A Proxy for the Kremlin: The Russian Orthodox Church

In late October the head of the Russian Orthodox Church traveled to Romania for the first time since 1962. Although Patriarch Kirill technically came to attend a theological event in Bucharest, the political implications of his appearance are impossible to miss. The visit was part of the Kremlin’s long-term strategy to deploy the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as a soft power tool to exploit divisions, win friends and expand Russia’s influence in a region which shares the same Christian Orthodox faith. This is especially relevant in Romania where public perception of Russia is deeply negative.

The Russian Orthodox Church is particularly eager to influence public opinion by solidifying existing relations and making new friends for the Kremlin in Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania, where the Christian Orthodox faith is popular. Upon his arrival in Bucharest, Kirill wasted no time launching his charm offensive by reminding Romanians that "Romanians and Russians worship the same saints and share the same values"—a message that is closely aligned with the Kremlin’s ideological offensive to create frictions between the Orthodox and socially conservative Balkan countries and the West. It’s worth noting that according to Soviet archives, Kirill spent his earlier years as a KGB agent (code name “Mikhaylov”) as did his predecessor, Patriarch Alexei II. In more recent years, since becoming patriarch in 2009, Kirill speaks of the Putin era as “a miracle of God.”

Kirill’s momentous trip to Romania was only the most recent effort by the Kremlin-ROC axis to soothe longstanding resentments, and it appears the Kremlin’s soft power strategy is working. On Sunday Patriarch Daniel of the Romanian Orthodox Church traveled to Moscow to participate in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the restoration of the Patriarchate of the Russian Church.

The soft power concept, a term coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, describes how countries in the modern era often seek to achieve foreign policy goals through persuasion rather than exerting more traditional methods of military or economic coercion. For the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church is just such a tool: a normative powerhouse wielded to change attitudes and ultimately reshape the post-communist European geopolitical framework to Russia’s advantage. 

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has deployed a variety of soft power methods to undermine European unity and the transatlantic alliance in order to establish a multipolar world order befitting the Kremlin’s aspirations to secure its permanent rule at home and expand its influence abroad. To achieve these goals, the Kremlin is attempting to create and exploit fault lines that would separate Eastern Europe, formerly part of its sphere of influence, from the "decadent West". This particular narrative is a dominant theme in the Kremlin’s soft power toolbox and is characterized by virulently anti-Western and anti-American messages. The Kremlin adopted the “decadent West” line about a decade ago and it has since been propagated by multiple Russian public figures and sources, including key political, diplomatic, academic, and Church leaders, and amplified in the mass media, government-friendly NGOs, and indeed, in school textbooks. The theme is consistent with the view of a considerable contingent of the Russian elite who believe that Russian society is deeply ingrained in the Christian Orthodox faith, and that it is fundamentally incompatible with the West’s liberal social model.

Putin openly assumes the role of defender of traditional Christian values and Russian identity. He frequently references and quotes Ivan Ilyn (1883-1954), a famed Russian political and religious philosopher whose bones President Putin personally saw repatriated from Switzerland in October 2005 to the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. Ilin used the term “mirovaya zakulisa” to describe what he called the Western conspiracy against Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia…Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism…” In his 1950 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” he wrote what has become the basis for most of Moscow’s contemporary anti-Western propaganda line, arguing that Russia has a unique spiritual mission among the Euro-Asiatic nations. Indeed, at the height of the Ukrainian crisis during the Christmas period, Ilin’s “Our Mission” (“Nashi Zadachi”) was among the three books distributed by President Putin as recommended reading to regional governors from the Russian Federation and leading members of the United Russia Party. The Russian Orthodox Church reciprocated the tribute with full support for the Kremlin’s political line on Ukraine and Crimea. Photographs circulated online of Russian priests blessing humanitarian convoys and even military vehicles en route to Eastern Ukraine.

In 2015 Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and second ranking member in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, traveled to Romania to launch the Romanian-language edition of two of his books and to deliver a lecture at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, Romania’s oldest. Hilarion is also Chair of External ROC Relations, and is thus directly responsible for advancing the Kremlin’s agenda abroad, using the Church as a vehicle.

Unlike Patriarch Kirill, who is largely seen as a Kremlin apparatchik, Hilarion is a force in his own right. Only 51 years old, he is a distinguished theologian reportedly with more than 600 publications to his name. He has earned PhDs from Oxford University and Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. He is also a respected composer. This reputation of a contemporary “Renaissance Man” increases Hilarion’s popular standing, rendering him a potent, sophisticated promoter of Russian interests on the global stage. For example, a year ago, while in London for the consecration of a cathedral alongside Patriarch Kirill, he reportedly met Baroness Anelay, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss, among other things, Syria and the Middle East. His international appeal to both clerical as well as conservative intellectual circles is a powerful asset in Vladimir Putin’s efforts to promote Russia as a beacon of traditional Christian values, drive a wedge within Europe and the West, expand its influence, and reshape the political and security architecture in post-communist Europe.   

Russia’s self-appointed role as the defender of traditional Christian values is music to the ears of Romanian Orthodox priests and some conservative circles in Eastern Europe who are deeply troubled by the West’s promotion of what they consider to be a “decadent” social agenda that has overturned the definition of the traditional family and Christian moral principles. Indeed, the Romanian Orthodox Church gathered more than 3 million signatures in support of a referendum that would define marriage as exclusively "between a man and a woman" in the state constitution, a clearindication that conservative social values have broad public support in the region.

Moscow is well-positioned and eager to exploit this chasm and expand its influence—as it does other divisions in liberal-democratic societies—by anointing the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church as the joint defenders of the Christian faith.  Aleksandr Dugin, the influential philosopher and pro-Kremlin ideologue, has also exploited the language and message of the ROC during a series of visits to monasteries in Moldova in Eastern Romania. These visits would not be possible without the tacit approval of the Head of the Moldavian Metropolitan Church, and one can thus be sure that Dugin’s views regarding the role and mission of the ROC are favorably received by the monks and priests, many of whom have significant influence in rural areas. As an example, Chevron’s efforts to extract shale gas in eastern Romania were defeated by massive local resistance that was inspired and coordinated by several priests. Predictably, these protests were widely covered by the Russian state network RT that was delivering a message that conveniently conformed to Moscow’s strategic goal of discouraging energy projects that would reduce energy dependence on Russia.

Over the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a privileged partner of the Kremlin, supporting Mr. Putin’s nationalist line as well as the traditionalist, conservative values the Kremlin promotes within Russia and abroad. In April 2015, at the height of the Greek financial crisis, during their meeting in Moscow, both Vladimir Putin and Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, were keen to emphasize the “shared religious, cultural and historical ties” of the two Orthodox Christian nations. While such remarks may seem surprising from Mr. Tsipras—the leader of a far-left party that includes, among others, Maoists and Che Guevara devotees—they are routine for Mr. Putin, whose close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church are well-established.

For the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church is a highly valuable soft power tool that complements other instruments of influence such as state media (including RT and Sputnik), cyber and digital information warfare, business and finance ties, and elite cooptation. The promotion of a progressive social agenda by Brussels that is deemed offensive to many in Eastern Europe has made the Russian Orthodox Church—in concert with the Kremlin—an expedient vehicle for strengthening ties between Moscow and these countries, especially those embracing the same Christian Orthodox faith by exploiting social, cultural, and religious divisions. Indeed, as tensions grow within the EU, Mr. Putin will have plenty of opportunities to amplify them in line with his objective to dismantle European and transatlantic ties.


Photo credit: kremlin.ru

OG Image: