Defender of the Faith? Russia's 'Holy War' in Syria
14th October 2015
Senior Analyst, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Russia is the latest player in the Syrian conflict to describe its fight as holy, with the Orthodox Church voicing support for Moscow's decision to carry out airstrikes in Syria against ISIS. Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Russian Orthodox Church's public affairs department was quoted as saying "the fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it." This familiar blend of nationalism and religion fits with the rhetoric of many other players on the ground in Syria, both Sunni and Shia.
That this sentiment would not have been rubber-stamped by the Kremlin is highly unlikely given the closeness of the two institutions: Vladimir Putin has had strong support from the Russian Church since his first presidency. However, Russia's religious support goes beyond its own church. Jean-Clement Jeanbart, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo applauded Russia's military escalation in Syria as a source of "hope" for the country's Christians. Referring to the persecution of Christians in Syria by jihadi groups, the archbishop said Vladimir Putin "is solving a problem" and "serves the Christians' cause." He also spoke of a "renewal of confidence" among Christians in Syria.
Putin has previously promised to be the protector of the Christian world, vowing to make this mission an important part of his nation's foreign policy. Indeed his rhetoric in support of Bashar al-Assad's regime has often been framed in terms of the defence of persecuted Christians at the hands of Sunni militants. Christians have consistently favoured Assad in the conflict, alongside other religious minorities such as the Druze.
Putin claims that the protection of Christians is a key part of Russian foreign policy.
Interviews with fighters from Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, show that this narrative is not being lost on actors on the ground. Syrian jihadi Abdul Ilah commented to Syria Deeply, a website, that, "The Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin's military intervention in Syria and calls it a holy war." He asked: "Why is our jihad seen as terrorism, while when they fight in the name of religion, it's seen as 'necessary'?" Ilah added that Russia's action represents "a war on Islam," saying Russia is using the Syrian conflict as an opportunity to take revenge for previous battles against jihadi insurgents in Chechnya and Afghanistan. This attitude is not limited to footsoldiers. In an audio statement on the 13 October 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani said that Russian intervention constituted a repeat of the Crusades, including "the aid of the worst enemies of Sunnis, the Rafida [Shia]."
Russia's religious rhetoric, deliberately blurred with nationalistic and nostalgic references to a glorious past, is by no means unique to the Syrian conflict. In 2014 Putin justified Russia's annexation of Ukraine's autonomous Crimean Peninsula as an inevitable consequence of historic and even divine precedence, claiming that Crimea had "sacral importance for Russia" much like "the Temple Mount in Jerusalem" does to Jews and Muslims.
Referencing the country's founding narrative of the Christianisation of one of Russia's predecessor states in the 11th Century, Putin stated that "It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus." The irony seems lost on Putin that Prince Vladimir is also revered as a national hero in neighbouring Ukraine.
Just across the (new) border in Ukraine, similar dynamics are plain to see. They show the increasing role of religion in conflict and its conflation with nationalist sentiment in the Orthodox world. Two divergent accounts show the use of religious rhetoric and sentiment by nationalists on both sides of the fight for the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Resistance groups in Ukraine strive to be a "Christian Taliban."
The BBC describes the case of a Russian fighter, Pavel Rasta, who views his battle alongside Ukrainian separatists as an extension of the battles fought by the Crusaders for the heart of Christendom a millennium ago. Describing the rebel stronghold of Donetsk as a holy city, Rasta presents a worldview of a Russia, and by extension the wider Slavic Orthodox world, surrounded by encroaching enemies. This powerful 'slavophile' current in Russian thought and politics has contested with a rival westernising strain over the last 200 years, and has often been framed in religious language. Parallels with jihadi propaganda, which emphasises the theme of a Muslim community that is under concerted attack on all fronts, are clear to see.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Ukrainian nationalists talk of the need for a crusade against Russia. Vitaly Chornly, a former molecular biologist and now a member of the loyalist St Mary's Battalion which fights alongside the Ukrainian army, claims in an interview with Al Jazeera to be "creating the Christian Taliban." Praising the movement for its "complete devotion to their religion and the way they channel it into their fight," Chornly states that his unit's "main ideology is faith." When asked about the possibility of a proposed ceasefire with pro-Russian separatists, Chornly states "St Mary's battalion does not answer to anyone but God."
The devoutly Orthodox members of this group appear to have learned the advantage of mixing religion and politics when fighting in the Caucasus region alongside Muslim separatists battling Russia for independence. A fighter explains that their model of resistance is as much tactical as it is ideological: "The Ukrainian state has no chance in a war with Russia, but the Christian Taliban can succeed, just as the Taliban are driving the Americans out of Afghanistan."
This reference to the Taliban is particularly pertinent given the current direction of travel of the Syria conflict. There are shades of 1980s Afghanistan in the statement from a group of 52 Saudi clerics calling for a jihad against Russian intervention in a Muslim country. Claims of divine sanction by Russia in its interventions, both from its political and religious establishment, risk exacerbating sectarian tension, and introducing the rhetoric of civilisational clashes into conflicts where binaries of 'good' versus 'evil' are already strongly entrenched.