The Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin’s HiddenInfluence Campaign in the West

By Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan

On July 23, one of Ukraine’s largest churches, the Orthodox cathedral in Odessa, was seriously damaged by a Russian missile strike. The strike highlighted one ofthe lingering enigmas of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion ofUkraine: Moscow has been waging war not only on a neighboring population but also on one that, like its own, is overwhelmingly made up of Orthodox Christians. In effect, theRussian government has been forced to target its own religion in its campaign to subdueUkraine. Yet despite this, members of Russia’s Orthodox clergy have been among the most vocal supporters of the war, and criticism from Orthodox leaders in other countries has been comparatively muted.

In some ways, this should not come as a surprise, owing to the well-known ties between theRussian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Since the early years of Putin’s tenure inpower, the church has gained growing influence in Russian society and has enjoyed astrengthening of its historical links to the Russian state and the Russian military. In theyear and a half since the invasion began, the church has also played a crucial part insupporting the war, with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church,becoming a prominent mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s military aims.

But alongside this domestic support has been another, less noted phenomenon: the strong backing Putin receives from Orthodox communities abroad. Many of these are in the West:in the United States, the Orthodox Church has 2,380 parishes, along with 41 male and 38female monasteries. Although church membership remains small—in the United States, according to a 2020 census, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has close to 25,000 members and Eastern Orthodox churches as a whole have some 675,000 members—the large number of parishes gives the church a broad geographic presence, including in many major Western cities.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, an Orthodox leader in NorthAmerica called on believers around the world to support it; in Europe, one of the West’s most prominent Orthodox bishops condemned the Ukrainian authorities, not the Russian army, for the atrocities that have been committed against Christians during the war. Even more striking has been an ambitious campaign to win Russian Orthodox hearts and minds—including in the United States and other Western countries—that has been led by an arm of the church with links to Russian intelligence and the Russian government.

Such is the current extent of these efforts that they have caught the attention of the U.S.government. Earlier this year, the FBI privately warned members of the Orthodox community in the United States that Russia was likely using the church to help recruit intelligence sources in the West. Members of the community gave us copies of FBI documents that had been shared among Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox parishes.The documents identify and highlight the activities of a senior member of the RussianOrthodox Church’s foreign relations department whom the FBI suspects of having ties toRussian intelligence. The FBI’s warning suggests that the church may be even more closely linked to the Putin regime than many observers assume, with potentially significant implications for the Kremlin’s overseas influence. Given the church’s well-established presence in Western countries, these links could also complicate efforts to build an effectiveRussian opposition abroad.


In itself, it is unsurprising that the church could play an important part in furthering Russia’s strategic interests. For centuries, the church has been closely connected with the Russian state, a relationship that has spanned the eras of the Russian Empire to the SovietUnion to Putin’s Russia. From the eighteenth century until the Russian Revolution, the Russian tsar was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in turn gave legitimacy to Russia’s imperial rule; Russia’s brand of orthodoxy is based on the concept that Moscow is “the Third Rome”—the successor to the Christian empires of ancient Rome and Byzantine Constantinople. The church’s influence also buttressed (and was bolstered by) a national-imperial ideology of Russian exceptionalism, which held that the church’s mission was to serve the tsar and defend the sacred motherland.

Ironically, communist rule didn’t change this orientation much, despite the Soviets’systematic persecution of church leaders, the confiscation of church property, and thegeneral dismantling of the church’s influence after the Bolshevik Revolution. During WorldWar II, when the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin asked the church to help rally the populationto the defense of the Soviet Union, church leaders responded to his call—not out ofopportunism but because they recognized that the country’s ideology was rapidly movingfrom a vision of proletarian rule and universal communism to a renewed nationalistideology that drew on the Russian Empire’s glorious past. Stalin understood thatnationalism was more inspirational to soldiers who were risking their lives in a devastatingwar with Nazi Germany, and the church readily embraced that view.

