Russia, Ukraine Making Costly Mistake By Positioning Themselves As Orthodox States


Russia and Ukraine, by falling for the temptation to position themselves as Orthodox countries, are creating serious problems for themselves both at home and abroad and perhaps equally important giving up the opportunity to expand ties with Turkey and other Muslim states against the United States and Europe, a Moscow commentator says.

In an essay on, Oleg Gorbunov, a journalist who also serves as the head of the Vektor Youth Political Club, argues that the governments of these two Slavic states need not sacrifice their Orthodox identities but should pay attention to the Muslim dimension of their countries and its role in their security (

“At first glance,” he says, Russia and Ukraine would appear to be very different in this regard. In the Russian Federation, there are from 15 to 20 million Muslims while in Ukraine, there are fewer than a million and only one part of that country, Crimea, has a significant compact Muslim community.

But if one considers the situation more closely, Gorbunov continues, their commonalities in this regard become obvious. Both countries have chosen “a European path of development” and are interested in stressing their Christian roots. At the same time, both have Muslim communities that increasingly stand apart from the titular nationalities.

“One must not forget that both communities include within themselves enormous protest potential, in the form of unemployed young people and a generally low standard of living.” And their rapid demographic growth compared to “the demographic winter” of Russians and Ukrainians means that the Muslims in both these countries will become more important.

Offending these groups, he continues, is thus dangerous. But “no less a danger” for the Russians and Ukrainians is that no one in either country has come up with “a way out of the situation,” alternatively presenting apocalyptic projections and ignoring the problems of the Muslim community altogether.

The domestic consequences of doing so are obvious, but relations with the Muslim world abroad entail serious ones as well. For both Moscow and Kyiv, ties with the Muslim world and especially the Middle East and Central Asia are critical because of their role as exporters of “natural and labor resources.”

Moreover, and “unfortunately, Gorbunov argues, “no less evidence are the efforts of groups of states to set Russia and other largely Orthodoxstates at odds with the Muslim world,” a game “from which only those players on the side will gain.” And consequently, both Russia and Ukraine need to view themselves not just as Orthodox but as poly-confessional countries.

“Historically,” the Moscow commentator continues, “Muslim peoples were an inalienable part of our countries from the moment when ethnic Russian society became non-ethnic Russia after its expansion in the 16th century.” That has put Moscow in a very different position than Europe and North America.

“If Europe organized ‘crusades’ in the Middle Ages,’ he says, “then the United States is doing this now,” a pattern that if Russia and Ukraine recognize and include in their foreign policy calculations will allow them to pose as the champions of an increasingly important part of the world.

Moreover, Gorbunov argues, Moscow and Kyiv need to recognize that “the Islamic world is more complicated that the media present it.” It is not only varied but features some increasingly secular states and involves efforts to combine Islamic shariat law with Western standards. And the Muslim world is increasingly rich because of natural resources.

“All the global players are trying to build their relations with the Muslim countries on ‘an individual basis,’ while at the same time not respecting Islamic culture and customs.” European and American businessmen deal with the Muslim countries as if “with gloves on” lest they be contaminated by Islam.

And Europe and the United States would like to see Russia and Ukraine adopt the same approach because that would prevent Moscow and Kyiv from reaping the benefits of a different policy toward the Muslim world, a policy in which both Slavic countries would form alliances more easily than any Western country can.

For example, Gorbunov writes, Russia and Ukraine can work together with Muslim countries to ensure that the Crimean Tatars will be supplied only with Muslim leaders who respect the idea, which lies at the basis of both Russia and Ukraine, that “an Islamic community [can] exist in a secular state.”

Perhaps especially important, he concludes, “this is not simply an occasion for dialogue; it is a new strategic direction for cooperation between Russia and Ukraine.” And Gorbunov suggests that “organizing a Muslim dialogue around the Black Sea region” could be the first stage in this re-orientation of Russian and Ukrainian policy.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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