Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
President Barack Obama, in a speech following the Maidan crisis and the Crimean referendum, stated clearly that “this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.” All three of these statements can be countered, though this challenges the post-Cold War worldview of many in the West. Taken in a vacuum, Russia’s acts around the globe, in Crimea, in the Donbas, in Syria, can be seen as paranoid acts of aggression on behalf of a regime of aging KGB ideologues. Placed into a larger cultural and historical context however, a very different picture can begin to form.
Putin’s “Orthodox Jihad”
Former Naval War College professor and NSA analyst John R. Schindler describes in a recent report Vladimir Putin’s “Orthodox Jihad” against the post-modern, neoliberal, and materialistic West. The role of religion in Russia’s actions in Ukraine has been far from unnoticed, with statements from the Russian Orthodox Church being widely circulated. Many in Russia see themselves in a spiritual battle with hostile forces coming from the West. These include the decline of Christianity, the destruction of the traditional family, materialism, general moral decline in Western societies.
Georgetown University Russia expert Angela Stent has repeatedly discussed Moscow’s vision of itself as an alternative civilizational model in the face of perceived Western decline. This perception is shared by Russian Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who estimates “that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse,” and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved, to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.” Even American conservatives have noticed that they find themselves standing with Putin on social and moral issues.
Orthodoxy, Pan-Slavism, and Eurasianism
The implications of this political-social realignment for real-world policy can be seen tactically and strategically. Moscow’s information agents use these very real forces to depict the Russian president as the leader of global conservatism in an effort to ally with right and center-right forces in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East. The Russian Orthodox Church is increasingly used for diplomatic efforts worldwide, focusing on important missions such as Russo-Polish reconciliation and the protection of Christians in the Middle East.
The latter issue in particular has won sympathy in the West, as it has been largely ignored by Western governments. Syria’s Christian population overwhelmingly supports President Bashar al-Assad against his militant opposition, as his government has long protected them from radical Islamists. This fact has even been acknowledged by President Barack Obama, despite tensions between Washington and Damascus.
The role of Orthodox spirituality among pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine is also worth noting. Western reporters have dubbed many of the Donetsk rebels as the “Christian Taliban” fighting for the resurgence of “the Third Rome.” This ideology spans both the historic Russian Empire and the wider Orthodox world. Serbian volunteers for example have joined the struggle for Donbas, fighting on the grounds of Slavic and Orthodox brotherhood. The unifying forces of Orthodoxy and Pan-Slavism are core components of the Eurasian worldview, which is increasingly influential in Moscow.
Partnership with the Vatican
As was previously reported by Leksika, Moscow has made extensive inroads in European conservative circles, largely on the grounds discussed here. Less commonly reported however is Russia’s increasing cooperation with the Vatican in the Middle East. Putin personally met with Pope Francis in November 2013 to discuss the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, in a move which likely reflects the warming relations between the Eastern and Western Churches. Russian Patriarch Kirill echoed these sentiments, saying, “We live in an epoch when many of our historic differences should no longer play the negative role they have played in relations between our churches."
Western journalists have speculated that such moves may reflect a change in Rome’s worldview. Common threats, be they secularism and materialism in the West or radical Islam in the Middle East and North Africa are likely drawing Rome closer together with the Eastern Churches. In a trip to the Middle East Pope Francis met “the president of the State of Palestine,” an entity recognized by the Holy See (and Russia), but not recognized by Israel or the United States.
It is probable that these efforts are made on behalf of the Palestinian Christian community. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Christians consisted of over 15% of the Palestinian population, today they sit at between 2% and 3%. Christians have long been active in the PLO and movements supporting Palestinian Nationalism, but have found no place with latter organizations such as HAMAS, which have blended the independence struggle with radical Islamism. As a result many have looked for outside protectors, such as Moscow, as Christians in North America and Western Europe have historically backed Tel Aviv. Gaza’s Christian minority has been hit particularly hard and, despite an overall improvement of relations, has caused some friction between Russia and Israel.
What to Look For
- Continued support of European conservatives from Moscow
- An increasing role for the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow’s diplomatic efforts
- Increased cooperation between Russia and the Vatican, particularly in issues involving the Middle East
- Increased pro-Russian sympathies across Europe and the Middle East