MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin has criticized Ukraine’s move to set up a new Orthodox church independent from Moscow and promised to defend religious freedom.

Earlier this month, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted independence to a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formally severing its centuries-long ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who runs for re-election in March, has spearheaded the move that forced clergy and believers to choose between belonging to the old Moscow-affiliated church or the new Ukrainian one.

Putin said the push for the new church was rooted in “the struggle for power” and provoked “animosity and intolerance.” He warned Thursday that “we reserve the right to react and will do everything to protect human rights, including freedom of conscience.”