Vladimir Putin’s distrust of Western-style democracy, his occasional nostalgia for Russia’s glorious tsarist past, his recurring anger at the Communist leaders who allowed the Soviet Union to collapse in 1991, and his determination for Russia to be once more a world power—all this has never been a secret. That he would violate international law and act on his imperialist ambitions perforce, however, has come as a surprise to Western leaders, journalists and scholars, who now seek to explain Putin’s Ukrainian gambit and anticipate his next move—both difficult tasks, without a clear view of his long game. For now, Putin’s boldness seems to have bolstered his public support, but Russia’s territorial gains in Ukraine have been comparatively modest and the ensuing Western sanctions costly. An outright war of even brief duration could ruin Russia’s economy and its remaining credibility in the international community. Regarded only in the short term, then, his strategy seems inexplicably high-risk, low-reward. A New York Times op-ed from August offers the assessment that “Mr. Putin is not rational”; undeterred by the prospect of financial catastrophe to be followed, inevitably, by diminishing popularity, he remains a “smirking enigma.”
Perhaps Putin is a megalomaniac myopically succumbing to his lust for power. But a more plausible explanation for Putin’s recent decisions is that he is neither economically illiterate nor libidinously violent, but motivated instead by political commitments that we do not fully understand. Perhaps Russia’s use of force in Ukraine is a means to an end determined by a set of values that differ from our own. In recent years, an anti-liberal, anti-Western political doctrine known as Eurasianism, or neo-Eurasianism, has gained popularity not only with Russian voters but also among some regime officials—and Putin’s public statements clearly bespeak a degree of sympathy for Eurasianist thought. Those Western journalists who have discovered the Eurasianist agenda have suggested it as the direct explanation for Putin’s actions in Ukraine, citing, in particular, the political theory of Aleksandr Dugin, one of Russia’s most prominent public intellectuals.
Values matter in politics, and the leading role that Eurasian ideology now plays in Russian public discourse makes it imperative that we take it seriously as a potential cause, rather than merely a symptom, of the broader rightward shift in the region. At the same time, we should bear in mind that it is difficult to identify and impossible to predict an idea’s actual influence on historic events. Without a clear portrait of Dugin’s thought, it is hard to understand Putin’s long-term strategy in Ukraine; but we should resist the urge to view Dugin as the secret key to that strategy. While Putin’s philosophy is undoubtedly informed by Eurasianism, his promotion of the ideology’s most extreme variants may provide cover for a more pragmatic agenda.
For centuries, debates about Russia’s identity (cultural, political, geographical) have turned on the question of its relation to the West. Some voices emphasize economic ties and cultural commonalities with Europe; others focus on Russia’s relations to its Eastern neighbors and its distinctive history as an Orthodox, Slavic and uniquely Eurasian power. Eurasianism as a political theory emerged from this second tradition early in the twentieth century and revived in the years following 1991. Dugin, a political scientist originally from Moscow, has shaped its modern development and remains its most noteworthy exponent.
A journalist during the final years of the Soviet Union, Dugin was co-founder of the National Bolshevik Party in 1994. He rose to prominence over the 1990s, cementing his reputation in 1997 with the book Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, which was adopted as a textbook at many institutions, including the General Staff Academy of the Russian Armed Forces. In 1998 he was appointed advisor on geopolitics to Gennady Seleznev, who was then chairman of the Russian State Duma. By the time the 9/11 attacks suggested (to some) that America’s days as a global military and economic superpower might be numbered, Dugin had made connections in the military, secret services and presidential administration as well. In 2002 he founded the Eurasia Party in Russia, and he continues to champion an international Eurasian movement as an active scholar and frequent news commentator. In 2008 he was given a prestigious academic post at Moscow State University, and his geopolitical theory has reportedly become the political creed of high officials in the present government, including Sergei Glazyev, Putin’s senior advisor on Ukraine, who was one of the first seven Russian citizens targeted by American sanctions in March 2014. Dugin’s university appointment ended in September of this year (the exact circumstances of his departure are contested), but there is little doubt that he still has the ear of the Russian people, including a number of its ruling elite.
