Modern Russia’s Own Wars of Religion
Author: David Batashvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
With 2018 drawing to a close, the view ahead for Russia’s neighbors struggling to maintain their sovereignty does not look overwhelmingly optimistic.
Russia is as dangerous as ever. War in Ukraine goes on, and the frontline in Donbas as active every single day. There are some worrying signals from Russia that might mean re-start of larger-scale military operations sooner or later. Georgia continues to be facing grim realities of occupation, while its society is deeply divided politically. Even the Baltic nations - members of NATO - cannot feel safe, as they witness a distracted EU, Russia’s friends in Europe questioning the sanctions against Moscow, and a U.S. president who was publicly questioning the utility of NATO Article 5 guarantee just a few months before announcing the precipitous American withdrawal from Syria.
This reality is not going anywhere and seems likely to get worse, but right now, as is usual around the New Year, most people are taking a pause to relax and distract themselves from the routine for a few days. And so, as we conclude 2018 and prepare for the quickly approaching trials of 2019, I suggest we take a somewhat fanciful look at the grave circumstances we the inhabitants of Russia’s geopolitical frontline zone are facing.
As a student of history, I have long been fascinated by similarities between Russia’s ongoing attempt at imperial resurgence and the events in Western Europe in the second half of the 16th century. Then, the Spanish monarchy under Philip II (years of reign: 1556–1598) was trying to assert its regional dominance under the excuse of its ultra-Catholic ideology. The growth of the Spanish power at the time coincided with the weakening of its competitors. As a result, Philip II found himself in a position to make a try for the hegemony in Western Europe, which he did in the 1580s and 1590s. The opponents he was facing, Protestant and moderate Catholic alike, did not constitute a united organized force and were much weaker than Spain in strategic terms.
As was the case with Philip II’s life-long war in the Netherlands, which rebelled against his rule in 1568, Russia’s war in Ukraine is protracted and with no end in sight. All hopes for political compromise are doomed, because the opponents’ goals are just too far apart. The great power sees its former possession as indispensible for its imperial ambitions and therefore will not let go. The former possession in question has already developed its own identity, seeks its own destiny, and will not submit. The fight is mostly slow and positional, except for the periodical inevitable flare-ups in military operations.
Georgia sees its vital interests and hopes for a better future in the curtailing of Russian imperial ambitions, but its society is disoriented and divided, reminding of France during the time of Philip II. The present Georgian government is wary of Russia, as the late Valois monarchy was wary of Spain, but by the same token it is similarly weak, misguided, incompetent and too afraid of the menacing great power to seriously oppose the spread of its mortally dangerous influence inside the country.
Active Georgian liberals are a minority like the French Huguenots. Georgia contains a pro-Russian fifth column, just like France had its Spanish-aligned Catholic League. These two groups share strikingly similar features in the form of their vicious xenophobia, bigotry and hatred of liberty, besides being in cahoots with their country’s enemy. Still, the Georgian society’s mainstream supports the stand against the Russian domination, similarly to the pragmatic French politiques of the later 16th century, who wanted the country to firmly embrace its national interests, all ideology aside. Unfortunately, that’s not what Georgia is doing right now, just like France was not until the 1590s.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, along with, to a lesser degree, Finland and Sweden, remind me of the later 16th century’s German Protestant princes. They understand that they might be targeted next by the imperial power, they are trying to help their brethren who are already under attack, but their means are limited and there is little they can do to affect what is happening beyond their borders.
Then there is the collective West, represented in our historical analogy by England under Elizabeth I, in particular during the time before the 1580s. It has begun to realize that imperial ambitions of the aggressive power are incompatible with its own interests and security. But it also is separated geographically from the fray, and not in a hurry to offer large-scale help to those whose survival is at stake because it is unwilling find itself in a direct conflict with the aggressor.
Still, there is some room for things to change. Just like Spain launched a covert effort to undermine the Elizabethan rule in England, during the last few years Russia has begun its earnest attempts to destabilize the West politically from the inside. Obviously, such actions by Moscow might achieve their purpose. But they also might result in the West’s more robust actions to contain the Russian imperial ambitions.
As was the case with Spain’s opponents in Western Europe in the decades since the 1560s, our present struggle with Russia is protracted, dirty, exhausting, unpleasant in every sense, and very frustrating. It also sometimes feels hopeless. Defeats are plentiful. Successes – less so. The enemy is overwhelmingly stronger militarily. It is also a centrally directed force acting against the opponents who are diverse and largely uncoordinated. Still, the empire’s foes know they are on the same side. And so, Georgians, secular republican Chechen émigrés, and patriotic Belarusians, among others, go to fight for Ukraine on the Donbas frontline, just like the French and German Protestants went to the Netherlands to fight against Spain.
William I, Prince of Orange (1533-1584), the leader of the Dutch Revolt against Spain. In the fall of 1572 the rebels were on the verge of defeat, as the Spanish troops had re-conquered much of the Netherlands and were still on the offensive. William “did not believe Holland and Zeeland alone could long resist”, and the rebellion had mostly collapsed in all other provinces of the Netherlands. At that point, William resolved to withdraw to Holland, writing in his correspondence he had decided to make it his “sepulture”. (for more about this see The Dutch Republic (1995) by Jonathan Israel, p. 178).
Despite the odds, Russia’s beleaguered neighbors don’t capitulate, as did not their historical predecessors that opposed the Spain of Philip II. The reason why is that the victory of the other side would mean us not being able to live freely and according to our values and identities. The empire’s structural political and ideological traits guarantee this. Liberty is just as incompatible with the present Kremlin regime as it was with the hyper-Catholicism of Philip II.
Our resistance will therefore continue because capitulation is not a viable option. Nor is a compromise, since the Kremlin simply wants too much of our sovereignty. And, after all, we can never know beforehand how things are going to play out. They did look pretty bad for those who resisted Spain and its stooges, especially in the 1580s. Yet in the end, Philip II’s ambitions were frustrated and the struggle ended with the victory of his opponents. A limited one, but nonetheless a victory that allowed them to maintain themselves free of his political and ideological project. Who knows, perhaps those standing against Putin’s Russia will manage to grasp a similar outcome. In any case, we are compelled to keep trying.
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