Putin the Great
Russia’s Imperial Impostor
Every year on May 9, Russia celebrates Victory Day—the day on which Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union in 1945—with its biggest annual military parade. This year, the ceremonies opened as they always do, with the Russian defense minister entering Red Square to inspect the troops and report to the president. When passing through Spasskaya Tower, the Kremlin’s main ceremonial gate, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s cabriolet stopped. The minister took off his peaked cap and made the sign of the cross according to Orthodox tradition. Shoigu was the first minister to introduce this gesture into the ceremony in 2015. Whether he did so as a genuine expression of his faith, a public relations gambit, or both, his crossing himself on such an occasion reflects the tightening of bonds between church and state in today’s Russia.
Since the Soviet collapse, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and the Orthodox faith more broadly, has exerted a growing influence on public and private life. Although relatively few Russians are actual practitioners, the majority of the population (about 80 percent) identifies as Orthodox, and many citizens consider the religion to be a defining element of Russian national identity. Officials across the Russian government—including ministers, members of the State Duma and of the Federation Council, senior military commanders, and President Vladimir Putin himself—have taken to openly professing their Orthodox faith. At times, some parts of the public have objected to the state’s privileging of the ROC, but such criticism has done little to diminish the church’s status.
That the church carries extraordinary weight on Russia’s domestic scene is well-known and not that unusual. What is more surprising, and less often explored, is the church’s influence within Russia’s nuclear weapons complex—the most significant wing of one of the world’s most powerful militaries. There the nexus between church and state runs deepest, widest, and longest. During the last three decades, the priesthood has entered all levels of command and positioned itself as a guardian of Russia’s nuclear potential. It’s impossible to fully understand the strategic reality in Russia today without scrutinizing the remarkable conjunction between the Kremlin, the ROC, and the nuclear weapons community.
In Russia, each of the three components of the nuclear force structure—air, land, and sea—has its own patron saint. Icons adorn the walls of the sanctified headquarters, the command posts, and even the nuclear weapons platforms. Each large military base houses a garrison church, chapel, or prayer room. Aerial, ground, and naval processions of the cross are routine. Supplication services and the sprinkling of holy water mark oaths of allegiance, parades, exercises, and space and nuclear launches. Pilots of strategic bombers sanctify their jets prior to combat sorties and attach icons to the maps they take to the cockpit. Mobile temples accompany land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear-armed submarines house portable churches.
The military clergy provides regular pastoral care to the nuclear corps’ servicemen and function as official assistants to the commanders. The nuclear priesthood and servicemen jointly celebrate religious and professional holidays, and religious instruction is integral to the higher education of both military and civilian nuclear personnel. Priests participate in professional activities through the whole chain of command and join their flock in operational missions on the ground and underwater. Within the Russian military, in particular within the nuclear forces, clerics so frequently lead activities to boost morale and foster patriotism that they play a role nearly equivalent to that of Soviet-era political officers, who were responsible for the ideological education of troops and for ensuring the Kremlin’s control over the military.
Russia’s nuclear theory and practice have become increasingly assertive over the last decade, as ties between the military and the church have deepened. Russian strategists more readily incorporate nuclear tools into their planning and use Russia’s status as a nuclear power to coerce the behavior of others. The church is not the only or even the main force behind this posturing, but its open backing burnishes the domestic legitimacy of the Kremlin’s gambits, generating public support both for Moscow’s foreign policy and for the modernization of the nuclear arsenal.
At first glance, the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the current Russian nuclear posture may seem counterintuitive. The Russian stance condones escalation for the sake of de-escalation and first use of nuclear weapons in some circumstances. These positions run counter to the principles of most Western branches of Christianity and Catholic “just war” theory, which stress discriminating between combatants and noncombatants, weighing the military value of an attack against the civilian destruction it may cause, and viewing nuclear weaponry as malum in se (an evil in itself). The Orthodox Church, however, seems to brook no such concerns and has promoted a pro-nuclear worldview in Russia.
With each passing decade since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the church’s influence on Russia’s nuclear establishment has grown stronger. In the early 1990s, the disarmament agreements that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union made nuclear weapons much less of a priority. The nuclear wing of Russia’s military-industrial complex found itself adrift—and the Russian Orthodox Church, seeking to expand its base of influence, saw a target of opportunity. The church shielded the nuclear establishment from political and social ostracism, lobbied for its funding, and helped it to reinvent itself, injecting new meaning into its professional life. Over the course of the decade, the nuclear corps of the military introduced religious ceremonies into its everyday activities, designated patron saints for its institutions, and built churches into its installations and garrisons. Clergymen, from the patriarch on down to priests, openly interacted with nuclear force commanders and industry officials.
With each passing decade since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the church’s influence on Russia’s nuclear establishment has grown stronger.
Official state policy converged with the grassroots embrace of Russian Orthodoxy in the first decade of this century. The Kremlin restored property to the church, established a military clergy, and enhanced the church’s role in educational, social, and foreign policies. By 2010, the church had become part and parcel of the nuclear officialdom. The commanders of the nuclear corps and senior members of the nuclear industry signed cooperation agreements with the Russian Orthodox Church and established close contacts with the patriarch and clergy. From this nexus emerged the belief, which Putin himself seems to hold, that Orthodoxy and the nuclear deterrent are equally important bulwarks of Russian statehood, guaranteeing the nation’s security internally, in the case of the church, and externally, in the case of the nuclear arsenal.
Since 2010, Russia’s clergy has reached a new peak of influence over the state. Putin’s religious, ideological, and philosophical views seem to have matured and become integrated into his geopolitical vision and policy choices. He and his entourage express a religiosity that seems to a certain extent genuine and has created favorable conditions for the church to expand its influence in all dimensions of social and political life. In turn, the church lends moral authority to the Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives. The clergy has become part and parcel of the military, primarily within the nuclear command, where the priests are now integrated at the tactical and operational levels, working in immediate proximity to the weapons and participating in exercises by land, air, and sea.
That the Russian Orthodox Church has so deeply penetrated the country’s nuclear complex will likely have significant and lasting effects. When nuclear organizations compete for resources within and outside the Russian military, the church may become a tool of influence. It already helps recruit qualified youth to elite units, and nuclear corps commanders may come to see Orthodox draftees as particularly reliable and motivated, and so to seek them out. Indeed, the Orthodox faith has become so associated with national identity and patriotism that those seeking the fast track to promotions within the military and foreign policy communities may see fit to profess the faith. Ambitious military officers and even politicians can similarly enhance their careers by associating with influential senior clerics within the Kremlin’s court.
There are, of course, limits to the influence of religion within Russia’s foreign policy establishment. But the theocratization of Russia’s military and foreign policy establishment is real and significant, and the trend has flown under the radar for too long. We can no longer understand the Kremlin’s political mentality and strategic culture without factoring in the influence of the Orthodox Church and faith.