Perhaps now is a good time to re-evaluate our options in Syria vis a vis the Russian Federation.
Perplexing to many is the Obama administration’s utter failures in the Middle East over the last six years. Handed a relatively stable environment, a series of “democratic uprisings” have neither proven democratic nor have been beneficial to the region. In fact, Obama’s policies so far have introduced far more dangerous elements to the great game — including the temporary election of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
For the past four years, the Obama administration in conjunction with the Turks have backed a series of rebels in Syria, most notable of which is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is currently deemed to be a “moderate” element in the region.
Yes — you read that right. Al-Qaeda is now moderate in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.
Of course, the rise of “democratic uprisings” didn’t exactly stop in the Middle East. In Ukraine, the American government sponsored what could only politely be termed a coup back in January 2014, fueled by promises of American and European cash and a timely visit from U.S. Senator John McCain.
The cost? Rather than rolling over, the Russian Federation did precisely what it taught the world it would do during the 2008 Georgian Conflict. In short, the Russians reverted to their DNA — that is to say, the tradition of the Orthodox Church and justifiable war theory:
To defend the Byzantine Empire from external aggressors such as the Zoroastrian Persians, Muslim Arabs and Turks, or pagan Slavs was to defend the Church as the people of God within the boundaries of the Empire. But the Church, in the Orthodox view, claims a unique nature as nothing less than the divine-human Body of Christ on earth. As such, it may not suffer desecration by those who would clearly dishonor it and thereby blaspheme with impunity against God Almighty. Moreover, the Church as the People of God must survive to fulfill the divine commission to witness on behalf of Christ to the ends of the earth. Granted on the individual level, a person ought to suffer injustice in imitation of Christ’s voluntary Passion and supreme Sacrifice. But Orthodox moral tradition obligates each Orthodox Christian to defend the collective entity of the whole People of God — which is, mystically to be sure, greater than the mere sum of its individual parts — from any and all forms of injustice and unrighteousness, particularly the violence that is endemic to foreign invasion or domestic oppression by those hostile to the free exercise of the Orthodox Christian faith.In such extreme circumstances an essentially defensive war on behalf of the continued existence of the Church, even in a secular or otherwise non-Orthodox society, may become morally imperative. That condition would appear to be fully met, for example, in the current war against international Islamic terrorism. (emphasis added)
This quote from the book The Virtue of War by Alexander Webster and Darrell Cole offers some light as to the Orthodox origins of current Russian foreign policy, especially as the Russian Orthodox Church declares a “holy war” in defense of Orthodox Christians in Syria.
What is equally interesting is the reaction of the Russian Federation with regards to ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, Baltics, and Central Asia in the wake of the Maidan Revolution of 2014. Putin’s recent interview with Charlie Rose was telling enough when Putin explained:
Somebody is always suspecting Russia of having some ambitions, there are always those who are trying to misinterpret us or keep something back. I did say that I see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy of the 20th century. Do you know why? First of all, because 25 million of Russian people suddenly turned out to be outside the borders of the Russian Federation. They used to live in one state; the Soviet Union has traditionally been called Russia, the Soviet Russia, and it was the ‘greater Russia’. Then the Soviet Union suddenly fell apart, in fact, overnight, and it turned out that in the former Soviet Union republics there were 25 million Russians. They used to live in one country and suddenly found themselves abroad. Can you imagine how many problems came out?
First, there were everyday issues, the separation of families, the economic and social problems. The list is endless. Do you think it is normal that 25 million people, Russian people, suddenly found themselves abroad? The Russians have turned out to be the largest divided nation in the world nowadays. Is that not a problem? It is not a problem for you as it is for me.
The language of the Soviet Union’s collapse being a tragedy shouldn’t be misinterpreted as Putin’s longing for the glory days of Soviet communism. Far from it, Putin is describing what to Russian ears sounds rather familiar — an expression of solidarity with fellow Russians separated from the Russian Federation, much as the Orthodox Church seeks to protect those separated from Orthodoxy within Russia. In effect, there is a duality at play: just as the Orthodox seek to protect all members of the Body of Christ (sic), so too does the Russian state seek to protect the unity of the Slavic peoples.
