Is Ukraine’s spiritual independence from Russia really a political win?

In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.

On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.

Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.

From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% –  voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.

By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.

So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.

kerch strait

On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.

It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.

The International Response

As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.

On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.

In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.

After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s