By most accounts, President Biden’s 1/19 press conference was a debacle, giving even stalwart media chums pause, and allies cause for further alarm. For yet others, there may be a temptation to relish this, as well as the epic disappointment that is the administration’s foreign policy to date. It’s a temptation worth resisting. 

Attention has rightly focused on statements regarding Russia’s mounting threat along the borders of Ukraine, and the possibility of the first multilateral war in Europe since the one started by Adolph Hitler.

There’s almost no end of things that could be said. I’ll begin the few I have with a general exhortation:  Russia – or rather, the Putin regime – needs to be assessed on its own terms. It should not/must not be reduced to the instrument of partisan one-upmanship it has increasingly become in the U.S. In addition, it’s time to rid ourselves of the false comfort that Russia is not The Soviet Union.

Professor Stephen Kotkin, whose grasp of the subject is about as comprehensive as you’ll find, does us the immense service of identifying what the three periods of modern Russian history share at a basic, animating, level. It’s an observation we can’t afford to ignore.

According to Kotkin, the engine common to Pre, Post, and Soviet Russia is an innate sense of singular greatness that obliges it to global preeminence. Aspiration, however, has exceeded ability, and in each period, the project has been thwarted. Kotkin thus traces the consequent pattern of conflating a leader, seen as able to realize this destiny, with the State itself. Polis-as-Person. Enter Lenin, Stalin, and Putin.

What’s often called, exceptionalism, is hardly unique to Russia, but its lineage to the Byzantine Empire, and self-designation as Third Rome, give Russian exceptionalism a hefty boost. A deck of cards has four aces. Here, a fifth has been slipped in. It’s the distorted claim to that Byzantine genealogy, and it’s the ace up Putin’s sleeve. 

Some may be incredulous to learn this claim has a critical religious component. As to whether Putin himself believes in it, skepticism is due. About staking it, there should be no doubt. He’s deadly serious.

The political arrangement Mr. Putin has chosen to advance Russia’s ordained global role is rooted squarely in the Byzantine notion of symphony. In it, Crown and Cathedra support each other in Providential harmony. With it, the Russian project is powered by something infinitely greater than the earth-bound delusions of Karl Marx.

If you’re a Westerner who finds this a laughable anachronism, the joke may be on you. By the same token, Putin has more than a few Western conservatives who seem to buy his last bastion of Christian civilization act. It’s time they too woke up, and smelled the coffins.

Playing Cathedra to Putin’s Crown is Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Long a de facto Orthodox nation, measures have been imposed to make Orthodoxy something more on the order of the state religion. The force of Putin and Kirill’s symphony has, in fact, made it increasingly risky for alternatives, and sharply narrowed what public expressions will be tolerated. Members of the group, Pussy Riot, got a taste of how narrow when handed prison sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

The Patriarch has been generous with his patronage of the President’s program. Some would say exceedingly so. Moreover, his divide-and-conquer offensive in response to the 2019 tomos granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, is a strong indication Putin and Patriarch are working from the same playbook.

What can be said of Putin’s own Orthodoxy? While no one can judge the soul of another, actions are something else. In this regard, behind the seemingly earnest acts of piety captured regularly by Russian media, a troubling mise-en-scene continues to play – the attempted murder, and current imprisonment, of Alexander Navalny, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, use of a WMD to kill a former GRU officer on British soil, and polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, barely begin a litany of obscenities that is in no wise consonant with the Gospel entrusted to the Russian Orthodox Church, at least as I understand it.

Under Putin, the already massive intelligence services have grown still larger, with the reach and ability to inflict serious harm. According to estimates, in fact, there are more Russian spies in the United States now than at the height of the Cold War. 

I have friends who insist Putin loves Russia deeply. If true, that love seems to be refracted through a prism of monumental self-insistence. The Soviet GDP was 1/3 that of the United States, while today, Russia’s is roughly 1/15. The enormous investment in Russia’s military over recent years is thus a scandal, and decidedly more about the preservation of regime power than empowering the people over whom he has appointed himself tsar, with the mitered nod of his Patriarch.

This Potemkin providence flirts with heresy, if it hasn’t already rounded third base.

Encouragingly, there are signs that churches within the Orthodox Communion have had enough. Western policy makers, though, are behind the curve, and need to address the religious dimension of Putin’s revisionist claim, particularly as pressed in the present threat to Ukraine.

Like other autocrats, Putin plays the long game of foreign policy. He can afford to. In his canoodle with China, for example, he’s shrewd enough to know that as things stand, the day will come when China drops the pretense, and opens wide to swallow what’s left of Putin’s would-be empire. In the off chance he’s still around to see it, he’s likewise shrewd enough to know he could turn Westward for help. What choice would we have?

In the meantime, for Vladimir Putin it’s nice to be the king. Better yet, a god. It’s a tragically perverse and costly game, with stakes larger than we likely know. But then, he’s not using his own money to play it. 

— Tim Kelleher


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