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The cooler Cold War

Putin’s cynical pose as a defender of traditional Christian values and persecuted Christians in the Middle East is part and parcel of this new, cooler Cold War attack on the cognitive security of the West– and too many Christian conservatives have swallowed that noxious bait.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July, 7. (CNS photo/Handout via Reuters)

The claim that “the Cold War is over” and that the West needs a “new paradigm” for relations with Russia has become an antiphon in some conservative political circles – not least conservative Christian circles. The call for serious and creative thinking about Russia is welcome and sensible. The claim that the Cold War is over is not, because Vladimir Putin never got that memo. Ignoring that reality  means danger in devising any new paradigm.

Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy with a post-modern difference, for the veteran KGB man is far more clever and deft than the reptilian characters who preceded him (think Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko). Yes, he wants to reverse history’s verdict in 1989 (when the Soviet external empire liberated itself) and 1991 (when the USSR disintegrated). But he knows he can’t compete with the West as the old Bolsheviks tried to do when they promoted communism as a humane alternative to liberal democracy. And he knows that, in the digital age, information – including fake “information” – is power.

So while the Putin regime is not averse to brutality when it can get away with it (e.g., murdering domestic political opponents like Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov), its international tactics in this new, cooler Cold War are more discreet.  Those tactics include polluting the global information space with disinformation through overt instruments like the television network, Russia Today, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kremlin propagandists. But the even more insidious (and far larger) Russian attack on the global information eco-system comes through various cyber-warfare tools. Thus the Putin regime deploys an army of internet trolls who, supplemented by bots, generate a vast amount of traffic on Facebook and Twitter, spreading lies and propaganda across the globe.

Very few people in the West grasp the reality, much less the magnitude, of this threat to what might be called “cognitive security:” the capacity of Western populations to see things as they are, including things going on in our own societies. In today’s social media world, virality and frequency – how much does your stuff get around and how often is it repeated – can easily get confused with veracity (i.e., truth), especially among millennials whose information-space is social media.

In this campaign, Putin & Co. have adapted a method they’ve long used for domestic political control – polluting the information environment – for an international audience. It’s not the same old same old, however, for the Russian strategic approach has changed. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet propaganda promoted the glories of the Russian Revolution and the emerging workers’ state – and did so with considerable success because of the gullibility (and worse) of Western intellectuals and journalists. Today’s Russian propaganda isn’t aimed at promoting Russia, though; its purpose is to undermine and demoralize us, destabilizing Western societies by throwing election results into question, creating suspicions about Western intelligence services, and generally mucking things up.

Further, Putin & Co. have abandoned ideological chastity, being rather wanton about the political company they keep. They’ve supported far-right groups in Europe (including France’s Marine Le Pen) as well as more traditional far-left allies. The ideas promoted by the political parties and movements the Russians support are entirely secondary to Russian calculations about how much disruption within and among Western states those parties and movements can cause.

Putin’s cynical pose as a defender of traditional Christian values and persecuted Christians in the Middle East is part and parcel of this new, cooler Cold War attack on the cognitive security of the West– and too many Christian conservatives have swallowed that noxious bait. Then there is the current Vatican Ostpolitik: Russian Orthodox Church leaders have been prominent actors in Putin’s war of propaganda and disinformation, yet the ecumenical efforts of the Holy See seem premised on the wish that these churchmen are not what they manifestly are – agents of Russian state power.

The exhaustion of Western political culture and the devolution of ground-level politics in the North Atlantic world into a shouting match between the forces of political correctness and the forces of a new “populism” make us singularly vulnerable to this cooler Cold War. That this vulnerability has emerged a mere twenty-five years after the communist crack-up is something else to ponder in this summer of our discontent.

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About George Weigel 491 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Today’s Russia appears more like Spectre keeping out of sight by appearing to run a country, and Putin like some Russian Ernst Stavro Blofeld allying himself with any dastardly dude he can in order to create chaos. It seems a very innovative form of organized piracy; it doesn’t rely on the old power structure of land control (at least not yet) but just the power to disrupt so that in the end you can be the biggest disrupter that all the other littler disrupters rely upon.

  2. Again it’s the theme of Redemption. Two ‘unsavory’characters one boasting of his license to outrageously grab women because of his fame. Putin former KGB Colonel operative E Germany and protege of infamous Soviet Chairman and former KGB czar Andropov, the same man who was apparently responsible for the assassination attempt on John Paul II. Trump has a marvelous agenda. Defends Catholic freedom of religion. Against abortion. Putin had the body of a former Christian adversary of Stalin and communism exiled from Russia exhumed and returned to Russia, and has personally ordered hundreds of Christian churches rebuilt. Putin is strongly opposed to homosexuality, the scourge of the placid innocuous West and even now the Catholic Church supported by a host of Cardinals, Bishops appointed by the “Who am I to judge Pontiff”. God will judge. The Cool Cold War is the hangover of G Weigel who can’t extract himself from the real Cold War and the absolute forever judgment of the evil of a Russia that has made remarkable change for the better. If we follow this tired view where will it bring us? At least Trump has vision of possible redemption of persons and a future. Unlike his rabid adversaries on the Left.

