Caroline Burke / Gavel Media

"Russia’s Aggression by Other Means:" Putin's Political Use of the Russian Orthodox Church

Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou was invited to Boston College to speak about Vladimir Putin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church as a soft power tool to promote the Russian Federation’s foreign policy goals on March 29, 2022.

Prodromou started by explaining Putin’s current goal of re-establishing Russia as a “great power” with a wide sphere of influence in its post-Cold War era. To achieve this, Russia has been observed using both soft and sharp power in place of hard power to exert its will. 

The idea of soft power involves persuasion and leading by example to cause others to follow a country’s influence. Sharp power is rather about the impairment of free expression and distortion of the political environment. In the modern world, technology is often used as a form of sharp power to create multiple competing truths.

“In terms of the Moscow patriarchy and its relationship with the Kremlin, we see that both soft and sharp power tools have been deployed for influence-building,” Prodromou stated.

Prodromou also spoke about Russia’s religious diplomacy, in which religious institutions practice their own democracies and geopolitics outside of the state. Russia uses religious ideas, institutions, individuals, and networks of interactions to develop spheres of influence, restore Russia’s great power status, and connect territorial ambitions with cultural-religious ambitions. 

“It’s about understanding geographies in the territorial and physical sense, but also understanding geographies in terms of symbolic cultural and religious spaces,” Prodromou explained. “We see these two types of geopolitics help us to understand how Russia builds influence through use of soft and sharp power.”

In addition to religious diplomacy, Russia is also seen practicing strategic conservatism, which reflects the idea that political and cultural preferences can be used strategically to achieve certain ends. Prodromou emphasized how this strategic conservatism becomes the framework that allows Russia’s use of soft and sharp power for building its influence.

“The conservative norms, ideas, values, and institutional bearers of those, would create a new moral framework, by which Russia would regain its great power status, domestic strength, and capacity to project its influence beyond its borders,” Prodromou elaborated.

Prodromou also explained her focus on Greece and how its strategic location makes it valuable to Russia for expanding its global influence. Greece’s position within the global Orthodox system causes Moscow to see it as a crucial target for influence building, due to traditional and religious geopolitics.

The Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church have both seen religion as a valuable means of influence-building within Greece. Orthodoxy is seen as a method of disruption within NATO, and Russia uses these ideas to spread its supremacy. 

“The church-state arrangement is dependent on [Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s] personalities, but even once those two personalities depart the scene, the institutional relationship and the consequences of that relationship… it will take time before there’s any sort of a transformation,” Prodromou explained.

Ukraine has also become a critical case for Moscow’s deployment of soft and sharp power. In January of 2019, a decision was made granting autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, dissolving Russia’s religious authority over the country. This U.S.-facilitated decision was intended to strike a blow to Russia’s control and to target the Moscow patriarchy by weakening its theological impact. 

“The importance of Ukraine, for Russia’s ‘Russian world’ strategy as well as how Russia understands its own security interests, is linked to this cultural and religious soft and sharp power of the Moscow patriarchy,” Prodromou emphasized. 

The use of soft and sharp power has been instrumental in Russia’s strategy to once again achieve its status as a world power by expanding its global influence, primarily through the Russian Orthodox Church and its expansion of Russian cultural and traditional values. As Russia’s influence continues to grow, especially in the cases of Greece and Ukraine, these changes are seen more and more often.

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