What Russia Doesn’t Forget
Published on: June 3, 2012
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  • Walter, thank you for a fascinating and enlightening view of Russia’s Syria policy. It’s a reminder that we all too often face a choice between bad options and worse options. Do you think comparable situations exist elsewhere in the Arab world?

  • As one who used to watch Putin’s hobnobbing with the Russian Orthodox Church on Russian TV (but only understanding a phrase here and there) I find this analysis to be fascinating. And plausible.

  • Some very good good points. Somebody needs to protect the Christians in Muslim lands. If civil rights and liberal institutions just aren’t in the cards in a particular polity then better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

    Just don’t call them civilized anymore. Civilization is or should be once again a normative term. Standards change. Unliberal societies are barbarous relics of the past no matter how old or how big or how complex.

  • Here is one of the master keys to liberal institutions and the rights of man:


    It doesn’t explain everything but it sure explains a lot.

  • C. Philips

    One reason many want to see Assad go is his support for Hezbollah and Iran. The arguments in the article do not provide a reason for Russia’s support of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and there seems to be no benefit to Russia. If Russia reversed itself on Iran, countries like Saudi Arabia would be much less active in opposing Assad.

  • Many warm thanks for a cogent, balanced, GROSSLY overdue presentation of the larger – i.e., pre-Leninist – Russian perspective. One that, with respect to the Middle East, may be no more delusionary than NATO’s – and possibly a good deal more realistic in confronting the broader Wahhabi geopolitical agenda.

  • Kenny

    1. To speak of Russia’s moral foundations regarding its approach to Syria is laughable.

    Looking back over nearly 100 years, the Russians have been amoral at best and more often than not downright immoral & evil.

    Never has Russia, as a country, been decent since 1917. Never.

    2. What do the Russians care if 10,000 Syrians are killed. The Russians are those who literally murdered tens of millions of their fellow citizens not all that long ago.

    The Russians can see the need of keeping dictators in line.

  • Walter Sobchak

    This true Walter, But, no matter what happens in Syria the results will make your stomach flip. Houla was just a glimpse into what Assad has in store for the communities that support the rebels. But, if the rebels win they will treat the losers in the same way, The only Alawites, Shia, or Christians who will survive a rebel victory, will be those who flee.

    The only settlement that has a chance of preventing genocide is to split Syria (and Lebanon) into cantons with fortified borders maintained by international armies. Oh, yes and get Iran out of there.

  • anh

    “Anglo-Saxon liberal optimism and deep Russian pessimism both sometimes go fatally wrong.”

    It’s not Anglo-liberalism that animates US foreign policy. It’s Zionist opportunism.

    While American Christians care about Jews in the Middle East, Jews don’t care about Christians.
    Also, American Christians see ALL Arabs as ‘Raghead’or ‘Muzzie’, which is why Christian Right hates even Christian Palestinians and has remained mum about the destruction of Iraqi Christians.

  • Jim.

    Here’s the question in terms that liberal interventionists will understand:

    Look at the situation of Christians in the old Byzantine provinces as you would the position of Muslims in the Balkans.

    Are you willing and able to step in and prevent ethnic cleansing in those states as we were in the Balkans in the 1990’s, when the Multicultural Dictatorships fell there? That effort that might be far more extensive and the 90’s effort, and as difficult as that effort in Iraq. (Remember, we failed in Iraq.)

    Are you willing to let Russia send troops to do it? (At some point, as the US rebalances the navy away from the Mediterranean, what we’re “willing to let them do” might not be all that relevant).

    The worst of all worlds, of course, is that any new government in Syria would mimic Toyotomi Hideyoshi (or modern-day Iraqis) and exterminate the Christian populations of the area. The only bright spot there is the fact that the ME Christian populations have a whole lot more experience going into hiding than their unfortunate Japanese counterparts.

    How is this relevant to the US? Well, this is a chance for Multicultists here to demonstrate that their beliefs are not specifically designed as a support-everyone-but-whites-or-Christians system.

    Their track record in Iraq (and, honestly, public demonstration of Christian values and tradition) leaves them in a deep hole to dig themselves out of.

  • Corlyss

    Very interesting indeed.

