Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy - Religion, Politics, and Strategy

One thing is clear—in crisis situations, the nuclear priesthood is likely to become part of the decision-making. Thus, the most basic takeaway from this book is a need to incorporate religion into any future analysis of strategic affairs in Russia.

Editor's Note: The modern secular world is taking notice of the Orthodox Church. The recent publication of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy is evidence of this increased attention. In April, 2019, Stanford University Press published this new book by Dmitry Adamsky, investigating the Russian Orthodox Church's influence over the nation's nuclear policies, and over Russia's military strategy in general.

Whether a book presents Orthodoxy in a light that is positive, negative, or neutral, it is important for Orthodox Christians to be aware of how our Church is being portrayed by leading secular authors. Whether their presentation is accurate, or false, we need to understand their positions, so that we can more effectively respond to criticism.

Thus, this article should not be viewed as an endorsement of this book. Rather, it is simply information for the Orthodox Christian to read and consider. These are the sorts of questions the secular world is asking when they look at us. This is how we are now being portrayed.


INTRODUCTION

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion and nuclear weapons have grown immensely in significance, reaching a peak in Russian ideology and strategy. Faith has a high profile in the president’s public and private conduct and in domestic and foreign policy, and it is a measure of national identity. It has also saturated Russian nuclear military-industrial complex. Each leg of the nuclear triad has its patron saint, and their icons hang on the walls of the consecrated headquarters and command posts. Icons appear on the nuclear platforms; aerial, naval, and ground processions of the cross are a routine; the military clergy provide regular pastoral care to the nuclear corps’ servicemen and function as official assistants of the commanders for the work with personnel. Within each big base there is a garrison church, chapel, or prayer room. The nuclear priesthood and commanders jointly celebrate religious and professional holidays, and catechization is an integral part of the military and civilian higher nuclear education. A similar situation prevails within the nuclear weapons industry.

Supplication services and the sprinkling of holy water occur during parades, the oath of allegiance, exercises, maneuvers, space and nuclear launches, and combat duties. Nuclear priests are integrated in professional activities through the whole chain of command and join their flock during operational missions on the ground and underwater. Pilots of strategic bombers consecrate their jets before combat sorties, and icons are attached to the maps they take to the cockpit. Mobile temples accompany intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear-armed submarines have their portable churches. Within the Russian military, in particular within the nuclear forces, the scope and frequency of clerical activities fostering patriotism, morale, and human reliability have made the priests almost equivalent to Soviet-era political officers. History had come full circle. In the Soviet era “red corners” were located in public places to present an iconostasis of the “new saints” of Marxism-Leninism, replacing the Orthodox icons. Now, the new mythology and iconography have replaced the Soviet iconostasis with a new-old one, in which traditional Russian and newly canonized saints and warriors from Russian and Soviet history harmoniously coexist. Incrementally, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) crafted a new pantheon of military heroes and a new professional ethos emerged.

In parallel, during the past decade the West has perceived Russia’s nuclear theory and practice as the most assertive ever. Indeed, Russian strategists more readily than in the past have incorporated nuclear tools in their military planning and employed coercive nuclear signaling during a crisis. Exercises with nonstrategic nuclear weapons and the deployment of nuclear-capable, dual-use platforms in Ukraine and in Syria demonstrate this trend, and nuclear intimidations have been evident in Russia’s conduct in its European periphery. The ROC’s role is not the only, and not even the main, factor behind the Kremlin’s nuclear credo and foreign policy, but the moral-ideational climate fostered by the ROC provided Moscow with the needed legitimacy. The ROC has systematically and openly supported the Kremlin’s foreign policy gambits involving nuclear weapons. For these moves by the Kremlin, the ROC has steadily generated social backing through its indoctrination and educational activities, among both the general public and the military. In contrast to other antinuclear Christian denominations, the ROC has promoted a “pronuclear” worldview within Russian society. At a time of economic austerity, it supports the Kremlin’s national security course and legitimizes budget allocations to the defense sector. The ROC’s position provided nuclear weapon designers with some sort of moral legitimacy for research and development (R&D) programs on the nuclear weapons’ modernization, as it also indirectly legitimized the Russian strategic community’s reluctance to consider further arms control agreements.

The ROC has positioned itself as one of the main guardians of the state’s nuclear potential and, as such, claims the role of one of the main guarantors of Russian national security. Many in the broader strategic community have come to share this self-assessment of the church. The ROC capitalized on this reputation and became one of the designers of the new professional identity of the Russian military in general, and of the nuclear corps in particular, and has utilized the nuclear community as a tool to enhance its social and political influence. In short, the practices and rituals within the Russian military, especially within the nuclear community, are in line with Ron Hassner’s definition of a religious military organization.

