The continuities of history are always fascinating. In this context it is interesting to note that Russian foreign policy has not changed much over the centuries.
Back in the nineteenth century, the Russian Tsar claimed that he was the protector of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire, something that was disputed by the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III. The Tsar’s claims were seen by Britain as the Russian Bear trying to gain influence and territory at the expense of the Sick Man of Europe, and that is one reason why Britain went to war with Russia, allied with the French, in 1854.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Russians were credited with the desire to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean , and to gain, above all, control of Constantinople, the place they called Tsarigrad, the Emperor’s City. They came remarkably close to fulfilling this ambition in 1878 and were perhaps only thwarted by the threat of British intervention. The British had no desire to see Russia in control of the Bosphorus.
With the coming of Communism, one might expect a change of policy. Stalin, an atheist, could not claim to be protecting Christians, surely, but that is to underestimate the sheer chutzpah of the man. Stalin’s policy was very much in continuity with that of the Tsars. He was, like them, an anti-Semite, and an anti-Catholic; he took close interest in the Russian Orthodox Church; and he also played an active role in the Middle East. In the crucial years of 1947 and 1948, his intervention was decisive. The Israelis received crucial help, particularly air power, from Czechoslovakia, which was authorised by Stalin. Stalin did this, not because he loved the Jews (he didn’t) but because he loathed the British, and perhaps, who knows, to get revenge for the Crimean War.
In the closing decades of the Communist era, the disastrous Russian involvement in Afghanistan was nothing new either. The Russians had expanded into Central Asia and the Far East, threatening both Britain in India and the Japanese, during the nineteenth century and early twentieth.
Mr Putin is neither a Tsar nor a Communist, but his policy shows little difference from either. He has a warm water port and access to the Mediterranean in Tartus, just south of Latakia, Syria. Luckily for the Russians, Tartus is in a peaceful part of Syria, as its population is Alawite, on the whole, and thus loyal to President Assad. Tartus is Russia’s only base outside Russia, and it is inconceivable that Putin would ever willingly give it up: therefore, Russian support for Assad is guaranteed, even though Assad is by no means an obedient Kremlin puppet. How could Putin give up something every Russian politician in the nineteenth century wanted so badly?
Mr Putin, like the Tsars before him, can also pose as the protector of Middle Eastern Christians, and some Middle Eastern Christians see him as such. One can hardly blame the besieged Christians of the Middle East for seeking help wherever they can find it, though one notes that the Christians of the Middle East have traditionally found foreign refuge not in Russia but in America, in places such as Glendale, California and Dearborn, Michigan. But while there can be no doubt that Putin has backed governments that have been historically kind to Christians, such as Assad’s, his reasons for this are political and not religious. He may well be intervening to spite the Americans, or to fill the vacuum left by America’s failure to act. It is unlikely that he is acting out of piety.
We cannot judge Putin’s soul, but we can judge his outward actions, and many of these are at odds with any understanding of Christian morality. His aggressive foreign policy, in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Ukraine, hardly marks him out as a man of peace. The brutality of the treatment received by opposition voices in Russia marks him out as an authoritarian anti-democrat. His personal life remains opaque. The society over which he presides can hardly be seen as a beacon of Christian values. Let us remember Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, two journalists who did not die by accident. Let us also remember, though it must be quite low on the list of priorities of those who want to see freedom in Russia, the way the Russian government continues to make difficulties for the Catholic Church in Russia.
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