It’s been a generation or so since Russians were in the business of shaping the destiny of the world, and most of us have forgotten how good they used to be at it. For much of the last century Moscow fuelled — and often won — the West’s ideological and culture wars. In the 1930s, brilliant operatives like Willi Muenzenberg convinced ‘useful idiots’ to join anti-fascist organisations that were in reality fronts for the Soviet-backed Communist International. Even in the twilight years of the Soviet Union the KGB was highly successful at orchestrating nuclear disarmament movements and trade unionism across the West.

Now, after two decades in the economic basket, Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world — this time as a champion of conservative values. In his annual state of the nation speech to Russia’s parliament in December, Vladimir Putin assured conservatives around the world that Russia was ready and willing to stand up for ‘family values’ against a tide of liberal, western, pro-gay propaganda ‘that asks us to accept without question the equality of good and evil’. Russia, he promised, will ‘defend traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years’. Crucially, Putin made it clear that his message was directed not only at Russians — who have already been protected from ‘promotion of non-traditional relationships’ by recent legislation — but for ‘more and more people across the world who support our position’.

He’s on to something. Ukraine’s near-revolutionary turmoil this week pits East versus West — but it’s also a culture war between social conservatives and social liberals. The forces against the government in Kiev tend to be aligned with the EU and modern ‘democratic values’, including gay rights; whereas government supporters tend to be more Russophile and their banners include ones that say ‘EURO = HOMO’. These are precisely the battle lines on which Putin has raised his conservative ideological standard.

A recent report by the Centre for Strategic Communications, a Kremlin-connected think tank, neatly summarised Putin’s ambition: it’s entitled ‘Putin: World Conservatism’s New Leader’. The report argues that large, silent majorities around the world favour traditional family values over feminism and gay rights — and that Putin is their natural leader. ‘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,’ says Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore. ‘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.’

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Putin’s siren call has found support in some unexpected quarters. The conservative American commentator — and one-time arch anti-communist — Pat Buchanan was one of the architects of the Reagan-era ‘Moral Majority’ movement which heralded the rise of the Christian right as a political force. Now he’s full of praise for Putin’s ‘paleo-conservative moment’. The great ideological struggle of the 21st century will be between ‘conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite’, Buchanan wrote in a recent blog post. ‘While much of American and western media dismiss him as an authoritarian and reactionary, a throwback, Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans.’ The Illinois-based World Congress of Families, an organisation that promotes family values, has already accepted an invitation to hold its eighth annual International Congress in Moscow. ‘Russia could be a great ally for conservatives, on issues like defending the family, abortions, even strengthening marriage and promoting more children,’ the Congress of Families managing director Larry Jacobs told the state-run RIA news agency.

But the Kremlin’s true target audience is not on the right-wing fringes of western politics but people in what was once called the Soviet sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, Middle East and Africa. Russian diplomats and academics have taken a leading role in promoting an anti-gay-rights resolution in the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva, building a coalition of conservative nations behind a resolution declaring that human rights had to be subordinate to ‘traditional values and cultural sovereignty’. (In 2011 the US backed a resolution explicitly protecting sexual minorities under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — but Russia stepped in to lead the counteroffensive.) ‘Russia has been using this issue to develop a constituency in Muslim and African countries,’ says Mark Gevisser, an Open Society Fellow who is writing a book on the global debate on gay rights. ‘This brand of ideological moral conservatism was originally minted in the US. It is highly ironic that these countries are mounting an anti-western crusade using a western tool.’ Moscow plays on opposition to gay rights most effectively closer to home. Last November, when it looked like the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was close to signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, billboards appeared across the country warning that the ‘EU means legalising same-sex marriage’. The campaign was paid for by Ukraine’s Choice, a group associated with the Kremlin-connected politician and businessman Viktor Medvedchuk.

