While religion has not been a primary driver of conflict in Ukraine, its distinctive history and recent politicization have ensured that it remains an important aspect of the broader context surrounding the current war. Religion has shaped the formation of conflict narratives, as well as understandings and perceptions of the war within different communities. Misunderstanding and indifference to the role of religion in society can significantly exacerbate conflict dynamics, while understanding the peacebuilding potential of religious communities can shape interventions and create opportunities for future stability and social cohesion.

St. Andrews, Kyiv, an Orthodox church under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul
St. Andrews, Kyiv, an Orthodox church under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul

Part I: Religion in Ukraine


Ukraine is predominantly an Orthodox Christian country, with a few notable religious minority populations. Religion has played a fundamental role in Ukraine for the entirety of its history. It ­­came to be seen as the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy when Volodymyr — the knyaz (king) of the proto-Russian kingdom Kievan-Rus’ centered in modern Kyiv — adopted Eastern Christianity in the 10th century and required the same of his people. Despite attempts under the rule of the Soviet Union to repress religion, Ukraine remains a highly religious country today.

Perhaps the most important religious dynamic to understand in Ukraine, especially as it relates to the ongoing conflict, is the longstanding tension between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Further information on this complex dynamic is provided in Part II of this guide.

The largest Catholic communities in Ukraine are the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). UGCC is the largest Eastern Catholic Church and is in full communion with the Rome. Though it is subordinate to the Pope, it follows uniquely Byzantine rites and has had strained relations with both the Synod (the governing body of the Orthodox Churches) and the Vatican. The majority of Ukrainian Catholics are to be found in the western regions of the country (mainly Galicia), such as the cities of L’viv, Ternopil’ and Ivano-Frankivs’k, which were once under the control of Polish and eventually Austro-Hungarian Catholic empires.

There are a variety of religious minority communities in Ukraine, though considerably less than many other European states. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic group indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. They were systematically deported under the Soviet Union, but have nonetheless maintained the largest Muslim population in Ukraine. Together with Volga-Ural Tatars and small numbers of Caucasian and Central Asian immigrants, Muslims make up about 0.9 percent of the population, according to the most recent census.

Ukraine was a flourishing center of medieval Judaism, home to several key Jewish sites and the birthplace of major Jewish theologians. Widespread pogroms under the Russian Empire, Soviet persecution and the Holocaust all contributed to the near annihilation of the Jewish population by the mid-to-late-20th century. The Jewish community has since experienced regrowth. Current estimates indicate a Jewish population in Ukraine between 56,000 and 140,000. Prominent Synagogues are a central feature of the cities of Kyiv and Dnipro.

Protestantism began to spread in Ukraine during the second half of the 16th century, but with a particularly significant increase in numbers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Numerous congregations of every major Protestant tradition exist in contemporary Ukraine. In terms of organized communities, Protestants — with more than 10,000 church groups — are second only to the Orthodox in this regard. There is also some presence of non-Protestant Christian churches such as The Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

At the interfaith level, the most prominent group is the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO). Established in 1996 and legally registered as an NGO since 2019, AUCCRO unites the major Orthodox, Catholic, and other Christian denominations in Ukraine with their Jewish and Muslim counterparts. Primarily focused on issues such as preserving freedom of religion and belief in Ukraine as well as coordinating the charitable worked of faith-based groups, AUCCRO has also served as a platform for Ukraine’s various religious groups to speak with a common voice in condemning Russian aggression towards their country.

Pictured left to right: Epiphanius I, Onufriy I, Sviatoslav Shevchuk

Religion in Public Life

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion immediately reestablished itself as a fundamental part of Ukrainian public life and national identity. Along with many other Eastern European countries, some public opinion polls have suggested that Ukrainians are significantly more religious than their counterparts in the West. The relationship between the state and the Church is highly public and often politicized.

