WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly appears to be using the Russian Orthodox Church as an extension of his own foreign policy to influence countries with a strong Eastern Orthodox base, including some members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
There are some 165 million Russian Orthodox Church members, with nearly another 100 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in other countries.
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Countries where the Eastern Orthodox Church is the largest religious faith are Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. Countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a high percentage of Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Of these countries, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO members. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also have a significant population of ethnic Russians.
All of these countries figure prominently in Putin's efforts to develop a barrier between NATO and the Russian Federation. In the case of Greece – whose 40-year-old leftist prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, met recently with Putin to help resolve the country's financial crisis – Moscow's assertion of influence could disrupt an already economically plagued European Union and drive a wedge among NATO members.
Various Russian experts say Putin intends to use the Russian Orthodox Church as a foreign policy tool at a time when the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches seek reconciliation over their nearly 1,000-year split, known as the Great Schism, which occurred in A.D. 1054.
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But Russian expert Stephen Blank of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation told WND in an interview he doesn't "hold out much hope for any reconciliation between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church."
Blank said that while there are a whole host of theological issues dividing the two churches, the Russian Orthodox Church "is an arm of the state, an arm of Russian foreign policy and it is an imperialistic operation that is permeated by secret police influence."
"Of course, Putin will use the Russian Orthodox Church's interest in reconciliation as a foreign policy weapon to extend influence with the West," he said.
Blank said the Russian Orthodox Church is "not an autonomous institution."
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"It is used for state purposes, as well as for its own purposes, but it is an arm of Russia's foreign policy," he said.
Blank explained that European "integration and solidarity is an ancient threat to Russia, and that is what Putin wants to overthrow."
"This is Putin's main ulterior move; but there are other motivations," he said. "Putin wants to undermine the Vatican as the only spokesman for world Christendom and have his own influence in it, and he will try everything to reach the 1.6 billion Catholics."
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Pope Francis' interest in reconciliation aligns with Putin's strategy.
In an address last year at the conclusion of the celebration of the liturgy by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul, Francis said the "one thing that the Catholic Church desires and that I seek as Bishop of Rome is communion with the Orthodox Churches."
"Meeting each other, seeing each other face to face, exchanging the embrace of peace, and praying for each other, are all essential aspects of our journey towards the restoration of full communion," Francis said.
Francis then referred to the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Christian Unity, which he said is a "fundamental document" that opened new avenues for encounter between Catholics and members of other churches.
"In that decree," Francis said, "the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Orthodox Churches 'possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.'"
Putin, meanwhile, is taking advantage of the reconciliation effort by using his close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church as a "construct" to help the Russian people see his historical vision of a greater Russia, according to Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow on foreign policy at The Brookings Institution in Washington.
The rise of the Russian Orthodox Church under Putin, Gaddy said in a recent interview in the Fiscal Times, is "carefully crafted but perfect for this climate."
Today, some 75 percent of the Russian people belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. This is in addition to ethnic Russians who live in neighboring countries, whom Putin has pledged to defend, especially in Ukraine.
Gaddy said that when Putin was an officer in the KGB, the old Soviet intelligence service, he initiated a study of Russian society to see where communism wasn't meeting the needs of the Russian people.
One of the things that came from the study, Gaddy said, was the serious miscalculation in banishing religion, especially the Russian Orthodox Church, from the everyday lives of the people.
"(Putin has) learned the lessons of the past," Gaddy said, "and from the failure of the Communist Party to tap the deep support that certain national and nationalist institutions have."
A student of history, Putin claims to have been secretly baptized by his mother against the wishes of his communist father.
"For Putin, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history is a crucial matter," Gaddy said in a recent Atlantic magazine article co-authored with Russian specialist Fiona Hill, also of the Brookings Institution.
"History was his favorite subject in school, and he remains an avid reader today," Gaddy said. "He appreciates the power of 'useful history,' the application of history as a policy tool, as a social and political organizing force that can help shape group identities and foster coalitions."
In a recent Reuters interview, Putin's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, said Putin "reads all the time, mostly about the history of Russia."
"He reads memoirs, the memoirs of Russian historical state figures."
Gaddy said history for Putin is "both personal and personalized – focused on individuals and their actions rather than on political, social and economic forces."
