Heather Conley on Russia’s “strategic conservatism” — “Intelligence Matters”

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, about Russia’s use of “strategic conservatism” to exploit divisions with and within the West. Conley explains how Russian President Vladimir Putin has leveraged the support of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to portray himself as a global defender of conservative values. Conley and Morell also discuss how the Russian Orthodox Church has undermined its own objective of ecumenism by alienating those who oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Highlights:

  • On using religion to exploit divisions: “[W]hat they’re trying to do is build in separation from the Democratic West, from what we would call the liberal West, by saying that only Moscow is the true defender of the faithful, of the conservative. So this decadence of the West, a social agenda that embraces same-sex marriage or LGBTQ rights, that this decadence must be stopped. And Moscow is really the only one that is preventing this decadence and stopping it. So this can be – obviously this is playing on the divisions within Western societies. And we certainly know that in the United States there are deep divisions about social agenda and the challenges that that presents.”  
  • On Putin’s beliefs: “[H]e’s writing these historical essays about Ukraine. These are inaccurate and incorrect, a historical understanding that he’s starting to, in some ways, drink his own Kool-Aid and really believing this more deeply and wanting to demonstrate that, again, it strengthens his legitimacy. All this talk about the decadence of the West. What this is, is he’s trying to separate any contamination, as he sees it, of democracy, of the value of the individual over the collective.”
  • On how to prevent malign influence: “Understanding that our societal divisions, particularly when we talk about culture wars, wokeness, things like that, that division, you know, foreign powers that don’t wish us well will use that and will exploit that weakness. And Russia has in some ways perfected this and sees this as a major place where they can help amplify our own divisions and separate themselves from democracy, from the role of the individual.”  

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – HEATHER CONLEY

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Heather, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to talk with you.

HEATHER CONLEY: So great to be here. Thank you so much.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you and I actually talked about having this conversation a couple of months ago when we were on a panel together. And I’m really glad that that we’re taking the opportunity to do so today.

I want to start, Heather, by congratulating you on your appointment as president of the German Marshall Fund in the United States. I know that’s a great honor for you, and I know the organization is in good hands.

HEATHER CONLEY: Well, thank you so much. It is an extraordinary privilege to to lead an organization that represents the living memory of the Marshall Plan, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary and allowing this great, bold American leadership initiative that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War and pushed back against communist influence. So that is a great heritage to have.

And boy, do we need to rebuild Ukraine and Europe. So our work is needed now more than ever. But thank you so much.

MICHAEL MORELL: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. So, Heather, in your previous post at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, you led a team that produced a series of papers called The Kremlin Playbook. I want to ask you, what’s the series about and why did you undertake the project?

HEATHER CONLEY: Well, thank you. A great question. So the year, I think was 2009, and it was the very early days of the Obama administration and a group of Central European leaders wrote a letter. It was an open letter, which was sort of a strange form of communication at the time. These were great friends of the United States. They wrote a letter to President Obama, warning that Russian economic warfare – and those were their terms – was having the effect of basically challenging or changing these countries’ transatlantic orientation.
These were countries that were members of NATO as well as the European Union. And for me, it was the research question: Could that be true? Could economic influence, Russia’s economic influence, change the very nature of the regime and its preferences and its democracy?

So we went about quantifying the amount of Russian economic influence in a select group of European countries. And that first report, it came out that, yes, if a country has over 12% of its gross domestic product is of Russian origin – and that’s sometimes hard to calculate because it’s designed to be very stealthy and shell companies and things like that – we were starting to see evidence of their democratic institutions were beginning to be challenged. Corruption efforts were being shut down, judicial reform was being shut down. And you began to see where this, we called it a virtuous cycle of influence, of economic influence, which grew political influence, which continued to grow Russia’s economic presence.

The report landed about two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, and it really, I think, explained in detail how economic influence can begin to subvert democratic institutions and challenged the orientation of a country’s policies and preferences. So that first one, needless to say, made a big splash and I think helped people understand a very challenging concept of how economic influence literally purchases or corrupts democracy.

We then went on to continue to study these tactics. Our second report was ‘The Enablers.’ So how do countries that want that Russian economic influence – there are forces that that actually gorged themselves on it. So corporate service providers, tax earnings, they are all growing and using Russian influence and it was starting to pervert their own systems.

