Vladimir Putin’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is well-documented, and the ROC’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, has famously called Putin’s presidency “a miracle from God”.
It would be easy to be cynical about this relationship. The Kremlin has long held a strong influence over the ROC for political purposes, especially under the Soviet Union. Many believe that the KGB’s replacement, the FSB, still has significant influence over the ROC. These connections allow Putin to use the church for “soft power” exercises that improve Russia’s image abroad, and some of these influences can be seen amongst conservative Christians in America and Europe. In return, the church has prospered greatly. Around 23,000 churches have been restored, and Putin has returned to the church land that the communist government had been seized.
The church also benefits when the government makes overt displays of religious practice that have become more common, such as during the 2015 Victory Day parade when the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, made a sign of the cross in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, even though he is believed to be Buddhist. At least on the surface, public displays of religiosity gives the church wider space to operate in Russian society, even if church attendance remains low.
From a Western secularist perspective, this mutually beneficial relationship could be a red flag. The Kremlin must have corrupted the church in order to secure greater political power, and Putin is surely not sincere in his alleged Orthodox beliefs. Perhaps if Putin was no longer in power, the Russian masses would embrace Western secularism, and Pussy Riot could revolutionize society. This argument may have some merits, and the Kremlin and ROC’s closeness raises my eyebrow. However, Putin may sincerely believe what he claims to believe, and many Russian people would likely continue to hold Orthodox beliefs whether Putin remains in power or not.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a flawed view has grown amongst some conservative American Christians. For many who are frustrated with Western policies and Obama, Putin is seen as a savior who protects Christians and traditional values. Many Americans may not realize that this trend has developed over the past few years. Last December when releasing the initial results of a study about how Evangelicals felt about Israel, the event’s panelists seemed baffled that 5% of Republicans chose Vladimir Putin as the leader they most admired (12% chose Ronald Reagan). This result is less surprising if at least some conservative Americans admire Putin for his socially conservative policies at home and his strong tactics abroad, especially in Syria. If Putin can use his church’s soft power to project the message that Russia’s Syria policy is designed to protect Christians, then growing Christian support for Putin makes even more sense.
When Russia began its military operations in Syria, leaders from the Russian Orthodox Church gave their explicit support. In an official statement, Patriarch Kirill said:
The Russian Federation has made a responsible decision to use armed forces to defend the people of Syria from the sorrows caused by the arbitrariness of terrorists. We believe this decision will bring peace and justice closer to this ancient land.
He also referenced how Christians had specifically suffered along with many Muslims and thus needed protection. Western and English-language news outlets quoted a separate statement from a different ROC leader as saying the church supported Russia’s “holy war” against terrorism, but a more appropriate translation would have said “blessed” or “sanctified” instead of “holy”, which changes the meaning dramatically. “Holy war” implies a civilizational, inter-religion war. “Sanctified” war means something closer to a just war.
Western secularists can look at this church approval as the church being the Kremlin’s puppet that helps Putin to remain in power even though low oil prices hurt the economy. Some Christian conservatives may look at this “holy” or “sanctified” war as Russia protecting Christians when the United States is reluctant to do much. The truth is likely more nuanced.
From my perspective, there is no problem with the Russian Orthodox Church saying that the Russian government has a right to attack the Islamic State (ISIS) in order to prevent spreading violence or even to protect minorities in Iraq and Syria. I wish Russia would attack ISIS more. However, as most people who follow Syria know, Russia has made it a priority to bomb non-ISIS militias fighting against Assad while attacking ISIS less. These tactics have demonstrated that Russia’s primary objective is to ensure Assad remains in power.
The argument could be made that keeping Assad in power does help some Christian minorities because his government has included various minorities who would suffer from sectarian violence if the government collapsed. By this logic, having a ruthless dictator is better than letting the country burn. Judging from the Russian government’s actions and the ROC’s statements, this political conclusion seems to be behind the church’s blessing.
My problem with the ROC is not whether God gives governments the right to protect their national interests militarily. My problem is with the political conclusion that allowing Assad to remain in power is the best way to ensure peace in Syria. Because of what Assad has done to his people, including the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons on innocent people, he is incapable of controlling Syria. Even if he could use Russia’s military to conquer the large swaths of territory the government does not control, a significant risk would remain that civil unrest would erupt into another civil war. Both the Russian Orthodox Church leaders and other conservative Christians who favor Putin should understand that Russia’s current flawed policies cannot provide a sustainable peace. Instead, alternative foreign policies should be pursued.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Language & International Trade from Mississippi College. Prior to moving to DC, he worked as a political science adjunct professor at community colleges in Mississippi. He is Providence’s resident millennial (don’t let the premature salt-and-pepper hair fool you, he’s a millennial).
Read more articles by Mark here.
Photo Credit: August 15, 2015 (before Russia began operations in Syria); a Russian Orthodox bishop from Volgodonsk blesses a Russian SU-34 at Morozovsk Air Base; via viseparchia.ru.