violence, death, and trauma caused by Russia’s aggression and war crimes.
The experts have reflected at length on Putin’s motivations for waging this vicious war. Some say that NATO’s expansion and America’s support for democracy and Europeanization in Ukraine provoked Putin. (2) Others referred to his desire to monopolize the fossil fuels market by taking Ukraine’s natural resources in the East and forcing Europe to capitulate to Russian pricing without an immediate transition to clean energy. Numerous commentators claim that Putin’s ideological platform fueled the invasion, especially his firm belief that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus constitute one nation and people.
Religion has also fanned the flames of Russian violence. Ukrainians are quick to remind everyone else that Russia’s war on Ukraine started in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and the arming and assisting of the Donbas separatists. Russia responded violently to the Maidan Revolution of Dignity that started in 2013 and continued through the ouster of Victor Yanukovich as president. The religious dimension of Russian violence was evident in the vitriol expressed toward Ukrainians as traitors among Russian Orthodox clergy and people, and the creation of a “Russian Orthodox army.” (3)
The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (Gundaev), has justified the war from the pulpit. He went so far as to give the “Our Lady of Augustow” icon to the head of the Russian National Guard on the first Sunday of Lent 2022, to lead Russia to victory over the Ukrainian “Nazis.” Patriarch Kirill is also responsible for the Russkii Mir ideology that depicts Europe as a malevolent force of contemporary vices as opposed to the Russkii Mir—an Orthodox civilization based on the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russkii Mir ideology argues that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are truly one people, descendants of a united medieval Rus’ originating in Kyiv. (4) This ideology echoes Putin’s July 2021 speech on the unity of Ukraine and Russia. The Russkii Mir is dangerous because it belongs to the larger ideological apparatus that defines Russia in neo-imperial terms, and therefore dismisses the legitimacy of Ukrainian and Belarusian sovereignty and distinctiveness.
Kirill’s activities in the Church have been aggressive. He defended Russia’s invasion as a necessary response to the alleged atrocities committed by Ukraine against the people of Donbas, parroting a popular accusation without a shred of evidence. He depicted Russian aggression in Manichean terms, as an image of a larger, metaphysical war of good versus evil. Kirill undermined Metropolitan Onufry, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), by ignoring Onufry’s pleas for the Church’s intervention. When Onufry took a small step away from the Russian Church by organizing for May 27, 2022, a council that changed the statute of the UOC-MP, Kirill eventually responded by simply seizing two eparchies that had previously belonged to the UOC-MP. Kirill’s public actions have consistently justified the war and shifted blame to Ukraine and the West.
To be sure, many important Christian voices have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Church of England, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the World Council of Churches have implicated Russia. (5) Hundreds of individual members of the clergy and theologians have denounced the Russkii Mir ideology. The European Parliament placed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill. (6)
Pope Francis’s position has been inconsistent. On the one hand, he has clearly expressed his outrage over the war and his deep concern for refugees in his public actions. On the other hand, he has been too equivocal by suggesting that the West did indeed provoke Russia and by speaking of both “sides.” (7) There is one aggressor—Russia. And there is no defense or justification for the devastation, horror, violence, death, and trauma unleashed on the people of Ukraine.
In my estimation, as a lifelong, baptized, and anointed member of the Orthodox Church, and as a deacon with nearly twenty years of service, the greatest scandal is the refusal of the sister Orthodox Churches to hold Patriarch Kirill accountable for his contribution to the violence. Only a handful of Orthodox Church leaders have condemned Kirill for his complicity, especially the Churches of the Greek tradition. Too many Churches have either remained silent or have treaded carefully by expressing concern about the war without mentioning the patriarch.
My own Church, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), is an apt example. The OCA’s Holy Synod issued a statement calling for an end to the Russian invasion and condemning the war while expressing support for Metropolitan Onufry and his church. (8) The OCA’s leader, Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard), sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill asking him to intervene—though we do not know the precise details of the letter since it was delivered privately and never shared with the people of the Church led by the metropolitan.
The boldest action among Orthodox came from a cohort of clergy in the UOC-MP. More than four hundred priests signed a long letter addressed to the highest-ranking patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches to convene a tribunal that would assess the charge that Patriarch Kirill fanned the flames of war by promoting the dangerous Russkii Mir ideology. (9)
Parishes and clergy of the Russian church in Ukraine have protested Kirill’s complicity by refusing to commemorate him in the Liturgy. Metropolitan Onufry himself continues to commemorate Kirill, but he presides at Liturgy as if he was the primate of an autocephalous Church. An example of his liturgical expression of autocephaly is the intonation of the diptychs, the commemora- tions of all the primates of the autocephalous churches. This liturgical action demonstrates Onufry’s position—he appears poised to lead a de facto autocephalous church, even if it remains under Moscow’s jurisdiction de jure.
Most Orthodox Church leaders and synods have issued statements ranging from condemning Russian aggression to calling for peace and reconciliation on both sides. The appeal for peace is absurd; peace can be achieved only when all Russian forces leave Ukraine and respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Orthodox leaders and theologians have criticized the Roman Church for its steadfast defense of the papacy. The Orthodox claim that the Roman Church has invested too much power into the papacy and that the association of infallibility with the pope’s exercise of the extraordinary magisterium—rare as it is—leaves the Church with no avenue for correcting a false teaching or removing a dangerous pontiff, is, ironically, replicated in the Orthodox Church.
