Putin’s Upper Hand: Cultural Domain Warfare

Frederik Rosén
April 24, 2024


The post-Cold War era witnessed a paradigm shift in understanding geopolitical conflict. George F. Kennan’s seminal 1947 article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” laid the groundwork for the Cold War strategy of containment by focusing on ideologies and state regimes. While Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 thesis, “The End of History?” continued that line of thinking, Samuel P. Huntington’s 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” turned the tables by arguing for civilizational differences and cultural regions as the underlying pattern of conflicts. Today’s global affairs appear even more complex than before, not least due to the current crumbling of nation-states. Yet, beneath the surface,  a fundamental difference exists in how cultural heritage and historical narratives are viewed. This clash is evident in the conflict between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic states. 

The Euro-Atlantics subscribe to a backward-looking and apolitical idea of cultural heritage, emphasizing the protection of authenticity and intrinsic value. In contrast, Russia maintains a forward-looking and dynamic conception of heritage as a political and ideological tool deeply tied to national security objectives.[1] This clash of perspectives explains the prominent role cultural heritage plays in Russian foreign policy and military conduct, compared to its relative absence in Euro-Atlantic strategies.

Following the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russian authorities immediately began to appropriate Ukrainian cultural heritage to establish cultural domination over the peninsula.[2] Concurrently, in 2016, amidst their assault on a European nation, they completed and inaugurated a large complex in downtown Paris. This complex housed both a Russian Orthodox Church and a Spiritual and Cultural Center, a mere 700 meters from the Eiffel Tower.[3] To view this project as an innocuous apostolic venture would be a demonstrably naive interpretation. The same year, President Putin assisted Syrian President Assad in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIL and then hauled an entire symphonic orchestra from Moskva to the warzone to perform a liberation concert amidst the ruins.[4] The ongoing Russian war against Ukraine continues to wreak havoc on historical buildings, churches, museums, collections, monuments, and other places and objects of cultural importance to the Ukrainian people. This destruction is accompanied by a relentless campaign of information warfare both at home and abroad to rewrite historical narratives, indoctrinate people, and legitimize mass atrocities.[5]

Russian National Security Strategies and Cultural Heritage

Russia’s weaponization of culture and cultural heritage is not a recent development. Post-Soviet Russian National Security Strategies have increasingly emphasized culture, cultural heritage, and historical narratives as national security issues. Boris Yeltsin’s 1997 National Security Concept mentions “the propagandization of the national cultural heritage.”[6] Similarly, Putin’s first strategic document, the Russian National Security Concept of 2000,[7] emphasizes the cultural heritage of all Russia’s people and the protection of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, culture, and historical memory. The 2009[8] and 2015[9] strategies also mention “unlawful infringements against cultural objects” as a main threat to national security. These documents highlight the need to counter external cultural and informational expansion and attempts to falsify history. The most recent strategy from 2021[10] expands significantly on this focus, emphasizing the preservation of both the material and immaterial cultural heritage of the Russian people. 

This emphasis on cultural matters extends beyond national security strategies. The Russian Humanitarian Policy of 2022 resembles a complete foreign policy concept for the cultural domain. However, it is oddly framed as humanitarian cooperation, a concept usually associated with human security.  Similarly, the Russian 2023 Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation specifies certain provisions of the National Security Strategy, further emphasizing moral and spiritual values alongside historical and cultural heritage as key national security domains.[11]

While Russian National Security Strategies may appear somewhat disjointed, these documents nonetheless suggest a robust notion of cultural heritage and historical narratives, including religious and spiritual values. The latter reflects a Soviet-era practice of thinking spiritually in terms of national ethos. 

Euro-Atlantic National Security Strategies and Cultural Heritage 

In the Euro-Atlantic camp, Russia’s conduct in the cultural domain is condemned as propaganda, manipulation, brainwashing, and information warfare. However, Russian authorities dismiss such critiques with indifference and frame their actions as national security matters. While the Euro-Atlantics criticize Russia for “weaponizing” cultural heritage, a more noteworthy issue is their near-total omission of this aspect of national security. The 2022 National Security Strategy of the United States,[12] for instance, does not mention culture or cultural heritage. Similarly, cultural heritage is not linked to national security objectives in US national disaster management documents. 

The same applies to nearly all other Euro-Atlantic states. The United Kingdom’s 2010 National Security Strategy[13] briefly mentions cultural assets and cultural authority as levelers for British international aspirations, and the 2015 UK Defense and Security Review[14] mentions cultural links to other parts of the world. The emphasis lies on cultural dialogues and the British imperial ethos as a tool for diplomacy and trade, not culture. Italy, despite its active role in heritage protection internationally, has no mention of cultural heritage in its key strategic documents. Furthermore, while the 2022 French National Security Review[15] briefly mentions culture among other disputed spheres, it does not consider culture as a separate national security issue. Only Poland’s 2020 National Security Strategy[16] stands out with a dedicated section on instruments and procedures for “the protection of cultural heritage in the event of a looming war or crisis.”

