Russia, Crimea and the Eastern Orthodox Church Lead Way To War

The Crimea region of Ukraine is now under de facto Russian control. It is a simple fact on the ground. The rights and wrongs of this are for others to discuss, I’m more interested in the reasons why and the possible consequences.

As I was going through various news sources over the weekend, what else can I do after a knee operation, I saw a picture that stopped me in my tracks. It shouldn’t surprise me, the role of religion in politics is hardly new. The image I saw, link here, was of Eastern Orthodox priests blessing Russian troops as they take control of Crimea. I have been thinking about this image and what it means.

Outside the Orthodox community many people don’t realize just how powerful the Orthodox church is and how much power and influence it has in Russian politics. Its Patriarch, Kirill Gundyaev and Vladimir Putin have been forging strong links for more than a decade, even though there is an official separation of Church and State in the Russian Constitution. Kirill is a Russian nationalist through and through, believing that Russia should play a major role, even a dominant one, in world affairs as part of his belief in  ‘Russian Civilization’, coincidentally when Putin was campaigning to become Russian President in 2012 he put the idea of ‘Russian Civilization’ at the heart of his campaign, something he was influenced to do by Patriarch Kirill perhaps? Why not, the two men have been close for years and Kirill is very good at influencing political thinking.

As a result, the Orthodox church has tremendous power, so when events erupted in Ukraine one can imagine that Kirill with his very strong nationalistic tendencies would have been eager to use the opportunity to encourage Putin to take back control of the Crimea, historically a part of Russia. Add to this the long term disputes between the Orthodox church and the Vatican over property and influence in Ukraine and you begin to realize how the current situation is playing into the hands of the Orthodox. For a thousand years the Church and State have been different sides of the same coin. Only during the Soviet period was the link broken but after the collapse of The Soviet Union actions were quickly taken to rebuild the power and influence of the Church. Although never proven, as any inquiry has always been blocked, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Patriarch Kirill had very close links to the KGB and Politburo in the days when the Church was heavily controlled. Kirill is known as an astute politician and diplomat, as a very worldly man he knows how to use difficult circumstances to his advantage. The strategic thinking of the Orthodox Church would have had them urgently looking at ways to take advantage of the unrest in Ukraine.

While good for the Orthodox church, the risks to Putin are high. This is one of the clever games of Kirill, influence a leader to take action and if it goes wrong he can come out of the situation looking relatively innocent with the knowledge that a political backlash against him would be difficult to implement because of the Church’s influence over the majority of the Russian population. If on the other hand things go wrong for Putin and his government in their approach to Ukraine then the Russian economy is going to suffer, it will be trusted even less than before and the Cold War could easily return. Putin’s pride would also take a very personal hit as the country would blame him directly if things go wrong.

The situation in Ukraine is still developing, as of time of writing no shots have yet been fired. While Russia has moved troops into the Crimea region there are many questions about overall Russian military readiness, it has an extremely top heavy command structure and the numbers of soldiers ready to fight is less than many suspect. Add to the fact that a lot of Russian military hardware is less than reliable and you begin to understand the gamble that Putin is taking. There is a part of me that wonders if maybe he was encouraged to act against his better judgement by the Orthodox church which supplies him with so much of his popular support through their preaching from the pulpit. Looking at the situation now it would seem that Russia would like to provoke Ukraine into firing the first shot, but whoever fires the first shot the consequences for the Ruble will be dramatic. Ukraine on the other hand is also on the verge of bankruptcy, its options are limited unless the promise of funds made by the West come to fruition. Don’t under estimate the Ukrainians, they have been developing a reputation as an arms exporter. When the Soviet Union collapsed they inherited a lot of factories that make military hardware. A lot of these were closed but what they have done is improved on the designs of Soviet era hardware and then selling it, their quality control is recognized as being better than that of Russia, hence one of the reasons why they have been able to successfully develop their exports. Ukrainians also have a strong backbone and will not give up without a fight if that is what they feel they must do.

The situation is still very fluid, the stakes on both sides are extremely high and the Orthodox Church in Russia is influencing the situation more than most people realize. The next 24-48 hours are going to be interesting.

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Syrian chemical weapons. What does the new deal mean?

So finally there has been a breakthrough and a deal made between Syria, Russia and the USA with regard to Syrian CW. On the surface it looks like a good thing and if you take it at face value then for certain it can only be good that there is one less way for Assad/Russia/Iran to kill civilians in Syria.

On the other hand, you have to remember that all sides of this deal all have their own political strategy and these haven’t changed. The USA still wants to see Syria divided up into three parts. Russia and Iran are working as business partners and their objective is to increase their dominance in the middle east. Syria is being used like a pawn in a chess game. Assad himself is little more that a figurehead these days, a marionette with Iran and Russia working together to pull the strings.

If we look at the terms of the deal it raises lots of questions but also gives an insight into the objectives of all the parties involved. I give my opinions based on my own observations and analysis as well as my understanding of the psychology and political thinking of the various parties.

Under the terms of the deal brokered in Geneva, Assad has a week to account for his CW stockpile, type, location and quantity etc. This raises the first question, nobody knows exactly how much CW Assad holds, any declaration he makes is going to have to be accepted at face value as there is no way to prove otherwise. Can he be trusted to make a full declaration of his CW assets? Further to this, just how do UN inspectors expect to be able to carry out their work, to examine if Assad is telling the truth or not, this is after all a conflict zone? This last factor gives the possibility for so many delaying tactics, if security of the UN inspectors can’t be guaranteed then how are they supposed to carry out their work?

