Putin’s Holy War: A Challenge the West Underestimates

Secular Westerners underestimate the ideological challenge posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin lights a candle during a visit to the Saint Sergius of Radonezh Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo, December 8, 2014 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

The West is in new cold war with Russia, argues national security expert John R. Schindler. Beyond the geopolitical standoff in Ukraine, where the two blocs support opposing sides in a civil war, Russia and the West advance rival visions of the world.

After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean from Ukraine in March, America’s president, Barack Obama, insisted his country was not entering into another cold war with the Russians. “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology,” he said.

Schindler disagrees. A former National Security Agency analyst and former professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College, he argues at his blog that Russia should be seen as “the vanguard of the diverse movement that is opposed to Western postmodernism in its political and social forms.”

During the last couple of years, the contours of that movement have become more defined.

Nationalist revival

Where Putin cautioned against nationalism shortly before his reelection in 2012, warning that Russia’s multiethnic society would lose “strength and durability” if it was “infested” by it, his regime has since revived medals and military parades from the Soviet era and mandated the increased use of the Russian national anthem and flag. Relations between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church have also warmed.

This nationalist revival has seemed design to shore up Putin’s popularity.

Urban and middle-class Russians, whose economic prospects had improved during the early, more liberals years of his rule, have grown dissatisfied with corruption and nepotism at the top of Putin’s “power vertical”.

Rural and working-class voters, by contrast, have seen little economic improvement and are starting to turn to communist and nationalist, rather than leftist, opposition parties.

Putin’s appeals to Russian patriotism and tradition, including his infamous ban on gay “propaganda,” look like attempts to charm those constituencies.

Russian exceptionalism

The rehabilitation of the Church, after many decades of suppression under communism, echoes in Russian foreign policy. The country has become more vocal about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where Russia’s ally, Bashar Assad, is fighting an uprising of mostly Sunni Muslims against his secular dictatorship.

When Putin informed parliament of the Crimean annexation in March, his speech contained various appeals to Russian nationalism and Orthodox mysticism, including citations of saints from the distant past.

“This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy,” according to Schindler.

Russia defended its role in Ukraine by arguing that Russian “compatriots” in the former Soviet republic were in danger from a new, pro-Western government.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, argued at the time that Russian propaganda revealed “a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilization has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenizing Western influence.”

Where anti-Westernism was previously a means to an end — to rally public support for Putin’s policies — it became an end in itself, according to Galeotti.

Imperial ambitions

But this also presented a problem, as the Atlantic Sentinel reported: Russia’s appeals to ethnic nationalism necessarily excluded the millions of non-ethnic Russians who live in the country and its “near abroad.”

This website predicted that Russia’s regional integration schemes, like the Eurasian Union, which is due to go into effect next year, were now more likely to be seen in neighboring countries as attempts to reconstruct the Soviet Union.

“The price of a prouder, stronger Russia may well be the defeat of Putin’s imperial ambitions,” we warned.

Alternative worldview

Infusing Russia’s alternative worldview with religion could preempt that. The Orthodox Church is transnational and it has “become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin,” writes Schindler — “a preferred vehicle for explicit anti-Western propaganda.”

[Church] agitprop, which has Kremlin endorsement, depicts a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style, while [Russian Orthodox Church] spokesmen constantly denounce feminism and the LGBT movement as Satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family and nation.

Whether or not Putin really believes all this is immaterial. His regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology that justifies its actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs.

Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.

This is an ideology that resonates beyond Russia. Some Europeans, like French nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, sympathize with Putin’s outlook.

Schindler warns, “As discontentment with American-led Europe spreads, the Russian option may look plausible to more Europeans, worried about immigration, identity and the collapse of their values and economies, than Americans might imagine.”

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Comments

  1. Mr.Ottens defines the cultural conflict well. The thing is, the West actually is collapsing under the weight of its own sin. Mr. Ottens is
    alarmed, not by the fact this is happening, but by the fact it is being pointed out and that sin is being called what it is.

    The new Globalist pejorative is “nationalism,” which is used in such a way that all attempts to avoid national suicide are presumed sinister.
    Mr. Ottens keys this to “ethnicity,” ignoring Mr. Putin’s policy of welcome to those who wish to live peacefully in Russia as Russians. and obey the law (gosh, what a concept). He also portrays the Church as some sinister force, believing in unacceptable concepts like, “Right” and “Wrong.”

    Mr. Ottens, if only he would not present them as unacceptably jingoistic notions, would have a good grasp of the facts.

  2. Jim, thanks for your comment! I think you’re reading too much into what I wrote, though. I’m offering this as analysis, not opinion. I don’t agree with the Russian worldview at all; I’m a liberal. But nor do I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with nationalism — as long as it’s based on culture and values, not race. Russian nationalism is a mixture of the two and it seems to me ethnicity has started playing a bigger role.

    You might also be interested in this recent article on the topic of nationalism.

    As for “jingoistic notions,” I was frankly not aware I used any.

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