A woman walks in front of Christ-the-Savior cathedral in Moscow on June 2, 2020, amid the outbreak of COVID-19. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
From a U.S. perspective, the separation of religion from state is sacrosanct. The drafters of the Constitutional Convention believed that the state should have “no power to influence its citizens toward or away from any religion.” The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights enshrines this protection from state interference and specifically protects an individual’s right to freely worship.
But what if a foreign power were to actively seek to influence religious and traditional views to further its own agenda?
This is a new and particularly pernicious front of Russia’s malign influence campaigns. Combatting it will be a uniquely difficult challenge for the United States and its European allies, which already have very different religious traditions and relationships to historical and cultural identity. How can these governments protect citizens’ religious beliefs, traditions, and values from malign influence while at the same time not encroaching upon religious freedom?
Until that question is answered, Russia will continue to use traditional and conservative values to foster division within Western societies. A genuine expression of political and cultural preferences, conservatism is a “political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” Russia is using tactics designed to strategically exploit or heighten elements of this set of beliefs in order to further its political goals in key states.
What Is Strategic Conservatism?
There is an important difference between conservatism, which contains political, cultural, religious, and identity elements, and Russia’s use of strategic conservatism.
Strategic conservatism reflects the idea that political and cultural preferences can be used as tools of influence. It encompasses a specific set of means used by the Kremlin (and, at times, the Russian Orthodox Church and other outlets) to achieve a range of Russian domestic and foreign policy objectives.
This concept inflates the value of customs and tradition by prioritizing unquestioned respect for hierarchy (of the regime or religious supremacy) and collective interests over the interests of the individual. Strategic conservatism is frequently defined in opposition to Western democratic ideals of pluralism and liberalism, in defense of Russian actions, and in support of the Putin regime’s longevity.
But Russia’s view of conservatism is very different from how the West perceives the Kremlin’s instrumentalization of strategic conservatism.
The rapid and destabilizing change in Russia in the 1990s compelled the Kremlin to reconstruct a great power narrative for Russia, built upon its historical traditions through the creation of a “moral framework.” This framework protects these traditions and orders the domestic and international landscape according to certain values, such as the “God-given value of diversity among nations” and the need for a “multipolar world order based on pluriculturalism,” in the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The Orthodox faith is the moral arbiter of this framework. In the eyes of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), any effort to promote or give parity to other religions or values is seen as detrimental to, and ultimately destructive of, Russia’s unique moral and cultural civilization. Any change must be carefully managed so as not to disrupt political status or cultural identities within this framework.
From a Western point of view, this “pluriculturalism” is a way for the Russian regime to maintain internal control and prevent the international community from imposing universal values on Russia (or promoting them from within). The regime believes these universal values produce “color revolutions” that threaten its stability by subverting its legitimacy and disrupting its domestic and cultural order. From this angle, the Kremlin’s need for internal control reinforces its incentives to set forth its own brand of conservatism as an opposition to Western ideals of democratic governance.
Russia’s implementation of strategic conservatism has several leading actors. These actors either take their cues from the Kremlin, act on their own interests, or a combination of the two. Putin is a leading proponent of strategic conservatism, along with the ROC, which relies on a network of affiliated and friendly non-governmental organizations. The Kremlin is also assisted by a group of “Orthodox entrepreneurs” (e.g., Orthodox oligarchs) and intellectuals who support either Putin or the ROC’s efforts—principally Konstantin Malofeev, Vladimir Yakunin, and Aleksandr Dugin.
These actors work along parallel tracks to accomplish a set of goals that serve the Kremlin’s interests. Some of these goals are broad and strategic, while others are more focused on some actors’ narrower interests.
Through strategic conservatism, the Kremlin aims to advance the following goals:
- Reduce pro-Western sentiment in targeted countries;
- Increase support for Russia’s policy actions (domestically and abroad) and legitimize the Kremlin’s narratives;
- Undermine support for EU membership among member states and reduce support for EU and NATO membership within aspirant countries;
- Keep countries in the post-Soviet space within Russia’s sphere of influence;
- Undermine internal cohesion, sovereignty, and potentially territorial integrity in a way that supports the Kremlin’s interests (e.g., Bosnia);
- Displace or weaken the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (who is seen as hindering a consolidated Orthodox world under Russian leadership); and
- Lift sanctions (a collateral and longer-term gain) and nudge Western governments toward accommodating Russia’s policy interests.
The actors of strategic conservatism pursue some of these goals in parallel or in collaboration, and through certain channels both at home and abroad.
Russia’s Strategic Conservatism in Practice
Russia’s strategic conservatism operates internationally through two main, multidirectional channels to gain influence and reap political benefits.