    Silly me. I thought the Russians were just being themselves. I.e., the first question they ask is, “What’s the American policy? We’re against it.” I’m glad to see there’s more to it than that.

  • Ritchie Emmons

    “In a country where the principle alternatives to Putinism seem to be fascism on the right and communism on the left…”

    Is not fascism a left-wing ideology? You may be trying to imply that Putinism is in that narrow sliver of space with communism just barely to its left and fascism just barely to its right. But the sentence reads like communism is the insidious left-wing ideology and fascism is the insidious right-wing ideology with Putinism inhabiting somewhere in the vast middle ground.

    It should be noted that fascism and communism are two sides of the same left-wing coin. The Soviets and the European fascists were fighting for the same ideological ground. The Soviets dubbed the fascists “right-wing” so as to demonize the fascists and rhetorically make an ideological distinction when in reality there was little difference between the two ideologies.

  • thibaud

    “As Putin and the people around him look to rebuild Russian identity and Russian policy in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the Orthodox Church is an important focus for their work. Internally, Orthodox Christianity can replace Marxism-Leninism as a philosophical basis for Russian patriotism and identity”

    This is naivete bordering on the absurd. It reminds me of that historical novelist’s wife, iirc Roberta Massie, who told Reagan in the late 1980s that Russia was on the verge of a vast religious awakening. Russia remains today as it was under the soviets: one of the most thoroughly materialistic, secular, irreligious societies in the advanced world.

    Had Mr Mead bothered to spend some time in an Orthodox Church while in Russia, he would have noticed the preponderance among the _veruyushii_ of grey-haired babushki and the scarcity of people under 50.

    There is next to no support among the Russian populace for the Orthodox Church, in no small measure because it is one of the most corrupt among many corrupt Russian institutions. The patriarch is another oligarch. This explains Putin’s coziness with him.

    Russia’s social needs are vast. And yet the Church is also next to invisible when it comes to any kind of social service provision, be it for orphans, the homeless, the handicapped etc. The monks and priests are too busy with their various scams to bother.

    As to Russia’s interest in Syria, Mead’s being played. Russia does indeed care about wahhabis in the Caucasus, but Putin’s interest and calculations in Syria and the Levant have nothing whatsoever to do with islamism. Those are 100% based on soviet-era realpolitik: an outpost, an ally, and naval basing rights for Russia in a strategic theatre. Putin couldn’t care less about the religious disposition of a few supporters of the regime that has opened its mediterranean port to his navy.

  • thibaud

    For an accurate summary of Russia’s calculations in Syria, listen to one of our greatest scholars on the middle east, the Lebanese-raised MacArthur Fellow, Fouad Ajami: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204652904577195050334241954.html

    The most powerful one, of course, is the desire to stand with a fellow corrupt autocracy against yet another evil western humanitarian intervention.

    Here’s Fouad Ajami’s wise and eloquent take:

    ” … when Russians took to the streets to protest the rigged elections to the Duma of Dec. 4, Mr. Putin’s response to the fury was identical to that of the Arab rulers when faced with the protesters of the Arab Spring.

    “There was something familiar and repetitive about Mr. Putin’s paranoia—his dark view of the world, the insistence that the Russian protests had been instigated by foreign conspirators. The campaign of vilification waged against U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul—the charge that he had been dispatched to Russia to subvert its political system—bore a striking resemblance to the Syrian charge that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford had fed the flames of the Syrian rebellion.

    “The sun has set on the Soviet empire, but Mr. Putin stands guard, with a “philosophy” of his own—order secured by a strongman. Russia stood idly by as tyrants such as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarrak fell. But in the Libyan case it stepped out of the way at the U.N. Security Council, and its abstention gave the Western democracies the space and a warrant to unseat Moammar Gadhafi. Syria gives Russia a chance to correct for the error it made.

    “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been emphatic that there can be no repeat of Libya. By his lights, the green light given to protect Libyan civilians had turned into a warrant for regime change….”

  • Glen

    “Susan Rice judges Syria by the… self indulgent moralistic … standards of post 1990 western Europe… flapping [her] lips and waving [her] arms about democracy and universal rights, posturing like [a] moral savior when [she is] really just [a] cheap poseur.”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  • Kris

    Good post. 2.5 “small” points:

    1. Leaving morality aside, there is indeed a good reason for the “alliance” between the Middle East dictators and Christians. But once the majority manages to overthrow its oppressors, the consequences should be obvious.

