Patriarch Kirill has spoken only a handful of times since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. The last comments he made, on Sunday 27 February 2022 are probably by far the most distressing and, at the same time, the most explicit testimony of the Russian Orthodox Church’s attempts to legitimise Putin’s unforgivable actions in neighbouring Ukraine.
In the statement of 27 February, Patriarch Kirill attempted to drag (involuntarily) to his side the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC aka UOC-MP) Met. Onufry by saying that he and the church he leads (UOC-MP) is a guarantee of the fellowship of the unity of the Russian church and the “Russian lands (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus)”. Met. Onufry holds a position of considerable weight in this war and can be one of the key persons with an influence over possible outcomes. It must have been very frustrating for him and some of his church’s hierarchs to read Kirill’s statement.
UOC-MP issued several appeals against Putin’s actions and towards Patriarch Kirill, which he completely ignored. Under present circumstances both Kirill and Met. Onufry seem to be two worlds apart. While Met. Onufry calls on Putin to stop the war, his superior, Patriarch Kirill, describes the “present situation” in Ukraine through the lens of imaginary Western plot involving diabolical attacks from dark and hostile evil forces against the Russian land which forces, according to him, want to break the unity between the two nations.
We are obviously at a crossroads. How can it be possible to reconcile these two positions as they keep growing apart? More importantly, for how long will UOC-MP be able to show support towards the Ukrainian leadership and keep repelling Kirill’s version of events as this war continues?
Looking back at the post-2014 period and the war in the Eastern Ukraine, a considerable part of Ukrainian society saw the positioning of the UOC-MP during this time to be somewhere in the middle which brought a significant backlash against it and even intensified the support for autocephaly. Many in Ukraine wanted to see a more resolute stance from UOC-MP on the war in Donbas. Instead, the impression Met. Onufry gave was that UOC-MP wanted to position itself as neutral, calling for prayers for both sides of the conflict. For some, this was a sign of succumbing to Kirill and the Kremlin under the “Russian world” ideals, while for others it was considered a way to de-escalate the situation. The scenes from the ceremony in the Ukrainian Parliament in 2015, which was devoted to the fallen soldiers of the Ukrainian war, and the refusal of Met. Onufry and several other high-ranking UOC-MP hierarchs to stand up and show their respect alarmed many. Fast forward to recent weeks, some in the UOC-MP and media outlets close to this church considered the increasingly volatile environment and talks of a possible invasion by Russia to be the product of Western hysteria.
Judging by the criticism of some in Ukrainian society about UOC-MP church’s role in the war in Donbas and the gravity of the situation in Ukraine at the moment, the likelihood of a potential clash between Kirill and Onufry is a possibility. The painful reality is that, as the war rages across the country, UOC-MP churches will be in areas where Russian forces will be in control and local clergy will be in the midst of it which would become a pressing issue for UOC-MP leadership. This adds another level of complexity and a whole set of new challenges, where Ukrainians would once again look to the steps that Met. Onufry and his clergy are taking in the affected areas.
As I wrote after the recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk by President Putin (February 21, 2022), Met. Onufry has two strategic choices. Unlike his position in 2014, he can now signal and show willingness for more amicable relations with Met. Epiphany of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This can ease the pressure from the formal linkage with Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church. The alternative is to maintain the status quo.
Talking about a substantial reconstruction of relations between UOC-MP and the OCU should take place but at this hour might be unrealistic as the pain from the war has already started to affect directly some of the clergy. At the same time, the status quo or the old recipe illustrated by OCU-MP’s stance over the war in Donbas (post-2014), is not sustainable given the bleakness of the situation, and reflecting the spiritual needs that Ukrainians have and will have once the war ends.