Who is Kirill? The Russian religious patriarch whose appearance on the sanctions list threatens to block Europe’s oil embargo yet again

June 2, 2022, 11:59 AM UTC

Hungary is one of the smallest European Union countries, with less than 10 million people, and relies heavily on EU funds.

But it has become a giant thorn in the bloc’s plans to ban Russian oil imports to the EU—and starve President Vladimir Putin of his considerable war chest.

After holding up the EU import ban for more than a month over Hungary’s need for oil, the country’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán—a close ally of Putin’s—secured a key EU concession that allows Hungary to maintain its piped Russian oil imports for five years, despite the embargo.

With that, the EU felt secure enough to announce Monday that it would bar seaborne imports of Russian crude oil within six months, and shipments of refined petroleum products within eight months, effectively halting two-thirds of Europe’s oil imports from Russia.

Russia exports about 2.2 million barrels a day to Europe, according to the International Energy Agency, earning about €1 billion a day—more than enough to fund its war in Ukraine.

But now it appears that Orbán is again wielding his power to delay or halt the EU embargo—and for a most unexpected reason.

Hungary’s new veto threat

Hungary’s last-minute threat to veto the new sanctions came on Wednesday during a diplomatic meeting in Brussels of the 27-nation bloc, and involves an unlikely figure: Patriarch Kirill, head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

As EU leaders raced to finalize the oil embargo, Hungary’s representatives demanded that Kirill be removed from the EU’s list of sanctioned Russians as a condition to agreeing to the new sanctions. Under EU rules, the sanctions require approval from all 27 leaders—with Orbán the only holdout against imposing tough anti-Russian measures.

Diplomats told the news site EUobserver that Wednesday’s meeting was “heated.” “If you give them an inch they will take a yard,” one diplomat said. “It is time for Europe to say ‘enough!’”

Analysts saw the demand as a power move by Orbán, who has lashed out repeatedly at the EU. “Viktor Orbán flexes his muscle,” David Baer, Hungary expert and theology professor at Texas Lutheran University, tweeted after Wednesday’s demand about Kirill. “What’s the point?” he wrote. “He’s doing it because he can.”

And yet, Kirill is no ordinary religious leader.

Who is Patriarch Kirill?

Born Vladimir Gundyaev in St. Petersburg, Kirill, 75, heads the Russian Orthodox Church, which has 100 million members, including about 80% of all Russians. According to historian Felix Corley, briefly public KGB files showed Kirill was an agent for the Soviet intelligence agency, with the code name “Mikhailov.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the patriarch has pushed hard-line pro-war views in his sermons, echoing Putin’s justifications for war. He has portrayed Russia’s assault as defending “the law of God,” and a “religious cleansing operation,” and called anti-war Russians “the enemy of God.”

A close ally of Putin’s, Kirill has called the Russian President “a miracle of God.” The two are aligned in their deep conservatism, seeing issues like gay marriage as a Western corruption. So fierce is Kirill’s alliance with the Kremlin, that Pope Francis said after speaking to him in March, “the patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”

Much like Russian oligarchs, the patriarch is believed to have benefited financially from his Kremlin links. “Kirill is also an extraordinarily rich man,” Martin Gak, religious affairs correspondent for the German TV network Deutsche Welle, said last month. “He’s profited enormously from his proximity to the Kremlin.”

How could this impact the oil embargo?

France’s top diplomat to the EU told Wednesday’s meeting in Brussels that it was too late to alter the sanctions list, according to the EUObserver.

But Orbán’s latest demand, regarding Kirill, could well delay the oil sanctions. That could impact Putin’s ability to prolong the war, since the oil embargo would deprive Russia of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues a day—essential to keeping the economy going during the conflict.

When Orbán secured the concession on Monday, allowing Hungary to maintain its Russian oil imports for five years, it was deeply embarrassing for EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has vowed to push through oil sanctions. Even so, von der Leyen has pushed for consensus among EU leaders.

Orbán’s critics say his latest demand, to spare Kirill, has made such consensus almost impossible.

“Orbán’s gleeful trolling of EU institutions tells you everything about his disdain for democratic norms & good-faith cooperation,” Hungary’s opposition politician Katalin Cseh, a member of the European Parliament, said on Thursday, calling von der Leyen’s “dialogue/appeasement” strategy “painfully mistaken.”

E.U. crucial oil sanctions could be derailed by Russia's religious leader

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