In the later decades of the Cold War, despite the official atheistic rhetoric of the Soviet government, the church kept close to the state. One of us (Soldatov) had a grandfather who was a high-placed Moscow military official in the early 1980s and was proud to be invited to the Orthodox Easter service at Yelokhovo Cathedral in Moscow. Back then, it was the country’s main church, and the invitation was a symbol of elite status. The KGB closely monitored the church but not merely for surveillance purposes: operatives also keenly assessed clergy and laypeople as potential agents and sources.

In part, this was because the KGB and the church shared a belief that the country wasunder constant threat from the West and was surrounded by numerous enemies whosought to undermine Moscow. What is more, going back to the thirteenth century, theRussian Orthodox Church had been suspicious of the eastward expansion of Catholicism,which it viewed as the West’s attempt to impose its own religion on Slavic civilization. Forthe KGB, the Russian church’s historical preoccupation with the threat of outside influencemeant that it could be co-opted in Soviet efforts to create an ideological bulwark againstthe West.

The tight relationship between the church and the security apparatus did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The democratic changes of the 1990s touched many areas ofRussian society, but they left two institutions almost completely intact: the KGB, which

church. Although democratic reformers and liberal priests called for a sweeping reform ofthe Russian Orthodox Church, their efforts came to nothing. Instead, under Putin, thechurch found a new supporter and protector.

In the first years of Putin’s administration, the FSB, the successor to the KGB, took actions to protect the Orthodox sphere of influence. In 2002, five Catholic priests were expelled from Russia by the FSB on the pretext of espionage charges. In return, the church gave theFSB its blessing: later that year, the Cathedral of Saint Sophia the Holy Wisdom of God was reopened just off Lubyanka Square, a block away from the FSB’s Moscow headquarters. Patriarch Alexy II himself blessed the opening of the cathedral in a ceremony attended by Nikolai Patrushev, then the FSB chief, who today serves as the head of Putin’s security council.

Putin’s patronage came with a price: he expected the church to contribute to the stability ofhis regime through activities in Russia and abroad. From the very beginning, he wanted tobring the Russian diaspora in the West under his control. To achieve this, he made it hispersonal project to subjugate the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

Formed by the remnants of the White Army in the countries where the Russian exilessettled in the 1920s, that church became known as the White Church (whereas the exilesreferred to its counterpart in Soviet Russia as the Red Church, because it was assumed tobe penetrated by the KGB). Since 1951, the White Church has had its headquarters inNew York City, at the corner of Park Avenue and East 93rd Street, and throughout theCold War, it remained completely independent from the church in Moscow. Its rival, theRed Church, also had a presence in New York at St. Nicholas Church on East 97th Street.

After Putin came to power, he resolved to bring the Russian Orthodox Church Abroadunder the Moscow patriarchate. Putin personally supervised a years-long courtship ofWhite Church priests, at one point sending a gift to the head of the White Church—an

enormous icon of the last Russian empress, Alexandra, who was executed together withTsar Nicholas II and the rest of the imperial family in 1918 by Bolshevik revolutionaries. Insending the icon, Putin appeared to be signaling that it was time to rehabilitate thememory of the imperial order. In May 2007, the two churches signed an accord, known asthe Act of Canonical Communion, in an elaborate ceremony at Christ the SaviorCathedral in Moscow.

Ever since, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has been affiliated with the church inMoscow, which has supported the foreign policy of the Kremlin and played a role in its propaganda campaigns. For instance, in 2014, the Immortal Regiment, a Kremlin-sponsored initiative in which Russians march on Victory Day holding photos of their relatives who fought in World War II, was introduced in the United States with the support of St. Nicholas Church in New York. But the overseas Orthodox community also represented a potential network of pro-Kremlin support across the West. In the years before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, efforts to tap this community by officials inMoscow with ties to the church and to Russian intelligence began to attract the attention of Western law enforcement, including the FBI.