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

The case at hand is the most significant and the least likely at the same time. The book provides an account of how a grassroots phenomenon of a formerly outcast religion became supported by a state and wormed its way into the most significant wing of one of the most powerful military organizations in the world no less. It is not only the story of the crucial role that religion plays today in the Russian military and in a state from which it was banned until the early 1990s, but also the dramatic tale of how it came to play that assertive role within a very short span of time. The story is so much more impressive given how very dire the status of the ROC was in the eyes of the military elite before the events described in the book. Antichurch propaganda had been especially strong within the ranks of the Soviet military, which was one of the main pillars of the most anticlerical regime in history. How did all of that come to happen?

Exploring the impact of religion on strategy in Russia is the main theme of this book. It describes the unprecedented role that the Orthodox faith has played in Russian identity, politics, and national security and focuses on the bond that has emerged between the Kremlin, the ROC, and the nuclear weapons community. The book dubs this unique three-decade-long nexus “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy.” Outlining the social and cultural causes of this overlooked phenomenon, describing its impact on Moscow’s foreign and security policy and on Russian military-nuclear affairs, and discussing the consequences of this neglected singularity for international security theory are this book’s primary aims. How has this church-nuclear nexus evolved? What have been its effects on Russian national security policy? What are the implications for Moscow’s future political trajectory? What insights does this phenomenon suggest regarding other members of the nuclear club where religion is interwoven with strategy? What are the broader ramifications for international relations (IR) theory and practice? These are the main questions with which this book grapples.

The following three corps of literature are most relevant for explaining this intriguing phenomenon: works on religion and IR, since this book is essentially about the role of faith in international security; scholarship on state-church relations in Russia, since the phenomenon is a unique part of Russian political history; and works on the role of religion on the battlefield, since the book explores how faith conditions military strategy and operations. This book makes use of this important scholarship, though it suffers from certain lacunae. First, despite a consensus that religion matters, the causal mechanism that links faith to strategy is, for the most part, unclear. The growing literature on religion and IR has examined how faith influences international cooperation and conflict; how religious identities drive peace and war; and how religion shapes warriors’ self-perception, wars’ duration, and the appropriateness of weapons, and it has analyzed the concept of just war. Notwithstanding these important contributions, international security literature is still closer to the first than to the last word on the issue of faith’s influence on states’ militaries. The scholarship suffers from a case-selection bias. With few exceptions, the majority of the literature has focused on Islamic radicalism and non-state actors, but paid little attention to the nexus between nuclear weapons and religion in the militaries of the Christian world.

Second, the book corresponds with works on the role of religion in Russian politics. The history of Russian church-military relations remains entirely unwritten. Although the literature has scrutinized Russian church-state relations, the ROC’s role within the strategic community has received little notice. The burgeoning scholarship on Russian security has completely passed over the theocratization of the nuclear complex, although its significance is hard to underestimate. No existing work identifies the Russian church-nuclear nexus or explains its sources and effects. The book shares an analytical focus with John Garrard and Carol Garrard’s work, which sets the stage for exploring the resurgence of the ROC in Russian national security, and also with Irina Papkova’s and John Burgess’s works, which provide a broad discussion on state-church relations. However, Burgess and Papkova leave the national security dimension outside their main focus, while Garrard and Garrard make passing and chronologically limited reference to this topic. This book offers the first comprehensive analysis of the church-nuclear nexus in Russia from its inception to the present day and examines its impact on national security policy.

Third, the book is part of the evolving wave of scholarship on religion in militaries and on battlefields worldwide. Ron Hassner’s works are setting the theoretical tone in the field. The book strongly resonates with this scholarship analytically and methodologically. However, Hassner’s works do not cover Orthodox Christianity and the Russian military, and are confined to conventional affairs, leaving the nuclear realm beyond their scope. In this book, in contrast, these subjects are at the center of scrutiny.

The book seeks to extend our knowledge beyond these shortcomings. By shifting the research emphasis to exploring the nexus of Orthodox Christianity and the Russian nuclear complex, it expands the database empirically and functionally. The book portrays the symbiotic relationship between religious beliefs, nuclear policy, and military organizations. Building on standing theoretical insights and generalizing from the findings, it advances a debate about religion and international security toward a more coherent theory of the field. The book situates the findings in the comparative context and uses a nuanced understanding of the Russian case to hypothesize about the role of religion in modern militaries and draw conclusions that are applicable to other members of the nuclear club. The book takes the first steps in the direction of a parsimonious model of faith-driven modern militaries. Its generalization about the mechanism that transforms religious content into policy outcomes advances theory building on the subject of religion and strategy. Methodologically, the book offers a multifaceted analytical perspective, emanating from religious studies, political science, and Russian area studies. As such, it further refines the techniques applicable in other cases looking at religion and military affairs. Finally, the empirical findings on the role of ecclesiastical ideas in Russian national security highlight the implications for practitioners.

