Look where Russia doesn't want you to look

A wide-ranging game began long before the invasion, from Putin's use of the Russian Orthodox Church to expand Russian influence to a crisis in Kazakhstan that no one is talking about

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The military invasion of Ukraine takes place in the context of a different kind of campaign: Putin’s recent use of the Russian Orthodox Church to expand Russian influence. This campaign isn’t limited to Ukraine, and that’s a problem.

The Donetsk Region of Ukraine where Russia initially sent “peacekeeping forces” is majority ethnic Russian. In an effort to strengthen its claim, Moscow has been passing out Russian passports to this population like candy. But that is far from the first effort to underline the connection. One of the most potent has been Russia’s beating of the drum of shared religion. 

As the name suggests, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, the oldest and largest church in Ukraine, has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Russian Orthodox Church for three centuries—and it’s a linchpin in Putin’s longstanding claim that Ukraine is not a nation of its own but a cultural and political extension of Russia.

In 2018, in the wake of growing tensions after the Russian invasion of Crimea, The Ukrainian Orthodox church was granted autonomy from the Russian church by the Constantinople patriarchate. This once-in-a-millennium earthquake in Orthodoxy was a spectacular slap to Russia, one about which Putin is still incensed, and it set off an under-reported power play by the Moscow Patriarchate to wrest power and influence from Constantinople within the larger network of Orthodox churches.

If this sounds like just so much bickering among church folks over who gets the offering plate, I refer you to two bloody centuries of European history, among many other examples. This is the stuff of national and cultural identity. Add in a former superpower still smoldering over its demotion on the world stage, and a perceived religious insult becomes more than enough kindling for a continental conflagration.

And well beyond.

Orthodox expansion in Russia’s toolbox 

Previous coverage has discussed the implications of religious divisions in the region and how Putin uses the Russian Orthodox Church as a symbol of Russian identity and influence.  

The Russian Orthodox Church established an exarchate in Africa in late December. This happened after the Alexandria patriarchate recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Russians aren’t just mad about NATO. Their expansionist policies aren’t limited to former Soviet block states. 

Pay attention to symbolism 

For Patriarch Kirill’s birthday last November, the Synod of Russian Orthodox bishops gave Kirill a fancy new lid to go with his uniform. 

The bishops wanted to emphasize their devotion to the supreme hierarch of Moscow with the gift of a new tiara, the Byzantine “koukolion” which in Russian sounds sympathetically as “patriarch’s doll”: only in Moscow is it worn in white to emphasize the ancient claims of “pope of Orthodoxy” of Tsarist times. The new headdress, in fact, is very similar to those of the early days of the Moscow Patriarchate in the seventeenth century, when Kirill’s predecessor, the reformer Nikon (Minin) had tried to elevate Moscow to the center of world Orthodoxy, thus causing the abolition of the Patriarchate by Peter the Great.

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This conflict isn’t just being fought by states over borders but by churches over congregants and cultural clout. The Russians want to elevate their Orthodox church and restore its hegemony. Moscow vs. Constantinople is as important a conflict to watch as Putin vs Biden.

Look where Russia doesn’t want you to look

Meanwhile, like a magician diverting your attention, the focus on Ukraine keeps us from looking at Russia’s other actions, like the expansion of Russian Orthodoxy into Africa.

I have some unsettling questions about other possibilities.

The collapse of the Kazakhstani government last month stands out as an under-reported second crisis on Russia’s border. The entire government quit in January and the country was completely shut off from the Internet while protestors set the capital on fire in anger over rising fuel costs. Those cost increases have a lot to do with Kazakhstan’s huge cryptocurrency mines sucking up huge amounts of fossil fuel energy. 

In addition to military expansion in Ukraine and more religious expansion into Africa, Kazakhstan may present an opportunity for Putin amidst new sanctions.

One has to wonder who really controls those Bitcoin mines. Thanks to new sanctions, Putin will have oil he can’t sell to the West. He can dangle those carbon resources for cheap to the crypto miners in exchange for kickbacks. 

Putin may try and run a pump and dump on crypto to fund his expansionist efforts. My advice: watch the gas fees. If the costs of sending crypto suddenly start dropping, followed by a sharp rise in value, this conflict is considerably more multidimensional than mainstream reportage suggests.

The military conflict in Ukraine is an unfolding tragedy with widespread implications. But it’s not the whole game.

FOR INFERNAL USE ONLY Jack Matirko was raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but it didn't take. His projects include The Left Hemispheres Podcast, The Naked Diner Podcast, and An Ongoing and...