The sad irony is that Patriarch Kirill’s justification of Russia’s violent war on Ukraine has exposed Orthodoxy’s kryptonite. Orthodoxy’s pathetic response to the war reveals one urgent problem and one crisis.
THE PROBLEM: BISHOPS HAVE TOO MUCH POWER
The problem is that Orthodoxy also grants too much power to bishops, and especially to the archbishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs who preside over Church life. To date, the appeal of the four hundred priests for a tribunal to hold Patriarch Kirill has gone unheeded. It is highly unlikely that any such event will take place.
The Russian Orthodox Church exercises considerable influence in world Orthodoxy, especially over the Churches of Serbia, Antioch, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the OCA. None of these Churches have called Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his misdeeds. A special kind of power prevents Christian leaders from speaking prophetically when they are called to defend the vulnerable against violence and exploitation. The patriarch of the Russian Church possesses too much of this power, and there is no mechanism in place to call him to accountability. This is the problem the Orthodox response to the war reveals.
THE CRISIS: INDIFFERENCE IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
The response also reveals a crisis in Orthodoxy. The crisis is one of indifference. Orthodox readers might object to this assertion. After all, many Orthodox Churches have leaped into action by devoting themselves to humanitarian efforts. These initiatives are laudable. But it is not enough to concentrate spiritual energy solely on humanitarian aid. The Church has the resources to address the cause of the crisis.
A religious ideology that has come off the rails and contributed to the transition from the exercise of soft to hard power is immune to humanitarian aid. Church leaders need to speak prophetically, and one component of using the voice God has given is to come together to call Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his complicity in the violence Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine.
There are many excuses offered for the cautious approach. What good would it do to criticize Kirill publicly if Putin will simply remove and replace him with a yes-man? Condemning Kirill could incite reprisal—perhaps the Russian Church would annul the canonical status of autocephaly (independence) it has given to the Churches of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the OCA.
Holding Patriarch Kirill accountable for his bellicose activity could certainly have consequences for these Orthodox Churches. The Russian Church might alienate them, threaten to annul autocephaly, or sever communion. Each and every one of these consequences is worth retaining the gift of prophecy that God has given to Christians. As of this writing, most of the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Churches are refusing to exercise the prophetic ministry by ignoring appeals—many of them from within the Church—to hold Kirill accountable.
The loss resulting from burying the gift of prophecy is much worse than all the other consequences combined. It is akin to denying the call coming from the Lord himself, to deny ourselves, carry our crosses, and follow him. Those called to protect the needy are abandoning the vulnerable. Those called to be shepherds are taking cover and allowing the wolves to tear apart the flock.
The Orthodox Churches can recover the gift of prophecy so many of them have decided to bury, by the grace of God. The Church—the whole Church, all of Christ’s body, including the laity—has a lot of work to do to create mechanisms that limit the power borne by leaders and hold those who abuse their power to account.
For the time being, the refusal of Orthodox leaders to condemn Kirill for his actions is a terrible scandal that permits the Russian patriarch to use his office to justify an unjust and evil war. The people belonging to the Churches that refuse to speak out have no reason to have confidence in their leaders. If Church leaders cannot and will not speak out and act to defend and protect the vulnerable, the faithful have no reason to trust leaders with themselves, their resources, and their children.
The world now knows Orthodoxy’s kryptonite—a combination of exploitative power and indifference. May God heal that which is infirm in Orthodoxy through the prayers of the Ukrainian martyrs killed in Russia’s unholy war.
(1) Carlotta Gall, “Bucha’s Month of Terror,” New York Times, April 11, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/04/11/world/europe/bucha-terror.html, accessed January 11, 2023.
(2) Isaac Chotiner, “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine,” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john -mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine, accessed August 22, 2022.
(3) See Mikhail Suslov, “The Russian Orthodox Church and the Crisis in Ukraine,” in Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis, ed. Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 133–62.
(4) For a more in-depth exploration of Russkii Mir, see David K. Goodin, “The Rise of the Third Rome: Russkii Mir and the Rebirth of Christendom,” Journal of the Council for Research on Religion 2, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2021): 71–88, https://creor-ejournal .library.mcgill.ca/article/view/56, accessed January 30, 2023.
(5) “Church of England General Synod Hears of Ukrainian Suffering as It Votes to Condemn Russian Invasion,” Anglican Ink blog, July 11, 2022, https://anglican .ink/2022/07/11/church-of-england-general-synod-hears-of-ukrainian-suffering-as-it -votes-to-condemn-russian-invasion/, accessed August 22, 2022.
(6) “A Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir) Teaching,” Public Orthodoxy blog, March 13, 2022, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2022/03/13/a-declaration-on-the-russian -world-russkii-mir-teaching/, accessed August 22, 2022.
(7) Luanna Muniz, “Pope Francis: Russian War in Ukraine Was ‘Perhaps Provoked,’” Politico, June 14, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/pope-francis-says-war-in -ukraine-perhaps-provoked-or-unprevented/, accessed August 22, 2022.
(8) Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, “Statement on Ukraine,” Orthodox Church in America website, https://www.oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod /statement-on-ukraine, accessed August 22, 2022.
(9) “Open Appeal of the Priests of the UOC-MP to the Primates of Local Orthodox Churches,” Public Orthodoxy blog, April 26, 2022, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2022 /04/26/open-appeal-of-uoc-priests/, accessed August 22, 2022.