In the spring of 2023, the FBI distributed a six-page notification within the Orthodox community in the United States titled “Russian Intelligence Services Victimize Russian Orthodox Church and other Eastern Orthodox Churches.” The warning, which bears the seal of the FBI, names and shows a photograph of a senior official in Russia’s Department for External Church Relations—the foreign service of the Russian Orthodox Church—and states that there are reasons to suspect that the man is a “Russian Intelligence Officer operating under non-official cover.” His objective in the United States, according to the warning, was to recruit the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches. The FBI’s national press office declined to comment on the notification and the information it contains, but noted that the bureau “regularly meets and interacts with members of the community . . . to enlist the cooperation of the public to fight criminal activity” and encourages “members of the public who observe threatening or suspicious activity to report it.”

According to publicly available information, the Russian national in question was trained inMoscow and worked for the Department for External Church Relations for more than two decades. This work frequently took him abroad, including to the United States. According to the FBI notification, in May 2021, when he arrived on a visit to the United States, the church official was briefly stopped and searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Although the official does not appear to have been detained or formally charged, a subsequent FBI review of materials found during the search revealed that he had been carrying what the FBI notification describes as “intelligence documents,” including documents concerning both Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and its military intelligence agency, the GRU.

Among the documents was a memorandum marked “confidential” that outlined the establishment of a “system of cooperation” between the church and several Russian spy agencies, including the SVR, the GRU, and the FSB. In a list of “areas of interaction”between the church and the spy agencies, the memorandum calls for the “preparation of the staff” of both the church and the SVR and suggests that church staff be brought into the“operational activities” of the SVR, stipulating that this would happen “exclusively at the direct approval from the Patriarch.” It also states that the GRU is “ready to expand the cooperation” with the church, which could “very gradually” come to include “real field activity.” For the FSB, the church is deemed of interest on such counterintelligence matters as “opposition to sects, and development of parity actions toward foreign organizations.” (A full copy of the memorandum was appended to the FBI warning.)

According to the FBI notification, the Russian national was also carrying “files regarding the source/agent recruitment process” as well as dossiers on church employees, including detailed biographical information about them and members of their families—information that the warning suggests could be used to blackmail employees of the church into participating in spy operations. These files were not included in the warning, and the claims could not be independently verified. But members of the Orthodox community confirmed that the Russian official had many meetings with church officials in the United States and had been traveling to the country since the 1990s.

Attempts to reach the Russian national were unsuccessful. The Russian embassy inWashington and the Department for External Church Relations in Moscow did not reply to requests for comment about the FBI’s findings and the activities of the official in theUnited States. But in an email, a spokesman for the department wrote that the person was“no longer an employee of the Department for External Church Relations” and that he hadbeen“fired” in June 2023. 

Of special significance may be the date of the memorandum outlining the new relationship between the church and Russian intelligence. Russian sources who are close to the patriarchate in Moscow and who have seen the document date it to the spring or summer of 2009, shortly after Patriarch Kirill took office in February. This would match the FBI’s metadata analysis, which dates its creation to late March 2009. The Russian sources also suggest that the document was likely drafted by the church administration at the direct request of Patriarch Kirill. If that is correct, it would provide further evidence that Kirill almost immediately set out to establish a new level of cooperation between the church andRussia’s security services, a relationship that appears to have grown in the decade leading up to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

In the years after 2009, as Kirill consolidated his leadership of the Russian OrthodoxChurch, the church’s growing presence in Russia’s state administration expanded to includethe military. By 2010, the Russian Orthodox Church had taken on a new role inside theRussian army with the introduction of military priests, or chaplains. And in 2020, Putinand his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, joined Patriarch Kirill to inaugurate the Cathedralof the Armed Forces, a vast new military-themed complex near Moscow that is designed tosymbolize the church’s central place in Russia’s military history. The 2022 invasion broughtthis involvement to a new level.

Since the war began, images of religious icons have flooded Russian social media, along with prayers for the victory of the Russian army and calls to pray for soldiers on the battlefield. Kirill has become a leading voice for the “special military operation,” as it is officially known. Following the announcement of Putin’s partial mobilization in September2022, for example, Kirill declared that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” He also attacked the West, claiming that unidentified forces were trying to turn the Ukrainians from being “part of the holy united Rus into a state hostile to this Rus, hostile to Russia.”

