Putin’s strategy

THE TABLET Editorial, 26 February 2022

Has Vladimir Putin gone mad? It is a question hinted at when the British Prime Minister accused him of behaving “irrationally” towards Ukraine. But the understanding of Putin’s motives seems to stop there, an implicit attempt to shame him into acting rationally. But in another reality, populated by ideas familiar enough in Russia, his determination to resist its enemies even to the death is not mad or irrational but necessary, and dictated by Providence. In a broadcast to the Russian people in which he explained why their armed forces were crossing the frontier into Ukraine’s Donbas region, Putin asserted that Ukraine itself was not a legitimate sovereign nation with its own government but an invalid “regime” imposed by the West out of a desire to hurt Russia.

Is this pure paranoia? What is this Russia he talks about? This is where Putin abandons the conventional geopolitical realities. In their place he puts a kind of Russian Exceptionalism – a word more often used about the United States’ view of itself. The usual rules do not apply. Exceptionalism trumps both international and domestic law, hence Russia’s willingness to assassinate its enemies wherever in the world they may be hiding. Its rationale is not just historical but also theological, and it is at this point that the Western sceptical secular mind might start to disengage. Conventional western wisdom is that Putin is simply an expansionist power-grabber wanting to strengthen global Russian influence. It lacks the imagination to see what is happening in anything other than purely material terms.

But the evidence indicates that Putin believes, as fervently as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, that there is a mystical union in what used to be the land of Holy Rus between the sacred land, the sacred people who inhabit it, and the sacred Orthodox faith. The land itself is an icon, concealing and revealing the presence of God. That last ingredient is crucial.

In Putin’s mind, and to varying degrees the minds of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church itself, “Holy Rus” is the Kingdom of Heaven, the eternal tsardom of God in heaven and earth. The land of Holy Rus is thus a holy space, a mystical “New Israel”, where the one true religion is practised and all others within its borders are not just illicit but wrong and to be banished. The rulers of such a space have a duty before God to preserve and protect it. The Tsars were ordained by God to do so. Putin seems to see himself in the same light.

This Eastern Orthodox insistence on being rooted in territorial sacred space is in contrast to the more pragmatic Western approach, Christian and secular, which sees nation states and church jurisdictions as separate. This was not always so, and both Protestant and Catholic Christianity have seen various expressions of the idea of a Chosen People, exceptional among the nations. Putin’s address to the Russian people this week was a kind of summary of a 5,500 word essay he wrote last year, now published in English. Its labyrinthine complexity will have defeated most Western foreign policy analysts, who might have wondered what on earth is the relevance of events of more than 1,000 years ago: the foundation of the Ancient Rus people centred on Kyiv (Kiev), with the conversion there of St Vladimir the Great. He ruled a realm which incorporated what is now Russia, together with modern Ukraine and Belarus.

This idea is central to Putin’s geopolitical vision. Ukraine, capital Kyiv, was the senior partner in this three-fold expression of Christian civilisation. It was “orthodox” in that it had the one true faith, contrary to the claims of Rome. Its centre moved east to Moscow in 1589, which became known as the “Third Rome” after the alleged apostasy of the papacy and the conquest of Constantinople had eclipsed the other two. The Moscow Patriarch’s authority spread over the whole of ancient Rus. Not least of the reasons for regarding Ukraine as illegitimate in Putin’s mind is the disowning of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) by the Moscow Patriarchate. When the OCU came into being in 2018 it confirmed that Ukraine’s break with Moscow was intended to be spiritual as well as political. The Russian Orthodox Church still claims jurisdiction over Ukrainian territory, and like Putin, does not recognise Ukraine as an independent nation or the OCU as an independent Orthodox Church. The creation of the OCU triggered a great schism in world Orthodoxy when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople issued a certificate of independence, called a tomos. This granted the OCU the canonical status of autocephaly, meaning freedom from other Orthodox church jurisdictions (except his own). The Moscow Patriarchate promptly excommunicated and anathematised Bartholomew. The Catholic Church maintains relations with both Patriarchates.

This then is the answer to the question: what is in Putin’s mind when he thinks about Ukraine? It is deeply felt and sincere. The departure of Ukraine from the alliance of three nations descended from the Ancient Rus hurts him personally, and it is not an exaggeration to say he is obsessed with it. But the question that arises now is this: how many Russians share his commitment to restoring the old order, by which he means not the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but a mystical union of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the three lands ruled from Kyiv by the other Vladimir after AD 980?

Do the Russian military, the faceless Moscow bureaucrats, the billionaire kleptocrats and the ruthless thugs of the FSB (formerly the KGB) who surround him share his mystical destiny to restore a new heaven on earth, ruled by him personally? Or do they perhaps wonder what in heaven and earth has the Christianity of the Gospels, especially Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, have to do with territorial aggression against a neighbour on the flimsiest of pretexts? Even if they are faithful Orthodox Christians, might they think that a holy land would be defiled and desecrated by killing in its name?

The West’s response to Putin’s Ukrainian adventure must drive a wedge between him and his associates, accomplices and financers, by raising the cost of their support for his wayward mystical ambitions until it is too much to bear.

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