Last month, when Vladimir Putin ordered that the Black Madonna of Kazan, the holiest icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, be flown over the Black Sea, many believed he wished to secure blessings for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
It was the first time the icon, or rather a copy of it, since the original was stolen and possibly destroyed in 1904, was deployed to bless a peaceful enterprise. Over the centuries, the “Black Virgin” has been taken to battlefields to bless Russian armies fighting Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Persian, French and German invaders. Stalin sent it to Stalingrad in 1943 to ensure victory over the German invaders under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.
With Putin’s troops in control of Crimea and threatening to move further into Ukraine, we now know that the icon was brought in to bless a military operation this time as well.
Putin appears strong because US President Barack Obama, accidentally cast as the leader of Western democracies, is weak. Putin is over-using the power Russia really doesn’t have because Obama under-uses the power the US does have. As long as Obama prevents the US from playing the leadership role it has had since the end of World War II, Putin will see no reason why he should not pursue his dream of reviving the Soviet Empire wherever possible. In doing so he is acting within a tradition established since the 18th century, when Russia emerged as a power with a pathological fear of encirclement. That fear has always made Russia aggressive.
Throughout the 19th century, Russia used “the protection of Christian minorities” as an excuse for invading its Muslim neighbors, especially the Ottoman Empire and Iran, annexing vast chunks of territory. The whole of Northern Caucasus, plus Georgia and Armenia, were annexed with that excuse, as was Crimea. In the 18th century, Empress Catherine II used the pretext of protecting Christians to wrest away Dagestan and Georgia from Iran.
Russia also used the excuse to seize territories that belonged to European neighbors, including Germany, Poland and Finland. For almost 100 years, Russia expanded at the average rate of 62 square miles (100 square kilometers) a day, creating history’s largest empire in terms of territory.
Casting itself as the “Third Rome” and the final defender of Christianity, Russian empire-builders claimed that their enterprise enjoyed divine blessing.
Russia has used the trick of granting Russian nationality to people in neighboring countries as a pretext for invasion since the 18th century. In 1829, Russia used the excuse of freeing Georgian women, supposedly granted Russian citizenship, from the harem of the Qajar Shah of Persia as a pretext for an invasion of Iran. A Tehran mob retaliated by murdering the Russian chargé d’affaires, Alexander Griboyedov.
In 1911, a number of Qajar princes led by Shu’a Al-Saltaneh (The Light Beam of Monarchy) and opposed to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution declared themselves subjects of the Tsar and raised Russian flags on top of their palaces. The Tsar used the pretext of “protecting” his subjects for invading Iran, occupying five Iranian provinces and sending an army to destroy the newly created Iranian parliament.
In 1912, Russia used the excuse of protecting its citizens for invading parts of China and annexing large chunks of land, especially in what is now Mongolia. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the empire, re-named the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, replaced Christianity with Communism as its ideological matrix. It was in the name of defending “Socialism” that, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union sent is tanks to Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, too, was sold as a bid to “defend Socialism.”
After the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1991, Russia revived the old excuse of protecting its “kith and kin” in neighboring countries. In some instances, those minorities are genuine communities shaped over a century or so. In others, however, “kith-and-kin” communities are artificial creations to be used as a means of pressure on weaker neighbors.
Under Putin, Moscow has been distributing large numbers of Russian passports, some suggest millions, in neighboring countries, notably Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Kazakhstan. There are also significant numbers of Russian passport-holders in Transnistria, part of Moldova, which does not have a border with Russia.
The first test of the “kith-and-kin” excuse came in 2000 when, as prime minister, Putin forced Tajikistan to host 15,000 Russian troops stationed at six bases. The next time “kith-and-kin” was cited was in August 2008, coinciding with the Beijing Olympics, when Putin, this time as president, ordered an invasion of Georgia and annexed the autonomous republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, Russia has some 40,000 troops stationed in the two enclaves.
Ukraine is the third nation to experience Putin’s “kith-and-kin” game, and if Putin manages to pull this one off, it will not be the last. Putin’s shenanigans in Crimea are symptoms of a deeper malaise caused by Russia’s inability to gauge its place in the post-Cold War international order and the inability of European powers and the United States to accommodate Russia in a way commensurate with its weight, if not its ambitions.
In the past quarter of a century, with the loss of its glacis in eastern and central Europe, Russia has seen NATO arrive right at its borders. The entire European continent has been reorganized within the framework fixed by NATO and the European Union. Today, Russia is just one of four European powers still shut out of both NATO and the EU. It took Russia almost two decades to gain admission into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and, more tentatively, be offered a side chair at the G8. The only leadership slot Russia has had is its veto-holding seat in the UN’s Security Council, a relic of the Cold War. But even then, until Obama paralyzed US foreign policy the Western powers, led by Washington, simply ignored Russia whenever it suited them, as was the case in the 2003 military intervention in Iraq.
Putin has built his narrative on the theme of encirclement by hostile powers and their “agents” inside Russia. To the West, Russia is shut out of Europe, which paradoxically remains its principal trading partner. To the south, Russia is hemmed in by a string of Muslim-majority nations with deep-rooted resentment of Tsarist and Communist oppression. To the east, Russia faces two hostile powers—China and Japan, part of whose territories remain under Russian occupation.
At home, Russia faces a seemingly endless war against jihadist forces in five Caucasian republics, while relations with Georgia and Armenia remain strained. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev claims that Russia today is in the vanguard of fighting “Islamic terror” and its aim of world conquest. However, jihadists are not alone in posing a threat to Putin’s idealized vision of a greater Russia seeking global leadership. Well-financed Christian missionary groups, mostly from the US, are expanding their networks throughout Russia at the expense of the Orthodox Church, which has become Putin’s principal ideological ally.
To make matters worse for Putin, his autocratic style of rule is also challenged by a growing number of Russians seduced by the Western ideas of multi-party democracy, pluralism and desacralization of political power.
Meanwhile, the domination of the Russian economy by the oligarchs, whose support Putin needs, has slowed down, and in some cases even prevented, genuine development. Russia has become an exporter of raw materials, especially oil and gas, dependent on European markets. Worse still, a good part of the capital formed in Russia finds its way into European banks, especially in Britain and Switzerland.
Today, the real issue is not whether Russian troops remain inside their bases in Crimea or show their teeth in the streets of Sebastopol. The real issue is how to find Russia a place in a world order in the creation of which it played no part. Putin’s current policy could transform Russia into a fully fledged rogue state. And that would be dangerous both for Russia and the world, even if the Black Madonna of Kazan were brought in to perform a miracle.