Putin’s Holy War: A Challenge the West Underestimates

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

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 very much engaged in new Cold War with Russia, says 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 advocate rival visions of the world.

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

Schindler disagrees. The former National Security Agency analyst and former professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College 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.

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 nationalism, his regime later 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 also warmed.

The nationalist revival seemed an attempt on Putin’s part to shore up his popularity.

Especially urban and middle-class Russians, whose economic prospects had improved during the early years of Putin’s rule thanks to liberal economic reforms, were becoming more dissatisfied with corruption and nepotism at the top. Rural and working-class voters, by contrast, had seen little economic improvement and were turning to communist and nationalist rather than leftist opposition parties. Putin’s appeals to Russian patriotism and tradition, including an infamous ban on gay “propaganda,” seemed designed to charm those constituencies.

The rehabilitation of the Church — after many decades of suppression under communism — echoed in Russian foreign policy. The country became more vocal about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria where Russia’s ally, Bashar Assad, saw an uprising of mostly Sunni Muslims against his secular regime.

When Putin informed parliament of the Crimean annexation in March, his speech also contained many appeals to both 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 interference 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.

But it 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 both in the country and its “near abroad.” We predicted that Russia’s regional integration schemes, including the Eurasian Union that is due to go into effect next year, were all the more likely to be seen in neighboring countries as a veiled attempt to reconstruct the Soviet Union. “The price of a prouder, stronger Russia may well be the defeat of Putin’s imperial ambitions,” this website warned.

Infusing Russia’s alternative worldview with more religion could preempt that. The Orthodox Church is, after all, transnational and it has “become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin,” according to 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 Putin really believes all this may be immaterial, Schindler believes, since his regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology that justifies his government’s 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.

Indeed, it is an ideology that resonates beyond Russia. Some Europeans, including 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.”


  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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