'Miracle from God'
As the Russian president, Putin has aligned himself closely with Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, better known as Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill's complete title is his holiness, patriarch of Moscow and all Russia of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Krill has turned out to be key to Putin's intent to use the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool of his foreign policy goals. In turn, Kirill has called Putin's presidency a "miracle from God."
Kirill's closeness to Putin is no accident.
Kirill allegedly was a member of the Soviet KGB and has close involvement with the Russian Federal Security Services, or FSB, Blank of the Jamestown Foundation told WND.
According to the open intelligence group Stratfor, Kirill has been "aggressive in interjecting the church's role in the Kremlin's foreign relations and in a way that is almost hawkish, going so far as to have set up a joint department with the Russian Foreign Ministry."
"There has been a long and intense competition between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church that stretches beyond religion and into geopolitics," Stratfor said. "As the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Russian Orthodox Church considers itself the modern heir to the Byzantine legacy and therefore a rival to the Vatican."
Nevertheless, Kirill sees an opening with the Vatican and seeks to develop a possible Vatican-Russian Orthodox Church reconciliation.
While Francis and Putin recently concluded a strained meeting, especially over the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian president, a devout practitioner of Russian Orthodoxy, is expected to take political advantage of the desire by both the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches to seek a reconciliation that will better position Putin in the West.
Papal trip to Russia?
Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department, said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that a meeting between Francis and Putin will take place soon in a neutral country such as Austria or Hungary.
Putin's most recent visit with the pope in Italy wasn't his first. They first met in 2013 at a Moscow G20 economic summit, at which time the pope and Putin not only discussed a possible visit of the pontiff to Russia but a meeting between Francis and Kirill. No pope has ever visited Russia, and Kirill hopes for such a historic meeting.
The online news site Crux said the pope and Putin were something of an "odd geopolitical couple" who have formed an "improbably strong partnership." Just prior to the 2013 summit, the pope had sent a letter to Putin urging leaders to find a non-military solution to the Syrian conflict.
Putin then took the pope's letter and told the G20 leaders that "we might listen to the pope." No military action was taken, since an agreement was reached then to retrieve and destroy Syria's chemical weapons, and the "red-line" President Obama had drawn never was acted on.
Blank told WND, however, that he "would not put much stock" in Putin using the letter as a sign of respect for the pope."
"I also think the Vatican is much smarter than that," he said.
While Putin uses the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of Russian foreign policy, the pope seeks to strengthen ties with the Russian Orthodox Church to promote Christian unity.
The pope's intentions happen to coincide with Kirill's and Putin's geopolitical calculations, which have allowed the Kremlin to use the church's political clout to consolidate its position at home and extend is influence overseas.
"For Kirill," Stratfor said, "these acts were not just about proselytizing or spreading Orthodoxy. They were about increasing influence for the Kremlin."
That influence was seen after Russia unilaterally annexed the Crimean Peninsula last year from Ukraine.
One Russian source told WND that it was Kirill who laid the "intellectual groundwork" for Russia's incursion into Ukraine last year.
In his March 2014 speech, Putin cited the Russian Orthodox Church to justify taking Crimea. He reminded his audience in the Kremlin that it was in Crimea where Grand Prince Vladimir of Rus was baptized in A.D 988.
"His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus," Putin said.
Sources say Kirill claims his patriarchy is not limited to the Russian Federation but includes "canonical territory" that roughly equates to territory that comprised the former Soviet Union.
"Its core is the empire that grew out of Grand Prince Vladimir's proto-state of Rus – Russia Ukraine and Belarus," said Geraldine Fagan in the Catholic Herald.
"In the Moscow Patriarchate's understanding, this space comprises the Russian World, or Russkiy Mir," she said. "And Ukraine is crucial. At the foundation of this civilization, Patriarch Kirill explained in a 2009 speech, is the Orthodox faith received 'in the common baptismal font of Kiev' – the settlement where the people of Rus were baptized in the wake of Grand Prince Vladimir."
Kirill has said it "would be to sin against historical truth and artificially sever from us millions of people who feel responsible for the fate of the Russian World and see its creation as their life's work."
Fagan said Kirill has made clear that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus should continue to create Russkiy Mir as a supranational project along the lines of the British Commonwealth.
"Kirill clearly envisaged this influence as 'soft power,'" Fagan said. "Putin has adopted this world view in the ruthless pursuit of hard objectives. Russian Orthodoxy is invoked to sanctify Moscow's appropriation of Crimea and assertion of control over swathes of eastern Ukraine."