Such an idea is not an old one, if one recalls the perhaps now-infamous incident at Pristina Airport in 1999 where U.S. General Wesley Clark very nearly started World War Three. So aware were the Russians of their own impotence in the post-Cold War era, they made a mad dash to the airport in order to demonstrate they still had tactical control over the situation in the former Yugoslavia. What looked like a headstrong move to the West was in reality a moral imperative to the Russians themselves — misunderstood by Clark, but fundamental to understanding the Russian character.
Moreover, and specifically with regards to Vladimir Putin’s worldview, what should be fascinating for Americans are the influences that inform Putin’s own policies:
The recent literature on Putin is correctly in drawing attention to his pro-Soviet imperialistic views: remember, to Putin the collapse of the USSR the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of 20th century. But what exactly this pro-Soviet worldview means is fairly poorly understood. To get a grasp on one needs to check what Putin’s preferred readings are. Putin’s favorites include a bunch of Russian nationalist philosophers of early 20th century – Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin — whom he often quotes in his public speeches. Moreover, recently the Kremlin has specifically assigned Russia’s regional governors to read the works by these philosophers during 2014 winter holidays. The main message of these authors is Russia’s messianic role in world history, preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and Orthodoxy.
Berdayev was a Russian philosopher expelled by the Russian Soviet before the formation of the USSR, one who believed in Russia’s destiny as a “Third Rome” and the unity of the Slavic peoples. Illyn too was a proponent of the “third way” who was indeed a monarchist of a sort, believing in the “conscience of law” rather than the rule of law, and fearing the rapidity of republican forms of government as too destabilizing. Solovyov is a Russian thinker known to Catholics for some time, believing firmly in the unity of the Slavic people and their unique ability to bridge the divide between the authoritarian East and the democratic West — one who also accurately foresaw the splitting of the major faiths into pro-secular and traditionalist camps (e.g. the Anglican Communion).
Of course, “pro-Soviet” is shorthand for department and think-tank funding… much more scary than say, pro-Russian policies. All three of these Russian philosophers — Berdyaev, Solovyev, and Ilyin — were tremendous influences on Russian thinkers who remain highly popular in the West and committed critics of Soviet communism: Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.
In this light, a Russian annexation of the Crimea in the eyes of the West is a natural unity of the Russian people in the eyes of the Russian Federation. So too was the conflict in the Donbass region of the Ukraine, as the very idea of Kiev being independent of the Russian sphere of influence is about as antithetical as Philadelphia being wrenched away from the American framework. The treatment of Russians as second-class citizens in the Baltics and elsewhere only fuels this revanchism within Russia itself. Post-Cold War Europe remains a Gordian knot 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Yet there are reasons for hope, and further reasons why the Russian “reset” need not become a hyperbolic recharging of the Cold War.
First, the Russian Federation is absolutely committed to the international effort to mitigate Islamic terrorism. With 25% of the Russian Federation being Muslim and the Second Chechen War not terribly distant in Russian memories, the spread of ISIL remains an existential threat to the Russian Federation — one that it must contain and destroy at all costs.
Second, Putin clearly sees himself as part of the West. The Russian Federation does not seek to restart the Cold War, nor does such a contest serve its long-term geopolitical goals in developing Russia’s extensive natural resources. What Putin does seek is recognition by the European Union and the United States as co-equal partners in an international framework, and will not tolerate either a subordination nor will Russia tolerate a vivisection of Eastern Europe. NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic States is perhaps tolerable to a point, but the forcible inclusion of the Ukraine was a known “red line” that even those with a casual interest in Russian politics would deem problematic at best. It is in the United States best interest to find a way to accommodate Russian national aspirations within the international framework, and more importantly along lines that are advantageous to the West.
Third, the experiment in “democratic uprisings” has demonstrated itself to be more of a failure than the Iraq War could ever have been. Worse than the imposition of American arms in Iraq, the Obama administration has attempted a cookie-cutter imposition of American values on the Arab world, rocking the region from Algeria to the Gulf with local movements manipulated by regional actors, ones that unearth visceral and ancient divides. In such an environment, a dose of Kissingerian realism is required.
