In St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s home town, there is a bust depicting him as a Roman emperor. More revealing, however, are the icons which, apparently seriously, depict the Russian president as a saint. The Russian Orthodox Church sometimes treats him like one.
Russian documentaries extol Putin as the man who resuscitated Russian spirituality. Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has described his leadership as a “miracle from God”.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian state has carefully nurtured its relationship with the Church. Putin especially is not only a powerful political actor but – like the Tsars – a religious one. In his speeches he presents himself as defender of Christian values abandoned by the degenerate West.
It’s an unlikely role for a former KGB officer accused of murdering his political opponents, but many Russian Christians seem comfortable with the idea. Photographs of Orthodox churchmen positively grovelling in front of Putin are not hard to find.
More recently the president has presented himself in a new role – as the potential saviour of Middle Eastern Christians. And even his critics wonder whether he may, in fact, have a point.
The rise of ISIS has plunged Christians in Iraq and Syria, already desperately threatened, into an unimaginable crisis. Savage murders and displacement are removing all trace of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Western politicians have finally acknowledged their plight – but President Putin gives the impression that he is prepared to go further, and act viciously against the Islamists trying to wipe out ancient Christianity. Putin appears to agree that it’s a “holy war” – while quietly making sure that he does not come across as too anti-Islam: he has his own very troublesome Muslim minorities to worry about.
The question is whether Russia, even if it does take drastic military action in Syria, will really make life better for these persecuted minorities. Indeed, despite Putin’s pro-Christian rhetoric, it’s legitimate to ask whether it really cares about them.
If Putin’s main aim is to destroy ISIS, then he could certainly help to remove the gravest threat to the area’s Christians.
But, as anyone who has been following the progress of the conflicts knows, he has another objective. In October, he told a state-run Russian television station that his goal in Syria was to “stabilise the legitimate government and to create conditions for a political compromise”.
In other words, Putin wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in office. When Russia first intervened in September, it devoted over 90 per cent of its air strikes not to ISIS targets but to other anti-Assad rebel groups.
In any case, Christians themselves appear divided on whether military intervention, by Russia or anyone else, can help them.
The Syrian Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart has been open in his support for Russian intervention. (He has also asked Britain to intervene.) Syrians, according to Jeanbart, were “generally feeling positive” about Russia’s attacks on ISIS. However, it’s almost as dangerous to generalise about Syrian Christians as it is about Syrian Muslims. Some – remembering the unusual degree of toleration they received under the old regime – continue to support Assad. Others have joined the Kurds or other rebels to fight.
Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, meanwhile, have circulated a petition on social media in which they “unreservedly condemn the idea that the ‘protection of Christians’ can serve as an excuse in the service of ideological or political objectives”. The petition specifically mentions Russia’s intervention in Syria as an example of power politics masquerading as humanitarianism.
Photographs of Lebanese Orthodox show them holding a banner denouncing (in English) the “Russian monster”. This is strange, on the face of it. Why should they feel such hatred for their Orthodox co-religionists?
A recent article in The Economist tried mto find out. It was sceptical of high-minded arguments that these Christians reject the notion of holy war as un-Orthodox – and also of the claim that Lebanese Orthodox, unlike Greeks or Russians, have no tribal memory of Byzantium or the tsars and view the whole concept of state Christianity with suspicion.
A likelier explanation, suggested The Economist, was that Lebanese Orthodox are more vulnerable than the bigger community of Catholic Maronites – and therefore more “Arab” in outlook. They don’t want to upset their Sunni neighbours by supporting Putin.
These regional complexities tend to be ignored by Western commentators. They are split between those who see Putin as the worst threat to global security since Adolf Hitler, and those who admire him for asserting old-world masculinity in the face of European and American cultural decadence.
Many Western conservative Christians have been seduced by Kremlin-funded propaganda presenting Putin as a model of bravery and virility. They relish his hostility to homosexuals (though in the interests of public relations this has recently been toned down). You can even find traditionalist Catholic websites praising him as the chief enemy of a Satanic new world order.
These Christians buy into Russia’s “holy war” rhetoric in the most extravagant way. But, as we’ve seen, although Russia has indeed hit ISIS fighters as well as those from the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda militia, the Kremlin’s broader strategy seems to be targetting those who pose the greatest threat to Assad.
As a result, much of Putin’s firepower is concentrated on groups who present the least immediate threat to Christians. Assad has played a similar shell game, claiming that his every action is part of the fight against ISIS, while reserving his most brutal designs for less extreme rebel groups.
Since it is almost certain that Assad will never be able to regain power over the whole of Syria, Russia’s protection will only prolong and worsen the conflict, sinking the whole region into a deeper sectarian stand-off.
This is the worst possible state of affairs for Christian minorities in the Levant and Iraq.
Considering all this old-fashioned realpolitik, it would be easy to say Putin had no interest in the plight of Christians.
If there’s one mistake any analyst can make, however, it is to assume that a group or person has only one goal.
To ask whether Putin is interested in helping Christians or enhancing Russia’s power in the Middle East is to offer a false choice. It is entirely possible that he is interested in both. It is also possible that he sees the enhancement of Russian power in the Middle East as synonymous with the protection of Christianity.
An openly pious man, Putin’s own religiosity appears genuine, despite his past as a servant of the anticlerical Soviet state. After a career as a KGB officer based in East Germany, he claims to have converted to Christianity. Several well-informed writers have noted the progressively strong influence of Russian Orthodoxy on his worldview – a malodorous blend of Eastern Christianity, Russian nationalism and conspiracism that he has already put into practice in Ukraine.
For most of Russia’s history, Orthodox Christianity and the Russian nationality were inseparable. To be Russian was to be Orthodox. As strong as the connection was, there still existed those who thought Russia had lost its way, surrendering its Christian morality to nefarious Western concepts like individualism. (For a notable example of this perspective, read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s jarring commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, when he criticised Western culture as godless and materialistic.)
It is all very well to dismiss the Moscow patriarchate as a client or even a puppet of the president, but the fact remains that powerful Russian officials routinely meet with church leaders.
When Putin speaks as if he were the spiritual leader of Russia, is he being entirely insincere? And are those Orthodox who believe him simply seduced by the Kremlin’s world-class propaganda machine?
The answer to these questions cannot be a simple “yes”. In the Russian tradition, religion and politics are intertwined in ways that non-Russians find difficult to understand. And, amazingly, that tradition – which incorporates the concept of “spiritual security” against Western contamination – seems to have survived 70 years of overtly atheist Communism.
We should be cautious, therefore, before dismissing the notion that Russian foreign policy is underpinned by a genuine belief in Russia’s destiny to secure Christendom. We should also be cautious before accepting it. Reliable information about the inner workings of Putin’s court is extremely difficult to come by.
We can be much more confident, however, in dismissing the icon of Putin as the saviour of Arab Christians. Stability is a necessary condition for the survival of these horribly persecuted communities.
In a region that appears to have become permanently unstable, it is unlikely that Putin’s power politics, whatever the intentions behind them, will lead to anything but chaos.
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent. He lives in New York.
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