And then our very final one, called, ‘Keeping the Faith,’ looks at actually the economics of what we call orthodox entrepreneurs. These are all like Russian oligarchs that have been investing in the the use of the church, in some ways weaponizing the church and Western values. And so that’s the third one. It’s called, ‘Keeping the Faith,’ and how religion and values are now being perverted by it, by Russian influence.

MICHAEL MORELL: So that’s the one, the third one, Heather, that I really want to dive into. But before we do that, I know you were not the only author of these papers, and I wanted to give you a chance to say something about your co-authors.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, absolutely. And I want to give a great shout out to tremendous authors. My co-author, Donatienne Ruy, who’s at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But we had an international group of authors. Marlene Laruelle, who’s at George Washington University. Majda Ruge, who’s at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Elizabeth Prodromou, who is with Tufts University’s and then Tengiz Pkhaladze who is in Tbilisi, Georgia, with the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs.

So we had a wonderful series of experts that helped us dive into Russia’s use of what we call strategic conservatism in our study countries, which was France, Bosnia, Georgia and Greece.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. So, ‘Keeping the Faith’ centers around that notion, right, of Moscow’s strategic conservativism. Can you explain what that term means to our listeners? What it is and how to think about it.

HEATHER CONLEY: Yeah, absolutely. And we really have to focus on terms and we want to be very careful because what we wanted to do in this report is to protect people’s beliefs, their values, their faith, and to make them aware that it can be susceptible to to disinformation, to malign influence.

So we describe the term, ‘strategic conservatism,’ which is basically using one’s beliefs, values and traditions and using them for foreign policy and security-related purposes. So what Russia does – and Russia actually uses strategic conservatism internally to Russia, by enforcing a set of rules and norms that only the state sort of has the authority and the knowledge of of the moral values of of Russia.

That’s, of course, the Russian Orthodox Church is a pillar of that, but it’s also a series of societal norms – again, the state, the hierarchy, the collective over the individual. But we were observing how Russia uses a variety of tools: as I mentioned, the Russian Orthodox Church. There are other charitable organizations they use. And what they’re trying to do is build in separation from the Democratic West, from what we would call the liberal West, by saying that only Moscow is the true defender of the faithful, of the conservative.

So this decadence of the West, a social agenda that embraces same-sex marriage or LGBTQ rights, that this decadence must be stopped. And Moscow is really the only one that is preventing this decadence and stopping it. So this can be – obviously this is playing on the divisions within Western societies. And we certainly know that in the United States there are deep divisions about social agenda and the challenges that that presents.

And this is where Moscow inserts itself on the side of the defender of the faithful and the traditional. But what they’re trying to do is divide the West and demonstrate that, you know, you don’t want to be part of the West, particularly for countries that are aspiring to join NATO or join the European Union. This is a really powerful tool to separate those countries and divide their government. So it’s very powerful.

It works differently depending on, you know, the tools at their disposal. The Russian Orthodox Church is a huge amplifier of this, as are a lot of disinformation channels that really approach people who share concerns. And it really helps them, you know, amplify their malign message.

MICHAEL MORELL: I want to keep keep digging deeper here, and I want to ask some questions about the Russian Orthodox Church. But before I do that, can you talk about what the concept of the ‘third Rome’ is and how it’s relevant to this concept of strategic conservatism?

HEATHER CONLEY: Absolutely. And it is a really important concept. So it is both a theological concept. It’s also a political concept.

So the idea of the third – that Moscow is the third Rome. So after the fall of Rome and then the fall of Constantinople, what some who support this view that Moscow is now the legitimate, the true authentic empire that hasn’t fallen because of their their own corruption, that this ‘third Rome’ means that it is the center of conservatism, that again, Moscow, as the authentic empire, is now the true defender of the faithful.

And it also speaks to this sort of sense that the leader of Russia, the czar, if you will, or Vladimir Putin, is the spiritual leader of this global orthodox and conservative movement. So it’s got a lot in there, but it is a very powerful, both religious and political thought that puts Moscow at the center of the Slavic and Orthodox world, and they are the only true inheritor of that empire and the defender of the faithful.

MICHAEL MORELL: So when I read the report, one of the things that struck me was the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church being sort of the central actors in this story. And I’d like to ask you, how would you describe the relationship between the two and what do both sides get out of that relationship?

