A series of domestic and international shake-ups from Moscow have experts worried it is ramping up for renewed conflict with the West.
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As the 2020s dawn, a third of a century since the end of the Cold War, Moscow has Washington on its heels. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his nation has become the only country in the world to deploy hypersonic weapons.
“Now we have a situation that is unique in modern history when they are trying to catch up to us,” the Kremlin leader said at a meeting with top military brass in December.
The Avangard missile, as it has been named, can reportedly fly 27 times faster than the speed of sound—over 20,000 miles per hour—and has left the U.S. military pondering defense strategies. Unlike a regular missile warhead that follows a predictable path, this new intercontinental ballistic missile can make sharp maneuvers in the atmosphere en route to the target, making it much harder to intercept.
“No existing defenses, in the United States or elsewhere, can intercept a missile that can move so fast while maneuvering unpredictably,” think tank Quincy Institute analyst Steven Simon stated in The New York Times. If such a weapon were launched from mainland Russia toward New York City, U.S. defense forces would have at best 15 minutes to decide how to respond.
While the Pentagon has been chasing hypersonic weapons technology, it will be “a couple of years” before the U.S. could match the Avangard, Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated.
Shortly following Russia’s weapons announcement, Moscow had its largest shake-up in recent memory. In mid-January, Mr. Putin announced plans for reforms. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned—and the entire government was dismissed. “It came out of nowhere. Even ministers in the Russian government apparently did not see their departure coming,” BBC reported.
Critics have described Mr. Putin’s plans as an attempt to secure his rule over Russia for life.
“One of the standout proposals is making the State Council a formal government agency enshrined in the constitution,” BBC continued. “At the moment it is an advisory body packed with 85 regional governors and other officials including political party leaders. It is so large that when it meets it fills a hall in the Kremlin.
“But Mr. Putin clearly has designs on its future. One theory is that he could become a new, powerful leader of the State Council.”
During an annual speech to top Russian officials, Mr. Putin stated that “our society is clearly demonstrating a demand for change,” and cited a “need to expedite achievement of the large-scale social, economic and technological challenges our country faces” to justify the changes.
Add to this Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its reported support of military groups in eastern Ukraine.
Silently amassing political power. Government officials being flushed out. Touting superior nuclear missiles. To the West, this all sounds distinctly Russian.
Yet understanding the giant nation’s motives has always been a challenge for western Europe and the United States.
The Kremlin has made military modernization a top priority amid the tensions that followed the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. In January, Mr. Putin described a buildup of NATO’s forces near Russia’s western borders and the U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty among top security threats.
The leader argued that Russia must have the best weapons in the world.
“It’s not a chess game where it’s OK to play to a draw,” he said. “Our technology must be better. We can achieve that in key areas and we will.”
Regarding the political shake-up, President Putin has not explained why he hastily moved to amend the constitution now, four years before the end of his term. The move drew suggestions it could herald a plan to call an early parliamentary or presidential election.
The amendments give parliament the right to appoint cabinet members, but they are focused primarily on preserving and even strengthening the powers of the presidency. The Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament, the State Duma, rubber-stamped the amendments by a unanimous vote in the first of three required readings.
“A similar move was made by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev before he stepped down last year after nearly three decades in power in the former Soviet country,” Reuters explained.
“Before leaving office, the 79-year-old Kazakh president boosted the powers of his Security Council and made himself its chairman for life, allowing him to retain a central role in the country’s leadership after stepping down.
“Bestowed by parliament with the official title of ‘The Leader of the Nation,’ Nazarbayev also retains his role as the leader of the ruling party.
“A role in a super-charged parliament could be an appealing option for Putin. Some analysts have said he could consider becoming the speaker of the reformed legislative body, a role that would also allow him to perpetuate his influence.”
Mr. Putin’s exact motives are characteristically hazy. The 67-year-old former KGB officer, who has led Russia for more than 20 years—the longest since Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—likes to keep his plans secret until the last moment.
Not much has changed since 1939, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” as war with Germany was breaking out.
From the top down, Russians want to be and have the best.
“We always aimed to be number one in the world, and Putin understands that,” Ruslan Parshutin, 35, said to NPR. He said the return of Russia to the world stage is “important to us because we remember our roots from Soviet times. Patriotism is in our blood.”
Not all feel this way. Most 18-to-24-year-old Russians want to leave the country permanently.
Yet for “Russians like [Mr. Parshutin] who lived through the poverty, crime and chaos of the 1990s, Putin represents a return not just to stability but to national greatness. Even after two decades in power, Putin consistently enjoys approval ratings around 70%.”
When looking at its roots, the general populace wants to see the country move in the direction the president is leading: prosperity, global influence and greatness.
A clue to understanding Russia is knowing how it views its own history.
A Conversation article called “Why Russia Thinks It’s Exceptional” stated: “America is not alone in projecting itself as an exceptional power and indispensable force for good in the world. Russia makes the same claim.”
Centuries of fending off large-scale invasions—each devastating to the population, land and economy—contributes to this sense of exceptionalism.
It began in the 13th century when the Mongols first under Genghis Khan swept across Asia. “God’s scourge,” as he called his hordes, advanced until being stopped by Russians, who now claim they had “shed their blood to protect the rest of Europe from this dire threat” (ibid.).
A loose pattern of invasion continued practically every 100 years. The Crimean Tartars destroyed Moscow in the 16th century. In the 17th century, Poles deposed the czar and murdered the head of the Russian Church. In the 18th century, Swedes invaded but were defeated by Peter the Great.