STRUCTURE

The book traces the evolution of Russian nuclear orthodoxy since the Soviet collapse. Each part covers roughly one decade, examining its overriding trend, and scrutinizes the coming together of strategy and religion within the political leadership, the national security elite, and the nuclear complex—the Strategic Mission Missile Forces, Long Range Aviation, the Space Forces, the Early Warning Corps, the Nuclear Submarine Fleet, the nuclear custodians of the Ministry of Defense (MoD), and the nuclear weapons industry. Consequently, each part first describes the state-church relations, then narrows the focus to state-military relations, and finally concentrates on the main topic of inquiry—Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy. In addition, each part covers the evolution of strategic mythmaking during the discussed decade and its impact on the national security discourse. Since the book is focused on the nuclear dimension, it does not discuss in detail the religious renaissance in the other military services. It only describes the general trend of the decade under scrutiny to contextualize the state of nuclear-faith affairs. Detailed analysis of the overall religious penetration inside the Russian strategic community and military establishment is a topic for a separate work and is beyond the scope of this book.

The first part of the book describes the inception of the church-nuclear nexus in the early 1990s. During this period the quest for religiosity emerged as a grassroots phenomenon within the nuclear complex, and the latter entered into a covenant with the ROC. The book defines it as the “genesis decade.” The second part of the book covers the period from the early 2000s to 2010, during which the churching of the nuclear complex coincided with the increasing role of religion in Russian politics. Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy initially emerged as a bottom-up phenomenon. However, when the leadership began flirting with faith, a top-down trend supplemented the initial grassroots impulse. The book defines it as the “conversion decade.” The third part of the book, covering the period from 2010 onward, describes how these bottom-up and top-down tendencies have merged, reaching a peak of clericalization in state-church relations. The book defines this period as the “operationalization decade.” During this period the nuclear arsenal has become one of the major instruments of national security, while religion has gained extraordinary prominence in national ideology.

Aiming to demonstrate how and to what extent religion has conditioned Russian nuclear affairs, the book’s chapters examine the following questions: What set of values does the ROC’s pastoral care cultivate within the nuclear forces? What theological motifs feature in the nuclear forces’ professional activities and rituals? How do nuclear commanders use religious norms and myths to express their professional credo and to envision the appropriate behavior of the nuclear officer? How do such outlooks affect the routine of the nuclear corps? To what extent has the encounter with the ROC shaped nuclear modernization, arms control initiatives, doctrine, and strategy, and do any or all of these deviate from earlier practices?

The conclusion and epilogue situate the main empirical findings in a comparative context, generalize them into generic theoretical insights, and hypothesize about the emerging role of religion in modern militaries worldwide, to facilitate broader generalizations about faith and strategy. The insights they offer are applicable to other members of the nuclear club and make it possible to generate hypotheses for further theory development and to pose several policy-relevant questions. Also, to provide a solid basis for practitioners seeking to engage Moscow on a host of geopolitical issues, both concluding chapters speculate how the Kremlin’s emphasis on religious ideology and nuclear weapons may manifest itself in prospective diplomatic and military initiatives.

ARGUMENTS AND FINDINGS

This book tells the story of how the ROC came to permeate the Russian nuclear military-industrial complex. This story reflects the general tendency of the time—religious saturation began simultaneously from the 1990s across the entire strategic establishment. However, within this large-scale penetration by the ROC the nuclear community has been special. The scale of the church-nuclear bond dwarfs any comparable developments, in terms of scope and longevity, and hence the main focus of the book. The book demonstrates how this development occurred and grounds it within the broader contexts of state-church affairs and church-military (non-nuclear) relations. This unique story of the nuclear community partially demonstrated the ROC’s prioritization dictum—first and foremost, to concentrate on the services that are most important for national security and that operate under the most difficult, risky, and stressful conditions. Also, it seems, the ROC considered the centrality of the complex to public perception and at the same time its relative compactness, which made penetration optimal.