On a practical level, Dugin calls for the political unification of the former Soviet republics as well as Mongolia, the Caucasus and “the eastern and northern shores of the Caspian.” The strength of the envisioned Eurasia is to be supported internationally by diplomatic alliances along three “axes” radiating from Moscow to Berlin, Tokyo and Tehran. On questions of value, Dugin defines himself in opposition to modern liberalism, understood broadly as the ideology underlying the politics of individual rights, the global market economy and state sovereignty under the current system of international law. In 2009 Dugin published The Fourth Political Theory (English translation, 2012), which draws together his geopolitical theory, his syncretic anti-liberal ideology and his apocalyptic view of modern history and Russia’s place in it.
As set out in that book, Dugin’s vision of Eurasia, or Greater Russia, is rooted in the political thought of the German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt—who feared the Russians almost as much as he loathed liberal democracy—argued that the national state with sovereignty over a determinate geographic territory is only one type of political entity among several. For Schmitt, political communities are ultimately defined not by law or geography but by the fundamental existential distinction between friend and enemy. A human group—a nation, a race, a religion, an economic class—truly becomes a political entity only when the “friendship” between its members is strong enough to motivate actual war (involving “the real possibility of physical killing”) against a common enemy.
Dugin is not the first scholar since Schmitt to claim that the sovereign nation-state, originating in Reformation-era Europe and best exemplified by England and France, is not a universally applicable model. In 1936, Eric Voegelin—influenced by Schmitt’s theory, although terrified by its practical implications—claimed that Austria was not yet a nation but existed precariously between “Reich” and “state.” (His hope that an authoritarian government could suppress factionalism long enough for the Austrian people to develop a common political identity was disappointed two years later, when Nazi militants occupied public spaces and seized government buildings, and Austria was annexed by the German Reich, without military resistance.) Benedict Anderson’s 1983 study Imagined Communities makes the case that nation-states are exactly that—imagined communities with historic origins in Western nationalism, particularly as it developed in the Americas and France. In 1992, Basil Davidson argued that many of Africa’s social and political problems should be directly attributed to the imposition of national organization on tribal society during the era of decolonization.
Following a similar logic, Dugin contends that the “Westphalian system”— that is, “the existing order of sovereign nation-states and national sovereignty”— “no longer corresponds to the current global balance of powers. New actors of transnational and subnational scale are affirming their growing importance, and it is evident that the world is in need of a new paradigm in international relations.” While Dugin suggests the “village-state” as a model of small-scale political organization, his real concern is with what Schmitt called a Großraum (literally “great space”). Schmitt believed that empires, rather than states, were fast becoming the main international agents, and that an empire, along with the smaller states within its sphere of influence, constituted a larger spatial order with a loose but nevertheless common political identity. The Western Hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine (Schmitt’s example) and today’s European Union are Großräume; a unified Eurasia ruled by a renewed Russian empire would be another.
In part, the argument for Großräume rests on the idea that in international relations, as in economics, bigger is better; collective action is more effective on a larger scale. But it also depends on the claim that transnational political entities can and do exist. Dugin understands the civilization, rather than the nation-state, “as the foundational subject, pole and actor of contemporary world politics.” He deconstructs the nineteenth-century European concept of “civilization” as the historical process by which “culture” in the abstract progressively triumphs over barbarism. “Civilization in the context of the twenty-first century signifies precisely this: a zone of the steady and rooted influence of a definite social-cultural style, most often (though not necessarily) coinciding with the borders of the diffusion of the world religions.” Following Samuel Huntington, Dugin lists as examples the Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Indian, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and (possibly) African civilizations, though with the qualification that Western civilization is politically fragmented into two or more “large spaces.”
Civilizations are not abstractions but actual groupings of people with common histories and values—and enemies. Their distinct interests and diverse political cultures persist, notwithstanding Francis Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracy represents the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” or that worldwide consensus as to its legitimacy would lead to what Alexandre Kojève called the “universal and homogeneous state.” At least, this is what Dugin and his allies hope that history will demonstrate. At present, in Dugin’s apocalyptic view, it seems Fukuyama’s prophecies have come true.
