The Kremlin has a long history of interfering in the life of the Orthodox Church. Tsars, General Secretaries, and Presidents have seen in the Church a partner, a source of legitimacy, and a threat to their authority. We learned last week that Vladimir Putin has brought this Russian tradition into the digital age: Russian military intelligence has sought to hack and surveil His All Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This news underscores the Church’s vulnerability to the Kremlin when her affairs intersect with its worldly interests. It should caution those in the Church who see a close relationship with the Kremlin as desirable or benign.
The news of the attempted hacking was broken by the Associated Press, which discovered the names of high-ranking advisors to His All Holiness on a “hit list” of emails targeted by Fancy Bear. For about a decade, Fancy Bear has infiltrated organizations inside and outside of Russia, including the Democratic National Committee prior to the 2016 United States Presidential Election. A recent indictment by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller confirms long-held suspicions that Fancy Bear is, in fact, part of the Russian military intelligence directorate. How long the EP has been under surveillance by the Russian government and what, if anything of value the Kremlin was able to learn is unknown. The attempted hacking is likely related to the current state of the Church in Ukraine.
Of the three local Orthodox jurisdictions within Ukraine today, only one, the jurisdiction under the Patriarchate of Moscow (MP), is canonical and in communion with the rest of the Orthodox Church. For many in Ukraine, the goal of realizing one self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in communion with the rest of Orthodoxy, is closely tied to the struggle for nationhood. Historically, this question of churchly self-governance has intersected with other issues of Ukrainian sovereignty, culture, language, and identity. Today, autocephaly is tied to the struggle in Kyiv for economic and political reform after the Maidan Revolution and against the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass.
As first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy, His All Holiness has the authority to grant a tomos of autocephaly, or recognition of self-governing status to the Ukrainian Church. Ukrainian clergy, President Petro Poroshenko, and the Verkhovna Rada have appealed to Constantinople to grant a tomos. The main “loser” here would be the Moscow Patriarchate. Ukrainian autocephaly would diminish its status as a transnational jurisdiction and reduce the number of believers under its care. Significantly, it could cut the MP’s administrative ties to Kyiv, the birthplace of Orthodoxy in the Russian world.
The Kremlin has a strategic interest in the Church’s affairs in Ukraine. Offensively, the Kremlin sees the MP as a guarantor of Russian influence, however we choose to define it, in a neighboring state. Defensively, a united, democratic, economically prosperous Ukraine is a direct threat to the narrative that legitimates Vladimir Putin’s hold on power in Russia. Any means to stymie Ukraine’s unity and progress is worth pursuing for the current Russian regime, including active interference in how the Orthodox Church is administered.
All of this begs an unwelcome question: whether the hacking of the EP was undertaken with the knowledge of the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. The MP would be the most direct beneficiary of any intelligence gathered by the Kremlin on Constantinople. An email used to spear phish the EP illustrates that the hackers had intimate knowledge of the Church. This could indicate the sophistication of Fancy Bear’s operations; it may likewise mean that someone within the Church is collaborating with Russian intelligence services. Without additional evidence, Patriarch Kirill’s innocence should be presumed.
Another question is whether the MP is under surveillance by Russian intelligence services. It would be foolish to draw a sharp distinction between the Kremlin’s attempted hacking of the EP, its intervention in churchly matters related to Ukraine, and its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. If the Kremlin is seeking intelligence from the EP, it is difficult to believe that it is not also surveilling the Church at home. The Church occupies a strategic place in Russian society. It therefore matters to the stability of the Putin regime and would warrant a close eye on its internal affairs by Russian intelligence services.
This sort of surveillance is consonant with Russian digital policy. The Kremlin aggressively uses digital technologies to preserve its hold on power. Beyond targeted hacking, the Russian government mandates the storage of data and metadata within Russia to facilitate mass surveillance of its own citizens. Similarly, technology companies operating in Russia must hand over the keys to their encrypted communication services to the government. These tools can, and perhaps already do, enable the Kremlin to surveil the Church in Russia and abroad. Perhaps the MP’s friendly relationship with the Kremlin exempts it from these operations. The dragnet nature of surveillance in the country, however, should leave us unconvinced of this possibility.
The attempted hacking of the EP is a reminder that the Orthodox Church, regardless of jurisdiction, is vulnerable to the security services at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This should caution clergy and laity alike who advocate for, or are partial to, a close relationship with the Kremlin. The Putin regime has digital tools more insidious than spear phishing at its disposal. Where the Church’s affairs intersect with the Kremlin’s worldly interests, the regime may use these tools to undertake new, opaque forms of persecution. As Russian history has shown us, the line between partnership and persecution is precariously thin.
Evangelos Razis is a graduate of Fordham University and holds a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. He works on digital policy in Washington, D.C.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.