THE BLOG

Putin's 'Holy Russia' Goes to War

03/02/2014 07:52 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2014

What do you get when you combine ultra-nationalist religious and political conservatism along with homophobia and sexism? Some might say you get the Tea Party in the United States, but today that is the toxic mix that is fueling Vladimir Putin's militaristic moves against the people of Ukraine.

In other words, Pussy Riot is right. The lyrics of this Russian feminist, punk rock protest group, based in Moscow, are exactly on target. The themes of their protest music, as can be seen in Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom connect feminism, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights, opposition to the dictatorial tendencies of Putin, and the links between Putin and the leadership of the Orthodox Church.

Putin's unholy stew of nationalistic religion, homophobia and sexism needs to be part of informing the diplomatic response to Russia's aggressively moving troops into the Crimea. This action has drawn condemnation from the new Ukrainian prime minister, who said it amounted to a "declaration of war to my country," and from Secretary of State John Kerry who has called this "an incredible act of aggression."

The problem is, when religion is being used fuel nationalistic fervor, as it is today in Russia, the aggression is actually perfectly credible, from the point of view of the aggressor.

It is absolutely crucial, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty , that those pursuing the diplomatic options that are available to the West in regard to Putin's aggression not ignore the religion factor. Secretary Albright points out that she and her diplomatic colleagues thought religious conflict was the echo of "earlier, less enlightened times." What she discovered, and what she urges her colleagues to understand, is this is the future, not the past.

In his recent remarks, Secretary Kerry said of Putin's aggression in the Crimea, "It's really 19th century behavior in the 21st century. You just don't invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests."

Actually, looked at with the religion factor included, this is 21st century behavior. Sadly, very much so.

The Russian Orthodox Church has become Putin's "God Squad" as Peter Pomerantsev wrote in 2012 for Newsweek. What is critical to understand, this Russian expat explains, is why the church is such a willing partner in Putin's dreams of reviving the glories of Russia.

The church has never openly explored its KGB past. When archives were opened at the start of the 1990s, both the previous and present patriarchs were revealed to have been KGB agents -- but the files were quickly shut before details of their activities could be explored.

In other words, Putin's quasi-monarchial aspirations, carried out through persecution and jailing of rivals and critics, are a form of power with which the church seems to have a very dark history.

Not all clergy are either former KGB operatives or in service to Putin's vision of a revived Russian superpower, however. Archpriest Alexei Uminsky, a Moscow clergyman whose ministry includes members of the protest movement says, "The tragedy of the church is that it has always grown too close to the state, and then it pays for it. Now the church is trying to prove to the Kremlin it is a serious and useful player."

It is Pussy Riot that has drawn this connection most vividly, and at great cost. On February 21, 2012, five members of the group staged a performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Church security officials stopped them. By that evening, they had turned the performance into a music video called "Punk Prayer -- Mother of God, Chase Putin Away." The women said their protest was directed at support given Putin during his election campaign by some Orthodox Church leaders. As is well known, some of the band members were arrested, tried and have served time in prison .

Pussy Riot has a different understanding of prayer, certainly, from that of the church hierarchy.

How do these reflections on Putin's "God Squad" make any difference for the diplomatic options open to President Obama and the West?

The key is, oddly enough, morality not rationality.

As The New Yorker points out in "Putin Goes to War in the Crimea" his "increasingly vivid nationalist-conservative ideology" relies "on the elevation of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been so brutally suppressed during most of the Soviet period, as a quasi-state religion supplying the government with its moral force." That's right, moral force.

Diplomats dealing with Putin today need to ask themselves what leverage they have, beyond moves like suspending Russia from the G-8 . Certainly all of these options instead of war must be investigated and many of them pursued.

A possible avenue to explore as well, however, is the way to counter Putin's perception of his "moral force." A wide range of world religious leaders should be invited to condemn Russia's actions in the Ukraine in the strongest possible terms, and directly in terms of how this is an affront to Russia's moral standing in the world.

It is tempting to dismiss Putin's assertions of moral authority as just so much posturing. But the conflicts of the 21st century are deeply intertwined with the history and reality of religious identity. It is a huge mistake to dismiss that.

Religion and national identity are very much at the core of conflict in the 21st century and we must use all religious as well as diplomatic resources we have to stop it.