(Washington, D.C.) — For the past month, I’ve been traveling in the Middle East and Europe, meeting with pastors and ministry leaders, meeting with some government officials, observing the trend lines, and doing research for a future book. It was a fascinating trip, and I’m so glad I went. I’m also so glad to be home with my wife and sons to reconnect with them and reflect on all that I saw and heard.
In the days ahead, I’ll share more of my observations from that trip.
Today, I’d like to note a Time magazine cover story from May 8th that I didn’t have the opportunity to comment on earlier. The article makes the case that Vladimir Putin does not see himself as Russia’s president or prime minister but rather as her modern Czar.
Below are some excerpts from the article, which I commend to your attention. It’s an important essay, and for me raises several important questions:
- Is it true that Putin sees himself as a Czar?
- What are the implications of that view?
- Does Putin increasingly pose a threat to European national security?
- Does Putin pose a threat to U.S. national security?
- Does he pose a threat to Israeli security, as well?
Earlier this year, I was criticized by some for describing Putin as a “Czar” and a danger to the U.S., Europe and Israel. Nevertheless, I stand by my view. It’s a case I’ve been making going back at least as far as 2004. Indeed, I made this argument in some detail in my first non-fiction book, Epicenter, which was published in the fall of 2006. Chapter Seven was titled: “Future Headline: A Czar Rises In Russia, Raising Fears of a New Cold War.”
That said, let me be clear: I maintain that it is still too early to determine whether Putin is the “Gog” figure described in the Bible prophecies of Ezekiel 38 & 39. However, it is probably fair to say that Putin is “Gog-esque.” That is, Russia’s current leader is acting in some ways that are consistent with the prophecies. But much more would have to happen for us to draw any conclusions. In the meantime, we should be not overreach in our assessments.
Rather, let us be praying for the followers of Jesus Christ in Russia and the former USSR. We should be praying that they not fear Putin, but courageously preach the Gospel, teach the Word of God, make disciples, train pastors, plant congregations and care for the poor and needy. We should pray that they use the most of their time, knowing that the days are evil. And we should look for ways to encourage and refresh and strengthen the faithful believers in Russia. As darkness falls, they will need to operate in the power of the Holy Spirit and stay strong and courageous. Let us also pray for Putin, his family, and his advisors that they would truly seek Christ, read the Scriptures, and give their lives fully to following the Lord, instead of their own power, greed and ambition.
A few outliers notwithstanding, many people around the world are concerned about who Putin is and where he is heading. Indeed, the American people now see Putin as a real and growing threat, and not just to the former Soviet republics but to the national security of the United States and our allies, including Israel.
Recently, in preparation for the release of The Auschwitz Escape, I engaged McLaughlin & Associates, a nationally-respected research firm, to do a poll for us. We asked a series of questions of 1,000 likely U.S. voters. Among them: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “In light of Russia’s invasion of southern Ukraine, and Russia selling arms and nuclear technology to Iran, and Russia selling arms to the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, I have come to believe that Vladimir Putin and the government of Russia pose a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States and our ally, Israel”?
We found that a remarkable 72 percent of Americans said they believe Putin and Russia do pose a “clear and present danger” to U.S. and Israeli national security. Only 19 percent disagreed.
We would be wise to keep a close eye on Putin and his regime, even as we strengthen the Church in Russia and Eastern & Central Europe.
For years, diplomats and analysts from Washington to Berlin have strained to understand what drives Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. George W. Bush claimed to have peered into his soul and seen goodness, only to change his mind later; Barack Obama’s ballyhooed first-term “reset” with Russia fizzled after Putin proved unexpectedly difficult. Winston Churchill’s old line about Russia–”a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”–could easily apply to Putin himself.
Certainly, Vladimir Putin is an unlikely giant of modern geopolitics. Born to a family of modest means in Leningrad in 1952, he made a career in the KGB, which sent him to the front lines in East Germany with the mission of recruiting people to spy on the West. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin worked in the city government of St. Petersburg, then joined the Kremlin staff of President Boris Yeltsin, who marveled at what he called Putin’s “lightning reactions” and precision. Yeltsin named Putin the head of the Federal Security Service, which replaced the KGB, and then his Prime Minister. That positioned Putin to become Yeltsin’s successor as President in 2000.
Putin inherited a humbled motherland. The fall of the Soviet Union and the communist system had brought huge territorial losses and economic chaos. An unrivaled U.S. consolidated its power in Europe, in part by expanding the NATO alliance to include former Soviet satellites Poland and the Baltics. Putin saw NATO’s expansion to the east as a threat–and an insulting broken promise. (Some contend that the U.S. agreed not to expand NATO if Russia supported Germany’s 1990 unification.) “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory,” he told Russia’s parliament in March.
Putin was determined to reverse such slights and restore Russia’s place in the ranks of great powers. That has become an easier idea to assert than it was a decade ago. A surge in global oil prices to more than $100 per barrel brought billions of dollars into Russia’s oil-producing economy, even as the U.S. and Europe were weakened by the 2008 global economic crisis. The cash helped plug holes in an outmoded Russian economy. It also allowed Putin to modernize his military.