The defeat of Napoleon’s army cemented the idea that Russia was destined for greatness.
“After the Napoleonic Wars, a volcano of patriotism erupted across Russian society,” The Conversation continued. “At its center was the widely shared belief that Russia had saved Europe. Moreover, no other country on its own had repelled an invasion by Napoleon or crushed his army, which had once seemed invincible. Commonly disparaged by Western Europeans as savages or barbarians, Russians could now turn their reputation on its head.”
This fervor was enhanced by a costly victory against Nazi Germany in 1945. Even today, May 9—Victory Day commemorating the end of the war for the Soviet Union—is considered Russia’s most important holiday of the year.
American involvement in post-war Europe further solidified a Soviet sense of superiority.
Foreign Policy explained: “Stalin, whose country was struggling to recover from Nazi devastation, fell back on defense. His aim now would be to hold the new security zone in Eastern Europe and to prevent the United States from controlling Russia’s mortal enemy: Germany.”
In 1947, the United States announced its Marshall Plan, which provided aid to reconstruct war-torn Europe. The initiative was mostly intended to secure democratic interests in Europe.
“Stalin denounced the plan as a vicious American plot to buy political and military domination of Europe,” Foreign Policy continued. “He feared losing control not just of Germany but of Eastern Europe, too. Prior to the launch of the Marshall Plan, Stalin had never been dogmatic about the forms of socialism pursued by countries within the Soviet sphere. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were all allowed to form coalition governments of one sort or another. His demand had merely been fealty to Moscow on foreign policy. That would soon change. By the end of 1948, Stalin had fully co-opted or crushed the remaining non-Communist elements in the governments of Eastern Europe.”
Boiled down, warfare has shaped how Russians—from government to citizens—see themselves. Viewing history from their perspective helps uncover the motives for their actions:
The nation feels it has never acted as an aggressor, only a defender of itself and disenfranchised nations. Even its campaigns of conquest (including the annexation of Crimea) are usually performed under the guise of “protecting Russians” or eliminating potential threats before they advance.
Russia has historical reason to be suspicious of the West and maintain an arms race with it.
For Moscow, coalitions are not to be trusted. Historically, Russia stood alone against allied armies: Napoleon’s forces included Poles, Italians and Germans, while Hitler had Hungary, Romania and Finland on its side. Today, NATO is viewed with caution.
In fact, a popular refrain in state-sponsored advertisements today is Czar Alexander III’s joke, “How many allies does Russia have? Two: its Army and its Navy.”
Russia favors centralized power and political opposition is often viewed as an existential threat. According to this thinking, the state’s survival is only possible when citizens abdicate personal freedoms.
“Nothing but war teaches Russians better that, while at the center of world-shaking events, they are on the side of the good and always come out on top,” The Conversation summed up. “Nothing raises the ideological scaffolding higher than seeking to make Russia great again following the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
In a sense, Russia sees itself as a kind of sacrificial lamb, having shed its own blood to save Europe—and the world—from seemingly impossible-to-defeat foes.
While there are marked differences between the U.S. and Russia, their similarities are what cause the most friction. Think. They both have a desire to fix the world—yet with completely incompatible methods. In the 20th century, this clash threatened to heat up Cold War into World War III. In its worst-case scenario, this would have been a war in which the world’s greatest military powers threw in all their resources in a desperate bid to “save the world” (a move that would have inevitably destroyed it).
The same tensions are simmering in the 21st century. Should we be concerned it could happen?
No historian, philosopher or pundit can answer this for certain. Yet Bible prophecy can. In order to see what the future has in store, we must first peer further back into history.
The modern-day nation of Georgia, which borders Russia’s North Ossetia region, claims ties to the Meskhetians—who also historically lived between the Black and Caspian seas. This people has been variously called Meskhi or Moschi throughout history.
What does this have to do with Scripture?
In the Bible, nations—which are merely families grown large—are often named after their ancestors. Notice Genesis 10: “The sons of Japheth [one of Noah’s three sons]: Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras” (vs. 2).
The Meskhetians or Meskhi claim ties to Meshech in the Bible. Also, note that Madai gave rise to the Medes. Interestingly, Tubal (sometimes spelled Tabal) and Meshech (Moschi) are phonetically similar to the modern-day Russian cities of Tobolsk and Moscow.
Put together: When Meshech or the Medes are mentioned in Bible prophecy—events that have not yet occurred—you should think Russia!
A number of Old Testament prophecies point to the modern Medes being used for important purposes. Ezekiel 38-39 shows that Russia and its allies will amass a gigantic military force to play a key part in God’s Plan for mankind.
Yet Russia is not the only nation mentioned in the Bible. America, Britain, Germany and many other peoples have crucial roles to play in the very near future.
Here is a main reason God has for all of this: So the nations “shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel” (Ezek. 39:7). God plans out events so He can prove to human beings that He is in control. Also, He does not respect persons (Rom. 2:11) and has no pleasure in death (Ezek. 18:32). He wants all to come to see Him as Creator and to repent of their own ways and sense of superiority (II Pet. 3:9).
When all peoples come to recognize this—Russians, Americans and everyone else alike—all will be able to enjoy the good things God promises under His world-ruling government.
To learn more about this soon-coming, benevolent leadership structure headed by God Himself, read What Is the Kingdom of God?