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Russia’s Holy War Against the West

Can President-elect Donald Trump run a charm offensive against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and deliver a real reset that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once promised with her bungled “reset button” stunt?

Don’t hold your breath, advises former NSA analyst John R. Schindler at the Observer.

Schindler – who is deeply suspicious of Russia’s role in the forthcoming administration – thinks the “honey badger in the Kremlin” has just about checkmated NATO in the Baltics, positioning itself to deny both aircraft and ships to the area.

“For Western military planners, this is nothing short of a nightmare, since Moscow can now block NATO reinforcements headed east to counter, say, Russian military moves on the vulnerable Baltic republics,” Schindler warns, charging that President Obama’s passivity in the face of Russian aggression gave Putin plenty of time to arrange that nightmare.

It is now chillingly plausible for Russia to take down a Baltic state before NATO could respond, and the strategic situation is so lopsided that NATO might think long and hard about responding at all. On the other hand, Russia’s odds of defeating NATO in a new World War remain just about zero.

Why is Putin doing all this, especially if he does not actually pull the trigger on a Baltic war? Schindler notes that it is partly due to perpetual Russian paranoia about the Western threat, Putin’s need for external threats to fuel Russian nationalism, and a tendency to view aggression as synonymous with strength – or, at least, a reliable method for concealing weakness.

But the most interesting factor in Russia’s current opposition to the West, according to Schindler’s analysis, is religion, or at least spirituality. As he explains it:

Putin himself is very much a KGB man—what Russians call a Chekist—cunningly conspiratorial to his bones. Yet over the last decade, he has become an open Russian nationalist with strong religious overtones. Regime outlets pontificate nonstop about the evils of the West, castigating our decadence and depravity, reflecting a nationalism that is deeply grounded in Orthodox Christianity.

Putin has talked warmly about what he calls “spiritual security“—which means keeping versions of Christianity other than Russian Orthodoxy out of the country—even stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” is as important to her security as its nuclear shield. His inspiration for this comes from Orthodox thinkers, above all Ivan Ilyin, who hated the West with vigor and passion. This anti-Western worldview seems strange and even incomprehensible to most Americans, its reference points are utterly foreign to us, yet is grounded in centuries of Russian history and spiritual experience.

In this viewpoint, which I have termed Orthodox Jihadism, the West is an implacable foe of Holy Russia with whom there can be no lasting peace. For centuries—whether led by the Catholic Church, Napoleon, Hitler or the United States—the West has tried to subjugate Russia and thereby crush Orthodoxy, the one true faith. This is the Third Rome myth, which became very popular in 19th century Imperial Russia, postulating that it is Russia’s holy mission to resist the Devil and his work on earth.

Schindler argues this “Orthodox Jihadism” is more politically potent in Russia than church attendance figures would suggest, pointing to numerous Kremlin-friendly outlets that routinely mix religious and political language, including dismissals of Western feminism and gay rights as “satanic.”

A good deal of anti-Western thinking in today’s Russia boils down to “depictions of the post-modern West as Satan’s project designed to subvert traditional religion and family life” – which, as Schindler observes, is rather similar to what the fire-breathing imams of the Islamist world tell their followers.

Putin himself has talked about the “excesses of political correctness” and the Left’s assaults on organized religion in Western countries, calling it a “direct path to degradation and primitivism.”

He is also not wrong about American and European efforts to push these moral judgments on the rest of the world, notably including Russia. President Obama directly trolled Putin regarding rights for gays during the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and some U.S. activists made efforts to ban the Olympics because of Russia’s laws against “nontraditional sexual relations.” As the Associated Press reported: 

President Barack Obama sent Russia a clear message about its treatment of gays and lesbians with who he is — and isn’t — sending to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics.

Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies, Obama announced Tuesday. For the first time since 2000, however, the U.S. will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Games.

Those Olympic games showcases Putin’s effort to repair and rebuild Russia’s tortured history, complete with images of war and baby carriages, communism and high culture, as well as athletes and onion-domed churches. 

Worth noting is that many of Russia’s efforts to control free speech are tied to religion, including the famed Pussy Riot concert, which took place at a church and resulted in the female band’s incarceration.

The broad outlines of an effective Trump strategic shift are clear enough from this analysis: a friendly personal relationship with Putin might be helpful, and a show of strength in Eastern Europe is the only way to dampen Russian adventurism, but a quiet cease-fire in the global culture wars might be one of the most productive tactics.

Of course, that might swing the pendulum so far that tensions between the Republican-dominated U.S. government and Russia are inflamed by Russia’s offenses against religious freedom of Christians outside the Russian Orthodox Church. The mixture of authoritarian ideology and religion which Putin relies upon was not achieved gently, and so the religions not useful to the Russian state have good reason to fear it.

The day after Schindler posted his thoughts on Russia’s religious conflict with the West, Pravda published a piece entitled “Russia Has Become the Only Defender of Christian Values.”

Here it was argued that the West has forgotten about Christian faith to worship multinational capitalism instead, and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war was portrayed as support for a Muslim leader who protects his Christian population. (The same argument has been made by both the Syrian regime and Assyrian Christians.)

About the state of Christian faith in the United States, Pravda said:

Barack Obama, according to The Chicago Tribune, has never attended any service of the United Church of Christ, in which he was baptized. The United States discredits religious beliefs in favor of gay rights, while Russia invests hundreds of millions of rubles in the restoration of churches across the country. 

The trend Schindler describes may have been largely ignored by Western policymakers, especially in the Obama administration, but it is not exactly subtle and it will not disappear with a Putin-Trump handshake.

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