 European Union 

The European Union’s (EU) security strategies have largely overlooked the role of culture and cultural heritage within the bloc. The 2003 European Security Strategy[17] mentions cultural ties, relations, and dialogue but not European culture or cultural heritage. Similarly, the 2016 Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy[18] omits culture and cultural heritage, although it acknowledges culture as an inroad “to counter violent extremism.” It also briefly mentions the necessity to “fight the illegal trafficking of cultural goods and natural resources.” 

A more recent development, however, suggests a shift in the EU’s approach. In 2021, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council adopted an EU strategic approach to cultural heritage in conflicts and crises. The Council described the approach as “adding cultural heritage to the EU’s foreign policy toolbox and providing a new political and operational framework on cultural heritage for peace.”[19] However, this approach focuses on external conflicts. It does not explicitly address culture or cultural heritage on European soil, and its primary aim appears to be protection and safeguarding. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has no policy on cultural heritage. The NATO Secretary General’s Annual Report from 2019 briefly acknowledges that “Cultural Property and its protection can constitute a crucial element in strategic, operational, and tactical considerations.”[20] However, the emphasis remains on protection. A profound skepticism endures among Allied Nations and across NATO’s organizations regarding the inclusion of cultural heritage as a thematic focus of NATO’s security outlook. Although NATO recognizes “Cultural Property Protection” as part of its Human Security framework, concrete internal implementation strategies remain underdeveloped. 

Worldviews Apart

There is a striking contrast between how Russia and the Euro-Atlantics approach the relationship between culture and security in their key strategic documents. This indicates a fundamental difference in foreign policy and military outlooks. Euro-Atlantic countries generally do not consider culture and cultural heritage as a security domain. When heritage is examined in relation to security, it is primarily viewed through the lens of protection and preservation. Comparatively, Russia views heritage in the context of strategy and survival. 

This difference is completely overlooked in academic discourse. In 2022, leading scholars of cultural heritage in armed conflict released three anthologies.[21] While these scholars highlight Russia’s weaponization of cultural heritage, they fail to engage with the Russian perspective, often operating under the assumption that an apolitical, universal view of heritage is the only legitimate one. 

This neglect is surprising considering the historic importance of cultural heritage in Russian public policy.  During the Cold War, anxieties about the spread of communism focused heavily on popular ideology and beliefs or, in other words, culture.[22] This continued in the post-Cold War idea of a “clash of civilizations.” However, the neglect also reflects a broader Western academic bias and the lack of cultural and intellectual exchange between Soviet and Western experts during the Cold War. The field of heritage studies only started blossoming after 1990, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the anticipated shift towards a free-market economy and democracy in Russia.[23] This marginalization of heritage studies in the West further hampered understanding of its centrality to Russian policy. 

The Historical Perspective 

Russian perspectives on cultural heritage, international politics, and conflicts remain surprisingly unexplored and seemingly misunderstood despite their historical significance. Yet they appear consistent for at least a century. Cultural heritage as a political and ideological domain formed a major intellectual theme in the Soviet Union from the very beginning. The Soviet cultural revolution, taking off in the 1920s, recognized the political nature of cultural heritage for anchoring and remodeling historical narratives and its importance for the survival of the Soviet Union. As one scholar aptly describes, heritage served as a “raw material for the construction of USSR” by recasting history and underpinning Soviet political programs.[24]

This understanding of heritage as an issue of international politics and security persisted during the Cold War. In the 1950s, even before joining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Soviet authorities viewed the organization with suspicion. They contended that “under the flag of cosmopolitanism, UNESCO preaches and defends the policy of American aspirants to World dominion.”[25] During the 1960s, the Soviet delegation to UNESCO continuously complained that Western leaders perceived UNESCO as an apolitical organization promoting the fields of education, culture, and science. From the Soviet perspective, the organization had to be political to fulfill its primary objective of strengthening peace and security in the world. They, therefore, criticized UNESCO for neglecting the social and political dimensions of culture.[26]

A Fundamental Rift

A fundamental difference persists between the Euro-Atlantic and Russian political visions of cultural heritage. Russian authorities consistently view heritage through a national security lens, wielding it as a political and ideological tool. In contrast, NATO countries and other European nations maintain a romantic emphasis on authenticity, intrinsic value, protection, and conservation. 

This Eurocentric approach leads to a misinterpretation of Russia’s actions. Russia is criticized for weaponizing cultural heritage and disregarding the Western idea of its inherent, apolitical value. This critique often carries an undercurrent of Western superiority, suggesting a civilizational distinction where only Russia and its allies employ such tactics. However, this self-righteous stance prevents the West from understanding the geopolitical role of cultural heritage and its connection to rivalry and wars. This raises critical questions about deflection and deterrence capabilities when facing Russian (and potentially other) forms of aggression in the cultural domain. 

