The Theological Foundations of Putin’s Foreign Policy.
By Paul Merkley.
A Pilgrim’s Progress.
Two interlocked themes dominated the official press releases that accompanied Russian President Vladimir Putin’s’ two official visits to Jerusalem (April 28, 2005 and June 27, 2012.) One is the congruity of the cause of Israel with the cause of Civilization; the other is Putin’s conviction that his own sensitivity to Israel and her defense follows from his self-identification as a Christian believer. (en.kremlin.ru/events/president, April 28, 2005; “English Pravda.ru, June 27, 2012.)
On visiting the Christian Holy sites he described himself as a “pilgrim” and spoke directly of the circumstances of his baptism – long before he became a KGB officer. The official briefing on the visit of 2012 notes:
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….[She] gave him a cross [which] he had … blessed where Christ was buried. He says he always keeps it with him.
Pravda is not embarrassed – as any journal in our part of the world would certainly be – to make a point about the divine auspices behind Putin’s appointment to his present post:
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.
Pravda offers this view of the meaning of Putin’s visit of 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.” (Xavier Lerma, “Putin kneels and prays in Jerusalem,” english.pravda.ru/russia, June 27, 2012.)
But Putin’s visits to Israel were not only about pilgrimage: there was also the recognition that these two nations, Russia and Israel, 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 opportunity to dedicate a monument in Netanya to the Soviet Army forces killed in World War II. Not many days after that moving ceremony in Netanya in June of 2012, the lowest point so far in the campaign of vilification of Vladimir Putin was reached, when the leaders of the governments of Russia’s principal wartime allies conspicuously avoided the Russian people’s celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. (“Russia also has its Victory Day – but nobody else wants to share it,” Independent , June 27, 2015.)
Giulio Meotti, a distinguished Italian journalist who has given priority to the story of the betrayal of Middle Eastern Christians by Western politicians, writes: “Russia is one of the few countries in the Western world in which religion is becoming increasingly important and not less.” Realistically, that should read: “the only country, etc…” – provided, of course, that we exclude the religion of Islam.
Since that day, the determination of Western leaders to demonize Vladimir Putin has become nearly pathological – burying all possibility of reasonable dialogue, and threatening to carry us all over a cliff.
During the Cold War, American conservatives used to label the Soviet Union “the godless nation” on the verge of collapse because it had purged religion from the Russian society. Two decades later, the Kremlin is occupied by a former officer of the KGB, secretly baptized, who launches the same accusation of atheism at the United States and the West. … [Today, Putin declares] that [while] Russian traditional family values are a bulwark against the West’s “so-called tolerance — genderless and infertile … many Euro-Atlantic countries have abandoned their roots, including Christian values.”
The Defense of Christianity as Justification for Russia’s Foreign Policy.
In the decades prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a central tenet behind Russian Imperial foreign policy was the defense of Christian people – Armenians, and Christian Serbs, and others — languishing under Ottoman/Muslim oppression. Although no commentator in our part of the world seems to have detected this theme at the time, it was front-and-centre in Putin’s justification of the invasion of the Crimea in 2014. Crimea after all, said Putin, is “our Temple Mount…It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Russia.”
Implications for Religious Freedom.
It is important to grasp that, like all the generations since Russia’s holus bolus conversion following the example of Prince Vladimir, Vladimir Putin squarely identifies “true Christianity” with Eastern Orthodoxy. Since 1991, the church has rebuilt its institutions and has in fact reconstructed the originally intimate connection been the State and the Church. This explains the passage by the Russian Duma of laws which, under the pretense of limiting the spread of terrorism, have imposed severe restrictions upon religious activity among the non-Orthodox. The bottom line is that anyone over the age of 14 found to be preaching out-of-doors will be subject to prosecution. This legislation is clearly intended to curb the rapidly-growing community of Russian evangelicals.
Theological Dimension of the War in Syria.
All of this should be considered — but rarely is – before anyone moves to the theme of Russia’s foreign policy. Over the last year-and-a-half, Putin’s overt and declared commitment to President Assad in the Syrian Civil War has widened the gap between him and all Western states. But while Obama and Western leaders (including our own) are holding their breaths and turning blue in ineffectual protest against Putin’s behaviour in the Syrian civil war, Putin himself is gaining self-confidence. In this connection, he has taken off guard all of the political commentators in our part of the world by presenting himself, to his own people, but also to the world, as the champion of Christianity, at home and abroad.
It seems to been forgotten by everybody that Syria was once a Mandate, governed by France – a nation which considered itself Catholic. Little trace of that French presence remains; instead, the local Christians, who belong mainly to the Assyrian – that is Oriental Orthodox — branches of the Church, are nowadays looking to Russia for defense. This makes sense to every Russian who recognizes in Putin’s would-be imperialism the re-incarnation of Russia’s traditional role as “The Third Rome” – the embodiment of Christian purpose in world affairs.
“When I look at the present state of things in the world I realize that Vladimir Putin is the sole defender of Christian civilization one can rely on,” declared President Bashir Assad during a recent interview with the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles. Recently, Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, noted that Putin “serves the Christian cause” even if he is only intervening for the interests of Moscow. Putin’s actions, says the Archbishop, are giving Christians “a renewal of confidence” and are possibly staving off the ultimate genocide of these people” — a consideration that plays no part whatever in the counsels of the governments of the United States or Canada.
“Since the Russians are bombing ISIS,” the Archbishop told the Daily Express in October, “my colleagues — bishops, priests and faithful — in Syria now feel they have hope that the problems will be sorted and the war will finish.”
Thus, while Obama continues to assert that Assad must be replaced in Syria, calling him “a brutal, murderous dictator,” Putin has worked to strengthen and stabilize the Assad regime.
Writing in the Financial Post, Lawrence Solomon, sums this up well:
Naysayers who dismiss [Putin’s] popularity as rooted in false values – his control over the press, his bare-chested publicity stunts or chauvinism stirred by his military muscle – misunderstand the great respect and moral authority he commands within Russia and neighbouring countries. Putin stands for everything craved by a country debased and diminished by 75 years of communism: a principled leader who protects his country from Western aggression, Western contempt and Western values…. Unlike almost every other country in the world, Russians have rising birth rates and growing families; unlike almost every other country in the West, Russians are undergoing a religious Renaissance. Putin … is arguably a greater defender of traditional Christian values than the Pope, who has been tolerant of divorce, abortion, gay marriage and the transformation of what was once an unabashedly Holy Christian Europe into a part-atheistic, part-Muslim continent.
The conspicuous popularity of Vladimir Putin with his own people stands in striking contrast to the disarray that has overcome politics throughout the West – and most obviously, over American politics – as I write in mid-October, 2016.
(Some lines above paraphrase a section of my essay, “It’s An Imperfect World: How the Behaviour of Vladimir Putin Complicates Life for Friends of Israel,” July 6, 2015.)