The first channel is the Orthodox world, and in particular the construction of a united Orthodox world under Moscow’s protection. This is the religious expression of what is known as the Third Rome narrative. In the Moscow Patriarchate’s view, the fifteenth century conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire displaced the center of Orthodox Christianity to Moscow, making it the “Third Rome.” This is both a theological and political concept, which serves the Kremlin’s interests to be seen as the center of pan-Slavic power and authentic inheritor of these empires.
Strategic conservatism elevates Russia as the defender of the faithful and closely associates the church with Vladimir Putin, just as the spiritual leadership of Russian czars was associated with the church. By doing so, strategic conservatism creates distrust of other faiths and secular authorities that are perceived as challenging Russia’s authentic leadership and protection of the faithful.
The second channel is a broader ecosystem of traditional values that constitute the politico-cultural implementation of the Third Rome concept. Through media, NGOs, political parties, Russian officials, and norms entrepreneurs, the Kremlin effectively challenges the tenets of Western liberalism. These channels spread the argument that liberalism threatens religious beliefs, which in turn threatens the national identity that is so closely tied to these beliefs.
This is the narrative of “Western decadence” and the West’s loss of identity as it abandons religiosity and tradition, making association with Europe and the United States a threat to believers and conservatives everywhere. This is how strategic conservatism seeks to break societal consensus around the liberal democratic order, by reducing its attraction and building support for Russia’s policy preferences within specific constituencies.
As a malign influence force multiplier, strategic conservatism builds on and uses Russia’s existing propaganda and disinformation networks, including news outlets funded or supported by Russia. It employs cyber and hacking tools to undercut other actors or narratives or to provide plausible deniability to the Kremlin. And it can create connections to constituencies or affinity groups that would otherwise not be receptive to Russian posturing (either for historical reasons or more recent geopolitical developments, as in Georgia).
Russia Versus the “Decadent West”
The economic upheavals, migration pressures, and speed of social change over the past decade in the West have spurred intense debate over specific—and competing—visions of society. Russia has benefitted from this societal division, particularly related to debates around cultural and traditional values and religious beliefs. It has focused primarily on three areas where societal tensions appear highest.
First, the defense of the “traditional” family (marriage between a man and a woman, typically within a patriarchal system) in opposition to Western support for same-sex marriage and “non-traditional” families.
This debate serves Russia by exacerbating divisions between religious communities (Orthodox followers as well as Catholic and Muslim communities) and those who support same-sex marriage. In 2013, the Russian government demonstrated its leadership on this issue by passing a federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” and has recently branded Russian citizens who defend LGBTQ+ rights as Western “foreign agents.”
Second is the protection of a unique cultural and historical national identity against Western policies related to demographic diversity.
Here traditionalism and identity are fused together such that disrupting one threatens the other. Any demographic change (particularly immigration from Muslim-majority and non-White countries, exacerbated in the public perception by low birth rates) is viewed as a direct challenge to identity and tradition.
Therefore, Western governments’ perceived support of “multiculturalism,” welcoming of migrants, and celebration of diversity (such as LGBTQ+ parades) create fissures that the Kremlin exploits. It does so by stoking “demographic panic” through social media amplification that highlights the perceived dangers and threats of all these elements to national identity.
The third narrative is that Russia, as the sole defender of traditional values, is a “savior” that wants to protect the West from itself, by preventing its decadence and ruin. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is a key partner in spreading this message. Its claim to represent “authentic” Orthodoxy is closely tied to the defense of believers from Western decadence and its aim to take over the leadership of global Orthodoxy. It increasingly speaks to conservative believers in Europe, including Catholics.
Here, the Kremlin has flipped the script: in 1991, the West “saved” Russia from Communism; now Russia believes it is “saving” the West from its own decadence by promoting strategic conservatism. However, this Russian “rescue mission” demands obedience to the collective rather than respect for individual rights and religious freedoms.
“Europe is dying. The West, in [U.S. president] Reagan[’s] time . . . helped for this communism smoke to get out from Russia. Now it’s our turn. We have to pray [for] the liberal smoke to get out from Europe and America.”
– Konstantin Malofeev
These narratives are primarily pushed by the Kremlin and affiliated actors. However, in many countries, there is bottom-up demand for these ideas and Russia’s values leadership.
Local Enablers of Russian Strategic Conservatism
Russia uses these narratives to identify and appeal to local actors and cultivate outreach to them. With little investment, the Kremlin has targeted specific messaging or deepened divisions on both sides of the debate.
Some cultural organizations that gravitate around political circles are sympathetic to Russia’s “civilizational mission” to save Christianity and the vision of Russia as the “last white world.” Some among French political and cultural circles have supported Russia’s intervention in Syria because it supposedly protected Eastern Christians against “Islamization.” Some representatives even traveled to Syria in 2015 and 2016.
Representatives of business interests, some of whom are connected to conservative or traditionalist circles, share some ideological affinities with the Kremlin, have financial interests in Russia, or are tied to Russian business interests in their countries. Some business actors operate directly in politics, while others fund religious and traditional communities. This is the case, for example, of Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek dual citizen who has invested in church construction and pilgrimage tourism in Greece and on Mount Athos.
