IT’S AN IMPERFECT WORLD:
How the Behaviour of Vladimir Putin Complicates Life for Friends of Israel.
By Paul Merkley.
In a previous essay (“WITH FRIENDS LIKE THIS: Vladimir Putin and the Jews,” thebayviewreview.com, June 17), I outlined a two-fold paradox.
Part A is that Vladimir Putin is one of the few statesmen in the world who seem capable of understanding and of endorsing out loud the moral and spiritual meaning of the story that put the State of Israel into the world and that has sustained her people in their struggle against unappeasable enemies for nearly seven decades.
Part B is that Vladimir Putin has become the focus of a campaign that seeks to ostracise him from decent company – a campaign in which are participating all of the major statesmen in our part of the world. In short: in the eyes of our elected leaders, the principle obstacle to improving the world today is the same Vladimir Putin who belongs among the best of Israel’s friends.
As a subsidiary to this same thesis, I note that foremost among the vilifiers of Vladimir Putin is the statesman who has simultaneously the reputation of being the most zealous defender of Israel in the world arena — Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
The dilemma here for moral philosophers will be obvious.
Stephen Harper, the Steadfast Friend of Israel and Bane of Israel’s Critics and Enemies.
Every day Israel is given more reason to question the American government’s comprehension of Israel’s life-and-death struggle against enemies who are, in reality, the enemies as well of everything that America is supposed to stand for. At the same time, leading academics, opinion-makers in all fields, members of the interlocking global circle of NGOs, the historic church bodies and other instruments that work the will of intellectual elites among us, become daily more zealous to wound Israel and to undermine her morally and in every other sense with their BDS campaign and other “Anti-Zionist campaigns.” By contrast, Canada’s Prime Minister Harper and his recent Foreign Ministers have well-earned reputations for loyalty to Israel; they have consistently affirmed that the case for defense of Israel has to be seen in context of defense of our civilization.
In her book, The Armageddon Factor (Random House, 2010), journalist Marci McDonald claims that “Harper has backed Israel with such fervor that veteran scholars and diplomats rank it as the most dramatic shift in the history of postwar Canadian foreign policy … [In so doing, she claims,] Harper is openly ignoring [both] the counsel of his Foreign Affairs Department and the political fallout on his relationship with this country’s Muslim population.”
This claim can be easily substantiated; much harder to sustain is her ludicrous claim that Harper’s policy toward Israel is driven by an occult force—the “dispensationalist” enthusiasms said to control many key figures in the Harper government.
The truth is much simpler: Harper’s has never departed publicly from his conviction that Canada supports Israel so consistently “Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because history shows us – and the ideology of the anti-Israel mob tells us all too well – that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are in the longer term a threat to all of us.” [See, Paul Merkley, “Canada pays price at UN for strong pro-Israel stand, Jerusalem Post Christian Edition, December 2010.] For my present purpose, the crucial point is that media elites in our midst are always alert to discover sinister forces at work where pro-Israel attitudes are particularly strong.
Vladimir Putin: Public Enemy Number One.
Over the last three or four years, Western leaders have presented a united front of almost unqualified vilification of Vladimir Putin. They denounce him for contributing to the ongoing suffering of the people of Syria by his maintenance of diplomatic friendship with Assad of Syria [“Russia’s Putin reaffirms support for Syrian leadership,” Jerusalem Post, June 29, 2015.) More recently, Western leaders have ganged up in denunciation of Putin’s annexation-through-plebiscite of the Crimean region of Ukraine (March 24, 2015) – perversely urging him to “respect democracy” while ignoring the fact that “one year after the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea, poll after poll shows that the locals there — be they Ukrainians, ethnic Russians or Tatars are mostly all in agreement: life with Russia is better than life with Ukraine.” (“The U.S and European Union may want to save Crimeans from themselves. But the Crimeans are happy right where they are,” Forbes.com, March 20, 2015.)
