Russia’s Other Propaganda War

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with Russia's Patriarch Kiril (second from the right) following a meeting with Orthodox leaders at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 25, 2013. (Photo credit should read Alexander Nemenova/AFP/Getty Images.)

U.S. efforts to counter Russian propaganda focus almost exclusively on defense: The government is forced to shore up the integrity of our elections and combat disinformation on social media. But there is a different propaganda war the Kremlin is waging against the West (as well as its own people), parallel to its shooting war with Ukraine: It has long weaponized what it calls “traditional spiritual and moral values.” At home, Vladimir Putin aims to ensure the security of his regime and justify its aggressive censorship and revanchism. Globally, Moscow seeks to promote Russian influence, forge alliances with like-minded actors, and stoke divisive culture wars in the West. It’s a campaign the U.S. cannot afford to ignore anymore than it could ignore the invasion of Ukraine.

Spiritual-moral values: securing regime control.

Russia’s efforts to promote traditional spiritual and moral values—“patriotism and unity” but also cultural conservatism and opposition to LGBT rights—go back decades. The Kremlin released its National Security Concept of 2000 just days after Putin assumed the Russian presidency, stressing a connection between national security and these values. Most recently, Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept of 2023, adopted on March 31, identifies “strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values and preserving the cultural and historical heritage of the multinational people of Russia’” as key national security interests. 

Putin casts his efforts as a vital defense against Western efforts to subvert Russian society. He accused the West of seeking “to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within” in his speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine. Such messaging allows him to shore up the security of his own regime while also legitimizing state censorship against Western and independent Russian media sources of information.

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