As for the Syrian rebels, they see the talks in Geneva and subsequent deal as simply buying more time for Assad and view with high suspicion the motivations of the deal that has been made.  Therefore it is highly unlikely that they will agree to a temporary ceasefire in order for the UN to go into the country. The rebels view all the talk about CW as very hypocritical and political maneuvering, for the rebels there is no difference between Assad killing women and children with bombs and bullets rather than chemical weapons. If the west were serious about stopping the killing of innocents it would have stepped in a long time ago.

Russia is playing the better political game at the moment but it is early days and you can be sure that there will be a lot of pushing backwards and forwards between the USA and Russia over the next few month as they fight their proxy war in Syria. Russia certainly doesn’t have a problem with Assad using chemical weapons, when Chechen rebels took hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theatre a few years ago they used gas knowing that many innocent hostages would die. For the Russians, it was more important to kill Chechen separatists than save the lives of innocent theatre goers. So Assad has no pressure from the Russians about his use of gas. As long as you create the appearance of trying to do the right thing, this is all that matters.

The USA went with this deal because it gives them the perfect get out clause, they are no longer committed to air strikes on Syrian regime CW assets, not that they ever really wanted to in the first place. Syrian air defense systems are pretty strong and are getting stronger through the installation of Russian made S-300 system. Russia has its advisers on the ground training the Syrians on how to use the system, if the USA were to attack and destroy one of these installations and Russians were subsequently killed then the USA and Russia would be brought into direct conflict and that is a situation that neither side can afford. At the same time the USA wants the war in Syria to keep going for as long as possible as a way of getting Iran to commit more and more resources, human and weapon, thereby making Iran weaker as the financial costs of this conflict build up. What we are seeing is that the USA is getting more weapons than before to the FSA, which is forcing Iran to spend more money on helping Assad. Will this strategy work? Time will tell.

Then we come to Iran, so far they are the biggest winners in the Syrian conflict. The world’s eyes are toward Syria as they continue a pace and much closer to completion the development of their nuclear capability. They have two objectives that I know of with regard to Syria. The first is colonial, Iran has always had a desire to dominate the middle east, they desire to have once again a Persian empire. Assad miscalculated when he became President and allowed the Iranians deep inside the workings of the country, politically, militarily and economically. Now Assad is little more than a puppet on a string. Of course he would like to think that he is in control but he lost that a while ago. The second of Iran’s objectives is to keep the world occupied with Syria while it works on completing its nuclear development program. The new Iranian President Rouhani portrays the face of moderation and is warmer to the west but this is all part of the Iranian game of smoke and mirrors. Rouhani doesn’t have the real power, that belongs to the Ayatollahs and the Republican guard and their objectives have not changed. Rouhani is simply a delaying tactic. The USA thinks helping the FSA will force Iran to spend more money than it can afford on supporting Assad with weapons and fighters and Iran is pouring more resources into Syria to keep the USA busy as it hurries to get nuclear capability. Iran and Russia have a business partnership based on economics, oil, gas and weapons and geo-strategy, political influence and weakening the influence of the USA in the middle east.

Ok, time for a scenario, time will tell if I am right or wrong but based on my understanding of the different actors involved, I think there is a real possibility that something along these lines will happen. As nobody knows exactly how much CW Assad has or where he has it, we can make a safe assumption that the UN will not be able to take control of all the chemical weapons.  What I believe will happen is that some time after the UN has taken control of the declared CW assets one of two things will happen, maybe even both. Assad will use chemical weapons against an Alawite town or village. These weapons will be from part of the hidden stockpile that he didn’t declare or he will use his own people to make a raid on a UN guarded CW facility to steal them and at the same time make it look like it was the rebels who made this attack. Why would he do this? Assad has in the past killed those on his side that were no longer useful if he thought it could give him a propaganda advantage. He would be able to say, tongue in cheek, that all CW are under control of the UN so it isn’t possible that he launched the attack, much less so on people from his own tribe. It would be a huge propaganda coup for him on a global scale. You must also remember that the majority of the Alawites are also treated badly by the Syrian regime, it is only a small minority that have the wealth and power. Most Alawites are poor just like the majority of the Syrian population. The regime made the Alawites fear the Sunni majority in order to create a sectarian division, the fear that the Sunni would slaughter them if they ever came to power, this guaranteed that these poorly educated people have followed Assad not out of love and loyalty to a family member but out of fear that the treatment from the Sunni would be worse than that they already receive.  Assad despises the majority of Alawites only slightly less than he despises the Sunni. Killing a few thousand Alawite and making it look as if the rebels did it would be like a wet dream come true for Assad.

If Assad can pull this off then it would be a huge political and propaganda win for him. World opinion would shift and the rebels would lose a lot of good will but more importantly the USA would have serious egg on its face as it gets accused of supporting rebels who have finally been ‘proven’ to have used chemical weapons. This would put America in a very difficult and much weakened position on the international stage, Russia and Iran would wet their pants laughing at the USA as they build up their own global influence.

As I have said in a previous post, what is happening in Syria is no longer about revolution but rather a battlefield that is being used by two superpowers to try and outsmart and out maneuver each other in their battle to increase their global power and influence.

If you have any questions then please leave a comment or send me a private message.