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The weaponization of religion: How the Kremlin is using Christian fundamentalism to advance Moscow’s agenda

05 September, 13:56

Recent public attention has focused on Moscow’s use of cyber warfare against elections in the US and Europe. But lately, a far more insidious threat to liberal democracy and the Euro-Atlantic alliance has emerged – Russia’s weaponization of faith-based organizations.

Expelled from the G-8 and sanctioned economically for its illegal seizure of Crimea, Russia is employing new tactics to influence US and European decision makers and win the war of public opinion. In America, the Russian government has re-configured its active measures strategy to deliberately target the three pillars of modern American conservatism — big business, gun-rights advocates, and Christian fundamentalists.  

Moscow is also targeting EU countries, by harnessing resentment and suspicion towards Muslim immigrants and amplifying the fear that “white Christian Europe” is under threat. The Kremlin’s scheme has even set its eyes on the Vatican. In an absurd twist of irony, Vladimir Putin – whose bloody attacks were responsible for the flood of Syrian refugees into Europe – recently ingratiated himself with Pope Francis by assuring His Holiness that Russia is the primary protector of Christians in the Middle East. Indeed, Moscow is determined to make permanent inroads into the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, this past July, on the day Pope Francis met with the Russian President in the Vatican, a Holy See press communiqué revealed that a “Memorandum of Understanding” had been signed by the Vatican’s “Bambino Gesù” Children’s Hospital and the Russian Federation’s Minister of Health. The agreement aims to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the field of medical care and scientific research. Political observers believe the intent is to erode European enthusiasm for sanctions, by claiming that without the elimination of sanctions humanitarian cooperation will suffer.

In America, one of the main instruments the Kremlin has used to infiltrate religious conservatives has been the World Congress of Families (WCF) — an Illinois-based organization conceived by an American historian and a Russian Orthodox mystic during a 1995 meeting in a Moscow apartment. Launched as a pro-Christian, anti-gay religious coalition, the WCF was purportedly created to promote traditional family values in post-communist societies. In reality, the WCF has aligned itself with powerful Russian oligarchs and Putin surrogates, hosting a string of international conferences aimed at bolstering Moscow’s political agenda around the world.

Investigative journalists studying a trove of leaked Russian emails and documents, recently uncovered a sophisticated campaign by Kremlin officials to entice conservative groups into attending pro-family conferences alongside Russian white supremacists and sanctioned Putin operatives. Putin’s ultimate plan is to push Western conservative organizations into a Moscow-driven “spiritual sphere of influence.” 

On the surface, the notion of interfaith dialogue would seem benign and even beneficial, but a closer analysis reveals a far more menacing game plan involving Putin-aligned state actors.

The World Congress of Families is purportedly financed by several Russian oligarchs, including Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin, both of whom are under sanction by the US and Canada. Malofeev heads Russia’s largest charitable agency, St. Basil the Great Charity, and stands accused of funding the Russian-controlled insurgents in eastern Ukraine that brought down Malaysian Flight MH17. Yakunin, a former KGB agent, ran Russian Railways and is one of Putin’s closest allies. Not only did Yakunin help bankroll Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, he and his wife, Natalia, conveniently operate the ultra-Orthodox Saint Apostle Andrew Foundation and Sanctity of Motherhood anti-abortion group. Both organizations are ongoing sponsors of the annual global conferences of the World Congress of Families (WCF).

Together with Yakunin and Malofeev, the WCF’s official Russian representative— Alexey Komov, has spent years cultivating ties with America’s Christian fundamentalists. In 2014, after building a relationship with the National Religious Broadcasters in America, Komov was invited to Los Angeles to speak at the Movieguide Faith & Values Awards Gala — an event known as the “Christian Oscars.” Opportunely, when this American faith-based agency decided to expand its operations into Russia, Komov took over its management.

Recent exposés by several news organizations, have revealed how far-reaching Moscow’s “spiritual strategy” has become. Mr. Komov, has pursued high-profile American “evangelical influencers” to attend these international pro-family forums. Among the speakers slated to address the group’s recent 2019 conference in Verona, Italy this past April, was law professor John Eastman, a former clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  

In fact, the selection of Italy as the site of this year’s WCF conference was intentional. Explosive revelations uncovered recently by Italy’s L’Espresso magazine have exposed the role played by Komov and Malofeev in a covert operation to funnel Russian money into the coffers of Italy’s anti-EU, nationalist politicians.  Specifically, the Kremlin has sought to buy influence over Italy's far-right Lega Party, namely deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, and his long-time trusted aide, Gianluca Savoini. As an investigation by Bellingcat, BuzzFeed News, and the Insider recently revealed, Savoini traveled to Russia at least 14 times in 2018 to meet with high-profile Putin officials.

