Vladimir Putin could be about to embark upon a sort of modern-day crusade in Syria. This could occur because Russia’s foreign policy is now being set by the Russian Orthodox Church and not the Kremlin.
U.S. officials think that Russia is building a base near Latakia, Syria’s principal port, which could house up to 1,000 military personnel, The New York Times reported. The base will all contain an airfield from which Russian planes and helicopters could support the troops of Syrian despot Bashar Al-Assad in the ongoing war with ISIS.
Officials were confused because they could not understand why Russia would want to commit military forces to the Syrian conflict. The answer lies within Russian history and the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church over Putin and his sorry regime.
As I pointed out earlier this year, Russia has become a sort of theocracy similar to that in Iran. Putin is heavily dependent upon the support of the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, the Patriarch Kirill, who like Putin, is reportedly a former KGB agent. The church has backed Putin’s military adventures in the Ukraine and turned a blind eye to the president’s trampling of democracy and the rule of law.
In exchange, Putin has sided with the church, and even used police power to enforce some of its teachings, such as persecuting gays. Public support for gay rights is now illegal in Russia, and gay rights demonstrations are broken up by storm trooper-like riot police.
How a 19th Century War Explains Putin’s Middle Eastern Adventure
This new theocracy, which combines Russian nationalism, Orthodox fundamentalism, and nostalgia for the glories of the Tsarist Empire, explains Russia’s move into Syria. One of the major motivators of Tsarist foreign policy was to establish military dominion over the Middle East under the pretext of protecting Orthodox Christians in the region from Islamic persecution.
Another goal was to establish Russian primacy over the various Christian shrines in the Holy Land and exclude Catholics. This actually sparked the Crimean War between Orthodox Russia and a coalition of the Sunni Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire, the nominally Protestant British Empire, and the staunchly Catholic French Empire of Napoleon III. Interestingly enough, Russia lost that war and got driven out of the Middle East in the process.
Given this history, the real reason Putin is building a base in Syria is to protect Middle Eastern Christians, some of whom are Orthodox, from ISIS. There have been plenty of news stories about ISIS butchering Christians in recent months, many of whom are Orthodox.
Since Vladimir and Kirill seem to view themselves as the modern-day equivalents of the Czars, they feel that they have a God-given duty to use Holy Mother Russia’s military might to protect the Christians of the Middle East. If in the process they can seize oil fields or put themselves in a position to blackmail rich countries like Saudi Arabia, so much the better.
War for Faith or War for Oil
An added benefit is that they might be able to torch or blow up a few Middle Eastern oilfields. That could make Russia’s oil, about the only thing keeping the economy in the Russian Federation, afloat all the more valuable. The falling price of oil is slowly devastating Russia’s economy.
A holy crusade against the evil forces of ISIS could also distract the Russian people from the mess that Putin and company have made of their country. Putin could use the crusade as a pretext for more crackdowns on opposition and restrictions on freedom of speech.
Such an adventure would be fraught with peril; there is no guarantee that the Russian military or the average Russian solider would go along with it. The sight of Russian soldiers coming home from Syria in body bags could trigger widespread opposition and protests and unleash the kind of political turmoil that could bring Putin down.
A worse situation could be a defeat of Russian forces at ISIS’s hands. After all, the modern Russian army is clumsy and could be poorly trained. How long would Putin, and possibly Kirill, last if the Russian commander in Latakia had to call for American, Israeli, or Turkish help to defend his base from an ISIS assault?
Other potential dangers include clashes between American, Turkish, or British and Russian planes or Russian soldiers and NATO Special Forces or Russian and Israeli planes. That could trigger a shooting war or at least an ugly incident.
It is not clear where Putin’s Middle Eastern adventure will lead. One thing is certain, Russia no longer seems to be following a realistic foreign policy. Instead, its national policy is now being shaped by a mix of silly nostalgia, misguided religious fervor, and opportunism.
Putin is Russia’s Mussolini
The final destination for that policy could be disaster because Putin and his regime are reminiscent of one of the 20th century’s sorriest tyrants, Benito Mussolini. Like Putin, Mussolini was a nationalist who misled his people with militarism and dreams of empire, and like Putin, Mussolini was beholden to a religious leader, the Pope, for his power. Mussolini made a corrupt bargain with the Vatican to consolidate power.
This parallel is troubling because Mussolini led Italy to catastrophe during World War II. One hopes that Kirill and Putin will learn from this history and avoid a course of events that could lead to war and Russia’s devastation.