In some of the more conspiratorial corners of the internet, it can sometimes seem that far-right Russian political theorist Alexander Dugin has masterminded, not just Putin’s foreign policy of the last decade, but half the world’s crises. Dugin’s 1997 tome, Foundations of Geopolitics, is taken as a blueprint for the Kremlin’s latest moves, with Dugin himself—complete with flowing Orthodox beard—cast as the Rasputin-esque whisperer behind the throne.
Don’t buy it. Dugin is no oracle of Russian policy. He’s the tool of a cynical and opportunistic regime.
To be sure, Dugin has a penchant for predicting the future. In Foundations of Geopolitics, he declared that Ukraine makes no sense as a state and called for the eastern part of the country to be brought under Moscow’s control. He even correctly predicted the design of the separatist Donetsk Republic’s flag “two months before a contest was held to decide it,” according to Charles Clover in Black Wind, White Snow, a history of Russian nationalism published last year. Foundations also seems to anticipate last year’s Brexit vote, advising that the United Kingdom should be isolated from continental Europe.
Dugin also has a knack for turning up at the center of Russian conflicts. Two years ago, he was apparently instrumental in de-escalating tensions between Moscow and Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian jet. In 2008, he appeared in South Ossetia in the weeks before Russian and Georgian forces clashed over the breakaway enclave. Dugin is popular among the security types and propagandists who orbit Vladimir Putin. In fact, he spent years lecturing Russia’s future military leaders at the prestigious Academy of the General Staff.
Yet, for all Dugin seems to keep a thumb on the pulse of Kremlin policymaking, it would be a mistake to view him as the architect of Putin’s revanchist, nationalist Russia. Unlike certain other would-be authoritarians, Putin coopts and controls his ideologues, alternately sponsoring and abandoning them according to the needs of the moment. While the Kremlin has lately cast itself as conservative defender of “Western Civilization,” its tactics at home and abroad are opportunistic, cynical and ideologically agnostic. Instead, what never wavers is its commitment to maintaining the current, highly profitable regime, with Putin at the top.
While alleged Russian intervention on behalf of Donald Trump’s “outsider” campaign has generated headlines, the Kremlin has extended support to leftwing critics of the Washington establishment, too. As journalist Casey Michel has reported, Moscow courted Green Party candidate Jill Stein at the 2015 gala also attended by ousted Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Russia’s English-language broadcaster RT goes out of its way to air dissenting voices, including lefty activists and commentators who rarely if ever appear on CNN, MSNBC or Fox. As a rule, if you’ve got something critical to say about the US-backed “globalist” order, then RT would be glad to offer you a platform.
This ideological opportunism mirrors how Putin’s government has long sought to coopt its domestic opposition. In the ‘aughts, citing the lack of a “major alternative party,” the Kremlin merged several small parties into a single, government-approved opposition. British writer Peter Pomerantsev has written how, for years, the Kremlin would sponsor both human rights and nationalist groups, modern art exhibits and Orthodox demonstrations. After mass street protests rattled the regime in 2011–12, the Kremlin shifted toward more overt repression, but still harnesses the power of far-right nationalist groups that might otherwise prove a threat to the ruling elite. Moreover, these nationalist narratives help to legitimate the regime, which is where Dugin comes in.
Dugin’s own seesawing fortune reflects the Kremlin’s essential ambivalence toward his kind. Dugin’s star rises whenever relations between Russia and the West deteriorate and falls during periods of rapprochement. For example, he enjoyed his own talk show on Russian Radio until the Obama-era “reset” in U.S.–Russia relations, when he was fired. In 2014, Moscow State University removed him from his post as head of the sociology department, a move Dugin attributed to his “hard-line support for the separatists in Ukraine.” At the time, the Kremlin was seen to be shifting away from outright annexation of Ukraine’s separatist territories.
Far from “Putin’s brain” or “the crazy ideologue of the new Russian empire,” Dugin is just another tool in the Kremlin’s ideological toolbox. He and other ultranationalists undoubtedly have influence—but only as much as the Kremlin permits them. In the end, Putin’s coterie has no ideology other than its own preservation and enrichment. Looking to Dugin’s brand of blood and soil nationalism to predict Moscow’s next move would be a mistake.
Photo by Alan Trotter, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. National Bolsheviks protest in Moscow.