Since 2014, he argues, Ukraine has done nothing as important as its pursuit of autocephaly except for military resistance. Gaining that independent status for the church shores up the country’s political independence and weakens “the imperial position” of the Moscow church, pointing to its eventual exit from Ukraine and ultimately from Belarus as well.
According to Illarionov, “Putin recognizes the seriousness of the situation in the religious sphere and thus is already preparing for Ukraine a decisive response to the actions of the Ukrainian Orthodox church.” That is because the Kremlin leader knows that if he loses on this, he loses far more than he can and still have his current agenda survive.
“By its importance,” the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church “is comparable to the disintegrations of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.” After both those events, “the political disintegration of the empire began in the religious sphere. Putin understands this very well and therefore doesn’t intend to surrender his positions.”
If the Kremlin leader can’t stop autocephaly – and it certainly appears that that train has left the station, Illarionov says – he will certainly seek “’to punish’ Ukraine for its acquisition” out of his own self-regard and because such punishment will serve as a warning to others not to try anything similar.
What Putin will try will depend, however, not only on the mechanisms at his command but also on the reaction of Ukraine, other post-Soviet states and the West where unfortunately many do yet not understand that Moscow’s loss of an imperial church just like its earlier loss of an imperial communist party prefigures much broader losses in other sectors as well.
Consequently, Putin’s response almost certainly will be far more negative than most in the West now imagine, including the possibility of a major military move. In the mind of the Kremlin ruler, that despite all the negative consequences it would entail may pose fewer negatives than doing nothing and watching his imperial dreams dissolve.