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PROTECTOR OF CHRISTENDOM? Putin meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirilll in Moscow.
Mikhail Klimentiev/Ria-Novosti
PROTECTOR OF CHRISTENDOM? Putin meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirilll in Moscow.

Putin’s playbook

Ukraine | Dividing and conquering the church is part of a strategy to make gains in Ukraine

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

Despite some bad press in recent months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has no shortage of fans. Thanks to an endless stream of propaganda and countless Kremlin-sponsored photo shoots (often bare-chested), the leader’s image has been transformed over the years from a cold Soviet KGB officer into a sporty and masculine head of state worthy of leading Russia into a new era.

Look closely at photos of the Russian leader and you’ll find another symbolic reason for his popularity: He often wears a chain with a gold cross and claims to have been secretly baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) by his mother when he was a child. More than the leader whose rise to power in 2000 brought about an era of economic gains and regional clout, Putin is heralded as the protector of Christendom.

While the West declares sanctions against Moscow for its destabilizing activities in Ukraine, Putin defenders are applauding his moves: His approval rating among Russians rose to 80 percent following the annexation of Crimea. Many buy the claim their leader is simply trying to protect ethnic Russians from the ever-encroaching depravity of the West.

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Pravda columnist Xavier Lerma wrote: “In the East there is someone that causes the western liberal’s maniacal laughter to stop. Vladimir Putin. He has real world power, which causes the liberal media to fearfully ignore or warp his image. Like a good Christian King he leads a nation to Christ.”

Last summer, the Russian leader made a pilgrimage to Kiev to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of the region’s conversion to Christianity, and on Easter, he received a personal blessing from the Patriarch Kirill, the head of the ROC.

In the West, some conservative Christians share high regard for Putin, citing U.S. support for gay marriage and abortion at a time when Russia—under Putin’s leadership and the blessing of the ROC—has passed laws ostensibly designed to bolster the traditional family.

But Christians in Ukraine and Russia are issuing a strong warning against blindly following a leader whose track record includes more than a decade of eroding democratic freedoms and whose definition of Christianity includes but one church: the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarch, a church that became a puppet of Soviet leaders during the Cold War.

When Maidan protests in Kiev began last November, Andre Barkov remembers that some of the initial resistance was from Christians. Barkov, managing director of a micro-loan company, spoke with a woman representing the Union of Evangelical Baptists—the largest evangelical denomination in Ukraine and Russia—who explained that she was against the European Union  because it is the “one world government” from the book of Revelation in the Bible. Barkov encountered also a British man, a senior partner at Oliver Wyman, a prominent consulting firm, who claimed to be extremely conservative and openly supportive of Putin as the only hope for the West in his support for traditional values and stands against the American and European liberal and homosexual agenda. 

Barkov—who says he was “terribly surprised” when his Russian staff voiced support for the Russian leader—explains that the majority of Ukrainian churches supported Maidan from day one, and the Union of Evangelical Baptists eventually joined the rest of the churches after the government’s response to peaceful protesters turned deadly in January. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, kept its distance.

Now Ukraine has moved onto bigger problems and the church divide is growing, particularly between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches.

Moscow denied the arrival of Russian troops on Feb. 27 in Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula, and Ukrainians began calling the soldiers “little green men.” Russia has since annexed the region and now “little green men” have been sighted stirring up unrest in eastern Ukraine. 

HOW DO CHRISTIAN SUPPORTERS OF PUTIN justify the takeover of government buildings in the sovereign territory of another country? (Putin has since admitted the true identity of the “little green men” in Crimea but still denies the existence of Russian operatives in eastern Ukraine).

Larry Jacobs, Managing Director of the World Congress of Families (WCF), said his U.S.-based nonprofit planned a September pro-family summit in Moscow. But the group suspended planning for the event last month for logistical reasons related to sanctions. Focus on the Family, an original sponsor, already had backed out of the event in March, citing “the recent political events,” and other organizations also dropped out early on, including Concerned Women for America and Alliance for Defending Freedom.

Don Feder, WCF communications director, made his pro-Putin sympathies clear in an article published in American Thinker in March: “But don’t I care about a possible Russian annexation of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine (with its Russian-oriented, Orthodox population), conservatives who are still fighting the Cold War ask me? Not really.” Feder cites Putin’s sponsoring a bill passed in Russia last summer criminalizing homosexual propaganda targeting youth, bolstering Moscow’s image among some circles as the protector of the traditional family.

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