Those who have followed Russian foreign policy in the past five years have probably heard of Aleksandr Dugin. The shaggy, bearded philosopher with a penchant for geopolitics, mysticism, Western neo-Nazis, conspiracy theories, and the occult has been described as both “Putin’s Rasputin” and “Putin’s brain.”
Following the Russian Federation’s 2008 invasion of the Republic of Georgia, 2014 annexation of Crimea, and prolonged hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, Dugin has become infamous amongst journalists as the Machiavellian mastermind behind Putin’s chauvinist foreign policies. Dugin, his work, and his purported influence on Kremlin elites have been discussed seriously by everybody from the likes of Richard Spencer to Glenn Beck.
Dugin, the intellectual leader of Neo-Eurasianism, is anti-globalist, anti-Western, and anti-liberalism. To meaningfully unpack his idiosyncratic worldview requires hefty analysis. Dugin’s writings on geopolitics, most of which are not translated into English, are deliberately esoteric and “mystical and occult in nature.” Dugin is a fan of traditionalism, mystic spirituality, the realist foreign policy paradigm, and partial reconstitution of the Soviet Union (but not communism). Dugin is an enigmatic man with scary ideas, but is he really the Kremlin’s geopolitical tactician? A more than surface-deep look into the Russian zeitgeist reveals that Aleksander Dugin, as controversial and reprehensible as he is, is not the mastermind many in the West frequently and mistakenly make him out to be.
Correlation should never be conflated with causation. Many casual Russia observers and armchair Kremlinologists ascribe grand power to the controversial philosopher using speculative evidence based in hearsay. While Dugin does enjoy some publicity in Russia, his personal eccentrics and appearance of influence, coupled with Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, facilitated the plausible narrative in a Western media echo chamber that Dugin is Putin’s strategist.
This myth has grown grossly out of proportion. As a result, Dugin is granted far more credibility than deserved. Proponents of the “Dugin the mastermind” argument need to substantiate their claims with evidence and ask themselves how effective, if at all, is Dugin at influencing Kremlin elites and Russian foreign policy.
It is a legitimate question that is difficult for those who have limited regional experience or expert knowledge of analyzing Russian leadership. To be fair, the ability of a Western observer to accurately determine the difference between Dugin’s perceived popularity versus his actual influence on Kremlin elites is a challenging task that most, including myself, are ill-equipped to answer. A larger reassessment of Dugin’s purported influence is in order.
It is easy to understand why some may conclude that Dugin is influential. Dugin, after all, is a household name in Russia and a reasonably popular author. He has connections to Russia’s military and intelligence services; his “geopolitics textbook,” Foundations of Geopolitics, reportedly is required reading at Russian military academies,[i] and he used to work as the head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations of the Faculty of Sociology of the Moscow State University.
A causal link seems plausible to many because elements of Dugin’s ramblings resemble real strategies Russian intelligence services employ. One prominent example is how Russian intelligence services exacerbate tensions on historical social cleavages, such as race to sow discord in the United States.[ii] That said, just because Dugin prescribes certain strategies that are present in Russian policy does not mean that Dugin was the policy’s inspiration or catalyst. I would underscore that Russian intelligence services’ efforts to provoke social strife and chaos within the US has a long history that predates Dugin and that Kremlin policymakers simply ignore many of Dugin’s recommendations. Occam’s razor suggests that in Dugin’s case, a broken clock is still right twice day; Dugin at best sometimes describes Russian policy, but to assign Dugin causality is entirely speculative, especially when many of Dugin’s recommended policies have a precedent in the Kremlin’s policy toolbox.
Short of having direct access to the echelons of power in Putin’s Russia, one must resort to experts who are better equipped to assess Dugin’s real influence (or lack thereof). Evidence suggests Kremlin elites don’t take Dugin seriously. According to a colleague with experience in analysis of Russian military leadership, affairs, and doctrine, Dugin receives more attention in the West than in Russia. He told me, “I hear a lot more about [Dugin] in the West than Russia. It’s like the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ that doesn’t really exist.”
Another colleague of mine who studied international relations from the perspective of the Russian Federation at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a premier Russian institute of higher learning famous for educating Russia’s spies and political elite and once called the “Harvard of Russia” by Henry Kissinger, provided similar insights. According to her, not once were Dugin, his writings, or his ideas ever referenced in syllabi, classroom discussions, or personal conversations with Russian thinkers, students, or university faculty.
Exercising my own judgement, I can say that from my own discussions with Russian scholars, academic discussions on this field within Russia do not fixate on Dugin, but instead focus on mainstream names in international relations theory: Hans Morgenthau, John Mearsheimer, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Joseph Nye, etc.— Dugin is not really included amongst their ranks.
Further, per my interactions with Russia and intelligence experts with personal experience in Russian leadership analysis, it is easy to overestimate the influence of Dugin on Putin’s Kremlin. Expert consensus holds that Dugin’s ideological influence peaked over a decade ago and that only an increasingly small group of intellectuals seriously consider him. Dugin was perhaps influential in the late nineties and early aughts due to his connections to Russian intelligence services.[iii] However, the Kremlin doesn’t take Dugin seriously today. He remains marginally relevant because he functions as a type of informal diplomat to the Western far-right, not dissimilar to how the Kremlin uses Vladimir Zhironovsky, the head of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (which is anything but what the name implies), as a court jester in the Duma to see how the West reacts to his excessively provocative statements. In this sense, Dugin, like Zhironovsky, serves no practical policymaking purposes, but is rendered somewhat useful as an informal instrument of engagement with strategic foreign audiences, such as fringe far-right thought leaders in the West.
