The Kremlin’s increasing use of Russian Orthodox priests as spies and propagandists is a security threat that the West should counter more decisively.
Bulgaria and North Macedonia have expelled Russian and Belorussian clerics for acts contravening their national security, and in the US the FBI has warned Russian and Greek Orthodox churches that the Kremlin’s intelligence services may be using them to recruit agents.
Analysts have long warned that the Kremlin employs the Orthodox Church as a tool for advancing its foreign policy and infiltrating European Union (EU) and NATO member states. According to declassified archives, the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, worked for both the KGB and its successor, the FSB.
Kirill has wholeheartedly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, portraying it as a holy war against “Nazis”. During a sermon in September 2022, he reportedly told Russian soldiers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”
Kirill sought to justify Putin’s war, saying it was essential to “defend God’s truth” and that Russians and Ukrainians were “really one people” joined by a “common national identity.”
The Church has served as a sharp power tool for Putin’s foreign policy over other issues as well. In 2018, during a visit to Bulgaria, Kirill used the commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war, which set Bulgaria on a path to independence, to scold Bulgarian President Rumen Radev for showing “ingratitude” to Moscow.
The Kremlin envoy had been enraged by a speech from Radev in which he expressed gratitude to the Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Belarussian, Finnish, Polish, and Lithuanian soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the war. Kirill called this a “wrong historical interpretation” and said Russia alone deserved thanks for liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.
His words amounted to a high-handed and clearly political, intervention in the affairs of Bulgaria with a propaganda message designed to amplify divisions in Bulgarian society (where there is a traditional pro-Russian segment of the population), and to assert Russia’s desired image as the sole defender of the Christian world.
Although the close ties between the Kremlin, its intelligence services, and the Orthodox Church are well-documented, Western governments have hesitated to sanction high-ranking clergy to avoid accusations of violating religious liberty.
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The EU attempted to freeze Kirill’s assets and ban him from entering the bloc for his support for the invasion and propagandist behavior, but Hungary blocked the decision, declaring it to be against “fundamental principles of religious freedom.”
Others argued that religious freedom cannot be used as an excuse for violating state sovereignty and territorial integrity, nor as a justification for wars of aggression. In addition, Putin’s Russia has shown over and over again that it does not care about religious freedom.
Bulgarian authorities expelled the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia, Archimandrite Vassian Zmeev, who was expelled from Skopje for alleged involvement in Russian espionage.
Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security said Zmeev and his colleagues had been involved in “the implementation of various elements of the Russian Federation’s hybrid strategy to purposefully influence socio-political processes in the Republic of Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”
In response, Moscow expressed “outrage” and the Russian Patriarch accused the Bulgarian authorities of Satanism. Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov fired back: “Russian priests were not expelled, only people who worked against the national interests of Bulgaria.”
The West should expose and punish Russia’s hypocrisy in its abuse of religion, and the EU and US should follow the UK’s lead and sanction the Russian Patriarch. Clearly worded political and economic sanctions would make clear that the problem is not Kirill’s religion but the transformation of his church into a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.
It is Moscow’s use of Russian priests as propagandists and spies that violates religious freedom, not the countries that remove them.
Impunity is what emboldens the Kremlin to continue weaponizing religion in order to divide and destabilize democracies. The West should expose Russia’s hypocrisy and sanction the propagandists and spies masquerading as clergy.
Dessie Zagorcheva holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Columbia University. She specializes in international security with a focus on Russia and Eastern Europe. Her current research examines NATO’s response to Russian sharp power.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.