European and U.S. political parties and politicians have also praised Russia’s model on LGBTQ+ issues, nationalism and sovereignty, and family values through its legislation and messaging. Others extoll Russian leadership and defense of traditional values—in opposition to the European Union and the NATO alliance—and its protection against certain religious and ethnic groups.
Although there are limits to developing localized networks, and local issues may be too narrowly defined to support broader Russian interests, there have been benefits to cultivating local affinity networks that can be used at the right time.
The Limits of Strategic Conservatism
Russia’s deployment of strategic conservatism has created sympathetic networks across Europe and the United States. However, its achievements sometimes remain aspirational, and its strategies and tools are at times contradictory and show certain limitations.
First, while at home, the Kremlin appeals simultaneously to imperial and Soviet nostalgia to reinforce national identity and historical continuity, these eras are sharply at odds with each other and entailed markedly different treatments of the Orthodox Church. Abroad, appeals to traditional values or national identity have at times become so aggressive that local actors or the Kremlin’s partners are brought to the attention of national authorities, which diminishes their broader appeal or impedes their activities.
Second, the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) are not always in alignment. There are ongoing tensions between these two entities, and even within the ROC itself. Some of these conflicts became very visible during the Covid-19 pandemic when some within the ROC, in the name of religious freedom, refused to accept state-imposed restrictions to protect public health. And, despite the Kremlin’s efforts, Orthodoxy remains a largely cultural label for many in Russia, which could explain the ROC’s international push for followers abroad.
Finally, the Kremlin fundamentally does not engineer cultural wars. It exploits existing cracks in societies by identifying natural ideological connections within certain countries and using local actors. Some of these actors do genuinely connect on an intellectual or values level and do not hide this affinity, while others try to hide these ties.
Keeping the Faith
Resentment and grievances unleashed by rapid societal change have brought together disparate political forces that find safe harbor in traditionalism and decrying the “decadent West.” Across a broad ideological spectrum, Russia positions itself as a defender of the traditional order and conservative values—the political and cultural embodiment of the Third Rome.
The Kremlin amplifies this message through U.S. and European conservative networks and norms entrepreneurs and relays them through a media ecosystem that overlaps with right-wing and populist circles. On occasion, these messages can radicalize individuals. For example, in Ukraine, Orthodox foreign fighters reportedly joined the conflict in eastern Ukraine from abroad in support of Russian-backed separatists they viewed as engaged in a righteous endeavor.
Recognizing Russia’s use of strategic conservatism and identifying its tools and sources of funding is a fundamental part of understanding Russia’s malign influence. To prevent Russia from fueling societal and cultural divisions in the West, the United States must recognize that Russia ultimately seeks to undermine the democratic tenet of respect for the rights and religious freedoms of the individual. Only then will it be possible to protect the spirit of the First Amendment and “keep the faith.”
About the Authors
Heather A. Conley
Former Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program | CSIS
Heather A. Conley was senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS as a senior fellow and director for Europe in 2009, Conley served four years as executive director of the Office of the Chairman of the Board at the American National Red Cross. From 2001 to 2005, she was deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs with responsibilities for U.S. bilateral relations with the countries of Northern and Central Europe. From 1994 to 2001, she was a senior associate with an international consulting firm led by former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage. Ms. Conley began her career in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. She was selected to serve as special assistant to the coordinator of U.S. assistance to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, and she has received two State Department Meritorious Honor Awards. Ms. Conley is frequently featured as a foreign policy analyst and Europe expert on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, NPR, and PBS, among other prominent media outlets. She received her B.A. in international studies from West Virginia Wesleyan College and her M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Associate Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program | CSIS
Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program, where she oversees the program’s research portfolios on political developments in the European Union (including EU policy and Brexit), Russian influence in Europe, and Southern Europe and Mediterranean issues. She supports the program’s grant-writing and fundraising efforts for those portfolios and manages the Europe Program’s European Election Watch platform. She has co-authored such reports as The Kremlin Playbook 2, Restoring the Eastern Mediterranean as a U.S. Strategic Anchor, and Crossing Borders: How the Migration Crisis Transformed Europe’s External Policy. Ms. Ruy previously worked at the World Bank on disaster risk financing and insurance, drafting situation reports on natural disaster preparedness in francophone African countries. Ms. Ruy received her B.A. in political science from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and her M.A. in global affairs from the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.
Special thanks to:
- Sarah Grace, Senior Producer and Multimedia Content Lead, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Dejana Saric, Research Assistant, CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
- Andrew Lohsen, Fellow, CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
- Marlene Laruelle, Elizabeth Prodromou, Tengiz Pkhaladze, and Majda Ruge
- William Taylor, Designer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Cera Baker, Production Intern, CSIS iDeas Lab
A product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.