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Understanding Putin

The scheming Russian despot’s destiny lies in God’s hands

Russian President Vladimir Putin Associated Press/Photo by Sergey Guneev/Sputnik (Kremlin pool)

Understanding Putin
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Will Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine? Or is the Russian president only prolonging a needless crisis to stay center stage in global affairs? Does he still expect concessions from the West? Or did he miscalculate, and is he now contriving to escape from his own folly? Is he, like most dictators, surrounded by sycophants afraid to give him sound counsel? Does Putin now hubristically believe his own propaganda? Or is he shrewdly playing for long-term advantage?

We don’t yet know the answers. But we do know that Putin, like all tyrants, is arrogant, overconfident, and even now is sowing the seeds of his own eventual demise. Job 5:13–15 is pertinent: “God swiftly traps the wicked in their own evil schemes, and their wisdom fails.” The King James Version is more poetic: “He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” Putin is crafty, which God will ultimately exploit for His own purposes, and the grapes of wrath that Putin unleashes will be the instruments of ultimate divine judgment against him.

Christians, when called to reflect on international events, must think providentially and trust in divine sovereignty. One example of how not to think was demonstrated recently by the commander of Germany’s navy, who resigned amid embarrassment after speaking foolishly about Putin.

Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schönbach, speaking in India last month, asserted that Putin just “wants respect.” The naval officer added, “Giving him respect is low cost, even no cost. It is easy to give him the respect he demands, and probably deserves.” But heaping undeserved “respect” on despots and aggressors does not mollify them. More typically, it inflates their expectations and ultimate demands.

A German, above all, should be aware of that historical lesson. Respecting oppressors also demeans the victims and devalues the integrity and judgment of the naïve respecters. It’s pandering and it’s delusional.

The German admiral, in his own form of delusion, also asserted, “Having this big country, even if it is not a democracy, as a bilateral partner … probably keeps Russia away from China.” There is no evidence that Putin wants to “partner” with the West, which he treats as a foil to justify his own domestic security state based on paranoia about the West. Putin knows that the West and Ukraine pose absolutely no threat to Russia, and he will align more naturally with China as a kindred spirit that also disdains Western values.

We do know that Putin, like all tyrants, is arrogant, overconfident, and even now is sowing the seeds of his own eventual demise.

Schönbach called himself “a very radical Roman Catholic” and said Russia was also a “Christian country, even if Putin is an atheist, it doesn’t matter.” The implication was that Russia’s purported Christianity makes it a more natural ally for the West. But once again, the German forgets history. Russia is a longtime nemesis to the West, precisely because of its version of Christianity.

Russian Orthodoxy for centuries saw itself as guardian of the true faith in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. Moscow, according to this lore, is the third Rome, the seat of the true Christendom, after Constantinople and the Roman Empire. This spiritual perspective was absorbed into the Russian mindset and sustained by the anti-religious Soviet Union.

Also importantly, Russian Orthodoxy has nearly always been a cheerleading nationalist subordinate to the state, no matter who is czar. It conflates the church’s purposes with the majesty of Holy Russia. Czars confer privileges on it in exchange for this obeisance. Some Western Christians from afar see this symbiotic relationship between Russian church and state as demonstrating that Russia is more deeply spiritual than the secular West.

But behind the religious rhetoric and the pomp, Russia is more secular than many Western countries. And its brand of privileged state-backed religion sinisterly performs what Western churches do not: blessing state tyranny and terror. The Western Christian tradition of resistance to the state in defense of liberty is alien to Russian Orthodoxy.

Putin’s contrived grievance against Ukraine also has an ecclesial ingredient. Ukrainian Orthodoxy, long subordinate to Moscow, is now autonomous, by a 2019 decree of the Patriarch of Constantinople, senior prelate of Eastern Orthodoxy. This separation further undermines Putin’s mythological narrative that Russia and Ukraine are really one people, now artificially separated by Western plotting. A Russian conquest of Ukraine presumably would seek to restore subordination of Ukrainian Orthodoxy while also subordinating other churches to Moscow’s authority.

Whatever short-term advantage Putin may gain through his geopolitical machinations, his destiny is ultimately in God’s hands. One day, he will face God’s judgment. He might recall the words of a chastened Babylonian king also fond of conquest: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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