The Kremlin leader's full-throated defense of Russia's "traditional values" and his derision of the West's "genderless and infertile" liberalism in his annual state-of-the-nation address last week was just the latest example of Putin attempting to place himself at the vanguard of a new "Conservative International."
The speech came on the heels of the appointment of Dmitry Kiselyov -- the television anchor who has said the hearts of gays and lesbians who die should be buried or burned -- as head of the new Kremlin-run media conglomerate Rossia Segodnya.
And just days before Putin's address, the Center for Strategic Communications, an influential Kremlin-connected think tank, held a press conference in Moscow to announce its latest report. The title: "Putin: World Conservatism's New Leader."
According to excerpts from the report cited in the media, most people yearn for stability and security, favor traditional family values over feminism and gay rights, and prefer nation-based states rather than multicultural melting pots. Putin, the report says, stands for these values while "ideological populism of the left" in the West "is dividing society."
"Against the backdrop of a difficult economic situation, people are becoming more prudent," Dmitry Abzalov of the Center for Strategic Communications said at the news conference. "It is important for most people to preserve their way of life, their lifestyle, their traditions. So they tend toward conservatism. This is normal."
This, Abzalov added, represented "a global trend."
The Kremlin apparently believes it has found the ultimate wedge issue to unite its supporters and divide its opponents, both in Russia and the West, and garner support in the developing world. They seem to believe they have found the ideology that will return Russia to its rightful place as a great power with a messianic mission and the ability to win hearts and minds globally.
As the West becomes increasingly multicultural, less patriarchal and traditional, and more open to gay rights, Russia will be a lodestone for the multitudes who oppose this trajectory. Just as the Communist International, or Comintern, and what Soviet ideologists called the "correlation of forces" sought to unite progressive elements around the globe behind Moscow, the world's traditionalists will now line up behind Putin.
And there is some evidence that this message may be resonating.
"While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind," conservative American commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote. "Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught in a Cold War paradigm."
The 21st century, Buchanan adds, may be marked by a struggle pitting "conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite."
Others on the American right, like Rod Dreher, a senior editor of the "American Conservative," also wrote favorably -- albeit in a more nuanced manner -- of Putin's speech. "Putin may be a cold-eyed cynic, but he’s also onto something," he wrote.
And the Kremlin, according to political analyst Aleksandr Morozov, has been spending considerable resources laying the groundwork to Putin's transformation into a global conservative icon.
They have used forums like the Dialogue of Civilizations and the Valdai Discussion Group to influence elite opinion, Morozov writes. They have co-opted Western pundits on the RT (formerly Russia Today) English-language television station. And they have subsidized the research of Western academics at Russian universities.
"It is a mistake to believe that Putin wants to lower a new Iron Curtain, build a new Berlin Wall and pursue a policy of isolationism," Morozov wrote in Colta.ru. "On the contrary, Putin is creating a new Comintern. This is not isolationism, but rather the maximum Putinization of the world. The Comintern was a complex system that worked with ideologically sympathetic intellectuals and politicians. What we are seeing now is not an attempt to restore the past, but the creation of an entirely new hegemony."
The Kremlin test-drove the approach in Ukraine this fall. When Kyiv seemed close to signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, billboards appeared warning citizens that moving closer to Europe would mean same-sex marriage would come to Ukraine. The advertising campaign, according to media reports, was linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician and businessman with close ties to Putin.
The notion of Russia as a defender of traditional values has deep historical roots: the 15th- and 16th-century claim that Moscow is the "Third Rome," the heart of Christian civilization, and Tsarist ideological doctrine of "autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality" from the reign of Nicholas I.
Even communism, wrote the early 20th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdydyev, was "more traditional than is commonly thought" in that it is "a transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea."
The ground for Putin's conservative turn has also been prepared at home. And in the past couple months, in particular, Kremlin surrogates have been relentlessly on-message.
In October, filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov called the revival of a state ideology in Russia "an issue of national security." That same month, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov derided "political correctness carried to the point of absurdity" and "multiculturalism of the Western kind."
On November 21, State Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina proposed, and a key committee approved, a proposal to insert a clause in the preamble of the Russian Constitution calling Orthodox Christianity the foundation of the country's national identity. On the same day, Putin himself called for turning the Russian language and literature into "powerful factors of Russia's global ideological influence."
Whether this will all go anyplace or be relegated to the dustbin of abandoned Kremlin projects is an open question. (Does anybody remember "sovereign democracy"?) But for Putin, the year that witnessed him announcing his divorce to the world on television is now ending with him trying to grab the mantle of global defender of family values.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on December 20 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin and Mark Galeotti.