Fourth, regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. American governments have, at times, cut cards with the devil in the name of geopolitical realism. We cut cards with apartheid South Africa, with Ian Smith in Rhodesia, with phalangist regimes in Chile and Argentina, dictators such as Mobutu Sese in Zaire, Mao in Communist China and yes — even the Soviets. If ISIL is cannot be tolerated in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, then one must control the outcome of how ISIL’s story ends. al-Assad may not be the best of all possible outcomes, but Assad is at the very least a stable outcome — one whose devolution and transition can at least be controlled to a democratic endgame.
Fifth, it is important to realize that in Syria, the Russians have their only client state — one with deep roots stretching back over a half century. It was naive in the extreme to believe the Russian Federation would allow the Syrian Arab Republic to experience regime change absent overwhelming American or NATO-backed force. Rebuilding the area will take time, and given the amount of investment that will be required to rebuild in both the Donbass region of the Ukraine and in Syria, the Russian Federation will not be able to shoulder it alone. Western capital will be invited, and in that invitation should come some form of governing framework that allows such investments a degree of protection, along with a liberalization of the Syrian political environment. A regional economic union consisting of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the formation of a stable confessional democracy with Assad remaining as president could very well be the stabilizing force required to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy — one where Russia, the EU, and the United States will inevitably play a role.
Sixth, an increasing cultural exchange between the Russian Federation and the United States must necessarily occur. Much of the perception in America of the Russian Federation is still clouded by the experience of the Cold War. Likewise in Russia, a formerly positive perception of America has swiftly eroded over the last five years, increasing suspicions of Western intentions and pushing the Russian Federation into the arms of the Chinese government. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the cusp of linking 40% of the world’s economy and isolating China’s ability to expand economically, pushing Russia into the arms of the People’s Republic of China would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, quickly turning pro-Russian sentiment into the sort of pro-Soviet imperialism feared in the pages of the Washington Post.
Lastly, the Russian Federation wants to be treated with respect as a co-equal partner. That treatment must ultimately recognize the validity of Russian regional claims, as well as the moral sentiments of the nation regarding their Slavic heritage and Orthodox weltanschauung.
Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.
They should, however, because Putinism includes a good amount of Ilyin-inspired Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism working hand-in-glove, what its advocates term symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad. Putin has explained the central role of the ROC by stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” – meaning her church-grounded resistance to post-modernism – is as important to her security as her nuclear shield.
So long as Western governments — and the Obama administration specifically — ignores this ideological and indeed religious component to the Russian Federation’s foreign policy, we will continue to misjudge Putin’s actions on the global stage.
The imposition of Western secular values will ultimately be perceived as a threat to the Orthodox Church. Such a threat invokes images of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” rather than a peaceful concert of liberal democracies. Putin’s Russia and its concept of the “conscience of law” — a conscience informed by Orthodox Christianity — will resist this in a way where the rule of law cannot be judicially manipulated or legislated democratically over the course of time.
Should the alternative continue to be the path of sanctions — which worked too well and nearly bankrupted Russia — continuing to develop Russia’s natural resources by means of emasculating the Russian government, or by increasing the cost of military intervention, the Russian character will have a deeply ingrained response to such provocations. Whether the Body of Christ or the body politic, the Russian character inevitably reacts in the same way one would react to a mosquito bite — with force.
Realites are that the Russian Federation will react to protect Russian minorities, as it did in the Donbass region of the Ukraine. So too will the Russian Federation react to the plight of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. This reality has implications, from Eastern Europe to Greece, but it need not be interpreted as anti-Western so long as the West recognizes that over the last 20 years, the values of European and American society have changed from one that would welcome Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn to ones that find such pretensions archaic and absurd — much as the idea of Christendom is ridiculed by the secular left today. Such is the legacy we have lost, but one that has a parallel in the Third Rome.
Partnership, perhaps, would be a more prudent path in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s new Russia. Repairing the trust between the Russian Federation and the United States is an imperative, as is a greater dialogue and understanding of the Russian character. Moreover, whether American governments adopt the tactics of so-called democratic uprisings or regime change, the Russian Federation is determined to pursue a policy of both prizing stability and imposing realism in the early 21st century — defensive in nature, hostile to post-modern liberalism, and jealous of its historical legacy and cultural ties.