Tuesday

16th Jul 2019

Opinion

Orthodox church split just tip of Putin's crumbling 'soft power' in Ukraine

The historic decision in Constantinople (Istanbul) at the synod of the Orthodox Church to grant Ukraine autocephaly (independence) from the Russian Orthodox church has geopolitical ramifications for Europe.

Russia's control over religious life was the last vestige of soft power Russian president Vladimir Putin exercised over Ukraine.

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Putin's annexation of the Crimea and military aggression against eastern Ukraine, where his occupation forces remain ensconced, produced the opposite to his intention of clawing back what he considers to be a rebellious 'Russian' province that belongs in the 'Russian world'.

Instead, over the last four years, Russian soft power has disintegrated in five areas under the impact of Ukrainian public opinion turning radically against Russia, the collapse of economic, trade and family ties, and the determination of president Petro Poroshenko to make this process irreversible.

Five impacts

The first is the collapse of pro-Russian forces and unavailability of pro-Russian voters.

The Party of Regions, Ukraine's only political machine, disintegrated in early 2014 while the Communist Party was banned a year later under Ukraine's de-communisation laws.

Meanwhile, 16 percent of traditionally pro-Russian voters, and 27 election districts, are in Russian-occupied territories and cannot participate in elections.

Pro-Russian forces are therefore discredited and weak and unable to come to power.

The second area is the direct impact of the war on identity and increasing Ukrainian patriotism.

Over three-quarters of Ukrainians believe Russian objectives are to destroy the Ukrainian state.

The same number hold negative views of Putin and do not believe normalisation of Ukrainian-Russian relations are possible while he is in power but only when Russia returns the Crimea, ends military aggression in eastern Ukraine, pays compensation and ends interference in Ukrainian affairs.

Russia is associated in the eyes of Ukrainians with "aggression" (66 percent), "cruelty" (57 percent), and "dictatorship" (57 percent).

The biggest impact of the war has been on Russian-speaking Ukrainians - the very people Putin claimed to be defending - compromise the bulk of the 1.7 million internally displaced people, and 10,000 civilian deaths.

With 60 percent of Ukrainian troops Russian speakers, it is not surprising they have borne the brunt of military casualties.

Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), neighbouring the Donbas, has four times the number of military casualties of any Ukrainian region.

In 2014, Ukraine had a non-bloc status which failed to prevent Russian aggression. Little wonder backing for Nato has tripled and for EU membership solidified as opposition in eastern Ukraine disintegrated while support for Eurasian integration collapsed.

The third area is economic and trade ties and their links to corruption.

Russia launched a trade blockade against Ukraine in summer 2013 to pressure then president Viktor Yanukovych to dump the EU Association Agreement in favour of Eurasian integration.

Russia's continued trade restrictions and economic collapse in war-torn Donbas has led to a collapse in trade and made Ukraine's biggest trading partner the EU.

A major soft power hold Russia had over Ukraine was in corruption in the energy sector which has evaporated due to energy independence from Russia (Ukraine does not import Russian gas since 2016) and importantly, extensive energy reforms have turned around Naftohaz Ukrayiny state gas company from a corrupt cash cow for presidents into the biggest taxpayer into the state budget.

Ukraine's once powerful 'gas lobby', which backed Yanukovych, is no longer influential and gas mogul Dmytro Firtash is fighting US and Spanish extradition charges holed up in Vienna's Ritz Hotel.

Fourth, Russian soft power - in terms of broadcasts of Russian television channels, social media, and books - is no longer available.

As recorded by the EU's Disinformation Review, Ukraine has borne the brunt of aggressive Russian information warfare over the last five years giving the Ukrainian authorities little choice but to ban them.

A recent poll showed Ukraine second only to the US as a threat to Russia, with 78 percent of Russians viewing the US as hostile towards Russia, 49 percent viewing Ukraine in this manner and 38 percent the UK.

Fifth, with the loss of half of its parishes to an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the power and influence of the Russian Orthodox church, and thereby Russian influence, is significantly eroded in the Orthodox world.

Church cut to size

Henceforth, the Russian Orthodox church will be similar in size to the Romanian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

As important to Russian leaders is the loss of the heritage of Kiev after centuries of corporate raiding Ukrainian history claiming the 'Russian' people began their life in Kiev.

Two years ago, in Moscow Putin unveiled a monument to grand prince Volodymyr who brought Christianity to Kiev in 988AD, in just the latest example of 'fake history' complimenting Russia's 'fake news'; Moscow was founded nearly two centuries after his rule.

Putin's annexation and military aggression doomed Russian soft power in Ukraine, providing President Poroshenko with the window of opportunity to ensure the irreversibility of Ukraine's integration into Europe and withdrawal from the Russian World.

Taras Kuzio is a professor at the National University Kiev Mohyla Academy and the co-author of The Sources of Russia's Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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