A top Ukrainian security official has said that suspected Russian citizens and cash documents were seized in a raid on a 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery in Kyiv and other Orthodox sites early on Tuesday as part of operations to counter suspected “subversive activities by Russian special services”.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, said there was an ongoing investigation into what had been going on in the network of catacombs.
The SBU website said the agency had found pro-Russian literature, over $100,000 in cash, and “dubious” Russian citizens.
“We are not going to talk about money right now,” Danilov told the Guardian. “There’s certain documents were found there. And certain citizens were found there … most likely citizens of the Russian federation. And now we’re trying to find out what they do in there and why they were there.”
Located south of the city centre, the sprawling Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex – or Kyiv Monastery of the Caves – is the headquarters of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox church that falls under the Moscow patriarchate, as well as being a Ukrainian cultural treasure and a Unesco World Heritage site.
The raid on Pechersk Lavra was part of a broad sweep of the church’s property. The SBU said in all, about 850 people had their identities checked and 50 underwent “in-depth counterintelligence interviews”, including with the use of a polygraph. More than 350 church buildings were searched including two other monasteries and the headquarters of the Moscow Patriarchate’s diocese in western Ukraine, the agency said.
The Russian Orthodox church, whose head, Patriarch Kirill, has strongly supported Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine, condemned the raid as an “act of intimidation”.
The SBU said in a statement: “These measures are being taken … as part of the systemic work of the SBU to counter the destructive activities of Russian special services in Ukraine.”
It said the search was aimed at preventing the use of the cave monastery as “the centre of the Russian world” and carried out to look into suspicions “about the use of the premises … for sheltering sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign citizens, weapons storage”.
The “Russian world” concept is at the centre of Vladimir Putin’s new foreign policy doctrine that aims to protect Russia’s language, culture and religion. It has been used by conservative ideologues to justify intervention abroad.
The SBU did not give details about the outcome of Tuesday’s raid. Armed officers were seen carrying out ID checks and searching the bags of worshippers before letting them inside.
Danilov said that investigation was still at a very sensitive stage.
“All I can say is that certain institutes are carrying out actions that are not in their charters. They are not going to be able to do that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is civil or religious or other institutions, it is a question of the national security of our country. And for many years we closed our eyes to what was happening.”
“Any matter of religion is always complicated and it’s not so easy. It is quite complex and requires a lot of attention,” he added. “We need to divide religion, and the civilians that have certain positions in the church who could possibly work for the aggressor state.”
The raid will further sour already tense relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians. The Kremlin denounced the searches as the latest chapter in Kyiv’s “war” against the Russian church.
“Ukraine has long been at war with the Russian Orthodox church,” the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters. “We could see this as yet another link in the chain of these military actions against Russian Orthodoxy.”
Vladimir Legoida, a spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox church, said: “Like many other cases of persecution of believers in Ukraine since 2014, this act of intimidation of believers is almost certain to go unnoticed by those who call themselves the international human rights community.”
The war has sharpened the split between Ukraine and Russia’s Orthodox churches and intensified a feud over religious allegiance. The Ukrainian Orthodox church formally split from under Moscow’s leadership three years ago, with Russia losing multiple Ukrainian parishes, but many historic churches and monasteries have remained loyal in religious practice and political allegiance to Russia.
Last Friday, the SBU said it had charged a senior clergyman from the western Vinnytsia region with attempting to distribute leaflets justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In May, the Ukrainian Orthodox church of the Moscow patriarchate ended its ties with the Russian church over the latter’s support for what Moscow calls its “special military operation”, instead of a war of aggression.
A 2020 survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Centre found that 34% of Ukrainians identified as members of the main Orthodox church of Ukraine, while 14% were members of Ukraine’s Moscow patriarchate church.
In 2019, Ukraine was given permission by the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide to form a church independent of Moscow, largely ending centuries of religious ties between the two countries.
Early in November, the Orthodox church of Ukraine said it would allow its congregations for the first time to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, in a move away from Russia and towards the west – for centuries Ukrainians have celebrated Christmas on 7 January, the date on which Jesus was born according to the Julian calendar.
The move to 25 December was seen as part of a bigger national process of dismantling the symbols of Russia, the Soviet Union and communism that took off in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and kickstarted a pro-Moscow uprising in the eastern Donbas region.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians are bracing for what is expected to be the hardest winter in the country’s history as Russia tries to destroy its energy infrastructure in an attempt to force Kyiv to negotiate a peace.
Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukraine’s national power grid operator, Ukrenergo, told a briefing that practically no thermal or hydroelectric stations had been left unscathed by the Russian attacks.
“The scale of destruction is colossal. In Ukraine there is a power generation deficit. We cannot generate as much energy as consumers can use,” he said. A major energy provider said on Monday that Ukrainians needed to get used to living in power outages at least until the end of March and the government has offered evacuations to people living in recently liberated Kherson, which remains mostly without electricity and running water.
“Given the difficult security situation in the city and infrastructure problems, you can evacuate for the winter to safer regions of the country,” the deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app.
Fighting continued in the country’s south and, in a key battlefield development, a Ukrainian official acknowledged its forces were attacking Russian positions on the Kinburn Spit – a gateway to the Black Sea basin and parts of the Kherson region still under Russian control.
Moscow has used the Kinburn Spit as a staging ground for missile and artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions in the Mykolaiv province, and elsewhere along the Ukrainian-controlled Black Sea coast.
Nataliya Gumenyuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian army’s operational command south, said in televised remarks that Ukrainian forces were “continuing a military operation” in the area.
Moscow also appeared to be building up forces and increasing its military efforts on the eastern Donbas front around the key town of Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s presidential office said on Tuesday that at least eight civilians were killed and 16 injured over the previous 24 hours.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.