The transnational coalition that wasn’t: Russia, the West and Ukraine

24 February 2023, 1025 EST

One year ago, Russia launched an illegal war on Ukraine, committing horrific war crimes against the people of Ukraine. Analyses and memorials abound, and I’m probably not the only person writing about this on the Duck today.

I wanted to address a specific aspect of this war, though: why Russia’s carefully cultivated ties with far-right forces in Western Europe and the United States failed to undermine Western opposition to the war.

Undermining opposition to the Russky Mir?

Last year, as Russia was about to launch its invasion of Ukraine, I was finishing a chapter on Russia in my new book. The book, forthcoming with Cornell University Press, explores how states use religious appeals as a tool in power politics (Religious Appeals in Power Politics is the working title).

As Goddard and Nexon discussed in an article on power politics—or the efforts to form or break apart international coalitions—states use more than just military and economic tools. They also turn to cultural and symbolic instruments of power. Appeals to religion—shared faith, shared religiosity—I argue, are one such instrument of power.

One chapter looks at Saudi appeals to Islam to form an anti-Egyptian alliance in the 1960s. Another explores US appeals to “moderate Islam” and religious engagement in the Global War on Terrorism. One includes brief discussions of several other cases, such as China’s Confucius Institutes, the Pope’s mobilization against military intervention in Syria, and the early 2000s border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

The chapter that ended up being most relevant to current events, however, is the one on Russia.

Putin has expressed desire to control his “near abroad” connected to Russia as former Soviet states and ethnic Russian ties; this is often referred to as the Russky Mir, or Russian world. As part of this, he fostered ties with far-right groups in the West, presenting Russia as a like-minded power.

Some refers to these efforts as “civilizational,” “sharp power,” “soft power,” or “traditional values” (for my related complaint about the stretching of the term soft power, see my article in International Studies Perspectives).

I prefer to call them what they are: religious appeals (I have a whole other post planned about scholars and policy experts’ allergy to just calling religion religion). For example, in a December 2013 speech, Putin pushed back on Western criticism of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws, attacking the West for “treating good and evil equally;” he argued that Russia’s “traditional family values” were “the foundation of Russia’s greatness and a bulwark against ‘so-called tolerance.’”

These religious appeals seemed to have worked. US conservatives see Putin as a defender of “traditional Christian values.” Far-right forces in Europe see Putin as a defender of “true” Western values.

But this hoped-for transnational far-right coalition didn’t fracture the West and give Putin an easy victory in Ukraine. Western European states, which had struggled to unite on many issues, came together to oppose Putin’s victory. Many Orthodox figures criticized Putin.

Why did Putin fail?

So what happened?

Some could argue this shows that cultural and symbolic instruments of power (we need a better name for that) like religious appeals ultimately matter less than material concerns. Western Europe is militarily threatened by Russia’s aggression, so even right-leaning figures won’t support Putin.

This is partly true. As I argue in the book, religious appeals’ effects depend on the interaction between the credibility of their wielder and the material incentives facing the target. I based this on Busby’s work on moral movements in foreign policy.

It could also just be bad timing (for Putin). If Putin had invaded Ukraine while Trump was still the U.S. President (or if Trump had won in 2020) the outcome may have been much different. Trump and his allies have been much more antagonistic towards Ukraine, so the US-led aid to Ukraine may not have materialized.

But I’d argue (and expand on this in the book) that it has to do with the nature of religious appeals themselves.

Religion is a powerful force (it’s hard to find a good single article overview, but you could read my summary of research on religion and terrorism). This makes it a useful tool when it mobilizes domestic publics or persuades leaders to change their policies.

But this power also makes it unwieldy and unpredictable.

Religion increases the stakes of any interaction (just think of that old joke about never discussing religion and politics at dinner). Religious arguments are complex, and can easily be reinterpreted to suit conflicting interests or even turned back on their originator. And conventional statecraft tends to be based on secular language, so religious appeals are confusing and produce uncertainty.

In my book, I break slightly with Busby, and argue that the intermediate combinations of material incentives and credibility still matter.

Material incentives to cooperate combined with a lack of credibility on religious appeals (the situation during the US Global War on Terrorism), produce convenient coalitions that can easily fall apart or be redirected against the interests of the originator. Credibility on religious appeals combined with material disincentives to cooperate lead to a tense, unsettled situation in which the appeals roil international relations.

I’d suggest this is what happened with Putin’s religious appeals, and explains their limited effect on the Ukraine war.

First, they still had some effect. As I discussed above, Putin did gain some political benefits from his appeals. And there are lower-level benefits he’s still enjoying. The recent arrest of a German government agent spying for Russia seems to be tied to his right-wing views. It’s likely Putin’s appeals generated sympathy and made it easier to recruit him.

Moreover, Putin’s appeals may have led some to sympathize with Russia, but they increased mistrust of Russia among many others. U.S. Democrats previously supported engagement with Russia, but they have grown increasingly hawkish on such efforts. Moreover, some of the opposition to Putin has drawn on appeals to Western values, suggesting part of the reaction has to do with Putin’s religious appeals.

What does this tell us about the future of the war on Ukraine?

Putin’s failure to break apart Western opposition to the war on Ukraine prevented the easy victory he hoped for. This failure arguably occurred due to the issues arising from religious appeals in power politics. I’d even argue that if Putin had stuck to conventional geopolitical discussions, Western mistrust would have been more minimal (he may have lost domestic support, but that’s another post).

We shouldn’t relax yet, however.

If it is true that the German spy is tied to right-wing parties, and if he was radicalized through Putin’s religious appeals, this is cause for concern. Even if Putin’s religious appeals never form a durable pro-Russian coalition, they will continue to disrupt and roil Western politics.