HEATHER CONLEY: Yes. I mean, going back to the the Russian Orthodox Church – and during the Tsarist times through the Soviet Union and now today, it has always been a very complicated, a very contradictory relationship. So, of course, during Tsarist times, the Russian Orthodox Church, like Putin is doing now, it’s embraced as part of traditionalism, identity and that hierarchy and that state control; again, the tsar as the spiritual leader, in addition to the political leader.

Of course, during Soviet times – particularly Stalin, you know, wiped away the Russian Orthodox Church. Churches were turned into warehouses. It was to abolish that spirituality and that religious right. Communism was the new religion. Now, where you have now, since 2009, a patriarch, Patriarch Kirill, who initially had distanced himself a little bit from from Vladimir Putin, has now fully embraced Putinism as a way to strengthen the Russian Orthodox Church.

So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

So Patriarch Kirill fully supports Mr. Putin. He sees Mr. Putin as a miracle of God. He’s fully supportive of the Ukrainian war. In fact, Pope Francis recently called Patriarch Kirill, ‘Putin’s altar boy’ and warned him not to be that close to those political leaders.

But it’s been – and actually it’s been dangerous and hasn’t worked, because the closer the Russian Orthodox Church has come to Putinism, it’s created schisms within the church so that the object was to unify a global orthodoxy. But what’s happened is the Russian Orthodox church has divided the Orthodox world. And the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, has actually formally separated from the Moscow patriarch. So, but they are trying to unite under one Slavic, you know, one leader. Actually, they’ve deeply divided the Orthodox world.

MICHAEL MORELL: So how deep is this concept of the third Rome? How deep is that believed within the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia?

HEATHER CONLEY: So I think it has grown over time, really. This – I would say this whole third Rome narrative well over a decade ago was only heard in the most, sort of, ultra nationalist, you know, voices.

But after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, he was suffering from a legitimacy problem. He encountered the largest demonstrations of his tenure. And so in some ways began to embrace exactly this spirituality, this traditionalism. And in 2012, a civil activist group, a female rock band, Pussy Riot, had a major demonstration in the major Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow. And in some ways, this sort of crystallized opposition to Putin’s leadership and and the violation of Russian traditions and faith and identity. And so it really began to grow.

And I see it, you know, accelerating now with the war in Ukraine, where this spiritual – the ‘spiritualness’ that Russia cannot be spiritually whole without Ukraine, that Putin is this spiritual leader, this miracle of God. And so all of those threads have really come together and crystallized. So now this third Rome narrative has sort of legitimacy and justification for a lot of Russia’s war aims.

MICHAEL MORELL: One of the things I’m wondering about is does Putin actually believe in this concept or does he not? And he simply understands that it’s a powerful political and foreign policy tool for him. What is your sense

HEATHER CONLEY: So I would say, 5 to 6 years ago, he saw it as an important tool to strengthen his legitimacy. I would argue – I don’t know whether this is the pandemic and his isolation or health or, I have no idea. But I would say the last two years, what was a tool became much more deeply ingrained.

You know, he’s writing these historical essays about Ukraine. These are inaccurate and incorrect, a historical understanding that he’s starting to, in some ways, drink his own Kool-Aid and really believing this more deeply and wanting to demonstrate that, again, it strengthens his legitimacy. All this talk about the decadence of the West. What this is, is he’s trying to separate any contamination, as he sees it, of democracy, of the value of the individual over the collective. And this is what they’re trying to separate themselves from, and even turning the script and saying, ‘You know what? What the United States did at the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was ending communism.’

Well, some around Putin believe that Russia is now the West’s savior, that we have to, you know, move this smoke from our eyes, as it were, of this decadence, of this social decadent agenda that is ruining us. So they also see it as not only protecting themselves from Western democracy and ideas, which they’re trying to suppress on their own within Russia. But they’re also trying to use it to divide Western societies and propel themselves as this great savior, this great defender of the faithful and the conservative.

MICHAEL MORELL: So this is a little off topic, but you’ve been watching Russia for a long time. And I’m just wondering if you sense that Putin is somehow somehow ill, somehow sick, or you just can’t tell?

