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Putin's New Strategy: Laying Claim to Traditional Values -- WSJ

Wsj · 12/17/2022 00:01

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer popularly known as "the merchant of death," warned about the mortal peril facing humanity in his first TV appearance after returning home from an American prison.

"What is happening in the West is a suicide of civilization," said Mr. Bout, who was traded this month for detained American basketball star Brittney Griner. "Can you imagine, in American schools they teach first-graders that there are 72 genders! Not just gays and normal people, but 72!"

The message coming from Mr. Bout, who is now a hero in Moscow, and from the Kremlin itself is that only Russia can rescue the world from moral degeneration and decay. That idea, long a key element of the Kremlin's propaganda, has now been legislated as the Russian state's official ideology, with the targeting of gay people as one of its most sharply defined features.

A decree issued by President Vladimir Putin in November proclaimed Russia's mission as the bastion of "traditional values" and a savior of mankind. These values, it said, must be defended as a national-security imperative by Russia's security services. Among other measures, that means cracking down on "nontraditional sexual relations" and promoting patriotic, religious families with multiple children, under the guidance of the Orthodox Church.

This new role for Russia, Mr. Putin's decree added, has been made necessary by "the global crisis of civilization and values that leads to humankind losing traditional spiritual and ethical waypoints and moral principles."

The Kremlin is searching for an ideological justification as it tries to garner some international sympathy for its war against Ukraine. The invasion that Mr. Putin launched in February is going badly, with Kyiv regaining more than half of the territories that Russia seized in the first weeks of the campaign, even as Moscow keeps pounding civilian infrastructure and wrecking residential neighborhoods.

Ukraine retook the city of Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital captured by Russia this year, just a day after Mr. Putin issued his traditional-values decree. On the world stage, Moscow faces international isolation, with only Belarus and Iran providing it with material help, while the U.S. and NATO allies spend tens of billions of dollars on arms and economic assistance to Kyiv.

By inserting Russia into the ideological cleavages of the U.S. and other Western societies, Mr. Putin seeks to weaken this Western resolve and undermine Western unity, said Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution who served as White House senior director for European and Russian affairs in 2017-2019. "What he wants to do is to stoke culture wars as much as possible," she said.

The Soviet Union, whose demise Mr. Putin has repeatedly lamented as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, invoked the Marxist-Leninist language of class struggle and social equality to justify its imperial designs. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, when Kremlin elites no longer believed communist ideology, those ideas were still taken at face value by millions around the world, in the West and even more so in the West's former colonies. Mr. Putin's challenge is to find a new ideology for Russia's imperial aims.

"Putin and his entourage have Soviet brains, and so they try to rule Russia as if it were the Soviet Union," said Igor Kochetkov, a Russian historian and human-rights activist who formerly headed the Russian LGBT Network group. "If before the dividing line was between socialism and capitalism, now it's between the traditional values and what they call 'destructive' values." The difference between the eras isn't as wide as it may appear. While the Western left has been socially progressive since at least the 1960s, the Soviet Union of Mr. Putin's youth was a deeply conservative place that locked up gay men in prison camps or psychiatric hospitals.

At times, Mr. Putin has been remarkably frank about his imperial ambitions. Earlier this year, for example, he compared himself to the 18th-century czar Peter the Great, saying that his mission, too, is to accumulate territory.

Yet, when the Russian president announced the annexation of four Ukrainian regions in a September speech, he framed that land grab as a move forced on Russia by the need to defend its society against dangers posed by Western immorality.

"Do we want that here, in our country, in Russia, there would be parent number one and parent number two and maybe parent number three instead of mama and papa? Do we want that our children be forced since elementary school to embrace perversions that will lead to degradation and dying out? That they be taught that there are genders other than man and woman, and be proposed to change their gender?" he thundered.

Only the fight against such Western depravity, Mr. Putin added, could allow Russia to rekindle relations with the "genuine, traditional West" as well as the rest of the world that, he said, already shares these traditional values with Russia.

That message, while much more vocal today, isn't entirely new. For more than a decade before the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin sought to build bridges to far-right movements in Europe and to parts of the Republican Party in the U.S., while maintaining the sympathies of the global far left, which still sees Mr. Putin's regime as the successor of the Soviet struggle against American world domination.

"Putin has long been trying to become the leader of the conservative world, aware that the majority of the world's population doesn't approve of the LGBT agenda and actually lives in traditional societies," said Nikolay Mitrokhin, a specialist on Russian nationalism at the University of Bremen in Germany. "He tried to replace the old communist sympathies with these conservative sympathies, and he was quite successful with this, at least until the war with Ukraine began."

While the Kremlin has been openly courting European and American neo-Nazis, it has also painted the Ukrainian government, which is headed by a freely elected Jewish president, as a Nazi cabal -- a view parroted by many on the European and American far left. "The Russians have been very canny. It doesn't matter that they are putting out completely contradictory messages to different people," said Ian Garner, a historian specializing in Russian propaganda at Queen's University in Canada. "Russia taps into both angles because they're shameless and because nothing about their ideology really makes any sense or stands up to any philosophical scrutiny."

Mr. Putin's new stress on social conservatism has already paid dividends in the U.S., where a small but outspoken minority of the Republican Party bases its opposition to aiding Ukraine, in part, on cultural objections. One of these critics, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Az.), has explained his votes by saying that Kyiv "promotes far-left ideology," even though Ukraine is a relatively conservative country where same-sex marriage doesn't exist and church attendance remains one of the highest in Europe.

Russia's record of brutality and weakness during the war in Ukraine, however, has considerably diminished Mr. Putin's appeal to many parts of the conservative and populist right. Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Republicans were consistently more likely than Democrats to describe Mr. Putin as a friend or ally, with 37 percent holding that view in December that year, according to polling by YouGov. But that gap disappeared amid widespread outrage following Russia's invasion last February. The same shift occurred in Europe, where the invasion has had a more direct impact than in the U.S., triggering the influx of millions of refugees and an energy crisis.

"If you looked at statements from far-right leaders across Europe, they always said that we need a strong leader like Putin who defends our values, our civilization against the decadence of the West. It did work before the war," said Benjamin Haddad, a French parliament member from President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party. "But now, it's more complicated to publicly make a case for Russia."

Italy provides the most significant example of the break between European populists and the Kremlin. Newly elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party traces its origins to the neo-fascist movement, successfully campaigned on an appeal to traditional values in September's elections. However, instead of aligning with Russia, her government -- which includes politicians like Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister who once walked on Moscow's Red Square in a T-shirt emblazoned with Mr. Putin's portrait -- has moved to increase support for Ukraine.

"We have to distinguish Putin from the Russian people. The war on Ukraine shows that the traditional values belong to the Russian people, but not to Putin," said Ylenja Lucaselli, a parliament member from Ms. Meloni's party. "Those who try to limit the freedom of others and other peoples, especially through an invasion, certainly don't have any connection to traditional values, which include the respect for others and the respect for the liberty of others."

The Italian experience highlights Mr. Putin's challenge in positioning Russia as the leader of the global traditional-values camp: Many political forces espousing similar views are also deeply nationalist, and they put their own countries' interests first.

For Ms. Meloni, maintaining Italy's alliance with the U.S. and a constructive relationship with European Union partners is much more important than signaling any ideological affinity with the Kremlin, said Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey in England. "I have always been very skeptical of taking these culture wars too seriously. They are the icing on the cake," he said.

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December 17, 2022 00:01 ET (05:01 GMT)

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