It would be wrong to portray Vladimir Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s great power status in the Middle East as raw self-interest. There is more at stake. The Russian president’s invocation of God in the stinging final sentence of his New York Times op-ed of September 11 should dispense with any speculation that it was the work of his slick PR team at Ketchum. “When we ask for the Lord’s blessings,” Putin preached to President Obama, “we must not forget that God created us equal.” For the Kremlin, Syria is as much a question of religion as of arms sales, access to the warm-water port at Tartus, or the worth of a veto on the UN Security Council. As Alicja Curanovic explains in The Religious Factor in Russia’s Foreign Policy (Routledge, 2012), “The Kremlin ever more successfully conducts ‘religious diplomacy’, which is an element in building Russia’s ‘soft power’.”
In 21st-century Russia, power is Byzantine; church and state are intertwined. Curanovic warns that diplomats and foreign policy planners cannot afford to ignore the “religious factor” in relations with Moscow. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister who outmanoeuvred US Secretary of State John Kerry with such ease, says that the church often acts more effectively than secular diplomats. He is on the board of the flourishing Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS), founded by Tsar Alexander III in 1882 to support Orthodoxy in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, liquidated in 1917, and revived in 1992. Under its auspices, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the banks of the Jordan now swarm with Russian pilgrims. Lavrov’s recent address to the IOPS reveals how deeply the minister identifies the interests of state with the Orthodox mission in the Middle East: “In order to worthily return to the Holy Land, we must work . . . to the glory of Russia!” The “Holy Land” includes Syria.
As Putin’s billionaire friends and jailed political enemies know, he runs his government as a protection scheme — a racket, many would say. He uses compromising material (kompromat) as leverage. In Putin’s code of honour, loyalty is paramount. In 2012, he gave his word to the church that he would make the protection of Christians a foreign policy priority. By protecting the brutal Assad, who protects Syria’s ancient Christian communities from cutthroat Saudi-backed jidahists, Putin can see himself as keeping a sacred pact as well as ensuring his nation’s earthly interests.
If Obama and Kerry failed to see the importance of the religious factor in Russian policy, they did so on the heels of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief and Washington insider who, as the Wall Street Journal reports, “has been jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Elysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime”. Bandar’s misreading of Putin set the stage for America’s humiliation. On August 21, the day of the mysterious chemical attack in Damascus, Putin leaked details of a closed-door meeting with Bandar at his dacha that had taken place three weeks earlier. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, in the Telegraph, picked up the story from the excellent Al-Monitor. Allegedly, Bandar claimed to speak with the blessing of “the Americans”, promising billions of dollars worth of Saudi deals for Russia if Putin would drop Assad. Bandar also pledged “to protect” Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi from the “Chechen groups . . . controlled by us”, which he said he was currently using against Assad in Syria. The Saudi prince ended by assuring Putin, “There is no escape from the military option.”
Whether this account of his meeting with Bandar is true or not, Putin turned it into a diplomatic Molotov cocktail, filled with explosive kompromat, and aimed it at Washington’s face. The rest is history.