Dugin’s sensationalized media coverage does not equate to power or real influence. Dugin found himself in hot water in 2014 when he openly advocated the genocide of Ukrainians, arguing that Putin’s approach regarding Ukraine is insufficiently aggressive.[iv] As a result of his comments, Dugin was fired from his prestigious post at Moscow State University, where he evidently did not have enough pull with elites to save his job.
The arguments presented here agree with the conclusions of multiple academic studies. According to a 2017 RAND study, Dugin exerts little influence on Russian policymakers and elites:
China poses a threat to Russia, so Dugin recommends seeking assistance from Korea, Vietnam, India, and Japan to ensure the “territorial disintegration, splintering and the political and administrative partition of the [Chinese] state.” With the possible exception of Ukraine, these do not appear to be realistic concepts that have any significant buy-in from Russian officials. Furthermore, while Dugin is reported to have connections and ties with Russian officials, including the Russian military leadership, and although Russian leaders may cite his work or ideas, it does not appear that he is directly influential in Russian policymaking. He is perhaps best thought of as an extremist provocateur with some limited and peripheral impact than as an influential analyst with a direct impact on policy. He does not appear to have direct involvement with the major political parties—such as United Russia, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Rodina—advocating anti-Western and aggressive regional policies. He was also removed from his position at Moscow State University after calling for the killing of Ukrainian nationalists, and he has offered significant criticism of Putin’s policies in Ukraine.
A thorough analysis of Dugin published by Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute reaches similar conclusions:
Dugin thus largely outweighs small intellectual groups that pursue their own Neo-Eurasianist reflections without having any direct access to a larger public. He can be considered today as the principal theoretician of Neo-Eurasianism… He bases his ideology on conspiracy theories, presenting the new world order as a “spider web” in which globalized actors hide in order to better accomplish their mission. Dugin even dedicated a whole book to what he calls conspirology. The ideas expressed in it are contradictory. He harshly criticizes the presuppositions about Jewish, freemason, Marxist etc. conspiracies held by numerous left- and right-wing political groups, but he also shares some of their ideas… Paradoxically, Dugin is isolated within the nationalist currents. He is their only substantial thinker, and his theories inspire numerous public figures and movements. At the same time, his theoretical position is too complex for any party to follow him entirely and turn him into its official thinker. He is also disturbing for the entire camp of Russian nationalism on several points: he condemns populism, which is central to the strategies of the main figures: Ziuganov, Zhirinovskii, and Eduard Limonov. The various nationalist currents do not recognize him as their ideologist… Dugin’s intellectual eclecticism assures him a certain degree of success among the young generation, revealing post-Soviet Russia’s lack of foundations of identity. His occultist leanings, his exacerbated religious sensibility, his rejection of communist ideology but not of the Soviet experience, as well as his ahistorical discourse about Russian grandeur, are his attractive points… Attempts to classify such a doctrine and personality inevitably remain guesswork.
Dugin’s ideas are undoubtedly dangerous and should not be taken lightly. That said, Dugin receives far more attention and credibility from the likes of Lauren Southern and the Western alt-right than from Kremlin policymakers. Dugin fascinates the alt-right with his anti-liberal, anti-globalist, Eurosceptic, and nationalistic rhetoric. These useful idiots along with reactionary journalists grant Dugin far more coverage and legitimacy in the West than the Kremlin elites over which he supposedly wields much influence. The result is impressionable Western observers concluding that Dugin is an ideological leader when he isn’t. If you want to understand who truly influences the Kremlin, look to conservative Russian Orthodox activist and oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who bankrolled Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine, and the early twentieth-century Slavophilic philosopher Ivan Ilyin.
Dugin has no real pull in the Kremlin. His illusions of grandeur are bolstered by his reputation in the Western blogosphere. By placing the marginal under a microscope, Western journalists have ascribed to Dugin great influence that just isn’t there. It’s time the “Dugin the mastermind” myth be put to pasture.
George Barros is a Washington-based analyst who concentrates on Ukraine and Russia. He previously worked as a foreign policy advisor for a former member of Congress who served on the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. He holds a degree in International Relations and Russian & Post-Soviet Studies from the College of William and Mary.
Photo credit: Aleksandr Dugin speaking on Tsargrad TV. Source: Tsargrad TV
[i] It is widely reported that Foundations of Geopolitics is required reading in Russian military academies. At best we can only presume it is required reading. Besides a plethora of journalistic hearsay, I have not been able to find any evidence or reliable sources indicating that Foundations of Geopolitics is required reading. The vast majority of journalistic citations to Foundations of Geopolitics are based off of this Wikipedia page, which is by no means authoritative or reliable. In my own open-source analysis I found a 2004 blog post in which Dugin praises the growth of interest in geopolitics as an academic field of study. In the post Dugin thanks a Lieutenant General Nikolai Pavlovich Klokotov, the long-time head of the Department of Military Strategy at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, for being a research consultant and advisor for the book. Dugin also states that a required course in geopolitics in Russian military academies “is being planned” for the following academic year. Dugin makes no indication that Foundations of Geopolitics will be a part of the planned course curriculum for this class. If any readers have evidence or insider knowledge that Foundations of Geopolitics is indeed used as required reading in Russian military academies, please enlighten me.
[ii] According to John Dunlop’s analysis of Foundations of Geopolitics, Dugin writes, “It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements—extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the US. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.” This is by no means a novel activity, as the KGB was involved in such active measures activities well before Dugin’s time.
[iii] Dugin’s father was an officer in the GRU.
[iv] Dugin wrote the following on social media following the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv: “We should clean up Ukraine from the idiots. The genocide of these cretins is due and inevitable… I can’t believe these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are wonderful Slavonic people. And this is a race of bastards that emerged from the sewers.”