    2. “the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church as a mass base for conservative and nationalist but non-crazy Russian politics should not be undervalued.” True enough, but the problem is that there is good reason to believe that this conservatism is not the Anglo-American kind but a much more reactionary and intolerant one.

    2.5 I second [email protected]’s nitpick.

  • Khalid

    It sounds logical.But, is the nature of the Syrian society the same as 200 years ago? Russia puts its weight behind a minority-based middle east which goes against geography and history.Instead of adopting a transition plan that protects its interests, it becomes a part of the problem.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @khalid: I didn’t say it was right or it would work.

  • rkka


    Ask Iraqi Christians how they have benefited from Dubya’s Great Iraq Adventure. They have been subjected to a slow campaign of kidnapping, rape, and murder, and the Government of Iraq just can’t seem to track the criminals down…

  • wanderer

    [email protected]

    “Is not fascism a left-wing ideology?”

    Let’s look back to 23 March 1933, in Berlin’s Kroll Opera House. The Reichstag was meeting there to discuss the Enabling Act, which would give Chancellor Adolpf Hitler the power to legislate by decree. After various speeches, it passed, 444-94.

    Which parties voted in favor?

    The Nazis, of course.

    The German National People’s Party of the industrialist Hugo Stinnes and the press baron Alfred Hugenberg. It included monarchists, opposed labor unions, and got support from the Pan-German League.

    The Center Party, which was the sectarian party of the Catholic Church in Germany.

    These were the major parties voting “for”

    23 of the 444 votes in favor came from a collection of small conservative parties, a couple from Bavaria.

    Who voted against? Not the Communists, because all KPD Reichstag members were already either in exile, in hiding, or in concentration camps.

    The 94 votes against came from the German Social Democratic Party. There should have been 117 votes against, but 23 SDP delegates had already been arrested or had gone into hiding.

    So, if fascism is a left-wing ideology, how come monarchists, Catholics, and union-haters voted for it, and actual leftists voted against?

    I’ll answer for you.

    It’s not. Fascism is a phenomenon of the right, not the left.

  • thibaud

    For Via Meadia’s “Quick Takes,” perhaps a trial balloon unsupported by any real research or knowledge of the subject at hand. But if the post is labeled “In Depth,” then the author really owes his reades at least the courtesy of doing enough basic research to know what he’s talking about. This post fails that test.

    “the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church as a mass base for conservative and nationalist but non-crazy Russian politics should not be undervalued.”

    Curious phrasing, that: it shouldn’t be overvalued, either. In any case, is this a hypothetical statement? Or a description of an actual trend?

    If the latter, could Mr. Mead please provide some evidence – any evidence – that would substantiate his admittedly tepid, hesitant half-claim? Has Mr Mead even been to an Orthodox service, or gathered even anecdotal evidence by talking with or observing the behavior of more than a few Russians on this score?

    All the evidence I’ve seen is that religious observance in Russia is on a par with religious observance in other secular northern European countries, and that Russians likewise have little interest in appeals to religion-based nationalism. (Ethnic “brother slav” solidarity is another matter, as we saw wrt Serbia and Kosovo.)

    It’s true that Protestant missionaries have been hassled by the state, but their biggest obstacle is the deep cynicism and suspicion of Russians toward organized religion of any sort. While Russians are far more devoted to their families than are Americans, Russians are also far more materialistic and disdainful of appeals to religious faith.

    For example, despite the Orthodox higher-ups’ severe condemnation of the practice, Russian women continue to have abortions at a rate that is more than 4x the median for western Europe (ca 53 per 1,000 Russian women aged 15-44, vs an average of about 11 or 12 for western Europe).

    This irreligious, materialist-influenced core behavior is not controversial among ordinary Russians. It strains credulity to think that the same culture that condones multiple abortions and that distrusts organized authority of any and all sorts is going to defer to a severely hierarchical, backward-looking, traditionalist religious institution. (Let alone regularly stand on their feet for HOURS in an unheated church, staring at the back of a priest muttering as nauseam a set of incantations repeated by whining babushki….)