Although some of the clergy and some senior nuclear officials have credited the ROC with “delivering” the Kremlin’s backing for nuclear issues, the book does not argue that greater penetration into the nuclear community resulted in greater resourcing. The services that the ROC penetrated most deeply indeed received the majority of allocated resources, but this was a matter more of correlation than of causality. Evidence, presented in competition with other explanations, is needed to make the case that the ROC made the difference. However, the clergy, and in some cases the services, have attributed this impact to the ROC and have tried to position the church as a provider of political support, to increase its legitimacy and political-organizational influence. The book describes this narrative, which the ROC has promoted.

The analysis offered in the book concludes with the following findings. First, the penetration of faith into politics has been so wide, deep, and continuous, with so many vested interests across the political landscape and strategic community, that it is likely to outlive President Vladimir Putin. Nuclear orthodoxy manifests more continuity than change within the Russian political-military tradition and, as such, is likely to remain a durable phenomenon. Second, 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 the era of austerity. Third, the ROC 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. This relates to attracting qualified youth for the elite units of the nuclear forces and the elite technological detachments. Commanders of the nuclear corps may increasingly seek Orthodox draftees, viewing them as more reliable and motivated. Fourth, in the current political-ideational reality in Russia where faith has become mixed with national identity and patriotism, being Orthodox may become a promotion multiplier within the institutions of the strategic community. Similarly, association with influential senior clerics within the Kremlin’s court may positively affect career paths. Fifth, the theocratization of the Russian strategic community may project on the conflict duration and escalation dynamics. Presumably, the Russian nuclear clergy is less likely to constrain conflict. It might even ensure a relatively easier path to escalation, by legitimizing a belligerent political course and ensuring public support for it. Moreover, the Kremlin may promote its image of a faithful strategic actor in the eyes of its counterparts and utilize it for more effective coercion across various domains while managing its national security policy.

The penetration of organized religion into the professional life of state militaries is not a phenomenon peculiar to Russia and is increasingly observable worldwide. The resurgence of religiosity in state militaries is not a binary situation, and each case can be placed on a continuum spanning three ideal types. The first type—“enabling faith”—refers to cases in which a state military enables servicemen to practice their personal religious obligations while conducting military duty. The second type—“faith as enabler”—refers to state military organizations where religion has penetrated the national ideology and is equated with patriotism. The third type—“military theocratization”—is a situation where religion shapes the strategic thinking and operational behavior of a military organization. Presumably, the closer a military organization is to the third type, the greater the probability that religious jurisprudence related to military affairs will emerge and, with it, operators’ demand for the counsel of theological experts.

Russia today, the empirical evidence suggests, seems to be within the “faith as enabler” category and possibly in the initial stages of the path toward the “theocratization” type. This juxtaposition makes it possible to offer a set of hypotheses pertaining to nuclear religious jurisprudence and to the conduct and reliability of nuclear operators. On the first matter, Orthodox nuclear jurisprudence dealing with the main questions of nuclear strategy and operations seems to be, as of now, nonexistent. However, the organizational-conceptual conditions and settings for joint explorations of these issues do exist both within the Russian nuclear community and within the ROC. One could argue that given the current level of theocratization of the nuclear establishment and operationalization of the nuclear clergy, the latter will be interested and compelled by the potential demand from the former to explore these questions in depth and in a more elaborate manner than has been done until recently. The more the priesthood is involved in operational issues and the keener its professional contacts with the operators, the greater the likelihood that a demand for nuclear Orthodox jurisprudence will emerge.

On the second matter, it is unclear how the Orthodox faith and priests project on the human reliability of the nuclear chain of command. On the one hand, religiosity may enhance obedience and commitment to turning the key when the order arrives, and not turning it when there is no order. Discipline, motivation, the fulfillment of patriotic duty, and service to a higher cause are the dominant values that the Russian nuclear clergy has promoted. Thus, the nuclear priesthood is likely to serve to enhance the legitimation and execution of orders. One could argue that when it comes to ordering nuclear battlefield use, under the influence of the ROC, strategists and operators will more easily overcome moral and ethical self-restraints and execute missions exactly as ordered. On the other hand, it is not inconceivable that nuclear operators, driven by faith and encouraged by the clergy, may, under certain circumstances, establish pockets of disobedience. Although one might have difficulty imagining the patriarch opposing the nuclear initiatives of the political leadership for theological reasons, disagreements and tensions in state-church relations have been on display in modern Russia and historically. The current cooperative and close nature of the state-church relationship is not predetermined. Theoretically, voices from within the church may question certain aspects of nuclear policy. This counterintuitive scenario is now more likely than before, given the political power and social influence that the ROC has accumulated. If an order from the political leadership runs against both the operators’ professional intuition and nuclear jurisprudence, the nuclear clergy multiplies the probability of disobedience.