Orthodox Christianity is also closely intertwined with the idea of Ukrainian national identity. Most Ukrainians say that it is at least somewhat important for someone to be Orthodox to be truly Ukrainian. About half of Ukrainian respondents agree that Orthodox religious leaders have influence over national politics. Ukrainian churches played visible and prominent roles in both the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Their prominence is indicative of the central function of religion in national affairs.

Legal Status of Religion

The Ukrainian Constitution provides for the free expression of religious belief and asserts “the separation of church and religious organizations from the state.” In practice, some contemporary Ukrainian national leaders have aligned themselves closely with the UOC, while others have leaned towards the OCU, which has tried to position itself as a national church since gaining autocephalous status in 2019. However, there is no formal legal association between the Ukrainian state and any religious body.

Ukraine has made a concerted effort to distinguish itself from the behavior of the Russian government, as leaders in Moscow have exerted significant legal pressure on religious minority groups in order to exercise control over them and/or force them out of the country. Conversely, religious minorities enjoy a certain amount of legal protection in Ukraine. Domestic law asserts that the objective of religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship. Equal protection under law is not always uniform, however. In 2020, the European Court of Human Rights investigated hate crimes against foreign religious organizations (particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses) and administrative discrimination against minority groups.

The relatively high levels of religiosity in Ukraine make religion a central element of legal, cultural and political affairs. The close relationship between the institution of the Orthodox Church, state authority and national identity mean that religion is inseparable from all contemporary events. It is therefore of utmost relevance to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Part II: Religion and Conflict in Ukraine

Joint Histories

In order to understand the relationship between religion and conflict in Ukraine, we must first understand two essential histories and the relationships between them. First is a brief political history of Ukrainian independence. Second is a brief religious history of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

The Ukrainian State and the History of Conflict

The modern Ukrainian and Russian states have directly intertwined histories that contribute to their complex relationship today. Both states have their origins in the medieval kingdom of Kyivan Rus’ whose capital was Kyiv. The kingdom eventually dissolved into separate principalities that became modern Ukraine and Russia. During the Russian Empire period, Eastern and Central Ukraine was controlled by Russia while the Western regions were divided under various European empires. This East versus West cultural divide is still somewhat relevant in Ukraine today.

Ukraine declared independence in 1917 as the democratic Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR). It was then conquered by the Red Army in 1922 and incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic added more territory in the west and Crimea until it reached the boundaries of the modern state. Ukraine declared independence again in 1990 as the USSR dissolved. In 1994, it surrendered its leftover nuclear weapons arsenal in the Budapest Memorandum on the condition of a guarantee from the United States, United Kingdom and Russia that its territory and security would be protected. Ukraine maintained its full territorial integrity for the next 30 years.

In 2014, a popular pro-Western movement ousted the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych after he cancelled an association agreement with the European Union. The consequences were twofold. First, Russia illegally seized Crimea in a rapid invasion. Second, separatist paramilitary groups in the far east Donbas region seized control of Donetsk and Luhansk, establishing breakaway republics. The Russian military quickly began to offer support to the separatists through supplies and personnel. The conflict between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatists has been ongoing in the years since. From 2014-2022, the conflict took more 13,000 lives, displaced 1.5 million Ukrainians, and established an active front line of 280 miles.

In 2022, President Putin began to increase the number of troops along the border in response to Ukraine’s application to join NATO. In February, he moved a substantial number of troops into the separatist-controlled Donbass and recognized the independence of the breakaway republics. Just a few days later, he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches

Ukraine and Russia have both been major centers of Orthodox Christianity since the baptism of Volodymyr in 988 and the subsequent Christianization of Kyivan Rus’. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has the largest population of Orthodox adherents in the world, totaling around 101 million. It is also the largest autocephalous Orthodox Church in the world — a status indicating that its head bishop does not report to any other higher ranking ecclesiastical official.