    • Father, Russia is pushing the idea that they are big on Christianity. In fact, they are not. The Russian Orthodox Church and Putin have made a deal with the devil, whereby Putin funds the church and the Church does not object when he invades countries, murders journalists and enemies, and fixes elections so that he wins all the time. It is all a bit of a sham. For example, Russia recently passed a law outlawing any evangelizing unless it is by the Russian Orthodox Church. The following article may be instructive. While the Russian Orthodox church has been elevated, any non-state-Russian church has effectively been outlawed. So long as the Russian Orthodox Church serves as an arm of the state, it will be used. Christ is secondary to Russia.

      • Perhaps my focus on positive change in the former Soviet Union gives a mistaken impression. Certainly Vlad Putin is not a candidate for beatification. He’s still has a KGB mentality and is more a nationalist. We, the West missed our chance to draw Russia toward the West politically following Gorbachev and the Yeltsin presidency. Bush 43 instead following his neocon advisers pushed NATO Eastward attempting to establish NATO alliance in Georgia, the Ukraine, into the heart of the former Sov Union. That posed a serious threat, historically based to Russia. Following WW I France established the Cordon Sanitaire, an alliance of E European States in opposition to the USSR to contain the Soviet Union. Stalin’s pact with Hitler to invade Poland and its occupation of E Europe was linked to that fear hostile States on its borders. When the USSR collapsed Crimea long an historical claim [remember the Crimean War 1853]was given to Ukraine as bargaining to retain control of nuclear facilities in the Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine where the fighting and incursions are is ethnically Russian not Ukrainian. When Muslim Chechnya rebelled the US sided with Chechnya. Russia has a large population of Sunni Muslims prone to radicalism. That accounts for their backing Shiite Iran and Alawite [a branch of Shia Islam] Syria. Trump is seeking to weaken that alliance more by criticism that force. Vlad Putin in my estimation can be dealt with. Strength to strength but without mutual provocation, or continuing to press NATO further East. We’re at a point where we, the worlds two nuclear super powers to either return to being implacable dangerous enemies as before or to seek a rational accommodation. Putin stated recently don’t expect Russia to mirror Am democracy at this stage. Adding Russia needs more time. Personally I believe he prefers Russia to become more Western Culturally. True the Orthodox religious alliance is mutually beneficial. A trade off. Perhaps with evil purpose as you claim. Russia nonetheless is not the USSR under Stalin. Pres Trump deserves credit in seeking a path to reconciliation and hopefully a viable partnership.
        Name *

    • The collapse of the Soviet state does not inherently equate to “remarkable change for the better.” Under Putin and his cronies it operates as a semi-authoritarian state that marginalizes, intimidates, or permanently silences dissenting voices. On the religious front Putin’s regime regularly obstructs or undermines the activities of Christian churches that aren’t the Orthodox Church. And I wouldn’t get too excited about the return and reburial of one Christian critic of Stalin, when the Russian view of that murderous monster continues to become more and more positive (!!!) during the Putin era. Fr Morello, you should know better than this silliness.

      And for the record, it is possible to hold BOTH Putin and the current crew in Vatican City in low regard.

  3. It’s not terribly surprising that Russia (and others) might attempt to exploit our weaknesses and work to sensitize people in the west to our rather glaring government failures and structural problems. The cleverness of this strategy is that it actually does work because the problems being exposed are real, and we are vulnerable. A reasonable solution to this problem will not be found in foolishly trying to “silence the messenger” or even in trying to produce our own, better, propaganda. A serious, mature solution will come from acknowledging that the problems do exist, we might thank the Russians for illuminating them, and then apply comprehensive solutions that address the fundamental causes rather than simply a bandaid on the symptoms.

  4. Simple exaggerated Jesuit-style propaganda. Perhaps Herr Weigel could write about how the Vatican helped to fan the flames of Yugoslavia’s civil war by being the first to recognise (Roman Catholic) Croatia prematurely, when it should have waited, and advised restraint. As for the snide comment about ‘Russia Today’, it is insulting. I have been interviewed at leass twenty times over the past two years, on their live news programmes,and have never been told what to say. Indeed, I find their producers bsically honest, more honest than many at CNN and even BBC World. Weigel is but part of the neo-Macarthyism currently in fashion in the USA.Now that Communism is no longer the issue in Russia, Weigel et al are barely suppressing their anti-Christian Ortodox prejudices, disguising it in anti-Communism. U=I hope that yu are able to publish this. If not, then so much for balance…..

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