Russia: The False Gods of Missiles and Nationalism
Putin’s thuggish boasts are inspired by something deeper in the Russian mind: The fact that they lost the Cold War.
Vladimir Putin has announced that the Russian Federation has “invincible” nuclear weapons. Putin claimed that by the time the West has caught up with his country’s “superweapons,” “our guys will have devised something else.”
Well, well. I’m sure this takes American defense planners, technical analysts, 17 different spy agencies, and the entire Department of Defense by utter surprise. They are, at this moment, no doubt quaking with the shock of Putin’s claims.
Think again. For decades, America has pretty much known what weapons systems the Russians are developing before their first computer-aided design hits the printer. I doubt this has changed.
And a close look at the videos displayed by the Russian president is a bit surprising. They look much less realistic than my sons’ video war games. That makes sense. Some of the graphics Putin showed are as much as 11 years old.
The Russian nuclear arsenal is dangerous. Its nuclear buildup should not be ignored. But Putin’s thuggish boasts are inspired by something deeper in the Russian mind: The fact that they lost the Cold War.
Missing the Soviet Union
Asked following his speech last week what he would like to have changed in Russian history, Putin said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union.”
He said something similar in 2005. At the time, he described the end of the Soviet empire as the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe.”
This feeling is common among Russians. In the mid-1990s, my wife and I were hosting a young Russian graduate student as part of our church’s outreach ministry. One day she announced that the then-dead U.S.S.R. had easily overcome various American military technologies. She was angry about the end of the Soviet Union.
It was hard for me not to ask why, given her claim of Communist Russia’s military superiority, America had won the Cold War.
Thankfully, Christian grace and the manners training I received from my Mom and Dad won-out. But this attitude is widespread. A November 2017 poll showed that nearly three out of five Russians regret the U.S.S.R’s demise. Vladimir Putin, an unrepentant KGB apparatchik, is fueling that troubling sentiment.
The Idolatry of Nationalism
Nationalism is like a religious faith for many Russians. Nationalism is distinct from patriotism. Patriotism is love for one’s country. In the case of the United States, it is appreciation for our founding principles and for those who have fought to preserve and advance them, both in actual combat and public life.
It is respect for those who have gone before us. For those who have innovated and created, labored and produced, built and struggled. It is to value the beauty of our homeland. And it is to recognize that all these things, taken together, make up America’s uniqueness.
A country where prosperity, liberty, opportunity, and human dignity are central to our national experience is truly exceptional.
Nationalism takes this a far step further. It personalizes the nation, transforming it from a political entity made up of those who have formed and preserved it into a spiritual being. It imbues “the nation” with the attributes of God. It extends to the state an allegiance that amounts to idolatry.
It is this devotion to “Mother Russia” that deepens the enduring wound of America’s Cold War victory, international cultural dominance, and continuing military presence in Europe.
Pursuit of Power
Former CIA operative John Sipher sees Putin in a long line of “Russian tyrants (who) have sought unchallenged power stemming from an inferiority complex and messianic vision of Russia as a nation unlike others.” But Sipher believes Putin is concerned most fundamentally with maintaining his own power. He argues that “false paranoia about U.S. actions and intentions is actually about (Putin) creating an enemy to blame for the failure to improve people’s lives.”
One thing is clear: Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States. But equally clear is that by courting the false god of nationalism, he has become a priest of a pagan idol. Only the God of the Bible can offer the meaning and hope nationalism falsely claims.
As to the specifics of Putin’s military buildup, we can hope he would realize that no invention of man is invincible. And nursing a sense of humiliation while offering the pagan god of nationalism will only prolong Russia’s delusions of majesty and power.