There is much more to Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and continuing pressure on Ukraine than meets the eye.

The Russian leader has drawn open the curtain on a new era of global competition among a handful of nations that presume to act as heaven's surrogates on Earth.

America's sense of its own exceptionalism — its "City Upon a Hill" complex — is disdained even by some Americans, who think it leads the nation into trouble. But America isn't the only society with a mystical sense of mission. In fact, the rest of the 21st century may be the story of America's confrontation with three rival powers that directly challenge our claim to moral superiority.

One such nation is Russia, which has a long tradition of believing in its destiny as the "Third Rome." The second is China, which for 2,500 years has positioned itself as the Middle Kingdom directly under heaven. The third is Iran, whose ayatollahs believe they possess the most truthful understanding of God's holy order for humanity.

When Putin spoke to his national assembly March 18 explaining why Russia was justified in absorbing Crimea, he didn't hesitate to cite the deepest roots of Russia's identity: "Everything in Crimea," he said, "speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus."

In 988, Prince Vladimir of the Kievan Rus had converted to Orthodox Christianity and had married a sister of the Byzantine emperor, linking a Slavic royal family to the lineage of Constantine the Great and protection of orthodox faith. This was the beginning of the Russian myth of a Third Rome.

In seizing Crimea, Putin is not proposing to play a parlor game but a game of thrones — a grand contest against the backdrop of human civilization. He has affirmed Russia's historic destiny as the Third Rome to redeem humanity.

Russia's background

In the mystical vision of medieval Slavic leaders, the first Rome had been lost to true Christianity when it was captured by the Roman papacy. Protection of original Christian beliefs and practices — what we now call Eastern Orthodoxy — was then left to the patriarchs in the eastern Mediterranean, especially to the patriarch in Constantinople in his magnificent basilica of Hagia Sophia.

Then, when Constantinople's freedom was threatened with conquest by the Ottomans, Slavic Christians claimed to see a larger meaning in the conversion of Slavs to Orthodox Christianity. What they saw was a new way to salvation — the appointment of a chosen people to save the Christian gospel.

The monk Foma of Tver in 1453 wrote The Eulogy of the Pious Grand Prince Boris Alexandrovich to give substance to the Third Rome myth. The idea of Muscovy as heir to Rome crystallized with a panegyric letter composed by the Russian monk Philotheus (Filofey) of Pskov in 1510 to Moscow's Grand Duke Vasili III, which proclaimed, "Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!"

Vasili III's father had married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, so Vasili III was in the lineage of those who were divinely ordained to protect the Orthodox faith.

Muscovy became, therefore, a close political partnership between an autocratic ruler and a spiritually transcendent priesthood in a Christian theocracy. Moscow with its tsar and its Metropolitan then grew in power and pride as humanity's redemptive force.

The novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy speak eloquently to the supreme purity and importance of Russian spirituality, which gave meaning to an otherwise bleak and foreboding Russian culture of secular oppression.

One reason the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra, did not seek secular reforms to preserve their dynasty was their mystical belief in their sanctity and their importance to God, who would accordingly save them from revolution. The monk Rasputin notoriously came to dominate the tsaritsa with such arguments.

Putin's faith in the exceptionalism of his Russian people has been and is widely shared. His stratospheric approval ratings in current polls reveal his alignment with popular beliefs and aspirations.

Many Russians were enamored of the Soviet Union not out of belief in communism but rather because they perceived it to be a new form of evangelization for the Third Rome to undertake on behalf of humanity. Putin was most likely one of these believers. For him, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not a tragedy because of the death of communism. It was a tragedy because it was a setback for the Third Rome.

Eastern Orthodoxy exists to bring us into the presence of God. We are to become transfixed before the icons, losing our sense of sinful personal autonomy, in order to "see the face of God." As with Dostoevsky's Father Tikhon, the Third Rome is to teach us to live not in this world in our years between birth and death, but to dedicate ourselves to another intangible realm.

Russian autocracy has the duty to protect this truth, which cannot coexist with the moral relativity of excessive individualism. But moral relativism (postmodernism and deconstructionism) is the current culture of European and American political elites. This is what Putin believes. And so he opposes permissive Western mores such as gay rights.

And he proposes to defend Slavs against expansion of the morally debased European Union and to guard other regimes like Iran and Bashar Assad's Syria against meddlesome Americans.

Putin's view of thoroughgoing moral relativism in the West is not completely true, as several recent popes have spoken out strongly against contemporary consumerism and permissiveness, while fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in the United States assert a different Christian truth in opposition to relativism in culture and morals.

But as an emerging Russian autocrat and in mimicry of his tsarist predecessors, Putin has restored prestige to the Orthodox Church. He has restored the quintessential Russian ethnic bond between state and liturgy. And now, secure at home, he has thrown a gauntlet down, challenging the West to a new clash of civilizations.

His allies in the coming struggle will be China and Iran.

A mission means submission

China shares a similar conceit of ethnic exceptionalism that its current leaders have dusted off and proudly proclaim once again. Xi Jinping speaks of the "great China Dream." His predecessor, Hu Jintao, spoke admiringly of China as again the Middle Kingdom, right under heaven with a mandate to "rectify names" for all people.

The Chinese mythos is a kind of theocracy that suppresses individualism under its own truth. Under old imperial norms, the method of indoctrination was filial piety. Today it is obedience to the Communist Party.

Putin's other ally is Iran, also a theocracy, and also a nation that believes it has a mission from on high to save the world from sin and degradation. In Iran's case, the moral enemy is the "Great Satan" of the United States.

Seeking the face of God, the discipline of filial piety, and rectification of self according to the will of Allah, each in its own way confronts the freedom of the individual with a demand for submission in the name of divine higher authority. Russia's Putin, China's Xi Jinping and the ayatollahs of Iran believe in closed, autocratic societies where leaders know best what the people need.

Expansive thoughts

History has never shown that nations caught up in their own self-righteousness are humble and friendly. Napoleon waged many wars to redeem Europe from its anachronistic feudalism and aristocratic oppressions, to enlighten it in line with Rousseau's mantra of liberty and equality. Hitler's vision of the Aryan master race brought on a horror. Japanese militarists in the 1920s and 1930s saw the Japanese elevated above other peoples as descendants of divine Kami. (It was the Japanese mission, they thought, to redeem Asia from white colonialism.) A conviction of historical superiority gave to Communists like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot the passion to impose their wills through bloodshed.

The world is in for a difficult long haul. With the rise of China and a newly re-energized Third Rome in Moscow, a new great game is on — maybe not a new Cold War, but a renewed long, twilight struggle against those who would suppress open societies.

At stake is the future of a human civilization that values freedom and human dignity.

Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.