Russian Orthodoxy Shaping Moscow’s Nuclear Policies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 70

Russian Orthodox priest blesses a Topol-M ICBM

Among students of Russia, it has long been a commonplace belief that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), because of its caesaro-papist traditions, is a handmaiden of the Russian state in all its forms, working closely with and supporting Russian government policies. More recently, many have been impressed by the ways in which Orthodox practices and ideas have affected the state, leading to situations sometimes humorous, as when priests bless nuclear weapons, and sometimes serious when President Vladimir Putin talks in eschatological terms about the fate of Russians and others in the event of a nuclear exchange (, May 5;, May 4).

But now, there is mounting evidence that this relationship between state and church has taken a new and more dangerous turn. In particular, Russian Orthodoxy may be informing authorities’ decisions not just regarding superficial issues but even crucial topics like Moscow’s nuclear doctrine and thinking on how to fight and win a nuclear war. Naturally, this development has numerous profound consequences because whenever positions are expressed in religious terms, they almost inevitably become more rigid and less amenable to being modified by experience. Accordingly, the ability of other countries to affect Russian decision-making could be further declining, thus making it more likely that any crisis would escalate out of control.

This development in the relationship between Orthodoxy and the Kremlin, one that has not received adequate attention in the past, is the subject of an important new book, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy, by Dmitry “Dima” Adamsky, a scholar at the IDC-Herzliya in Israel. Published this spring by Stanford University Press, it presents the most comprehensive look yet at the above-mentioned trends and possibilities. Furthermore, Adamsky’s study opens a new field of research on the ways in which religious ideas can profoundly affect the often arcane field of nuclear strategy.

As Adamsky points out, since 1991, both religion and nuclear strategy have increased in importance in Russia in radical ways: first, because of new possibilities for religious practice, and second, because of declines in other kinds of Russian power. But the relationship between the two has not attracted the attention one might have expected. Part of the reason for that is because development of religion has been a bottom-up phenomenon while that of nuclear policy has been, in almost every case, top-down. Consequently, Adamsky notes, there has been little expectation among analysts that the one affects the other.

But in fact, in Russia, they are not only closely interrelated but becoming more so. Religious ideas increasingly inform and legitimate Moscow’s nuclear power; at the same time, the possible uses of nuclear weapons are becoming central to the Russian Church, always more eschatological in its orientations than churches in the West. That has led to three closely connected developments. First is the rise of what one might call the “nuclear priesthood,” Russian Orthodox religious figures closely integrated in and having support from military and civilian officials in the nuclear field. Second is the development of a religiously informed vocabulary, employed by Russian strategists and political leaders from Putin on down; as such, Russian policymakers think about nuclear questions much differently than did their predecessors or do their counterparts in the West. And third is the spread of this approach to the rising generation, something that means the changes in thinking and approach Adamsky identifies are likely to prove long-lasting.

Adamsky’s Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy consists of more than 350 pages of heavily footnoted analysis on a topic few to date have thought about in any depth. Consequently, it should become required reading for all those involved in relations with Moscow and especially those in the Western security community. The details the Israeli scholar unearths are fascinating, and there is a risk that many who do read his book will focus on them alone. But the five broader conclusions he offers are sobering and deserve to be at the center of attention.

First of all, he writes, “the penetration of faith into politics has been so wide, deep and continuous, with so many vested interests across the political landscape and security community … [that it] is likely to remain a durable phenomenon.” Those who think this is a time-limited phenomenon are almost certainly deluding themselves. In short, there has been a sea change in the way Moscow thinks about nuclear issues, and it has been shaped by religion rather than by technology or conflict theories as elsewhere.

Second, Adamsky says, “since the ROC’s role continues to expand, it may become a tool of influence in bureaucratic rivalries among organizations competing for resources within and outside the Russian strategic community, especially in an era of austerity.” Those who have the support of the Moscow Patriarchate are thus likely to win such battles more often than those who do not; and so tracking these alliances is more important than Western analyst and security experts assume.

Third, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Israeli analyst continues, “is likely to continue serving as a mobilization tool ensuring the quality and quantity of the draft, as well as a tool of social mobilization for national security enterprises.” That is likely to mean that military commanders will be selected on the basis of their attachment to religion and will choose soldiers who are Orthodox as well, a choice with enormous consequences in multi-ethnic and poly-religious Russia—and particularly the rapidly growing Muslim community (see EDM, October 5, 2017; April 10, 2018; July 26, 2018).

Fourth, given the ways in which “faith has become mixed with national identity and patriotism,” Adamsky argues, “being Orthodox may become a promotion multiplier within the institutions of the strategic community.” Moreover, the attachment of Orthodoxy to the nuclear security community may have a similar consequence within the religious one for church hierarchs, thus leading to an intensified alliance between the two based not only on faith but on personal preferment.

And fifth, “the theocratization of the Russian strategic community” is likely to affect the way in which Moscow will act at times of crisis because “presumably the nuclear clergy is less likely to constrain conflict” and more open to escalation due to its capacity to “legitimize a belligerent political course and ensur[e] public support for it.” Such an approach will also give the Kremlin a whip hand in dealing with other power centers in Russia since national security legitimated by the Church will be a powerful tool in its hands.

One of the most impressive aspects of Adamsky’s argument is that he does not overstate what he has found. He writes that “it is important not to overblow the proportions of Russian nuclear policy.” Some Russian analysts with whom he has discussed his findings expressed “surprise” at this phenomenon and suggested it was not something they were aware of. “According to them,” Adamsky says, “this is just an organizational and personal tribute to the zeitgeist, and when it comes to essential questions of strategy and operations, this pro forma religiosity will not matter.”

It is of course true that other factors besides religion remain important in Russian strategic thinking and it is also the case that religion in Russia has often been more superficial than many believe. But Adamsky has amassed so much evidence of Orthodoxy playing a role in the strategic nuclear community in Moscow that no Western analyst concerned about the possibility of a nuclear conflict can afford to ignore his findings or the light they throw on the thinking of Russian leaders and commanders.