Defender of the Faiths

Think tank: The Henry Jackson Society

Author(s): Dr Jade McGlynn

September 22, 2021

This report from UK think tank the Henry Jackson Society looks at how the Russian Government uses religious diplomacy.

The Kremlin has, in recent years, actively portrayed itself as the defender of not only traditional values, but specifically religious ones. Putin’s government has depicted Russia as a counterrevolutionary force, leading a global crusade against the liberal and immoral forces of Western cultural colonisation. This report assesses how the Kremlin uses each of Russia’s four official religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) in different ways and to different ends to bolster its influence among target audiences abroad. The report also draws attention to the false foundations on which Russia’s religious diplomacy is based, namely by documenting the divergence between the Kremlin’s self-proclaimed religious tolerance and the repressive reality for many believers living in Russia today. The poor state of relations between Russia and the UK, as well as Russia’s deliberate positioning of itself in opposition to (what it conveys as) core Western values, means that Western nations must be aware of Russian tactics and respond accordingly. Generally, the West is in a much stronger position when it comes to soft power, but Western countries need to pay more attention to Russia’s ability to attract others by undermining the West and its system.

Recommendations made by the report: The West would do better to acknowledge and celebrate what actually makes Russia attractive, as opposed to the tired illiberalism trotted out by the Kremlin. The UK could and should embrace the Russian people, while defending itself against Russia’s leaders. Britain should emphasise its own value for tradition within strategic communications campaigns, make more reference to its own religious communities, from the Anglican Church to the Muslim communities. Western countries should be more active in defending the autonomy of Orthodox Churches when and if the original parishioners desire this. This would mean supporting any parishioners of the Diocese of Sorouzh (Orthodox parish of the UK) who do not wish to be merged under the Moscow Patriarchate. Use multilateral bodies, such as the UN, OSCE and UNHRC, to publicly criticise and table resolutions on religious discrimination in Russia. In so doing, the UK should still be careful to differentiate between Russian influence operations and Russian public diplomacy. The UK should reach out to the Russian people themselves, by organising celebrations and festivals of Russian culture and inviting Russian artists to the UK.