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28 July 2015

Do not underestimate the power of Dugin

Aleksandr Dugin and the resurgence of identity politics

Since the annexation of Crimea in particular, Aleksandr Dugin has attracted much more attention in Western publications than usual. Often depicted as Putin’s chief ideologue and touted for his Eurasianist ideology, some have said his influence in the Kremlin is in fact overstated. Below I argue that his real value in terms of foreign policy lies elsewhere, namely in his deft understanding of sensitive topics in European national identities and his good relations with European nationalists, far right groups, and anti-EU/NATO movements, through which he exploits divisions and furthers Russian foreign policy goals.

A philosopher and political scientist, Dugin is the face of a new wave of ‘Eurasianism,’ a geopolitical theory infused with mysticism and nationalism. He was until recently a professor at Moscow State University and is a known friend and ally of nationalist and far-right groups throughout Europe. Recently, both he himself and his far-right youth group, Eurasian Youth Union, have been targeted by US sanctions, being under suspicion of recruiting fighters for pro-Russian militias in Ukraine. Dugin was one of the loudest voices in favor of the annexation of Crimea, as well as an early resuscitator of the term ‘Novorossiya,’ used mainly by those who want to see the entire southern part of Ukraine returned to Russia, or, at the very least, become an independent body within Russia’s sphere of influence.

He has become more prominent since 2000, as Russia’s post-Cold War identity crisis began to morph into new great power aspirations. Proclamations of the country’s derzhavnost (great power status) have become part of official discourse since. Another reason to take him seriously is that he has often correctly anticipated foreign policy vectors, such as Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.

What is Eurasianism?

At the end of the Cold War, Russian foreign policy could have taken one of three broad directions.

The first, associated with Gorbachev’s New Thinking, advocated international cooperation through international institutions to form the foundation of national security. It was wholly abandoned in the face of hostility from former Soviet republics, insecurity triggered by the wars in the Balkans, and the huge disillusionment experienced by a Russian society which expected a Marshall Plan-type helping hand that never came.

Secondly, the realists predicated the need to achieve a balance of power with the West. Yeltsin’s ‘spheres of influence’ reflected this security paradigm, which has not vanished and still carries significant weight among Russian political and military officials. There is a strong case to be made that this is in fact the dominant view in the Kremlin.

Of the third school of thought, referred to by some scholars as ‘revolutionary expansionism,’ the most notable strain is Eurasianism. It predicates geopolitical and cultural expansion as the only means of guaranteeing security for the Russian state, and is heavily influenced by early 20th century geopolitical theorists such as Halford Mackinder.

Dugin’s Eurasianism views history as a constant struggle between empires. More specifically, it advocates the need for a land-based, Eurasian Empire, with Russia at its core, to counter the destructive geopolitics of the maritime, Atlantic (or Anglo-American) imperialism. The fundamental difference between the two comes directly from geography, which supposedly defines the actual physical makeup of ethnicities: while shorelines produce mercantile, sea-based cultures focused on markets and resources, land and forest bind cultures to the soil, creating the ‘hero’ archetype.

The Eurasian strategic bloc would span “from Lisbon to Tokyo.” Creating such a colossal bloc would involve a reassessment of Germany’s geopolitical status (something it has proved reluctant to do) and a redivision of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe between Russia and Germany. Implicit in this is the ousting of American influence from the continent, an absolute necessity in the grand Eurasianist scheme. While Europe itself is a distinct civilization with its own interests, it can be relied upon as an ally in the confrontation against the Atlanticists.

Thus, Eastern Europe would have to be turned into a ‘cordon sanitaire.’ The metaphor itself is very revealing, considering that the cordon is meant to prevent infection, which in our case refers to the spread of liberalism to Russia. The Kremlin is already highly suspicious of civil society groups and NGOs which it sees as a fifth column supported by and working in the pernicious interests of Washington and Brussels. Furthermore, Ukraine would have to be dismantled, while in the long run the creation of a Balkan Federation united by a common Orthodox heritage would constitute an important blow to Atlanticist interests.

Divide and conquer

This might all sound like a fairy tale to many people. Current Russian foreign policy is indeed more likely to be explained as a whole by realism, as leaders seek to redress an imbalance of power with NATO.

Dugin’s connection with key European groups which share a distinct anti-EU and anti-American vision is crucial, however, when placed alongside the resurgence of identity politics in Europe and the lack of mainstream party support for Russia. His preferred tactic is divide-and-conquer, inflaming both national sentiments and revanchism and exploiting the Eastern-Western division within Europe.

A partner of fringe groups in Europe, he was also a guest of Adrian Nastase, the former Romanian Prime Minister which has served time in prison for corruption and is a known skeptic regarding Romania’s transatlantic orientation (he too, has been the target of US visa ban, albeit for different reasons than Dugin). Furthermore, in April 2013 Dugin was invited by Nikos Kotzias, now Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Tsipras administration, to give a lecture at the University of Piraeus, entitled International Politics and the Eurasianist vision. One important message he presented was that Greece’s role as an Orthodox country, alongside Romania or Serbia, is to find an own voice and create a ‘greater Eastern Europe’ within the EU. He also told students that the reasons they were being treated harshly by Brussels was because of their Orthodox identity. Similarly aware of hot topics which are likely to garner favor, in 2014 he mentioned the prospect of Moldova and Ukrainian Bukovina being offered to Romania for reunification, should the latter support Russian policy in Ukraine. This was very well received by those who still dream of a ‘Romania Mare’ (Great Romania).

Another notable episode include a 2014 event which was attended by Aymeric Chauprade, Front National Eurodeputy, Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, and Aleksandr Dugin. According to Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to rid Europe of liberalism and the ‘homosexual lobby.’

More recently, the first International Russian Conservative Forum, held in March this year in St. Petersburg, gathered high-ranking members of many Russian and European far-right parties. The conference was unsurprisingly and explicitly anti-EU and anti-American, and praise was given to Russia as a socially conservative society which opposes the excesses of liberalism.

These examples serve to show that the confrontation between Russia and the West is not purely military or economic; it is partly a battlefield of ideas, and Dugin’s understanding of this basic fact is a perfect complement to Russia’s overall foreign policy towards the West. 

Conclusion

Eurasianism tends to paint with broad strokes, and it would not be a stretch to call the idea of a Eurasian Empire far-fetched. Furthermore, even if Putin’s rhetoric has at crucial moments hinted pretty strongly at Eurasianist inclinations, such as his 2013 Valdai Club address (adapted and published, incidentally, in essay form on Dugin’s website) there is no real reason to assume that it is his guiding ideology; instead, it is much more likely to be a useful rhetorical device.

However, just as important to this ideology is the role of identity in world affairs, something Aleksandr Dugin has been playing up very efficiently, demonstrating a keen ability to exploit cracks and divisions within Europe, something undoubtedly well received by Vladimir Putin. Which is why he should not be dismissed neither as a “crazy ideologue” nor as someone with no role to play whatsoever in Putin’s foreign policy.

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