Institute for Global Engagement Search


On the Importance of Religious Minorities for Ukraine’s Present and Future

  • Catherine Wanner
  • March 8, 2024

Many have been taken aback by the verve with which Ukrainians have responded to the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. The invasion triggered something close to a total civilian mobilization. All men between the ages of 18 and 60 were mobilized to serve in the armed forces. Huge numbers of civilians mobilized themselves to help the displaced and to support the army by raising money for weapons, caring for those injured in battle, and rebuilding what had been destroyed. As the war enters its third year, the Ukrainian people, acutely aware that their state has fewer troops, weapons, and resources than their Russian counterpart, continue to “weaponize” and “securitize” whatever possible to gain collective advantage in war even when this risks intensifying the polarization of Ukrainian society in the longer term. This is how, from multiple sources and directions, religion has become a proxy battlefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war. The stakes are great for both sides and carry implications for global Orthodoxy more broadly.

For Ukrainians, this war is fought with such broad support because it is understood as Ukraine’s war of independence. The Soviet Union collapsed in three days almost bloodlessly after a failed coup in August 1991. Although the actions of a small group actively served to bring down the system, its collapse was made possible because virtually no one defended it. The USSR snapped apart along the previously established borders of the 15 ethnic republics that made up the Soviet Union. It is only now that the people of Ukraine are obliged to unequivocally commit to defining the values that should characterize the kind of society they would like to live in and the means of governance to achieve and sustain this vision. This is what makes this war so belatedly relevant to Ukrainian independence.

Especially since 2014, when the Maidan protests forced a kleptocratic, increasingly authoritarian President to flee in the night, broad popular momentum gathered to decisively pursue a different political future from the one proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had become accustomed to Ukraine as a vassal state of Russia replete with colonial relations. Violence accelerated after the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian support for armed regional separatism, leading to a full-scale invasion in February 2022. Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to defeat the dual legacies of the Soviet and Imperial pasts by pursuing independence and a chance at self-determination through war.

Religion is central in this regard. Winston Churchill claimed that the British and the Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. The same is true of Orthodoxy concerning Russians and Ukrainians. This shared faith tradition has been mobilized by both sides—albeit in vastly different ways—to justify diametrically opposed political and military positions. The Russian Orthodox Church is an enthusiastic supporter of Russia’s “special military operation” even though the war kills Orthodox cobelievers and destroys in great number Orthodox churches and monasteries that are institutionally linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

For Ukrainians, efforts to fortify state sovereignty include the securitization of religion. In 2019 an autocephalous, independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine that has no institutional connections to the Russian Orthodox Church was established. This has led to the unprecedented situation of a single country having two canonically recognized churches on its territory both claiming to serve a single people.

With a standoff between two denominations of the Orthodox majority faith group arising within Ukraine, the import and influence of religious minorities correspondingly mounts. Ukraine is an overwhelmingly Eastern Christian country with 78% of believers claiming to be Orthodox, irrespective of denomination, and another 10% claiming to be allied with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Complicating the religious landscape is the ethnonational component inherent to institutional Orthodox organization. Being Ukrainian is equated with being Orthodox. Correspondingly, in the popular imagination, being from Western Ukraine is equated with being Greek-Catholic. In other words, religious identity intersects with other factors informing identity, including national, political, and regional orientations. Given the standoff between the majority Orthodox faith groups and the context of a grinding, punishing war that shows no signs of letting up, what is to be done to stem social tensions and institutional conflicts from exacerbating or prolonging violence more generally?

Although small in number, the remaining religious minorities, Protestants, Jews, Roman Catholics, and Muslims, are poised to play a critical role in diffusing the entrenched Orthodox impasse and addressing social divisions created by the war. One of the few governing successes since 1991 is the establishment of religious pluralism as a political norm. Much like the concept of covenantal pluralism posits, this religious pluralism was—and I believe it is fair to say still is—based on more than just tolerance. It is not “thin soup ecumenicism” where interconfessional cooperation is the only option, but rather a political principle that has been deployed in a series of political upheavals over decades. The Maidan Protests of 2013-14 were preceded by the Orange Revolution in 2004-05, and the Revolution on Granite in 1990. In each of these instances, a wide spectrum of religious groups repeatedly acted in a concerted, coordinated fashion to bring about directed political change that traded on a shared vision of ideal governance. Religious groups issued joint public statements proclaiming shared civic values in spite of their obvious differences in belief and practice.

The very name of the country Ukraine means “borderland,” reflecting its geographical position as a meeting place of three empires, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. This historical legacy has bequeathed a cultural readiness to elastically accommodate difference, be it of a religious, linguistic, or ethnic nature. The acute challenges brought on by continued loss of life and massive destruction of civilian infrastructure as Ukraine enters its third year of war with Russia have also solidified social and national solidarity grounded on democratic principles of governance and resistance to the threat Russia poses to the pursuit of these civic ideals.

For many reasons, minority religious groups are highly motivated to resolve tensions between the two competing denominations in Ukraine. First, they will have to live with the consequences of whether Ukraine has a single, multiple, or competing majority faith groups within its borders. Although most were quite vocal in their support for the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, they do not wish to see the Church act in tandem with state interests as is the case in Russia and other predominantly Orthodox countries. Religious minorities in Ukraine have historically served as a counterweight and critical voice against state and church abuses of power.

Religious minorities merit our attention because they will likely influence overall social cohesion going forward by responding to the Orthodox impasse, articulating war narratives, shaping alliance formation, and providing essential humanitarian aid to devastated populations. Dialogue leading to community engagement, often referred to as self-organization (samoorhanizatsiia), has the potential to foster participatory forms of democratic engagement that could lead to a more robust and stable civil society and cultivating attitudes of trust, hope, and empathy. These character virtues will have to be enabled and put into action to address theodicy and betrayal in order to endure this war and its equally punishing aftermath. Religious minorities in Ukraine will play a key role in this regard.


About Catherine Wanner

Catherine Wanner is Professor of History, Anthropology and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her research centers on the politics of religion, conflict mediation, and human rights, especially in Ukraine, but more broadly in Eastern Europe. She is the author or editor of six books on Ukraine, including the most recent, Everyday Religiosity and the Politics of Belonging in Ukraine (Cornell University Press, 2022).

Stay updated!

Sign up to our enewsletter for all updates.