The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Putin is weaponizing ‘traditional values’ to defend Russian aggression in Ukraine

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In the dark recesses of Gab.com, a social-media site popular with the far right in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin is glorified as a conservative lion.

Users post under names such as “Rutin 4 Putin” and “Call of Putin: Slavic Warfare.” One of them who identifies himself as “an unvaccinated, pure blooded, non-complying, God fearing, gun owning, and liberty defending patriotic man” who believes in “2 genders and only one God” wrote that “there is more truth coming from Putin than from all of the leaders of western world countries combined.”

That rightist strain of support is built on one of the Russian leader’s lesser-known war tactics: His casting of a Christian catchall — “traditional values” — as a weapon. To defend Russian aggression in Ukraine, he has lobbed disproved claims of U.S.-funded bioweapons labs and a neo-Nazi takeover of the government in Kyiv (both of which have found homes on gab.com as well). But even as Russian bombs kill scores of civilians, Putin has also sought to portray his war as righteous — describing Ukraine as a microcosm of the greater global tug of war between liberal and conservative thought.

His parlance speaks to the rise of Putin as a global touchstone of the far right. Building for years, his crafted image as a right-wing Christian leader is finding its most potent outlet in the horrific war in Ukraine. For the Christian right in the United States and Europe, Putin’s messaging is not so much a dog whistle as a blaring siren. The U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson has said that the Russian leader was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spoke this month at a White nationalist event where the crowd was earlier heard chanting “Putin! Putin! Putin!”

Even if not embracing Putin the man, others seem to share a certain synergy with his causes. In Republican-dominated Florida, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed this month carries overtones of Russia’s 2013 law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors.

In the world view he espouses, Ukraine’s push to link up with NATO and the European Union is not just a military threat but also a moral one. His war is a holy mission, one meant to stop a brother nation from moving too close to the vice-ridden, atheistic, LBGT-supporting, gender-rights loving West that wants to corrupt Orthodox, conservative Christian mores.

“They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature,” Putin said in his prelude to war on Feb. 24. “This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.”

Within Russia, now swirling with the Orwellian propaganda of state media and a law that criminalizes even calling the invasion a “war,” the Kremlin is partly harking back to Soviet portrayals of the decadent West and the dangers of its sinful prescripts. Russian parents, Al Jazeera reported, have recently received letters from schools warning them to watch their children’s use of social media — not only to ensure that they are not lured to “unsafe” antiwar protests, but to also make sure they are not exposed to “detailed instructions on gender reassignment, and promotion of same-sex relationships.”

In Moscow, Putin appears to have coordinated the public selling of the war with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill, according to Religion News Service (RNS), spoke to Russian military leaders just hours before the assault on Ukraine began, and hailed Putin for his “high and responsible service to the people of Russia.”

“This religious ramp-up to war was the culmination of a decade-long effort to wrap Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in faith — specifically, the flowing vestments of the Russian Orthodox Church,” the RNS’s Jack Jenkins wrote. “Fusing religion, nationalism, a defense of conservative values that likens same-sex marriage to Nazism, and a version of history that seeks to define Ukraine and other nearby nations as mere subsets of a greater “Russkiy mir,” or Russian world, the partnership of Putin and Kirill laid the ideological and theological groundwork for the invasion.”

Putin’s gradual move to cloak himself in religion and traditional values goes back to at least the mid-2000s, said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

“After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, he tried to present himself as the alternative to the liberal and progress West, with Russia as the fortress for supposedly traditional family values,” Lutsevych said. “He was fascinated by Orthodox veneration, and he wanted to create his own system of veneration built on his personality and his preaching of conservative values.”

In Ukraine, she added, Putin’s pull didn’t work. “Compared to Russia, Ukraine is super liberal,” she said. “There is a certain mobilization of the right. But over the last 15 years, it has established quite pluralistic rights for minorities, who are protected by law.”

Still, like many of his ilk, Putin’s message can be what the Atlantic Council’s Lukas Andriukaitis described to me as “schizophrenic.” He alternately rails against progressive thought, while leaving pragmatic room for Russian elites who embrace the decadent Wst to still be accepted — as long as they remain unquestionably loyal.

In his recent tirade against the Russian “scum” and “traitors” who do not support his war, Putin said he was not there to judge his countrymen who “cannot live without foie gras and mussels or so-called gender-based rights.” That is, as long as they are “mentally” with Mother Russia.

“The problem does not lie in this, but I repeat, the fact that many of these people inherently, mentally live elsewhere and not here with us, with our people, with Russia,” Putin said.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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