The church has also deployed firebrand clerics to drum up support for the war, such as Andrei Tkachev, a Ukrainian-born priest and TV personality who left Ukraine in 2014 and has become one of the most aggressive pro-war voices in the church. Since the start of the invasion, his videos on YouTube have been widely shared among Russian special forces.Meanwhile, Russia’s most professional military units, including the special forces, have embraced religious symbols in an appeal for divine protection. And Russian battalions are being named after Russian saints such as Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century Russian prince who was canonized for his military victories over Swedish and German crusaders.

Even more striking, however, may be the church’s effort to stir support for the war outsideRussia, including in the West. Despite the reality that Russia is at war with anotherOrthodox country, noted overseas church leaders have remained loyal to Moscow. In an

Archbishop Gabriel of Montreal and Canada, a bishop of the Russian Orthodox ChurchAbroad, justified the invasion in language that closely follows official Russian propaganda.“Russia was forced to take steps to protect itself from the neo-Nazis who were shellingcivilians in Donbas for eight years, and continue to this day,” he said.

In London in March 2023, Bishop Irenei, the head of the Diocese of Great Britain andWestern Europe and one of the most influential bishops in the Russian Orthodox ChurchAbroad, issued an “Open Letter on the Persecution of Christians in Ukraine” in which he cited “the tragedy of the most extraordinary and heartless persecution of Christians taking place in many parts of the country.” The letter puts the blame for this persecution onUkrainian authorities, not the Russian army: Bishop Irenei was referring to Ukrainiancharges against clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who have supported theKremlin.

Significantly, these two prominent Orthodox officials were born and raised in the West.They are not commissars sent from Moscow, and their views do not appear to be enforcedby the Russian government. Rather, they largely reflect the orientation of RussianOrthodox communities overseas: although many Ukrainians have defected from theMoscow patriarchate since the invasion, many churches and parishioners in other countrieshave chosen to stay within the Russian Orthodox Church. “When the war started, somepriests in Russia took an antiwar stand and were subjected to punishments, both by theChurch and the state. But most priests, including those abroad, suppressed any discussionof the war out of fear of losing their flock, which by and large supported the war,” onemember of the Russian Orthodox community in New York told us.

The reasons for these pro-Russian views are ideological: many descendants of the first waveof Russian exiles to the West—people who left in the 1920s after the Bolshevik Revolution and even those who left in the 1940s after World War II—remain stuck in the memories of the glorious imperial past. This part of the Russian diaspora is naturally drawn to the nineteenth-century nationalist ideologies that Putin has embraced. “For them, Ukraine has never been a country,” our contact said.

When Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, church leaders saw an opportunity to turnthe country into a full-fledged fundamentalist regime in which Russian Orthodoxy wouldreturn to its historical role as an anchor for the Russian state. The embrace of this approachsuggests that there will be ever-closer cooperation among the church, the military, and theintelligence services, with the result that the church will significantly enhance the Russiangovernment’s disinformation campaigns abroad and efforts to infiltrate the West,particularly through its relations with the Russian émigré community.

Given the current constraints on Russian espionage, it seems likely that the person identified by the FBI is not the only church official working side by side with Russian intelligence. With so many Russian diplomats expelled from Europe, traditional options forRussian spies, who have often operated under diplomatic cover, are rapidly shrinking. For the Kremlin, the church, with its broad network of parishes, can provide a palatable alternative. In turn, Putin’s backing—and the war in Ukraine—has given the RussianOrthodox Church a crucial new mission after decades of stagnation and decline.

The Russian government’s growing focus on traditional values, empire, and militarism hasprovided a dramatic boost to the Russian Orthodox Church and its affiliates abroad. Thisreligious resurgence not only enhances the legitimacy and durability of the Putin regime; italso poses a growing security threat with which the West will have to contend.

Published in Foreign Affairs 2023