Putin then grew bolder. Some of it came in the form of cartoonish machismo: the shirtless horseback rides, the judo matches and other antics for the camera. The restoration continued. In 2008, Putin defied Western condemnation and sent his army into the former Soviet republic of Georgia, ostensibly to protect a pair of pro-Russian breakaway republics–but likely also to punish Georgia’s President, Mikheil Saakashvili, for having cozied up to the West. When Saakashvili told Putin that U.S. and European officials were issuing outraged statements, the Georgian told Time in March, Putin recommended he roll up the papers and “stick them in their ass.”
At the same time, Putin has developed a personal ideology, made up of at least one part personal theology and another part manifest destiny. Putin is Russian Orthodox, a deeply conservative faith with an ancient liturgy, ties to saints of the Middle Ages and an allergy to social change. History haunts the Orthodox: the Russian czars saw themselves as protectors of the world’s Orthodox people–the 19th century Crimean War was fought largely on those grounds–and Putin is increasingly taking up that cause. During the blustery March speech to parliament, Putin invoked the legacy of another Vladimir–the 10th century ruler Vladimir the Great, a prince of Kiev who converted the pagan Slavs to Christianity. “His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus,” Putin said. At the end of that speech Putin signed a treaty formalizing the Russian annexation of Crimea, the peninsula where Vladimir the Great was baptized in the year 988.
Putin’s faith comes with a socially conservative outlook, one that he uses to disparage the West as morally corrupt and weak. In a December address to the nation, he decried the changing “moral values and ethical norms” in other nations, and in January, he warned that homosexuality was a threat to Russia’s birthrate. On May 5, Putin signed a law restricting profanity in the arts–banning spoken curse words from live performances and adding warning labels to books, CDs and films with purple language. Putin’s imprisonment of three members of the female punk-rock group Pussy Riot must be understood in the context of their offense: performing a profane anti-Putin song beside the altar of an Orthodox church in Moscow.
Then there is the geopolitical creed of Eurasianism, which holds that Moscow is a “Third Rome” that must form the core of a civilization distinct from a decadent and rotting West. Before the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s main foreign policy goal was the formation of a new Eurasian Union, a political and economic bloc uniting Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Putin has called it “the will of the era.”
His will, mostly. Putin cracked down on dissent, jailing political rivals and staging an autocratic transition in which he handed off the presidency to his close ally, Dmitri Medvedev, from 2008 to 2012 (while Putin served as Prime Minister), before announcing he would return as President in 2011. Back at the Kremlin, he was bolder than ever, infuriating Washington by granting asylum to the fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden and opposing Obama’s short-lived plan to bomb Syria.
Indeed, there is an unmistakable element of anti-Americanism in Putin and Putinism. His advisers have told Western counterparts that Putin long ago grew tired of being made to feel like a second-class citizen on the world stage by American Presidents from both parties. The frustration showed in private meetings. In his memoir, George W. Bush recounts a sit-down with Putin in which the Russian adopted “a mocking tone, making accusations about America,” so frustrating Bush that, he writes, “I nearly reached over the table and slapped the hell out of the guy.”
Even so, Putin began 2014 on a now forgotten note of moderation. He released several famous political prisoners in late December 2013, including two members of Pussy Riot, and successfully hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics. “He threw this $50 billion party at Sochi to show the world that this was the new Russia,” says McFaul. “I was there, and the scene was, ‘This is not the old Soviet Union–we want to be a respected member of the international community, not a rogue outlier.’ “
As the Olympians competed at Sochi, however, protesters in Kiev were doing violent battle with the security forces of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally who finally fled the country on Feb. 21. In November, Putin managed to persuade Yanukovych to reject an economic agreement with the European Union that would bring closer ties between Ukraine and the West. Now, with Yanukovych gone and blue-and-gold E.U. flags flapping in Kiev’s central square, Putin’s vision of an ascendant Russia had been dealt a severe and embarrassing blow.
He would not let it stand.
A Tepid Western Reaction
Putin’s destabilizing moves in Ukraine have left Western governments struggling for an effective response. The U.S. and the E.U. have now imposed two rounds of sanctions on businesspeople and officials close to Putin. Restrictions on the travel of Russian military officials and on the transactions of Russian banks and energy companies are certainly inconvenient for those who have been targeted. David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department official in charge of sanctions, told CNN on May 4 that the sanctions are “strong and strategic.”
Obama’s critics beg to differ. “Days late and dollars short,” GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in an April 28 statement decrying the “disturbing mismatch between Russia’s actions and our weak response to it.” They argue the sanctions imposed to date will barely dent Russia’s $2 trillion economy.
But there’s little appetite for harder-hitting measures….Meanwhile, the body count in Ukraine climbs–and so do tensions. The ethnic nationalism that Putin has unleashed is breeding hatred and paranoia. It’s not clear where Putin plans to steer it next or whether he even knows where it might lead. There is always the risk that whatever Putin’s endgame, bad actors on the local scene now have ideas of their own. Sharing a cigarette with his mother in the hospital’s courtyard, Artur Smolin says he’ll get back into the fight as soon as his leg heals. “We’ll return even stronger,” he says. “We’ll chase them all the way back to Europe.”