Long before Russia positioned military forces along Ukraine’s border or menaced its neighbor with cyber-attacks and economic pressure, Moscow deployed another, under-appreciated weapon increasingly used by rising global powers: the transformation of religious soft power into what is known among some scholars of authoritarianism as “sharp power.” 

A worshiper enters the basement of the Church of the Archangel Michael in Rivne, Ukraine, where the Moscow-led Orthodox branch holds services. December 9, 2018. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
A worshiper enters the basement of the Church of the Archangel Michael in Rivne, Ukraine, where the Moscow-led Orthodox branch holds services. December 9, 2018. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

In the case of Vladimir Putin, the soft pull of the two countries’ shared Orthodox Christian religious identity was converted into a sharp attack intended to enhance Moscow’s religious supremacy and serve Putin’s geopolitical aims. While Putin has led the way via a longstanding strategic alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, a similar dynamic is at work in other emerging powers — including China, India and Brazil — whose current leaders have all found political utility in religion.

The Ukraine case illustrates the trend well. Prior to 2014, Putin had invoked the two nations’ Orthodox Christian religion as one element of a narrative about the necessity of Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment with Moscow. In what was originally a story of bi-national solidarity, Putin’s initial religious soft power effort invoked the late 10th century Christianization of Kievan Rus (a pan-Slavic kingdom centered on modern day Ukraine and often viewed as a precursor to modern Russia) to build a case for the idea that the two countries possessed a shared history based in religious culture and identity.

However, once it became clear that Ukraine was inexorably turning towards Western Europe, the branch of the Orthodox church in Ukraine most directly allied with the Kremlin (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, or UOC-MP) began to emphasize the idea that Russia should be viewed as a guardian of Christian civilization and traditional family values in opposition to the relatively secular orientation of many European Union nations and what it portrayed as Western efforts forcibly export feminism and support for LGBTQI rights.

Division in the Orthodox Church

Putin is not exclusively to blame for the politicization of religion in Ukraine. Once the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kyiv Patriarchate (OCU-KP) broke with Moscow’s religious leadership to gain autocephalous (self-governing) status within global Orthodox structures in 2019 — a process championed by Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko, and which led Russia to cut its ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul — the religious edge to the conflict was sharpened even further. UOC-MP sought to dissuade Ukrainian soldiers from defending themselves against Russian and Russian-supported separatists in the name of Orthodox brotherhood and in some cases refused to perform religious rites for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians baptized outside the UOC-MP.

While the Ukraine crisis has not taken on an overtly sectarian character, the ongoing tension between different Orthodox groups has become a complicating factor in the conflict, sharpening pro-Moscow or pro-Kyiv allegiances in some cases, and creating a difficult situation for Ukraine’s minority religious groups — Greek Catholics, Jews and Muslims among them.

The politicization of religion in the current Ukraine crisis is hardly unique. Rather, it represents a clear case study of a much broader phenomenon: the growing capacity of states to convert religious soft power into religious sharp power tactics as circumstances demand.

Sharpening of Soft Power

While the concept of soft power in international relations has traditionally been associated with the capacity of great powers such as the United States to influence other international actors through the attraction of its culture and values, today we are witnessing a fundamental transformation in the nature and landscape of global soft power. Emerging great powers such as China and persistent global players like Russia are incorporating new forms of cultural and religious outreach into their external relations as they seek to shape and influence settings around the world deemed to be strategically significant.

In some cases we see new religious manifestations of classic soft power projection such as, for example, China’s efforts to emphasize its Buddhist heritage in countries along the route of the Belt and Road Initiative — Sri Lanka and Thailand, for example — with significant Buddhist populations. Similarly, in a show of pan-Islamic solidarity, Turkey has been building both transportation infrastructure and new mosques in parts of east Africa with significant Muslim populations. In Brazil, conservative groups linked to President Jair Bolsonaro have expanded their transnational ties with like-minded evangelical and Pentecostal groups in Portuguese-speaking African nations.

However, the mobilization and projection of religious or values-based identities can also have a distinct impact on peace and conflict dynamics, particularly in societies with underlying social or intercommunal tensions. In this regard, some of what we see today has started to resemble a religious variant of what foreign affairs analysts Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig termed “sharp power” in a noteworthy 2017 article for the National Endowment for Democracy. Sharp power — as distinct from either the positive allure of soft power or the use of military force often associated with hard power — refers to the use of information, communication and technology tools to disseminate ideas and messages likely to sow discord and tension in target societies. Russian efforts to exacerbate political polarization and partisanship via social media platforms during recent U.S. election cycles are but one example. 

The results of these new religious sharp power dynamics have manifested across multiple regions, including Africa, the Middle East, South and South-Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. From the cross-regional politics of China’s suppression of its Muslim populations in the name of “counter-terrorism,” to the role of transnational Hindu supremacist networks organized out of India, today’s emerging powers are developing new malignant forms of public diplomacy — often with religious inflections — that have major implications for global peacebuilding.

A Pathway to Peace?

The Kremlin’s embrace and instrumentalization of the Russian Orthodox Church is, as noted, a prime example of how the rapidly evolving terrain of global geopolitics forces observers of international affairs to pay attention to the renewed relevance of religion as an instrument of statecraft.

The explicitly political — rather than religious — nature of the current schism in Ukrainian Orthodoxy also points to some of the ways that faith-based actors and communities can be part of the solution to religious sharp power. Exacerbating religious tensions along nationalist lines serves the agenda of those — such as Kremlin leaders — looking for a pretense to intervene in Ukraine to defend Russian interests.

To date, the broadly ecumenical orientation of Ukrainian Orthodox religious leaders on both sides of the UOC-MP/OCU-KP divide has played an important role in limiting Moscow’s capacity to exploit the schism for geopolitical gain. Going forward, supporting the capacity of religious actors to play this bridging role will be an important part of both managing current intercommunal tensions and, over the longer term, repairing the damage to Ukraine’s social fabric caused by a decade of conflict.

The case of Ukraine demonstrates the importance of exploring and engaging multiple dimensions of religious soft and sharp power in contemporary global politics and their impact on global peace and stability. By drawing on and extending existing work on the geopolitics of religious soft power, there exists today a valuable opportunity to better understand the implications for conflict and peace of this new trend in great and rising powers making strategic use of religion and to identify approaches and action frameworks to minimize their destabilizing impact in the context of peacebuilding.

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