The Orthodox stand-off over Ukraine is about more than just religion

Orthodox Christians march around the regional administration building, which is occupied by pro-Russian activists (Getty Images)

Readers of this magazine will be familiar with the religious situation in the Ukraine, where the stand-off between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Constantinople has recently reached a new stage.

A great deal is at stake here, and the implications are not simply religious, but also political. If a new autocephalous and canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church emerges from the current situation it will be yet another sign that Ukraine is not Russia and not part of the Russian sphere of influence.

The religious question, which is so complex to the Western mind, should, however, not distract us from the fact that Ukraine and Russia are still at war, though the war in question is not quite like any war that we are used to. For this reason – if only because there has been no formal declaration of war, indeed a denial of involvement on the Russian side – the situation is usually designated a “conflict”. Moreover, it is a war without much movement, so thus is described as a “frozen” conflict. What this means in practical terms is that there is a military line of control running through Ukrainian territory dividing the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk from the rest of Ukraine.

However, while shelling continues across this line in both directions, and men are being killed, at the same time, civilians are allowed to cross at designated check-points, and, incredibly do so on a regular basis to collect their pensions in Ukraine, which are a vital source of income for many people living in Donetsk and Luhansk. So, everything is normal, and yet nothing is normal. People are still being killed, though up to date statistics are hard to come by, and all statistics are disputed. Nevertheless, the war is continuing, even though coverage of the war in the Western media has largely ceased.

What happens next? One possible outcome is what happened to Georgia, another country that was invaded by Russia. The frozen conflict gave birth to the Republic of Abkhazia of which few have heard. Abkhazia remains, according to international law, part of Georgia, but is de facto now part of the Russian Federation, and unlikely ever to return to the Georgian fold. There are in fact several similar places which have the same twilight status. Is Russia bothered? One does not get that impression.

Hard for us to understand is why Russia wants the Donbass region in the first place. But there are several explanations. The first is that Russia is wedded to the idea of territorial expansion, today as much as ever. Let it be remembered that the Russian Empire expanded hugely from the time of Catherine the Great, right through to the time of Nicholas II. Russia gained enormous tracts of territory after the Second World war as well, both in Europe and in Asia, where it got hold of all of Sakhalin island from Japan.

In addition, this expansionism is not just about territory, it is also about population: Russia’s population is in decline and it wants to annex territories where there are people, such as the, by Russian standards, quite densely populated Donbass and Crimea. Wedded to this is the idea that all Russians should be in one state, and that Russian populations outside Russia’s borders have a natural right to be part of Russia. This last idea poses a threat to states such as Latvia where a substantial percentage of the population is ethnic Russian, the descendants of settlers who moved there in Soviet times.

On top of all this there is the almost mystical belief, held by many in positions of influence, that there is something called Russkiy Mir, the Russian world, a sphere of influence and culture that belongs to Russia by God-given right; this Russian world would include the Crimea where the first Russian sovereign was baptised.

And that brings us straight back to the religious question – the idea of a separate Ukrainian Church seems to the spiritually-minded Russians an attack on the foundations of their identity.

One thing is absolutely certain: unless there is a change of ideology at the top in Russia, the war in Donbass will continue in its present relatively low-intensity way. Such a change could come. There have been Russian governments in the past which have eased off on territorial expansion. One thinks of Alexander III (not a widely admired Tsar, but one who kept Russia out of wars) and the more recent time of Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin, men who effectively gave away (as some Russians would see it) swathes of Russian territory. For the Orthodox Church in Russia now to agree to the setting up of a new Ukrainian autocephalous church would be seen as a similar betrayal – the ceding of religious territory.

Meanwhile, we can only hope for peace in Ukraine, or failing that, that Russia will abandon its proxies in the Donbass. That too is not impossible. It has happened before and not so long ago. The Russians, after a long and costly war, abandoned Afghanistan leaving their ally, President Najibullah to face the music. The withdrawal was welcomed in Russia because the war and the resulting casualties had become very unpopular.

It is of great interest to note that the current Russian government denies that it has any troops in Donbass, denies that any Russian soldiers are being killed there, and brings back its dead in secret, bribing their bereaved families to say nothing about it, and holding their funerals in secret. The current price the Russian government pays to the family of dead soldiers is supposed to be half a million roubles, an authoritative Ukrainian source has told me. That’s roughly $7,500, or under £6,000. That is not much consolation in grief or recompense for a life of silent mourning, is it?