Long time readers know that I’m not a big fan of religion, so you might be surprised to hear me say that Ukraine’s recent achievement of autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church is a big win for Ukraine. To the untrained eye it might seem like another one of those pointless symbolic gestures, the kind where some street is named after a literal war criminal and Volodymyr Viatrovych posts on his Facebook that this great achievement symbolizes “Ukraine moving further away from the Soviet past” while life goes on almost exactly as before, i.e. post-Soviet kleptocracy with different colors and symbols. This is not the case with autocephaly, however. This is a big deal, if only for the major infowar victory it has brought.
See, independence for the Ukrainian church is only half the equation. The Russian Orthodox Church’s reaction is what makes this a victory for Ukraine. After the Patriarch in Constantinople voiced his support for Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly, the Russian church announced it would be breaking off ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate. In other words, they are taking their ball and going home after getting humiliated. Even better- they’re doing this because they can no longer control a church in another country. See, countries like Romania, Georgia, Macedonia, etc. all have their own independent Orthodox churches. The fact that Russia’s church would cut off all relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate because they could no longer dominate the church of another country that has been independent from Russia since 1991, does not look good on the international stage. It looks like a tantrum, much like the time they withdrew from the International Criminal Court after it ruled the Crimea to be occupied by Russia and called the conflict in the Donbas an international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Once again, they didn’t get their way so they rage-quit.
This is how you know you’ve won some kind of victory in the information war with Russia- when you upset them so much they do something incredibly stupid and embarrass themselves. Another example is when you hit them hard in such a humiliating way that they just stop talking about the incident altogether. The trouncing of Wagner mercenaries in Syria by US air and artillery assets is the best recent example of that. Apart from a few denials about Russian citizens killed in the engagement, the Russian government and its state press seemed to forget about the whole mess shortly thereafter. The fact that the Russian Ministry of Defense most likely sold these guys out, and that these tough Russian warriors got pathetically owned by…gasp…America, was just too much for them to take.
Naturally, the recent church split also carries some inherent risks. Russia has made veiled threats about “protecting” Orthodox believers, and they could try to provoke violence in order to justify doing something worse, although I doubt they’ll use that as the excuse for a new military offensive. More likely they’ll just drum up more propaganda narratives and continue the covert war. So bearing these risks in mind, I’d say Ukraine really came out on top in this information battle. You might argue Russia did the work for them when its church decided to throw a hissy-fit, but at the end of the day, results matter.
This kind of thinking has to be behind every attempt to counter Russian aggression, whether we’re talking military action or information war. Optics matter. The narrative matters. Most of all they matter to the Kremlin. The Putin regime is a rickety empire propped up by a narrative. It has little to offer most of its citizens and no firm ideological justification for its existence. The more you wreck and subvert the regime’s narrative, the more damage you do. In some ways, I’d argue it’s even more effective than sanctions at times.