The use of religious organizations has been an effective tool for advancing Moscow’s political agenda. It is no accident that Savoini is also President of the “Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association” whose honorary chair is the same Alexey Komov – Russia’s representative of the World Congress of Families. The activities of the Lombardy-Russia Association have repeatedly violated EU sanctions, by promoting travel and contacts with Russian-occupied Crimea and Kremlin-backed separatists in Donetsk, as well as lobbying to promote Kremlin interests, such as the removal of sanctions.

The extent to which Moscow’s tentacles have reached deep into faith-based international bodies is very troubling. For years, Komov’s boss – sanctioned oligarch Konstantin Malofeev – has been financing Katehon, a right-wing Russian Orthodox think-tank with ties to hardline Putin ideologues, like Aleksandr Dugin.

Dugin’s so-called “Eurasian movement”, promotes a messianic, anti-globalist message, whose pro-Christian narrative condemns “liberal decay” in North America and the EU and seeks a revived Russian empire headed by Putin. Echoing Putin’s lament over the dissolution of the USSR, Dugin’s Russian nationalist worldview regards former Soviet republics, like Ukraine and the Baltic countries, as illegitimate nation-states to be swallowed up by a reborn Muscovy. It’s therefore no surprise that Dugin has held secret meetings with representatives of Europe’s far-right parties, including several consultations with Gianluca Savoini in Moscow and Rome.

Determined to change the way Western democracies react to Putin’s growing authoritarianism, Dugin, the son of a Soviet military-intelligence official, is on a mission to promote Kremlin interests by actively participating in fundamentalist and white nationalist conferences around the world. Working with Komov, Malofeev, and a shady Russian diplomat named George Gavrish, Dugin has employed his radical spiritual message to push Moscow’s political plans on the international stage, by building alliances with both right-wing populists and hardline leftists in Greece, Italy, Austria, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to expedite the emergence of a broad Russia-friendly, anti-NATO, anti-EU coalition.

With the backing of millionaire financier Konstantin Malofeev, Dugin has even built alliances with several Trump surrogates to help him amplify his messaging in America. Dubbed by the Russian media as “God’s oligarch”, in 2014, Malofeev launched his own television station, Tsargrad TV, and named Alexandr Dugin its chief editor.

With over 20 million viewers, Dugin has weaponized his outreach to America’s so-called alternative-right, by building ties with leading conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones. Bonded by a common hatred of Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and the so-called “global elites”, Dugin and Jones have become frequent guests on each other’s media platforms, acting as echo chambers for their praise of Donald Trump and their condemnation of an allegedly secret “deep state” government in America. In 2016, Dugin’s tv channel was the only major Russian network to carry the Moscow speech of former Trump adviser Carter Page— whom the FBI had kept under surveillance for alleged collaboration with Russian intelligence.

Certainly, Kremlin infiltration of international religious organizations is nothing new. Long before the dissolution of the USSR, the World Council of Churches and World Peace Council were frequently used as tools of Soviet influence operations. US State Department officials and KGB defectors spent years documenting how Russian intelligence services worked with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to penetrate and influence the policies of international church groups, in an effort to prevent criticism of crimes and human rights violations perpetrated by Moscow.

Nowadays, the danger facing Christian fundamentalist organizations, like the World Congress of Families, who work closely with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), is rooted in the very core of the Russian church’s modus operandi. When Stalin resurrected the ROC Moscow Patriarchate in 1943 as a front organization for the NKVD secret police, the church institution was expected to function as an extra arm of the state. Fast forward 75 years and the Russian Orthodox Church continues to operate as the Kremlin’s “God squad”.

This year, however, the Kremlin suffered a monumental setback. After rejecting Russia’s centuries-long use of religion to exert political and spiritual control over Ukraine, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians officially broke from the Russian Orthodox Church dealing a seismic blow to Moscow. But Putin has not ceased his efforts to undermine the consolidation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Likewise, Putin is determined to gain influence over international religious leaders, particularly American evangelicals.

This past spring, Franklin Graham, son of the legendary US evangelist Billy Graham, stunned many Americans when he unexpectedly appeared in Moscow. Franklin Graham, one of America’s most prominent religious leaders, is an outspoken defender of Christian convictions— pro-family values, anti-abortion, traditional sexual identity. During his stay in Moscow, Graham met with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many who read the Russian press reports were shocked to learn that the international Christian relief organization “Samaritan's Purse” and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association are working in partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church to finance food and humanitarian supplies sent to Russia, allegedly to aid refugees fleeing Ukraine and living in Rostov. Not only is Patriarch Kirill’s public relations campaign designed to undermine the truth about the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, it would appear that the American evangelicals have been coopted into helping the aggressor country’s Russian Orthodox Church to expand its sphere of influence.

