Since the full-scale Russian invasion began, Ukrainian security services have conducted counterintelligence operations against a branch of the Orthodox Church, suspecting priests of spying and spreading pro-Russian propaganda. Moscow and their supporters are calling this a breach of religious freedom.
The non-Russian former Soviet states have a complex relationship with modern Russia, chief among these complexities being that Orthodox leadership in former Soviet states has remained loyal to leaders in Moscow. A closer look at the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and its relationship with the Russian intelligence services suggests that this connection presents a security risk.
Former patriarch Aleksi II, “Drozdov”
The fall of the Soviet Union created an environment that exposed nearly a century of state secrets. Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist who defected to the United Kingdom, provided a vast collection of written copies he made of KGB files to British intelligence. He took extensive manuscript notes, totaling thirty-six volumes that make up the Miktrohkhin Archives. These archives have exposed the likes of Aleksi II, former patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia from 1990 to 2008. According to KGB files in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, Aleksi was recruited by the Estonian KGB.
The reports refer to an agent named “Drozdov,” hinting at Aleski, who graduated from the Leningrad Theological Academy in 1953 and completed a thesis on the 19th-century Metropolitan of Moscow Filaret Drozdov. Documents noted by Mitrokhin reveal that the KGB viewed Aleksi as a top influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, and he was ordered to disrupt Vatican activity by sowing discord among its entities.
Patriarch Kirill I, “Mikhailov”
Patriarch Kirill I is Aleksi’s successor and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, even going so far as to call Putin’s tenure a “miracle of God.” During a Sunday sermon about Ukraine, Kirill told his followers, “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” Statements such as these provide spiritual cover for Putin’s geo-political objectives. In KGB archives, Kirill was referred to as “Mikhailov”, and Mitrokhin took notes from the KGB First Chief Directorate archive in Moscow, detailing that when Kirill served as the Moscow Patriarchate representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, he was indeed an agent for the KGB.
A better understanding of the Soviet security services allows us to establish a key fact: for over three decades, the Russian Orthodox Church’s most important seats were held by men who carried out intelligence operations for the state. An additional benefit when dealing with Western nations or, in this instance, former Soviet States, is that if a covert church network is discovered, they can accuse the local government of oppressing religious freedoms, as we see now in Ukraine.
Abbott Andriy Pavlenko
On the surface, an abbot in eastern Ukraine named Andriy Pavlenko appeared to support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia. He visited wounded soldiers in the hospital and led prayer. The truth is that Andriy was aiding Russian forces in his efforts to kill Ukrainian soldiers and activists. “In the north, there are about 500 of them, with a mortar platoon, five armored personnel carriers, and three tanks,” he wrote to a Russian officer in March as fighting intensified in Sievierdonetsk. “He needs to be killed,” he wrote about a rival priest, as revealed by evidence introduced in a Ukrainian courtroom at his trial. Pavlenko even sent a list to the Russian Army, listing people who needed to be rounded up once the city was occupied. He was later convicted as a spy and traded with Russia in a prisoner exchange.
We have seen a wide range of covert action conducted under the umbrella of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and cyber attacks against church elements aligned with Kyiv. From information operations as simple as spreading pro-Russian propaganda, to the providing of real-time information on Ukrainian troop movements, the Russian Orthodox Church poses a significant threat which will have security services in Ukraine and the West paying closer attention to their actions.