An arcane canonical dispute has become a geopolitical flashpoint after Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, said on Thursday that he intended to grant full recognition to a breakaway church in Ukraine that split from the Russian patriarchate in the early 1990s.
The Russian church has warned it may refuse to recognise Bartholomew’s authority, creating the greatest schism in Orthodoxy in almost a thousand years.
But both sides acknowledge the canonical dispute is a proxy for a wider battle over Kiev’s independence from Moscow.
"If Putin decided to call it the Russian empire, it wouldn’t change anything. It’s just the same system with a different name," a person close to the Russian church said. "We — the Russian people — can’t accept Ukraine as a separate state and they know it."
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, seeking to boost single-digit poll numbers ahead of his re-election attempt next year, has cast the issue as a matter of national sovereignty at a time of war in the country’s east.
Speaking in front of Kiev’s oldest church on Sunday, Mr Poroshenko cast "autocephaly", or autonomy for the Ukrainian church, as part of Kiev’s broader push for integration with the west through EU and Nato membership while withdrawing from agreements with Russia.
"Nobody can stop the Ukrainian people. And we won’t ask permission from anyone, because it’s the right of Ukraine and her people, who are fighting for our freedom and our future," he said.
Rostislav Pavlenko, deputy head of Mr Poroshenko’s administration, said that Russia’s failed attempt to keep the Ukrainian church within the fold was part of a broader pattern of global intervention that had isolated Mr Putin.
"From the unlawful annexation of Crimea, from the war in Donbas, their meddling into Syria and their chemical attack with novichok on British soil, Russia is sinking into a deeper schism with the civilised world," he told the Financial Times.
Losing Ukraine is a serious blow not only for the Russian Orthodox Church — which has about a third of its parishes there — but for the Kremlin itself after years of attempts to retain influence over Ukraine backfired.
With Russia an undeclared party to the conflict, some priests from the Moscow patriarchate attempted to remain neutral and blessed Ukrainian forces, while others denied the Kremlin was involved.
"The overlap gives the Ukrainians more justification to say that the Russian church is working hand in hand with the Kremlin," said Roman Lunkin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
In recent months, about 60 individual churches, mostly in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, have switched allegiance to the Kiev patriarchate.
Mr Poroshenko said he expected more to follow suit but warned that any violent seizures of property would be "provocations" by Moscow.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that Russia was "deeply concerned" by the move and would make good on Mr Putin’s promises to "protect the interests of Orthodox believers" in the case of attacks on the Moscow patriarchate in Ukraine.
Though Mr Peskov said Russia would use "exclusively political and diplomatic means" to do so, many in Ukraine fear a violent response. Mr Putin held a security council meeting late on Friday to discuss the issue.
Some in Moscow fear the church’s closeness to Mr Putin — who used it to recast Russia as a bulwark of "traditional values" against the west in the early 2010s — has now become a liability.
"Sometimes, where Putin goes, the church has to follow," a person close to the church said. If it breaks with Constantinople, Russia could lose access to Mount Athos in Greece, a holy site that Mr Putin and other senior Kremlin figures have visited regularly.
Some other Orthodox churches have sided with Bartholomew, who has aggressively expanded his own influence from his enclave in Istanbul by recognising more Orthodox churches overseas.
Andrei Desnitsky, a Russian religious scholar, said the clash was a symptom of Russia’s broader loss of influence globally since the invasion of Crimea. "Russia is drifting away from the global community towards voluntary isolationism," he wrote. "Now we’re risking having the same thing in church life: the only real Orthodox believers are us and the people who agree with us, everyone else is a heretic and a traitor, God is with us and us only."
By Max Seddon, Roman Olearchyk, The Financial Times