This issue has two sides – religious and political.
From the religious point of view, the matter seems absurd, because there is no question of the so-called autocephaly. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) within the Moscow Patriarchate is the only canonical church structure in Ukraine and it does not seek autocephaly. The UOC obtained broad autonomy within the Moscow Patriarchate in early 1990s. The administrative, including induction of bishops, financial, informational, economic, and other aspects of this autonomy was guaranteed by a tomos (order) from the Moscow Patriarchate.
An absolute majority of hierarchs, priesthood and laypeople of the UOC are satisfied with the status of the UOC as a part of the Moscow Patriarchate, preserving unity with Moscow, and existing as an autonomous part of the big Russian Orthodox Church. This unity has existed for centuries, since the church’s founding during the period of the Christianization of Kievan Rus by Vladimir the Great.
The need to establish a “Ukrainian Autocephalous Church” has been initially promoted by far-right Ukrainian politicians. Their idea is that the Ukrainian national state has to have a Ukrainian national church. Nonetheless this is not church logic and it cannot be employed for the Church which is a supranational entity. Nationalistic Ukrainian politicians are actively supported by local schismatics from the so-called Kiev Patriarchate (an entity headed by Filaret Denysenko, who is under anathema imposed by the Moscow Patriarchate) and a few small schismatic pseudo-religious entities which pursue own political and financial interests entirely unrelated to the Orthodox religious doctrine.
As a result we are seeing Ukraine inject itself into ecclesiastical affairs. This undermines the principle of secularism which is an accepted international norm and has led to violations of Orthodox believers’ rights, including the seizure of churches, attacks on and assasinations of priests, political and media pressure from the nationalists, etc.
In September 2018, the problem escalated to a new level as the Constantinople Patriarchate has joined the fray. Patriarch Varfolomey, in spite of Church canonical law, nominated two so-called exarchs for Ukraine, to “prepare the autocephaly”.
In response, the Moscow Patriarchate decided to stop making references to Patriarch Varfolomey during church services, and also forbade its clergy from participating in joint services with Constantinople Patriarchate clergy. Furthermore, the Moscow Patriarchate declared that Constantinople lost the right to be called the heart of Orthodox faith.
“We don’t have a single coordinating center for the Orthodox Church anymore, we must be very clearly aware of that. The Constantinople Patriarchate has self-destroyed as such a center,” Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s External Relations Department said adding: “The Constantinople Patriarchate has self-destroyed as such a center.”
Upon the arrival of the “exarchs” to Kiev (one came from the US, the other from Canada), Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy starting with the Kiev and Ukraine Metropolite Onufriy refused to meet them. The “exarchs” are only interacting with the political world, as their relationship to the Church is strictly negative as it deepens the schism.
It is apparent that Poroshenko and his nationalistic entourage will not stop on this or other issues promoting Ukraine’s “tearing away” from Russia, and he enjoys significant US support.
Patriarch Varfolomey’s activities concerning the problem of “Ukrainian autocephaly” are also driven by his dependence—financial and political—on the United States (that country represents the biggest and most influential constituency of the Constantinople Patriarchate, which has no flock inside Turkey itself).
The current efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church are focused on several directions. It is working on church diplomacy to obtain support from other local Orthodox Churches in the conflict with Varfolomey who has seriously violated canonical law. It may summon the inter-Orthodox Synaxis (assembly) with the participation of all the Churches in order to discuss the Ukrainian question. The absolute majority of Orthodox Churches are prepared to support the Russian Church. It is so far unclear what position will be adopted by the Romanian Orthodox Church, which has its own claims on the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate (the issue of the “Bessarabian Metropoly” in the Republic of Moldova).
But first and foremost, the Russian Orthodox Church will be focused on spiritual, moral, and informational support of the Ukrainian believers. Unfortunately, here the Moscow Patriarchate can count only on its own resources, which are limited. The biggest problem is that the Church can speak in its own specific religious language and use religious terms, while its opponents are using political leverage and are not choosy in the means they use. .
Thus, the Ukrainian nationalists already threatened to use October 14, the holiday of the Burial of the Mother of God, to seize two of the most important Orthodox shrines, the Kiev Pechersk Lavra and the Pochaevsk Lavra in Volhynia. Ukrainian believers have been warned about it, and the defenders of both holy sites have asked the believers to protect the sites from desecration. The situation remains tense.
What should one expect in this case from the Russian state? If the Russian state currently existed in the form of Russian Empire, which viewed the defense of its Orthodox brethren irrespective of borders or political trends as one of its responsibilities, this question would never even arise. Russia would have adopted a wide range of measures, up to direct intervention, to protect fellow believers. But in the case of the Russian Federation it is difficult to speak of any reaction. In other words, one should expect that the current Russian state will not react in any significant way.