    The notion of a mass religious revival is especially ridiculous when you consider the orthodox church’s well-deserved reputation for corruption.

  • Athan

    It is extremely naive to pay tribute to the Russian Church for supporting Assad. The Church was always ruled by the Secret Police. Recently was published in Bulgaria, that 11 of 12 members of the Synod (the ruling body)were agents of the secret police. All East Orthodox priests in USA and Western Europe were agents of KGB and DS. The Church Center in Zagorsk, north of Moscow, was only attraction point created for foreigners. In the same time thousands of churches in Russia were not available for the ordinary people. The main purpose of Kremlin was to create trouble points far from there borders. In Syria it is the important Mediterranean ports that could accept Russian warships and to influence the area.

  • gracepmc

    Interesting. I might go so far as to consider that Putin would try to use the ROC and orthodox Christianity as a ruse to cozy up to Assad. But that’s it.

  • vbp

    I see. And are we now to believe that Iran’s SINGLE BIGGEST CLIENT STATE in the region is now to be defended as a vanguard for Christian identity in the region? Is this seriously the argument that is being made (perhaps not in this article, but on this thread).

    And, for whatever the complications and problems faced by Copts in Egypt currently, few of them would describe their lives under Mubarak as “thriving”. This is a line of reasoning espoused only be western observers and certain hardline Islamists, both of whom believed the Mubarak regime to be somehow exceptionally beneficial to Egypt’s Christian population.

    The bottom line is that Russia has rarely had an interest in the Arab world beyond it’s own parochial loyalties to whatever strongmen they’ve cozied up to. They are as much a foreign interloper as any Western power and there is no moral argument to be made in support of their propping up of Assad.

  • “It should be noted that fascism and communism are two sides of the same left-wing coin. The Soviets and the European fascists were fighting for the same ideological ground. The Soviets dubbed the fascists ‘right-wing’ so as to demonize the fascists and rhetorically make an ideological distinction when in reality there was little difference between the two ideologies.”

    No matter how thorough a study Glen Beck and others may have made of the subject, I suspect it remains very hard – not to mention risky – to make generalizations about the theoretical components of either Italian or German fascism. And even harder to deduce clear-cut LONG-range social or economic consequences from the “premises” of either “doctrine.” But now suppose, instead, we were to try to generalize accurately from the PRACTICE of the various fascist movements of that time. And not just of the Nazis or Italians, but of those numerous pro-German or pro-Axis “fellow-traveling” elements throughout eastern Europe that gradually got control of their various countries in the course of the 1930s. The more cases we examined, I suspect, the greater the likelihood of the following conclusion: So far as 1930s Germanophile fascism was an element of the Left, it was both a singularly pro-business and anti-labor contingent of the Left in official politics, and a virulently anti-Communist force on the streets. In short, it was a side of the “Left” that not a few elements of Big Business found extremely congenial and even helpful to work with, and more than a few small business-owners deemed worthy of at least provisional support.

    I’m not sure how to make sense of that paradox. But here’s what I’m inclined to think. With any MERE ideology, be it pro- or anti-capitalist, the farther it strays AWAY from a basic, commonsensical, evenhanded patriotism – the kind that seeks to acknowledge the interests and contributions of EVERY national class and element – the deeper that same ideology will stray INTO totalitarian extremes of divisiveness. My point is that every totalitarian ideology, however “patriotically” it starts out, eventually resolves itself into a campaign of nationwide sifting and purification, in which the side that’s deemed the more genuinely “patriotic” or “progressive” or “productive” is rewarded – though always with the proviso that it continue moving ever more rapidly in the right direction (sometimes “positive” terror is also necessary) – while the various failures or “antis” are punished with one form or another of “negative” terror. Of course we live today in an Age that’s ideologically impassioned in the extreme. At least where each country’s popular (red herring?) politics is concerned. And so frankly I don’t see any of our modern societies, in the ways they’re all presently unfolding, as immune to or incapable of totalitarianism in one sophisticated guise or another.

    As I see it, totalitarianism is a parasite that, while purporting to make the host country “hyperfunctional,” so to speak, in fact makes every country in which it gains dominance wholly dysfunctional (crippling it through witch-hunts, endless “new” enemies, persecution or ostracism of many useful educated and professional elements, etc). The “aim” is always to make the nation “stronger,” more “prosperous,” more “productive.” The end reality is a country vastly more exploitable by any number of sophisticated global players of one clouded stripe or another.