Equally troubling is the fact that during his Moscow visit, Graham met with a Russian politician sanctioned by the US for supporting Russia’s military attack on Ukraine.  Americans were astonished when Graham told RIA Novosti press that his private meeting with State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a close Putin ally, was wholeheartedly supported by US Vice-President Mike Pence. In view of the US intelligence community’s revelations proving the scope of Russia’s attack on the 2016 US elections, political experts could not comprehend why an American religious leader would choose to make public appearances in Moscow. The meetings were a propaganda coup for the Kremlin. A social-media post on the Russian Duma’s Instagram account claimed that both sides discussed “the possibility of intensifying contacts between the State Duma and the U.S. Congress.” Any European politician reading these news reports could easily conclude that anti-Russian sanctions were no longer a necessity.

The expanding network of connections between the Russian Orthodox Church, evangelical Christians, and Kremlin intelligence operations is further exemplified by the case of Maria Butina, a Russian spy sent to the US in 2013 to infiltrate America’s right-of-centre institutions. After Butina was arrested and US Prosecutors laid criminal conspiracy charges against her in 2018, news sources revealed that Butina had used the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington as a secret channel between Russian and American politicians and religious leaders, to push for the removal of economic sanctions on Russia.  As part of her work as a foreign agent, Butina posed as a “right to bear arms” gun-rights advocate in order to infiltrate the National Rifle Association — America’s powerful pro-gun lobby. Since gun ownership and Christian conservatism are closely aligned in the US, Moscow has developed a long-term strategy to win over this key sector of American society.

Moreover, by presenting itself as the protector of the “Christian family unit” and encouraging a combination of homophobia and Islamophobia, the Kremlin seeks to position itself as the post-communist guardian of Christian values and cultural conservatism. Ukraine has already experienced these type of Russian influence operations. Recall the anti-EU billboards depicting same-sex couples holding hands which appeared throughout Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv in 2013. The ad’s provocative message said: "Association with the EU means same-sex marriage." The group behind the posters was an organization funded by Putin ally, Viktor Medvedchuk.

Similarly, Russia’s growing ideological influence over parts of America’s religious communities is epitomized by the unexpected praise which Putin received in 2014 from evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who applauded Russia’s anti-gay law banning the distribution of information on non-traditional sexual orientation.  

Likewise, Maria Butina’s recent spying mission in America was part of a wider Kremlin strategy to persuade Trump’s conservative supporters that a new authoritarian world order, based on a Washington-Moscow axis, is preferable to Europe’s “degenerate” globalist, secular liberalism.

Although her task was cut short by her arrest in 2018, the Butina story should be of particular interest to Ukrainians. Long before Maria Butina was sent to infiltrate US conservative circles, in 2009 the Russian GRU had already launched her spy career in Ukraine. Well in advance of the Maidan protests, Moscow had dispatched Butina to Ukraine to promote armed self-defense militias and to bolster would-be separatist insurgents. In addition to being heavily involved in promoting the Ukrainian Gun Owners Association, Butina was deeply embedded in the Kremlin’s failed “Novorossiya” project. Who could have predicted that Butina — the very same woman Russia had sent to arm anti-American thugs in Ukraine in preparation for Moscow’s illegal takeover of Crimea and war in Donbas — would resurface in Washington in an effort to gain influence over religious conservatives in America.

The effective manner by which Moscow is deploying religion to exercise spiritual and political control across the US and Europe should be a wake-up call for Kyiv. At this very moment, Putin is using a former KGB agent — the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill — to pressure evangelical leader Franklin Graham to hold the next "World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians" in Moscow!

Certainly, having suffered centuries of religious oppression under tsarist Muscovy, then communism, and now, having endured five years of Russia’s war of aggression, it befits Ukraine, and not Russia, to host a real summit on religious tolerance and human rights. Now is the time for Ukraine’s church leaders to speak loudly and make their position known, by expanding their international diplomacy and meeting with key Christian leaders, including evangelicals such as Graham.

Likewise, faith-based organizations in the diaspora must bolster their global messaging. As Putin intensifies his campaign to add a Moscow-friendly “Christian crusade” to his hybrid war arsenal, it’s essential that religious and community leaders, as well as politicians in Western democracies, including Ukraine, remain vigilant and pro-active. If we remain passive or indifferent to Russia’s weaponization of faith, we will become unwitting collaborators in Putin’s long-term scheme to build an axis of authoritarianism on the ruins of the Euro-Atlantic system.

Lisa Shymko is a Canadian political scientist and international affairs analyst and President of the Ukraine Support Fund. She also serves on the boards of several non-governmental organizations. She has advised successive Canadian governments on foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and the former Soviet Union and was part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s delegation on three official visits to Ukraine. Her recent writing and commentary have focused on genocide prevention, the rise of populist authoritarianism, and emerging threats to the transatlantic alliance.

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