Following upon Putin’s Crimean grab there came his ill- disguised but cynically-denied interventions in military support for separatist elements in Eastern Ukraine. NATO powers insist that crushing these “separatist” forces is essential for the sake of preserving a sovereign state, Ukraine, a friend of the West.
In justifying publicly their ever-hardening case against Putin’s proxies in Ukraine, NATO’s leaders have talked too much in terms of black and white: from the beginning of the Euromaidan revolution (November 2013-January 2014) they have romanticized the nationalist ranks from the beginning, while indiscriminately tarring the entire front ranks of separatists with the brush of anti-Semitism. Gradually it has become clear that intensifying of the rhetoric against Putin and his allies has hardened into a substitute for positive strategy – one that cheers the conscience while endlessly postponing the use of force. (“It’s beginning to look like we’ll let Ukraine fall apart,” businessinsider.com, July 6.
Stephen Harper’s Role in the Anti-Putin Campaign.
In the forefront of the campaign of vilification of Vladimir Putin since its beginning has been Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Back in November, 2014, Stephen Harper had rudely stiff-armed President Putin before the cameras at a meeting of the G20 in Brisbane: “Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.” ( [Toronto] Star, November 15, 2014.]
Stephen Harper is not a bandwagon kind of statesman. In this matter, he stands out from even the most zealous in his determination to establish a moral and ideological dimension to the confrontation. His justification for his recent vilification of Putin is in fact virtually identical to the justification that he uses for support of Israel— that is “the right thing to do.”
During the most recent meeting of the G7 governments, an interviewer asked Harper whether he should not tone down his severe, unforgiving criticism of Putin in light of the probability that his cooperation will eventually be necessary in order to achieve solution of several of the largest issues of the day — an end to the Syrian civil war, a definitive ceasefire in the Ukrainian civil war, ultimate resolution of the encounter with Iran over its nuclear programme, for example. But Harper would not let up:
We are having a discussion on the shared interests of the Western democratic world. Mr. Putin, who is in no way part of that, has no place at the table and I don’t believe there’s any leader who would defend Mr. Putin having a place. His presence in the past quite frankly was undermining the coherence and effectiveness of this organization and I don’t think there is much appetite to have him back.
Reminded of recent diplomatic approaches being made to Putin at that juncture by both Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy in hope of an inclusive diplomatic approach to Russia over the Ukrainian crisis, Harper again saw no reason to change his tune: Russia and the West simply do not see issues like this in the same light:
Mr. Putin runs an entirely different system … he runs an economy that is dominated by oligarchs and criminal syndicates, it is not at all like our economy, it doesn’t share our interests, it doesn’t share our values and so I think we need to have discussions where we can really rally the shared interests of the Western democratic world. (Globe & Mail, June 8, 2015)
***Vladimir Putin as Christian Pilgrim.
Supreme irony arises from the fact that President Putin of Russia has expressed loyalty to Israel in similar terms to those employed so consistently by Prime Minister Harper — the very statesman who seems to have assigned to himself the role of cheerleader-in-chief of the anti-Putin team. Harper and Putin, alone among the statesmen, emphasize the congruity of Israel’s cause with the cause of civilization. And most significant of all is Putin’s conviction that his own sensitivity to Israel and her defense follows from his self-identification as a Christian believer.
