The bully in the shadows of the Syrian crisis is not the vicious
and deluded Bashar Al-Assad, but Vladimir Putin. Without the
Russian President's active and tacit support, the Syrian regime
might have struggled to stay in power.
President Putin is sometimes seen as an unreconstructed creation
of the KGB. But his attitude of hostility to the West has its roots
not only in Soviet Communism, but in theology. "Holy Russia" is an
ideal that runs deep in Russian culture.
Russian Christianity took on the Byzantine attitude of reverence
towards worldly rulers. Icons of the feast of the Exaltation of the
Cross often depict the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena.
The legend is that it was Helena who found the True Cross, but the
presence of the emperor suggests that the conversion of Constantine
marked a new stage in the advance of the gospel.
Orthodox ecclesiology suggests that Christ and Caesar are
reconciled in the new humanity that is brought to birth by Christ's
resurrection. The Christian state is part of the Church. Belief in
Holy Russia survived the Communist era in remarkably good
Perhaps it never went away. In spite of the state's espousal of
atheist materialism, links between the Orthodox hierarchy and the
KGB were maintained. It was often said that the Church was full of
KGB informers, but it was also true that the KGB harboured secret
Both believed in Russia's particular vocation as the source of a
new kind of humanity. Whether this belief was inspired by
Christianity or Communism was perhaps less important than the part
it played in strengthening Russian self-belief and daunting its
President Putin has taken care to support the Church,
channelling government funds into the restoration of churches. His
relationship with the Church appears to have survived his divorce.
His macho posturings and bare-chested horseback rides are icons
representing the indomitable power of the Russian ideal. Winding up
the Western powers is a sure-fire way of keeping this mythology
President Obama's unexpected decision to defer to Congress over
military action towards Syria is carefully calibrated to keep
President Putin guessing. It is a huge risk. It is also subtle.
Typically, President Obama has played a hand that exposes the
emptiness behind the threats that emanate from Russia. In doing so,
he is attempting to re-establish the moral credentials of the West,
which have their basis not in an alliance of Christ and Caesar, but
in the call to sacrificial service.