HEATHER CONLEY: You know, the rumors have just been extraordinary the last several months. And these rumors have circulated – you know, after the assassination of former deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, Putin disappeared for 11 days. There was speculation about his health. There was speculation that he has a bad back, that, you know, all sorts of things. They certainly have accelerated.

I would argue that the pandemic, while it was tough on everybody and certainly accentuated mental health challenges, there was something, I think during this, the pandemic – this is total speculation on my part. He was very isolated in his palace in Sochi. So very away from people. I think it was time to stew.

It was time to – you know, he was getting a lot of pressure. Navalny, Alexei Navalny was, you know, challenging him, his legitimacy, the change in the Russian constitution, his own sense of, you know, his leadership. It began to crystallize in all of these things. Again, he just used as tools; they were they were instruments. To further it, he began to internalize them, believe them, write incorrect essays, and instead really internalize this.

And I would argue this is where, you know, his isolation and maybe questionable health issues is propelling this urgency to restore Russia’s greatness and its spirituality that he sees. He is the unique leader; only he can write the historic wrong of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But, boy, you need better doctors and psychologists. That’s what he’s about. But that’s my guess.

MICHAEL MORELL: I think a lot of people are trying to figure it out, not with a lot of success at the moment.
So Heather, when we started the conversation, you mentioned this concept of Orthodox entrepreneurs, and I found that really interesting in your report. Who are these folks and what did they do?

HEATHER CONLEY: Yes. And in fact, this is because we studied Russian economic influence. This is how, in some ways, how we stumbled across this, the use of strategic conservatism.

So what we began to see is a select group of Russian oligarchs. Probably the most noted one is a gentleman known as Malofeyev. He has been a very big believer in the spiritual return or restoration of Russia. He has, you know, great investments. And again, he’s his own oligarch in his own right.

But he invests in humanitarian organizations. He runs St. Basil’s, the great charitable organization that promotes religious understanding and studies. He has spent money to bring relics from the Holy Land to Moscow again. And it creates that aura of the third Rome, that legitimacy, if you will, of Russia as the defender of the faithful.

But what we began to see is a lot of Russian Orthodox cathedral construction. So in France, in other places, cultural centers, surrounding this, you know, the cultural and the orthodox world, use of organizations like Russkiy Mir, Russia World, to help support that study.

And what we began to notice – this was particularly prominent in France – that another oligarch, the former Railroad Ministry, Yakunin, was also funding – going into sort of former circles, monarchist circles and of French Russian emigres that came out of the Russian civil war, that they were, you know, playing on those themes of the tsar and Russian Orthodox and spirituality.

And so it was a cultural issue. It was building these large cathedrals, funding charitable organizations. And it was again, it was continued to surround countries and societies with these messages of the third Rome, that Russia is the defender and the savior. You could also see financial support for referendums in several countries on same-sex marriage referendums. These referendums were designed to divide the societies at the time, put separation between countries that wanted to join the European Union or stay within Russia’s orbit.

So all of it worked together. Some of it was very soft. Others of it was was pretty clear of what they were trying to do to divide. But they were – these orthodox entrepreneurs were really focused on strengthening this strategic conservatism. So it was sort of private sector support of the larger initiatives of the Kremlin as well as the Russian Orthodox Church.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think, Heather, that this strategic conservatism to some extent explains, for want of a better word, the affection between the Trump White House and Putin? I know there were a couple of true believers in this concept inside the White House, and I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on that.

HEATHER CONLEY: So I think we certainly do see a lot of affinity groups in the United States that truly believe in the agenda of the Kremlin, this strategic conservatism agenda in its to fight against this perception of decadence.

So, sort of just taking the Kremlin and the malign work out of it, there is a shared view about, you know, dramatic social change and what that means to one’s faith and values. And that is a complicated and difficult topic, I think, where we’re starting to see the synergies – and this is particularly true with some groups in the United States who really support the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, who’s also perfected, in some ways, this use of strategic conservatism.

It’s an anti-West sort of – it’s a culture war. It’s putting these cultural issues at the forefront and weaponizing them. And so in using that for political legitimacy, so you are definitely seeing there is huge uptake. Some of this does begin to originate in the United States. There’s sort of a feedback loop. There is a real focus on this protection of the traditional family, protection of traditional values, for sure.

