“As long as I’m president…There will be dad and mum.”
If you thought this quote came from a far-right social conservative and not Russian President Vladimir Putin, you would be in good company. In a move that still hasn’t been fully internalized in the West, Putin spent much of the 2010s re-fashioning Russia as a defender of “traditional values,” defined in largely ethno-nationalist and heteronormative terms. Much like the Soviet Union used a specific set of values in its foreign and domestic policy, modern Russia has developed a strategy that uses social conservatism, and anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice specifically, to do the same. Russia’s pivot to a values-based framework has important implications for how the United States should understand its interests vis-à-vis the Russian Federation.
Russia’s shift to social conservatism came about after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. During his 2013 State of the State speech, Putin portrayed the Russian government’s role in the world as a defender of “traditional families.” In another speech in the same year, Putin expanded on this framework by attacking “Euro-Atlantic” countries for denying “traditional sexual identities” and accusing them of “implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” Putin reinforced his statements with policy actions, pushing a law through the Duma by a margin of 436-0 outlawing “gay propaganda” and proposing a 2020 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
The reasons for Putin’s renewed, prejudiced posture are a mix of domestic and international interests. At home, political elites have become increasingly concerned that the cultural morass of modern Russia was destabilizing the state and making “foreign values,” meaning democracy, more attractive to the general population. A pivot to traditional values allows the state to undermine the appeal of liberalism by demonizing Western values. LGBTQ+ people make for easy boogeymen in Russia, where a 2020 Pew poll found that only 14% of Russians believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.
While Putin’s strategy may be strategically effective in places where prejudice is high, it also creates strategic vulnerabilities in more tolerant states.
Russia also utilizes traditional values when dealing with its neighbors, particularly those countries where LGBTQ+ tolerance is similarly low. For example, the same Pew poll found that only 14% of Ukrainians and 28% of Lithuanians believe homosexuality should be accepted. As Russia perceived Ukraine was shifting westward during the 2014 Euromaidan protests, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attempted blame the unrest on gay lobbyists who wanted to make the country like the more tolerant European Union. Maryna Shevtsova, at Lund University in Sweden, explains that pro-Russian groups inside Ukraine use the European Union’s tolerance to “instrumentalize LGBTI rights and incorporate the issue into an already existing conflict around Ukraine’s foreign policy identity.”
While Putin’s strategy may be strategically effective in places where prejudice is high, it also creates strategic vulnerabilities in more tolerant states. For example, Russia has instrumentalized traditional conservatism in the West by using it to attract leaders and partners based on perceived shared values as part of a broader soft power strategy to co-opt western polities. This strategy includes official and unofficial support for the World Congress of Families, a network of interconnected organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. Russia also cultivates social conservative figures like Franklin Graham. After meeting with Putin on a trip to Russia, Graham responded by saying, “I very much appreciate that President Putin is protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.” We can see in real time how shared LGBTQ+ prejudice creates bonds of attraction during a 2018 interview with Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore:
Q: [Ronald Reagan] said that Russia was a focus of evil in the world.
MOORE: You could say that very well about America, couldn’t you.
Q: You think?
MOORE: Well, we promote a lot of bad things, you know.
MOORE: Same-sex marriage.
Q: That’s the very argument Vladimir Putin makes.
MOORE: Well, then maybe Putin is right. Maybe he’s more kin to me than I know.
Any campaign that harnesses prejudice is likely to result in violent and repressive abuses. This has happened in Chechnya, a republic in southern Russia, where its actions imprisoning and torturing gay people have been described as a “pogrom” using “concentration camps.” The United States should work to end this abuse by imposing costs on the Russian government for its actions.
Just as Russia has used LGBTQ+ tolerance in the West against it in places like Ukraine, the United States can underscore its shared values of tolerance in places like Germany, a state that is currently planning to deepen its relationship with Russia through the building of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline. One imagines the German people, who understand the evil of identity-based violence better than anyone and where 86% of people support the acceptance of homosexuality, would oppose a strategic partnership with a state engaged in this kind of abuse.
The United States should launch a public diplomacy campaign asking the German people to reject Nordstream 2 so long as the Russian government continues its intolerable cruelty towards LGBTQ+ people. President Joe Biden has emphasized that America’s allies are connected not only by shared interests, but also by shared values. Leaning on shared values of tolerance to impose a cost on Moscow’s behavior will strengthen the US-German relationship and send a message to the world to stop the abuse of LGBTQ+ people.
On a broader level, the US must recognize that Russia’s instrumentalization of traditional conservatism means that fighting LGBTQ+ prejudice should now be considered a core national security interest. The United States can learn from what was effective in our own country, namely humanization. Rather than just flying a rainbow flag out of an embassy during Pride week, the United States should commit the time, attention, and resources to humanizing LGBTQ+ people abroad. This kind of campaign, if effective, would do as much to serve US interests in regional competition against Russia as any kind of weapons sales. Competition with Russia in a modern context means first understanding their strategic approach and adapting ours appropriately. On LGBTQ+ rights, our interests and our values are one and the same.
Ben Sohl is a Master’s student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His research focuses on how new technologies are changing the nature of foreign policy.