The findings of the book suggest that the closer the situation approaches a protracted geopolitical crisis, the more prominent the role and involvement of the nuclear priests in the decision-making might become. If nuclear commanders and operators seek a priest’s guidance to deal with the moral and ethical questions raised by an order from the political leadership, this could mean that, de facto, there might be two parallel lines of command authority. It is thus conceivable that in a crisis situation accompanied by civil-church and civil-military tensions, the nuclear priesthood might become part of the decision-making on matters of national security. Hence, the most basic takeaway from the book is a need to incorporate religion into any future analysis of strategic affairs in general, in the Russian case in particular. The book argues that it is essential to follow the metamorphosis of the state-church contract in Russia and to explore how it projects on national security policy, in particular in the nuclear realm. This is a major discontinuity from the past.

METHOD AND AUDIENCES

The book employs several academic disciplines to investigate a topic at the intersection of military affairs, religion, and international politics. It uses primary sources that are for the most part unknown to Western audiences—government and ecclesiastical documents and materials, military and religious professional periodicals, movies and TV programs, interviews with clergy and military brass, and a content analysis of iconography and heraldic symbols. These primary sources have their strengths and weaknesses. They afford a unique glimpse, but often present a tendentious narrative. Also, reliable, nonofficial sociological-statistical data on the most important issues is unavailable. The book highlights these biases, critically discusses them, and conditions its conclusions.

Where possible the book uses the English equivalents of Orthodox religious and Russian military terms. In the places where the book keeps the Russian term, military or religious, it offers an explanation on its first appearance and then refers to the glossary of terms and abbreviations. The term consecration is preferred over the term sanctification to translate the Russian word osviatschenie, which stands for the religious ritual of the sacralization of material objects. Also, the book translates the Russian term votserkvlenie as “churching,” which stands for the active, and not merely nominal and declarative, practice of faith. Unless otherwise stated all English translations are by the author. The book adopts an interdisciplinary research methodology, used by scholars of culture, strategy, and religion, and international politics. To trace the causal link, it investigates the religious foundations of a phenomenon and then moves on to the political outcome, constructing successive layers of explanation. Insights yielded by this method are generalized into broader conclusions about faith-based behavior on the international level of analysis. The purpose is to delineate the role of religion in strategy and to determine whether a connection is correlative, causal, or constitutive.

Essentially an international security studies endeavor, this book does not limit itself to a single field, but engages with a topic situated at the intersection of religion, Russian politics, and IR scholarship, in particular dealing with nuclear affairs. Its appeal is therefore broad and diverse. The first audience is the readership on international security and nuclear strategy. For students, scholars, and practitioners who are interested in contemporary military affairs, specifically in the role of nuclear weapons in IR, and in Russian nuclear modernization, the book is a case study in itself and an empirical building-block for general theorization. The second audience is the readership on Russian affairs. No less than to the international security generalists, the book will also appeal to academics and wide public audiences interested in contemporary Russian politics, national security, anthropology, and contemporary history. The book’s audience also includes practitioners who have to contend with a host of challenges thrown up by Russia’s current geopolitical assertiveness. The third audience the book will draw is both academics and general readers interested in the impact of religion on IR and military affairs. It provides a timely addition to the growing wave of theoretical scholarship on the subject and, as such, speaks directly to the theoreticians of this field of political science. Also, practitioners interested in engaging with religion-driven and nuclear-capable actors should find the book of immediate relevance.

It is both remarkable and worrisome how little practitioners and scholars of IR on both sides of the Atlantic understand a subject of such unquestionable importance. If anything, the resurgence of religiosity in several state militaries worldwide has driven home the urgency of a book-length study on this issue and the pressing need to educate on the phenomenon of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy.

FINDINGS
One thing is clear—in crisis situations, accompanied by uncertainty, instability, and potential civil-church and civil-military tensions, the nuclear priesthood is likely to become part of the decision-making. Thus, the most basic takeaway from this book is a need to incorporate religion into any future analysis of strategic affairs in general, in the Russian case in particular. It is impossible to understand the current version of Russian political mentality and strategic culture, and consequently its security theory and practice, without the clerical and theological components. It is thus essential to follow the metamorphosis of the state-church contract in Russia and to explore how it projects onto national security policy, in particular in the nuclear realm. This is a major discontinuity from the past. Scholars of IR in general, of international security in particular, should be alerted to this phenomenon and follow it closely.

This article contains excerpts from Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, by Dmitry Adamsky, published by Stanford University Press, copyright 2019. Copies of this book are available online.

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