A find an interesting documentary source for this theme in the official Russian government press releases that accompanied Putin’s’ two official visits to Jerusalem, one of them in 2005 (“President Vladimir Putin visited the Russian spiritual mission in Jerusalem, en.kremlin.ru/events/president, April 28, 2005), and the second in June, 2012 (“Putin kneels and prays in Jerusalem, “ English Pravda.ru, June 27, 2012.) Both of these items of official reportage lay stress on Putin’s self-identification as a Christian pilgrim to the sites associated with the Gospel. In Pravda’s report on the June 2012 trip we read:
During his Middle East tour President Putin took time in his busy schedule to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher…. Vladimir Putin was baptized at the Transfiguration Cathedral in St Petersburg a month and a half after he was born. Although his Father was a Communist, his Mother whose name was Maria, managed to take him there to make sure he would be brought up in the Christian faith. Putin remembers, “She told me that when she and a neighbor brought me here to be baptized – they did it in secret from my father”
Pravda is not embarrassed – as any journal in our part of the world would certainly be – to lean on the readers a little to make the point about the divine auspices behind Putin’s appointment to his present post:
It was the president’s Mother who gave him a cross to be blessed on one of his first visits to Israel [2005.] Putin did as she asked and had it blessed where Christ was buried. He says he always keeps it with him. On this visit , he went to Calvary again, and went to the cave where the cross of the crucifixion was found. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher he knelt at the Stone of Anointing and then descended into the chapel, built where Jesus was buried and where the Holy Fire descends every year at Easter. Putin was baptized on the day of the Archangel Michael who threw Lucifer out of Heaven. The priest suggested his name should be Michael but his Mother said they already had chosen to name him after his Father, Vladimir…. St Vladimir the Great was the first powerful ruler to Christianize Russia. The name Vladimir means to rule with greatness or to rule with peace.
It is customary nowadays in our own media to interject a phrase such as “as the faithful claim,” or “as devout Christians believe…” somewhere along the line, as guarantee that no one will accuse the newspaper or the journal or the reporter of actually believing any of this stuff. Discounting a major amount for political calculation and another major amount perhaps for grandiosity (a quality that works in all powerful politicians), I see no good reason to doubt that this reportage accurately describes Putin’s view of the mission that he has been given.
Let us pause for a moment and recall what the name PRAVDA evoked for all of us through the entire history of Soviet communism and down to the end of that system in 1991 – and then breath deeply — and then read the following words of Xavier Lerma, quoted in the conclusion of the Pravda news-item from mid-2012:
Fortunately for Russia, they now have a Christian leader and not atheists like Stalin or Lenin who relied on their own power and wreaked havoc and destruction throughout Russia. Hint, hint, it’s always good to know what your leader believes in before you allow him to take control of you and your country. They could lie but action speaks louder than words. It’s always boggled my mind how people could vote for Obama based on his race or what he said rather than what he did. (Xavier Lerma, “Putin kneels and prays in Jerusalem,” english.pravda.ru/russia, June 27, 2012.)
We cannot begin to assess the depths of support that Putin has in the generality of Russian hearts and minds today without reckoning with the expectation that the Pravda editors have of broad public acceptance of its portrayal of Vladimir Putin as the representative Russian, demonstrating uncomplicated Christian piety and letting us in on his belief that this piety is the source of everything that he represents.
***Russia and Israel
But Putin’s visits to Israel were not only about pilgrimage. The deeper motivation follows from the sense that these two nations share that they need each other for protection from the vagaries of current American foreign policy. Solidarity between Israel and Russia was achieved during the June, 2012 visit, when Putin’s Israeli hosts gave him given opportunity to dedicate a monument to the Soviet Army forces killed in World War II. This Israeli gesture struck a powerful chord in Russia where it stands in contrast to the tendency of Russia’s former satellites in Eastern Europe to bad-mouth the old narrative about the Red Army as Liberator. [“Israel and Russia: Trade and restive Arab world outweigh differences on Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2012.]
Not many days after that moving declaration between the leaders of Israel and Russia at Netanya in June of 2012, the lowest point in the campaign of vilification of Vladimir Putin was reached: this occurred as the leaders of the governments of Russia’s principal wartime allies conspicuously absented from the Russian people’s celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War.
It was a grand moment, [noted the Independent] but few of the world’s major leaders attended. The heads of state of India and China will look on, but not many among their Western counterparts. That is a reflection of the tense geopolitical present, with Putin’s relations with the West having turned frosty after a year of Russian meddling in Ukraine… Barack Obama, David Cameron and French President François Hollande have all chosen not to attend the celebrations in Moscow. (“Russia also has its Victory Day – but nobody else wants to share it,” Independent , June 27, 2015.)
Is there no way of stopping this knuckle-dragging demonization of Vladimir Putin before it buries all possibility of reasonable dialogue and carries us all over a cliff?