The title of The Fourth Political Theory refers not to a theoretical position Dugin has developed but to an ideology that has still to be created, not in thought but through collective action. The modern world has so far been shaped by three successive political theories—liberalism, fascism and communism. By the end of the twentieth century, following the collapse of European fascism in 1945, and Soviet communism in 1991, liberalism had won out over rival ideologies and begun remaking the world in its own image, creating a grim condition Dugin calls “postmodernity”: “the glorification of total freedom and the independence of the individual from any kind of limits, including reason, morality, identity (social, ethnic, or even gender), discipline, and so on.” Victorious liberalism destroys the traditional family and existing political societies, replacing them with a universal economic order: “Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ arrives, economics in the form of the global capitalist market, replaces politics, and states and nations are dissolved in the melting pot of world globalization.” The ensuing homogeneity leads to domination on an unprecedented scale: “Humanity under liberalism, comprised entirely of individuals, is naturally drawn toward universality and seeks to become global and unified. Thus, the projects of ‘world government’ or globalism are born.”
To forge a “fourth political theory” that can overcome liberalism is neither an individual nor an academic task—it is a question of collective political will; and for Russia “it is a matter of life or death—‘to be or not to be’”:
If Russia chooses “to be,” then it will automatically bring about the creation of a Fourth Political Theory. Otherwise, for Russia there remains only the choice “not to be,” which will mean to quietly leave the historical and world stage, dissolving into a global order which is not created or governed by us.
The ontology that underlies Dugin’s neo-Eurasianism comes from his reading of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, like Schmitt, publicly condoned National Socialism while Hitler was in power and never subsequently expressed regret for his complicity in the Nazi horrors. Heidegger used the word Dasein to refer to human existence. Dasein, in Dugin’s interpretation, is not the existence of an individual human being; it is the collective being of a group living a shared way of life. Unlike liberal political theory, which begins with a concept of the individual person and his or her needs and rights, the “fourth political theory” presupposes Dasein as the fundamental and most important unit in politics (and so privileges the collective over the individual). Russian Dasein is, historically, the political existence of an imperial people; if the citizens of the Russian Federation acquiesce to mere nation-state status, then Russia itself will have ceased to be. To succumb to the processes of Americanizing globalization would be to commit civilizational suicide.
Moscow is essential to the Eurasianist project, for it is an avowedly imperial enterprise to be carried out under Russian political leadership and through the influence of Russian culture. Imperialism is fundamental to Russian identity, Dugin argues, but it is also, simultaneously, a form of humanitarianism. Russian civilization is unique, and the Russian people are the messianic representatives not only of other ethnic groups within their sphere of influence but also of all peoples who are oppressed or disadvantaged by Western hegemony. Imperial expansion is understood not as the self-interested conquest of inferiors but as the self-sacrificial liberation of equals in a worldwide crusade against liberalism.
Dugin’s political project is to gain explicit recognition for the political existence of “Slavic-Orthodox” civilization via the creation of a transnational Großraum under Russian leadership. It is part of a broader theoretical vision for a “multipolar” world of autonomous Great Powers, with clear implications for international law. It stands in opposition to the universal order of sovereign nation-states created by the architects of the United Nations. More specifically, it is incompatible with the national sovereignty of Ukraine as declared by its parliament in 1990, and as recognized by the Russian Federation in 1994. As Dugin puts it, “The Western border of the Eurasianist civilization goes somewhat more East of the Western border of Ukraine, making that newly-formulated government a fortiori fragile and not viable.”
Whether “Slavic-Orthodox” civilization has a political future remains to be seen, but Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine are certainly congruent with Dugin’s political agenda. Not only are they effectively redrawing the map of Eastern Europe along Eurasianist lines, but they are also rooted in a similar view of Russian identity: “The Russian people are state-builders, as evidenced by the existence of Russia. Their great mission is to unite and bind together a civilization.” The annexation of the Crimean peninsula was thus entirely consonant with the neo-Eurasianist agenda. Its de jure authorization by popular referendum may have been an attempt to comply formally, albeit retroactively, with the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination, foundational norms of the modern international legal order enshrined in the UN Charter.
However, with the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol safely incorporated into the Russian Federation, and much of eastern Ukraine likely to follow, Putin’s disregard for international law has gone from patent to overt. He has ordered Russian military and intelligence operations within another sovereign nation’s borders; more importantly, he has asserted the right to do so, unilaterally, anywhere that Russian-speaking people stand in need of protection.
