How Geopolitics Are Driving the Biggest Eastern Orthodox Schism in a Millennium

7 MINS READOct 19, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
Worshippers attend a service at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra in Ukraine during October.

Worshippers attend a service on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, a monastery and headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy in Kiev on Oct. 14. On Oct. 11, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate agreed to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church its independence, a move opposed by Moscow.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.
  • The granting of autocephaly, or self-governance, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the subsequent break of the Russian Orthodox Church from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople mark one of the biggest schisms in the Orthodox world in the past millennium.
  • The move by Ukraine toward ecumenical independence from Moscow is part of a larger drive to separate from Russia, and it is likely to lead to greater friction between the two countries.
  • The Constantinople decision and the Russian split could lead to bigger divisions within the Eastern Orthodox world, because Moscow will probably try to persuade its Orthodox allies to break away, while other branches could seek autocephaly for themselves.

What Happened

On Oct. 15, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it would break off all relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy. The break came after the patriarchate agreed on Oct. 11 to grant autocephaly, or self-governance, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, putting it on the path to independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hailed the move by Constantinople, saying it "finally dispelled the imperial illusions and chauvinistic fantasies of Moscow." The Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement saying that the decision is "out of the canonical boundaries" and that officials in Moscow have vowed a "firm and tough response."

The Big Picture

Ukraine's drive to separate from Russia since the Euromaidan uprising in 2014 is a key theme in Stratfor's forecasts and assessments. The split of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Moscow Patriarchate is a major development within this trend, and it will have repercussions throughout the Eastern Orthodox world.


Eastern Orthodoxy in Ukraine and Russia has been united under the Russian Orthodox Church since 1686, when the Moscow Patriarchate was granted control over the Kiev archdiocese and the power to ordain its metropolitan, also known as a patriarch. Ukraine currently has three Orthodox denominations, the largest of which is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. That branch remained subordinate to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and contains more than 12,000 parishes. This is almost a third of all parishes under the Russian Orthodox Church, and Ukraine contains some of the symbolic ones, such as the monastery Kiev-Pechersk Lavra and its catacombs. The other two denominations are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, with 4,800 parishes, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, with 1,000 parishes.

The primacy of the Moscow Patriarchate has been challenged by the Kiev Patriarchate since the fall of the Soviet Union, and this struggle has intensified in the past five years. A key turning point came in April when Poroshenko applied to Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew I for autocephaly. Bartholomew is considered to be the "first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox clerics and the leader of the roughly 300 million followers of the religion around the world.

Russia has long been unhappy with Constantinople's first-among-equals status and has sought to challenge and erode its role. Russia sees itself as the dominant bastion of Eastern Orthodoxy — the Russian Orthodox Church alone has more than 150 million followers — and the two patriarchates also differ on some points of doctrine, with Constantinople seeking closer alignment with the Holy See. These have led to more of a rivalry between the two instead of a partnership. 

In granting autocephaly, Constantinople in effect rehabilitated Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate and Patriarch Makary of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Both leaders were excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1990s, and the granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church abolished the anathema, or expulsion, imposed on them and their followers.

After Patriarch Bartholomew's decision, Patriarch Filaret said he would call a council of the leaders of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to choose a new chief for a united autocephalous church of Ukraine. The move marks the beginning of the establishment of an independent church in Ukraine, outside the control of Moscow and its patriarch, Kirill. For that reason, the decision by Constantinople is ultimately self-serving, because it weakens the Russian Orthodox branch and may reduce its challenge to Constantinople.

Why It Matters

The decision and its aftermath may lead to one of the biggest schisms in the Orthodox world in the past millennium. In a geopolitical sense, self-governance for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is part of the country's broader drive to separate from Russia since the Euromaidan uprising and the ensuing conflict in Ukraine. Ukraine has said that the Russian Orthodox Church has played a key role in the Kremlin's attempts to influence and meddle in Ukrainian affairs. Kiev has sought to rein in Moscow's influence, and ecumenical independence could substantially weaken Russia's soft power in Ukraine.

In asserting its Orthodox autonomy, Russia could pursue a more combative approach and seek to use its geopolitical heft, as well as its position in the religion, to try to persuade other branches to break from Constantinople and look toward Moscow as the new center of the religion. Russia's break with Constantinople could end up splitting the Eastern Orthodox world into pro-Moscow and pro-Constantinople camps.

Indeed, Russian allies such as Serbia and Belarus already have backed the Moscow Patriarchate and condemned the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The break could also lead Orthodox churches in other countries that are less aligned with Russia — such as Montenegro and Macedonia — to push harder for autocephaly from Constantinople. For several other countries, including Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, the situation is more complex and it is unclear which way they will go.

What to Watch For

  • Selecting a leader: Autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine will happen only after a unification congress of the country's churches agrees on a primate for the new church. This will likely be 89-year-old Patriarch Filaret. The congress will task the newly elected primate with completing the formation of the new church and with ensuring its functioning. The most sensitive issues will be the church's name and the redistribution of property.
  • Disputes over holy sites: Several of Ukraine's most holy sites and churches will be claimed by both the Russian and Ukrainian churches. The Kiev Patriarchate has already laid claim to the famous 11th century Kiev Monastery of the Caves and the Holy Dormition Monastery in Pochayiv. Both sites are now controlled by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and could face protests and vandalism.
  • Violence: So far there has been no violence as a result of the split, but both sides have issued several warnings. Poroshenko has said, "If you see people who call for seizing a lavra, monastery or church by force, you should know that they are Moscow's agents. The Kremlin's goal is to ignite a religious war in Ukraine." ... Vadym Novinskyi, an opposition bloc member of parliament, predicted a "civil war" and clashes over property "in every village and every town." He vowed to personally join the ranks of defenders at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, a monastery. ... Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, "If the developments spiral into abusive practices, of course, Russia will protect Orthodox Christians' interests, just like Russia protects the interests of ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking population everywhere."
  • Broader Russia-Ukraine standoff: Tension from the split could spill over into other areas of conflict between the two countries, leading to flare-ups in the war in eastern Ukraine, an increase in cyberattacks, and assassinations of political and religious figures inside Ukraine.
  • Responses of other Orthodox countries: The Constantinople-Moscow schism is likely the first step in Russia's attempts to persuade other Orthodox branches to follow suit. But others may be wary of allowing the Russian branch to be so dominant and will prefer the current system because Constantinople doesn't have Moscow's geopolitical heft, and thus it poses less of a potential challenge to their independence. Still, some autonomous and self-governing churches may follow Moscow's example because of pressure from the Kremlin, creating the potential for a greater religious and geopolitical rift among Orthodox countries.

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