Russia’s vocal and proactive approach forms a mirror for the West’s naivete and failure to recognize and act on a most fundamental conflict zone. A shift in Western thinking is necessary. This does not advocate for the demolishing of cultural heritage as a war tactic, but rather for acknowledging its growing prominence as a strategic element of conflict and war. Ultimately, this clash reveals a larger battle about history and historical narratives, used to legitimatize invasions and mass atrocities. This battle for cultural dominance shapes global politics and warrants similar consideration as the grand theories of Kennan and Huntington: It was always about heritage, wasn’t it?


Frederik Rosén is the Director of the Nordic Center for Cultural Heritage and Armed Conflict, Denmark, and Visiting Scholar at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, U.S.


[1] Julie DeSchepper, "Soviet Heritage from the USSR to Putin’s Russia. Genealogy of a concept." Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 137 (2018): 77-98.

[2] UNESCO Executive Board, "Follow-up to decisions and resolutions adopted by the Executive Board and the General Conference at their previous sessions, part I: Programme issues, E. Follow-up of the situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (Ukraine)” (Paris: UNESCO), 212 EX/5.I.E (2021).

[3] "A new Orthodox church next to the Eiffel Tower boosts Russian soft power." The Economist, December 5 (2016).

[4] "Palmyra hosts Russian concert after recapture by Syrian forces." The Time, May 5 (2016).

[5] Daniel Schultz and Christopher Jasparro, "How Does Russia Exploit History and Cultural Heritage for Information Warfare? Recommendations for NATO." Washington: Antiquities Coalition, Policy Brief No. 11 (2022).

[6] President of Russia, "National Security Concept of the Russian Federation." Moscow: Kremlin (1997). https://www.jstor.org/stable/44963336

[7] President of Russia, "Russian National Security Concept of 2000." Moscow: Kremlin (2000). https://www.bits.de/EURA/natsecconc.pdf

[8] President of Russia, "National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation." Moscow: Kremlin (2009). http://mepoforum.sk/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/NDS-RF-2009-en.pdf

[9] President of Russia, "Russian National Security Strategy." Moscow: Kremlin (2015). https://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/OtrasPublicaciones/Internacional/2016/Russian-National-Security-Strategy-31Dec2015.pdf

[10] President of Russia, "Strategy of the National Security of the Russian Federation." Moscow: Kremlin (2021). https://rusmilsec.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/nss_rf_2021_eng_.pdf

[11] President of Russia, "The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation." Moscow: Kremlin (2023). https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/fundamental_documents/1860586/

[12] President of the United States, “National Security Strategy”. Washington: White House (2022). https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.

[13] Prime Minister of United Kingdom, "A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy." London: Downing Street (2010). https://www.gov.uk/government/news/national-security-strategy

[14] The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. "National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom." London: Downing Street (2015). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/478933/52309_Cm_9161_NSS_SD_Review_web_only.pdf

[15] President of France. "France National Strategic Review." Paris: Élysée Palace (2022). https://www.sgdsn.gouv.fr/files/files/rns-uk-20221202.pdf

[16] President of Poland, "National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland." Warsaw (2020). https://www.bbn.gov.pl/ftp/dokumenty/National_Security_Strategy_of_the_Republic_of_Poland_2020.pdf

[17] European Council, "European Security Strategy (ESS)." Brussels (2003). https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/documents-publications/publications/european-security-strategy-secure-europe-better-world/

[18] European Council, "The Global Strategy for the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union." Brussels (2016). https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/global-strategy-european-unions-foreign-and-security-policy_en

[19] European Council,"The EU strategic approach to cultural heritage in conflicts and crises." Brussels (2021). https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/50557/st09837-en21.pdf

[20] Frederik Rosén, "NATO and Cultural Property. A Hybrid Threat Perspective." PRISM - Journal of Complex Operations 10, 3 (2023).

[21] Timothy Clark and Mark Dunkley, ed., Cultural Heritage in Modern Conflict Past, Propaganda, Parade. London: Routledge (2023); James Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss, ed., Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities. Los Angeles: Getty Publications (2022); Claire Finkelstein, Derek Gillman, and Frederik Rosén, ed., The Preservation of Art and Culture in Times of War. New York: Oxford University Press (2022)

[22] Frederik Rosén, "Cold War Rhetorics and Psychoanalytical Culture. Sigmund Freud, George F. Kennan and the Early Cold War Years." KRITIK 166 )2003).

[23] William H. Honan, "Sovietologists, Years After the Collapse, Cope With a New Reality." New York Times, March 13 (1966); Cohen, Stephen F., “Russian Studies Without Russia.” Post-Soviet Affairs, 15:1 (1999)

[24] Ėleazar Aleksandrovich Baller, Communism and Cultural Heritage. Moscow: Progress (1984).

[25] John A. Armstrong, “The Soviet Attitude toward UNESCO”. International Organization 8, 2 (1954).

[26] Corinne Geering, "Protecting the heritage of humanity in the Cold War: UNESCO, the Soviet Union and sites of universal value, 1945–1970s." International Journal of Heritage Studies, 26 (2020): 1132-1147.