But I think many are unwitting and don’t understand that there is a foreign policy implication of this, that Russia is using this so we fight one another more intensely, that it causes division and weakness in the West, that this is just another tool in their toolkit, which is – that’s why we wrote the report. So people understand what’s at stake. Look, everyone, we are respectful of different perspectives, but they can’t be weaponized. And Russia is weaponizing this to divide our societies.

MICHAEL MORELL: I want to move on to ask some questions about Ukraine, specifically, Heather, but just one more question on this broader topic. And you mentioned earlier that the Pope had sort of scolded the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church on his support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But what role, if any, did the Roman Catholic Church play in the growth of strategic conservatism, positively or negatively?

HEATHER CONLEY: Oh, gosh, that’s a good question, because, again, the evolution of this, again, was – and I think Pope Francis was certainly a leader in this – was trying to bring the ecumenical community together and not have these deep divisions and these separations.

And unfortunately, Pope Francis – in his own views, on more liberal views on same-sex marriage, for instance, you know, ‘Who are we to judge’ -that, I think, opened a real division between what the Russian Orthodox Church was doing, and I think they thought they had a better ally, potentially, in the Catholic Church or the leadership of the Catholic Church.

But it’s certainly, again, these questions of faith and values, if not properly addressed with congregants, things can be extremely divisive. But I think most interestingly, I mean, the Catholic Church hasn’t played a huge role – in fact, in our discussion of strategic conservatism in France, we actually saw where more French Catholics were beginning to start to migrate to the Russian Orthodox Church with that orthodoxy, because it was more conservative. So we’re actually seeing where, some in the Catholic Church were, in France, leaving for orthodoxy.

But I think the real loss here was the Russian Orthodox Church was trying to unite the entire Orthodox world under their leadership. And the beginning of the war in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the first invasion in Donbas, that actually created the conditions where the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople agreed to the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And so the church is split. And so this strategic initiative for the Russian Orthodox Church to be the unifier and the leader, they’ve just done their own goal of basically dividing the orthodox world. And now we have even more churches within Ukraine leaving the Moscow patriarchy because of their continued support for the war.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I want to talk a little bit about Ukraine, Heather, and I know you’ve mentioned this several times in our conversation, but maybe we can come at it directly here. How does this dynamic of strategic conservativism tie into the conflict in Ukraine?

HEATHER CONLEY: Yeah, and this is where – I call it ‘the great contradiction,’ because on the one hand, Vladimir Putin has argued that the Ukrainian and Russian people are one people. I mean, that is in part to eliminate any distinction that Ukraine is a distinct nation, distinct people. And that, you know, again, the Ukraine for Russia is its spiritual home because the origins of Russia began in Ukraine and Kievan Rus’. So there’s a spirituality to this.

And I think there’s parallels to the founding of Russia coming out of Ukraine. So it is the contradiction that Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine are killing the one people, killing ethnic Russians that live in Ukraine. They are bombing Russian Orthodox churches because of indiscriminant bombing. So this whole sense of reunification that restores Russia’s greatness, that Ukraine is at the center of its spiritual and historic heart, it is destroying itself, literally. That’s the contradiction.

And where you see – because Putin has to rally Russian society, they don’t support war in general, which is why they’re calling it a ‘special military operation,’ they can’t even say ‘war.’ They have so repressed society, because war is unpopular, and if you advance, then, the knowledge that you’re trying to save your spiritual, your Slavic brothers, you’re killing them and as well as killing Russians at the same time.

So this is where the contradiction comes of this, again, this third Rome, you know, the Kremlin is the defender of the faithful. No, they’re killing the faithful, and their own spiritual heart. So that’s just what makes this extraordinary.

But the Russian Orthodox Church is obviously being mobilized in vilifying the Ukrainian people as as Nazis. But even over time, Mr. Putin’s quote from the other day, they keep changing their justification of their war; it was de-Nazification. Now it’s returning Russia’s historic lands, which they view, I mean, they go back to Peter the Great in those historic lands, which concerns all of us, because those historic lands stretch to Sweden, Finland, the Baltic states. So you know that’s a very expansive definition.

MICHAEL MORELL: So it seems to me – correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this new justification that Putin has shifted to, away from de-Nazification, you know, towards recovering strategic lands, is actually selling better in Russia. Is that right, or hard to tell?

