Last Thursday in the Kremlin, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin hosted senior leaders of all 15 national Christian Orthodox Churches. The occasion was the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus. The Russian president hailed the adoption of Christianity as the civilizational choice of Russia, and called it the spiritual pillar of the Russian people.

That the Kremlin’s domestic policy has moved toward traditional values is a salient feature of Putin’s current presidency. Profession of universal values or common European norms and principles has stopped. In lieu of the Council of Europe, the Moscow Patriarchate is now the principal norm-setter. Other traditional religions: Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism are also welcome as partners of the State.

The state-supported comeback of traditional religious faith in Russia has a foreign policy dimension. Both Putin and Patriarch Kirill spoke about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, in particular in Syria. According to the head of the Russian Church, the very presence of Christianity in the Middle East, its historical birthplace, is in danger. Should “physical destruction” or “pushing out” of Christianity happen, it will be a “civilizational catastrophe.”

Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moscow has been looking for a distinct international role. Now the Kremlin appears to have found it. It is based on conservative nationalism; support for traditional international law with its emphasis on national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of states; and a strong preference for evolutionary path of development over revolutionary upheavals. Thus, Russia is strongly opposed to liberal interventionism; democracy promotion; and regime change instigated from abroad.

In the Middle East, Moscow’s influence remains limited, though not negligible. There are reports this week of Putin’s forthcoming trip to Iran, just a few days after President Rowhani’s inauguration. Once in Tehran, the Russian leader will be more likely to promote Moscow’s own interests than to serve as a mediator between Iran and the international community. Before that, however, Putin embarks on an even more important visit.

The original baptism of Rus took place, of course, on the Dnieper. On Saturday, July 27, Vladimir Putin travels to Kiev to celebrate the event alongside the leaders of the two other countries that also trace their historical lineage to Ancient Rus: Ukraine and Belarus. The latter has been Moscow’s ally and close economic partner for two decades. Ukraine, however, still finds it difficult to make a clear choice between integration with Russia or with the European Union. In Kiev, Putin can be expected to use all his powers of persuasion to sway President Viktor Yanukovych toward Eurasia. For the Russian leader, the issue is not mere economics or even geopolitics: he sees himself as protecting and promoting a millennium-old civilization. The Third Rome still has some pull.

  • Dmitri Trenin