But Putin’s new mission goes deeper than political opportunism. Like the old Communist International, or Comintern, in its day, Moscow is again building an international ideological alliance. The Comintern sought to bring ‘progressives’ and left-wingers of every stripe into Moscow’s ideological big tent; Putin is pitching for moral leadership of all conservatives who dislike liberal values. And again, like the Comintern, Putin appears convinced that he is embarking on a world-historical mission. It’s certainly true that such a moral mission has deep roots in Russian history. Many previous occupants of the Kremlin have set themselves up as defenders of orthodoxy and autocracy — notably Nicholas I, the ‘gendarme of Europe’, and the arch-conservative Alexander III. Putin quoted the 19th-century conservative thinker Nikolai Berdyaev in his Duma speech. ‘The point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward,’ Putin said, ‘but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’

It would be easy to dismiss Putin’s conservative Comintern as another Sochi-style vanity project if it weren’t for the fact that Russia’s hard power is growing in parallel with its soft power. For the first time in a generation Moscow called the shots on a major international diplomatic issue last year, when Sergei Lavrov’s plan to supervise Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament derailed US plans for military strikes on Damascus. Over recent years Moscow unsuccessfully backed local despots in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya — and they lost their heads, just like old Soviet clients from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. But with Syria that run of failure is finally changing. Moscow’s diplomatic protection in the UN, backed by Russian weapons, intelligence and military expertise, finally means something again. If Harry Truman wanted to make the US the arsenal of democracy, then Putin seems to have a similar plan for Russia to be the arsenal of reaction.

There’s a third plank to Russia’s ambitious programme to shape the world in its image: an ongoing campaign to redesign the global architecture of the internet to allow more control by individual states. Since the foundation of the world wide web, its effective control centre has been at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — known as ICANN, the non-profit organisation that assigns internet addresses and traffic routes based in Los Angeles, California. Russia has long demanded that ICANN be moved out of the US — and has been quick to seize on the leaks of the National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s reports as a tool to topple the US from the moral high ground of internet user freedom and embarrass Washington.

Last November a delegation of Russian senators and Foreign Ministry officials paid an official visit to the US to complain to American service providers for failing to guarantee user privacy. They also renewed demands to reform ICANN. A logical enough demand, on the face of it, after Snowden’s revelations revealed deeply flawed oversight systems over America’s spies. But the problem with dismantling ICANN is that it could lead to an increase in the control allowed to individual states not only over their own internet space — which they have already — but over the entire world wide web. In other words, Russia could block someone it doesn’t like in Germany by invoking an anti-terror clause and shutting down opponents’ domain name server, or DNS, the basic address book of the internet. Without a DNS, web pages become unfindable and effectively disappear.

The issue of who controls the internet will be debated at a major international conference next year, the biggest such confab since 2005. Strategically, Russia has clearly set its sights on two goals: wresting control of the internet away from the US, and creating a new definition of ‘cyber-terrorism’ that’s as loose as its own legislation on ‘extremism’, which has recently been used to prosecute eco-activists, peaceful protestors, independent media outlets and gay activists. Russia’s suggestion is to shift control of the internet away from ICANN to the International Telecommunication Union or ITU, the United Nations agency responsible for co-ordinating global use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits. The ITU’s basic charter guarantees freedom of access to the internet — except, crucially, in cases of cyber–terrorism. Over the last ten years Russia has tried three times in the UN and once in the Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to push through resolutions on cyber terror on the internet. But such legislation has been opposed by the US and Europe because ‘the only practical implications of such a move would be to allow countries to suppress dissent,’ says Alexander Klimburg, an adviser on cyber security to the OSCE.

Conservative values, international diplomacy, the architecture of the internet: apparently diverse areas where Russia is exercising international influence. They are all united by a common theme, the same one that is trumpeted very plainly by the Sochi Games: Russia is back as a major global player, and doesn’t care how much it costs to show it. The scheme has feet of clay, of course, as does Putin’s rule itself, insofar as it is founded on sky-high energy prices which are already beginning to tumble under the assaults of cheap shale gas and alternative energy. But for the time being at least, Putin has the means and now the plan to project Russian power, both hard and soft, beyond Russia’s borders for the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Comintern, Conservative, cyber terrorism, dissent, Gay rights, ICANN, ideology, Internet, Kremlin, Larry Jacobs, Moral Majority, OSCE, Pat Buchanan, Putin, Russia, Sergei Lavrov, Sochi, traditional values, Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych