Vladimir Putin is strategically weaponizing the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow’s drive to expand its sphere of influence in Africa. The Kremlin’s message of promoting traditional Christianity, supporting family values, opposing abortion, and rejecting same-sex marriage is striking a chord among morally conservative nations in Africa. 

Russia has been trying to charm Africa to support its war in Ukraine as well as for strategic reasons dating back to the days of the USSR. Russia has always presented itself to the region as a non-colonial alternative to partnerships with Western nations. By winning over satellite nations in Africa, Russia hopes to gain political support in the U.N. and access to commodities and resources such as gold from Sudan or uranium from Niger

Russia’s approach to Africa is multifaceted and strategic. It involves diplomatic programs such as Russia-Africa summits and bilateral visits. Economic partnerships in energy, trade, investment and arms sales are other means of increasing Russia’s footprint on the continent. Humanitarian and cultural programs, ranging from education and scholarships to aid initiatives, disaster relief, and cooperation on healthcare have also been utilized. 

Russia’s goal in relationship-building with African nations is to secure access to valuable resources, expand its economic opportunities, increase arms sales, strengthen its geopolitical influence, and counterbalance Western presence. Its diverse diplomatic and development activities in Africa may also improve Russia’s public image and help it counter Western dominance in international affairs.

Private Russian military company Wagner Group has led much of Moscow’s engagement with Africa. The company provides training for local armies, security for its leaders, and fights as a mercenary force in regional conflicts. Although Wagner has repeatedly been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including rape, torture, kidnapping, and killing civilians, the presence of Wagner has allowed countries like Mali to kick out their French or other Western security partners. 

The latest diplomatic offensive has been led by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The ROC has close ties to the Kremlin and operates in line with Moscow’s foreign policy by promoting state ideology at home and abroad. In December 2021, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa was established as the exarchate of the ROC on the continent. The Russian patriarchy was established within the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, who condemned the move as a form of neocolonialism. 

This statement from Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Department of External Church Relations (DECR) of the Russian Orthodox Church, is revealing of the church’s agenda:  “Christians in Africa need to be protected by Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, not of her own free will but by perforce.” 

Particularly in North Africa, where Christians are persecuted and killed by Muslims, the Russian Church feigns concern about protecting them from the Patriarch of Alexandria. The DECR claims that the Patriarchal Exarchate for Africa was created at the “requests of African clergy” rather than at the urging of the Kremlin.  

The statement also mentioned the 2018 schism between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the ROC. As Ukraine has nothing to do with Africa, using the schism as justification for the establishment of the Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa appears to be politically motivated. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has openly supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine, framing it as a battle against evil and Western decadence. The church is forcing Christians to take sides; if African nations choose the Russian Church, they must support the invasion. Opposing the invasion is tantamount to accepting the Church of Alexandria. 

The Patriarch has been presenting the Russian Church and, by implication, Moscow as the moral alternative to the West. They are communicating a conservative and anti-western message to African leaders, denouncing “moral relativism,” and the “destruction facing the institution of the traditional family.” The Patriarch also spoke out against liberal social issues such as euthanasia and same-sex marriage. This resonates with values conservative African cultures hold. Patriarch Kirill opposes abortion and identified gay marriage as a “sign of Apocalypse.” 

Putin cites LGBTQ and belief in more than two genders as threats to Russia’s continued existence. He also views the conflict in Ukraine as a struggle against progressive policies he believes could lead to humanity’s downfall. 

The 2021 National Security Strategy of Russia repeatedly highlighted traditional, spiritual, and moral principles. It underscored the importance of safeguarding family, upholding gender norms, and vilifying anyone diverging from heterosexual or family norms.

Moscow’s spiritual outreach is working. The Russian Church in Africa has nearly doubled in size since 2021, despite backing out of a deal to allow Ukrainian wheat exports to Africa and the Wagner Group’s crimes against humanity on the continent. These events have not gone unnoticed though – at this year’s Russia-Africa Summit, only 17 countries attended, as opposed to 43 in 2019. 

The threat of Western sanctions is preventing Russia from making a clean sweep across Africa. It appears that a new Cold War is building with an American-led Western alliance opposing a Russia/China-led bloc. Among the many tools at its disposal, the Russian side is using morality by effectively urging countries to join its side in opposing the degradation and decadence in the West that will end the world. 

This moralistic framing seems contradictory since the Russian war in Ukraine was sparked by the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation and Wagner’s human rights abuses and atrocities. But, the erosion of values, the waning influence of religion, and the deterioration of traditional family structures in the West is an undeniable reality. 

America and the West’s increasingly rapid slide towards extreme social progressivism has given Russia an opening to position itself as a guardian of morality. This narrative has also found traction within far-right circles in the United States, with some members of these far-right circles even support the Russian side in the Ukraine War. In order to counter the narrative of a decadent West, American foreign policy must become more amenable to the social conservatism that so much of Russia’s appeal to African nations depends on.