The original seat of the church that would become the ROC was in Kyiv, which was a major center of medieval Christianity. After the Mongol invasion and the decline of Kyiv, the bishopric relocated to Moscow in 1325. In 1439, several Byzantine bishops from the Orthodox capital of Constantinople developed a plan to sign a union with the Roman Catholic Church and come under the jurisdiction of the Pope. When the decision was brought to Moscow, the Grand Prince Vasilii II rejected it outright.

Having defied the authority of Constantinople, Moscow appointed its own head bishop as the “Metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia,” the office which would become the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. A few short years later, Constantinople fell to Ottoman invaders. The new Muslim rulers rooted out Christianity and established it as a center of Islam, renamed Istanbul. As such, the new Russian Orthodox Church began to consider itself the “Third Rome,” the only remaining seat and ultimate authority of the one true Christian religion. From then onwards, the Russian Orthodox Church considered itself subject to no higher authority — not in Constantinople or elsewhere.

In Orthodox Christianity, an autocephalous church is one whose leader reports to no higher episcopal authority. The question of autocephaly for the Orthodox church in Ukraine has been hotly disputed. The Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul claims that it possesses the authority to bestow the status of autocephaly on Ukraine—as it did in 2019—a position rejected by the Russian Orthodox Church which argues that Istanbul transferred full control of the Kyiv Metropolitanate to Moscow in the 17th century.

Chart of Ukraine and Global Orthodoxy
Note: While the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted autocephaly by Istanbul in 2019, its status is not universally recognized within the global family of canonical Orthodox churches.

Religion in Conflict Today

The UOC has often acted as a tool for Russia to exercise soft power influence in Ukraine. Disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the Russian government have continued to stoke conflict between the OCU and UOC. Petro Poroshenko actively encouraged the reregistration of UOC parishes into the jurisdiction of the OCU. Competition for dominance has been fierce. When President Zelensky took office, he sought to de-politicize the question of religion by discouraging parish re-registration and by trying to promote coexistence between the rival churches. However, the UOC and ROC continue to label the OCU as a schismatic church and discourage its formal recognition abroad.

These tensions have also had implications for the conflict that broke out in 2022 following Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople immediately condemned the Russian attacks. Interestingly, Metropolitan Onufriy of the UOC also spoke out against the invasion, saying “defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to the President of Russia and ask him to immediately stop the fratricidal war. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the Dnieper Baptismal font, and the war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.” Several months later, the UOC went even further, with its General Council declaring on May 27, 2022 that it was breaking ties with Moscow — although the concrete implications of this move remain unclear. 

In December 2022, President Zelensky announced that in the name of ensuring Ukraine’s “spiritual independence” he was ordering parliament to consider a new law that would prevent religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in Russia from operating in Ukraine. This action followed a series of investigations carried out by Ukraine’s internal security service against several religious institutions and facilities connected to the UOC that had been suspected of producing pro-Russian propaganda. While the concrete implications of this move will depend on the exact wording and scope of any new legislation, it has raised new concerns about religious freedom and the further politicization of religion in Ukraine.

Military conflict in Ukraine today has complicated the relationships between churches and state interests, blurring traditional lines and introducing an era of further uncertainty. The situation in Ukraine and its consequences for the wider global community is evidence of the fact that religion and the social, cultural and political developments in the world today are not separable — in fact, they are all fundamentally intertwined.

This primer was drafted by USIP Religion & Inclusive Societies Research Analyst Aidan Houston, with input from Drs. Tetiana Kalenychenko and Denys Brylov from the European Center for Strategic Analytics and USIP Senior Advisor Dr. Peter Mandaville.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Unholy War

An episode of Commonweal podcast

Experts on contemporary Orthodoxy and church politics discuss the broader global context surrounding Christian responses to Russia’s war in Ukraine in this podcast from the Catholic magazine Commonweal.

Religion and the Russia-Ukrainian Conflict

BYU Law interview with Dmytro Vovk

A noted Ukrainian expert on religious freedom discusses the religious context of the Russia-Ukraine war in a web interview with Brigham Young University’s law school.