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The bully in the shadows on Syria

06 September 2013

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 shape.

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 believers.

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 foes.

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 alive.

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.


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