    “As to Russia’s interest in Syria, Mead’s being played. Russia does indeed care about wahhabis in the Caucasus, but Putin’s interest and calculations in Syria and the Levant have nothing whatsoever to do with islamism. Those are 100% based on soviet-era realpolitik: an outpost, an ally, and naval basing rights for Russia in a strategic theatre. Putin couldn’t care less about the religious disposition of a few supporters of the regime that has opened its mediterranean port to his navy.”

    May I suggest that, if Putin sees NO connection between Wahhabi growth in the Caucasus and Wahhabi maneuvering in the Levant, the present Russian leadership may be both more brutal and more stupid than even the most confirmed Russophobe could ever have wished for?

  • Jim.


    We’re not talking about any “vanguard of Christian identity” here.

    We’re talking about the real possibility of anti-Christian ethnic cleansing that could dwarf the Holocaust.

    Quick unofficial poll– how many “Never Again” types do we have here? Well, here’s your chance to shine.

  • thibaud

    Suggest whatever ill-informed fancy you like. The main threat Putin perceives in Syria is that of a western-aided democratic wave against autocracy.

    There’s been no shortage of religious right-wing dupes over the years who’ve translated their earnest belief in Christianity into a delusion that Russia’s leaders harbor a deep, unexpressed wish to promote the faith abroad.

    Certain gullible russophiles around Reagan expressed this. So did W, in his absurd comment about being able to see into Putin’s soul and finding it true.

    And now Mr. Mead is being played again as well.

    If Graham Greene were alive, he’d write a novel about these naively pathetic Americans and Russia.

  • vbp

    A little crass to evoke “Never Again” in defense of the Assad regime, isn’t it? Especially given events of the past weeks.

  • Sergey

    Prof. Mead, your knowledge of reality of modern Russian life is very superficial and mostly belong to fairy tales realm. No offence, but you were duped,like most Western intellectuals, by clever and cynical Kremlin propagandists. Russian Orthodox Church is a puppet of government, more specifically, of its secret political police (KGB). All its senior official are KGB officers first, Christians second. This is well known to every Russian intellectual, and is the main reason why this institution has so poor reputation among educated Russians. Its influence on the masses in cities is marginal at best, and dozen million strong middle class in today Russia has very different ideas about future than either Socialists or Nationalists. Both are largely despised, and Putin’s regime is losing ground remarkably fast. A new revolution is brewing in Russia, a democratic and middle-class oriented. Church is fatally undermined by its servile support of Putin kleptocracy.

  • thibaud

    @#28 vbp – good point.

    I hadn’t paid any attention to the “Never Again” post, but it fits nicely with the unintentionally hilarious, WTF? nature of the original post.

    For those wishing to educate themselves, zionism evolved in no small measure in response to the late 19c anti-semitic pogroms that were encouraged and supported throughout the pale of settlement by the Russian Orthodox Church.

    Anyone who looks to the ROC or Putin as a Richard the Lionhearted-style defender of the faith is naive at best.

    And at worst, a willing dupe of nasty reactionaries who care nothing for anyone’s human rights.

  • rkka

    #28 vbp

    “A little crass to evoke “Never Again” in defense of the Assad regime, isn’t it? Especially given events of the past weeks.”

    Like the events of the past weeks are unprecedented.

    There are limits to his barbarism. For instance, Assad hasn’t fired white phosphorus rounds into urban areas.

  • Alfred M Kriman

    Blue-pencil comment (really, there should be an email address for this stuff):
    Regarding “In a country where the principle alternatives to Putinism seem to be…”
    This isn’t a good enough pun to justify not using the correct spelling (principal).

  • stoicheion

    Fascism IS Socialism under a new label.
    The word was coined by Mussolini after he lost the election as leader of the Italian Socialist Party. It was a controversial election along the lines of the US 2000 election. El Duce started a new Socialist party which he then named fascist.
    This is all written history, with documents still available from that time. The Left is re-writing history to suit their dogma instead of learning from it. That is why they are 150 days away from getting Jill slapped by reality. Those that won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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