HEATHER CONLEY: So, you know, it’s hard to tell, but I think for me, it’s telling that he’s continuing to find the justification, maybe the denazification, although again, using the symbolism, the St. George’s ribbon and things like that, it’s certainly been well -introduced.

But I think this returns back to his theme of last July of this historic essay. He, again, he sees himself as the great restorer of Russia’s greatness, historical – and he’s now, you know, I think we thought maybe this is about restoring the Soviet Union when he told us. No, this actually goes back to much, much greater, a thousand years of Russian history that he’s actually about restoring that potentially, which is an extraordinary ambition when 70% of Russia’s conventional forces right now are having a difficult time securing Luhansk Oblast.

But it speaks to his broader vision and speaks to, again, the grievance, the history, the spirituality of Russia itself. So the ambition is sweeping.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the key gain here for Putin is the use of strategic conservativism here helps him legitimize what he’s doing.

HEATHER CONLEY: It does, as I said. And I think that was- he’s used this tool before. I think he’s internalizing it. I think that’s what concerns me the most, is that when you start buying your own lines and you believe you are uniquely placed, that, you know, does he see himself as the spiritual inheritor of Peter the Great, of restoring the lands?

And this is where the Russian Orthodox Church, which was right beside the tsars, as they were the political and the spiritual leader, is he trying to fuse those? So this has got legitimacy about Ukraine aims. It’s about keeping the West divided. But is he now starting to really believe Patriarch Kirill, that he is a miracle of God and that he has this broader spiritual world? That’s where you get, I think, a little scary into his own understanding of himself and his ambitions and what he is set to do.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned earlier a bit of a backlash, Heather, in the Orthodox Church more broadly, to the invasion of Ukraine. And I’m wondering if there’s been been any backlash inside the Russian Orthodox Church itself or not?

HEATHER CONLEY: Yeah, it sure has. Not all Orthodox priests subscribe to Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, his full throttled support for Putin for the war. I mean, I think this is, again, it speaks to priests that are, you know, tending their own congregants. They’re there and working with Russian citizens that have lost loved ones in the war without understanding where they are, that understand the economic toll that Russia’s war is taking and saying, again, sort of as Pope Francis said, ‘Look, you know, we have a different role here. Our role is not necessarily to support the state in harming our congregants. We, you know, have a different role here.’

So priests have been jailed. They’ve been shuffled around. There’s been some leadership changes within the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church for even more higher-level voices that have been questioning how the Russian Orthodox Church has embraced Putinism.

But again, it is clear that there is a strong control by Patriarch Kirill, and he’s really banking that the Russian Orthodox Church will be successful because Putin will be successful. But the opposite can be true. If Vladimir Putin is not successful in the future, that will really challenge the Russian Orthodox Church as well.

MICHAEL MORELL: So we have about a minute or so left here, Heather, and I want to ask you, how do you think the West should respond to this strategic conservatism as a political tool? We don’t want to criticize people’s religious beliefs. But how should the West deal with this? I know it’s a really tough question.

HEATHER CONLEY: Step one, awareness. Understanding that our societal divisions, particularly when we talk about culture wars, wokeness, things like that, that division, you know, foreign powers that don’t wish us well will use that and will exploit that weakness. And Russia has in some ways perfected this and sees this as a major place where they can help amplify our own divisions and separate themselves from democracy, from the role of the individual.

Look, freedom of religion and the value of the individual to freely express their religion or not have religion at all – what the Russians are doing is turning that on its head and making this about the collective interest, not the individual, and really in many ways, perverting freedom of religion.

So this is something, again, these are these are freedoms that we have to protect, the sanctity of them and be aware that they are being twisted. So heal our societal divisions. Don’t use these as these culture wars, which are, again, aiding and abetting actors who do not wish the United States or our allies well. And that’s really the place we have to start. That’s how we we keep the faith that we can have these views and not allow them to be perverted.

MICHAEL MORELL: Heather, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing such an interesting paper with us. If my listeners actually want to go read the papers – and I suggest you do – just search ‘Kremlin Playbook, CSIS,’ and they’ll pop right up there for you.

Heather, thank you so much.

MICHAEL MORELL: Thank you. It’s great to be with you. 



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