Further, Putin’s government is arguably taking concrete steps toward the creation of an institutional order in the former Soviet space, and toward the integration of new groups into the politically organized portion of Russian civilization. In 2010, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan created the Eurasian Customs Union, which lifted customs controls over goods crossing member states’ borders in July 2011. Beginning in January 2012, the common customs area became a common market—the Common Economic Space (CES) of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In October 2011, Putin announced a plan, which will go into effect in January 2015, for Russia and its neighbors to forge a Eurasian Union, “a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world.” Economic integration will proceed quickly, Putin claims, because knowledge of “the experience of the E.U. and other regional associations … means we are in a position to avoid mistakes and unnecessary bureaucratic superstructures.” Political dimensions of the integration project are manifest as well. In the future, the CES framework “will also include common visa and migration policies, allowing border controls between our states to be lifted.”
The question whether Russia stands on the “wrong side of history,” as President Obama has repeatedly insisted, has yet to be decided. In Putin’s view, the answer depends not (as Obama presumes) on its compliance with international law but on the success or failure of the present integration project:
I am convinced that the establishment of the Eurasian Union and efficient integration are approaches that will enable members to take a prominent place in our complicated, twenty-first-century world. Only by standing together will all our countries be able to take their places as leaders of global growth and drivers of progress, only together will they succeed and prosper.
So far, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have expressed interest in joining the original CES states. More members are wanted, though no one will be forced to join: “The Eurasian Union is an open project. We welcome other partners to it, particularly CIS member states. At the same time, we are not going to hurry up or nudge anyone. A state must only join on its sovereign decision based on its long-term national interests.” To question Putin’s sincerity would be to miss the point; to discount his sanguinity would be foolhardy. In recent years not only Ukrainians, but Georgians and Moldovans as well, seem to be increasingly persuaded that their long-term interests lie in an alliance with Moscow.
Thus far, then, it seems that Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine, his rhetorical justifications for them and his long-term political goals express a Eurasianist view of Russia’s future. However, Putin and Dugin have differing views of how this Eurasian unification is to be accomplished and what the ultimate raison d’être of the Union will be—differences that may prove to be crucial.
Dugin follows Schmitt, for whom “all political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning.” On this way of thinking, only by defining itself against an enemy does a political grouping come into existence. His Eurasia will coalesce politically in reaction to Western cultural and economic (and military) aggression; Russia’s legitimate preeminence will rest on its national identity as the West’s foremost enemy. In fact, for Dugin, “the entirety of Russian history is a dialectical argument with the West and against Western culture, the struggle for upholding our own … Russian truth, our own messianic idea, and our own version of the ‘end of history,’ no matter how it is expressed—through Muscovite Orthodoxy, Peter’s secular empire, or the global Communist revolution.” Amid the evils of global “postmodernity,” to uphold Russian truth means to oppose the United States, which Dugin regards as the Antichrist, the representative and defender of a modern West that has “rejected the values of God and Tradition.”
Here Dugin draws not only on Schmitt, a Roman Catholic who nostalgically described the medieval Christian empire as the restrainer of the Antichrist and the end the world, but also on a specifically Russian tradition of regarding Western threats in a political-theological light. In the opening paragraph of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance, someone exclaims, “I really believe [Napoleon Bonaparte] is Antichrist”—a view subsequently adopted by Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s hero. Tolstoy’s own view may be more nuanced, but Dugin unambiguously identifies the United States as humanity’s eschatological antagonist. The claim is to be taken literally: “This is not simply a metaphor capable of mobilizing the masses, but a religious fact of the Apocalypse.” Russia’s role in the Eurasianist project is not merely to secure political autonomy for the region, but to save it from the Western, the secular, the modern way of life. “Only a global crusade against the U.S., the West, globalization, and their political-ideological expression, liberalism, is capable of becoming an adequate response.” In Dugin’s view, Eurasianists stand in common cause with Hugo Chávez and Al Qaeda.
Many Western observers of this year’s unrest in Ukraine know little or nothing of Dugin and fail to take Eurasianism seriously if they consider it at all. The Economist, for instance, lampooned Putin’s promise to protect Russian speakers in other nations as “linguistic imperialism,” illustrated with an amusing political map of the world as redrawn along linguistic, rather than national lines. (No mention was made of this map’s striking similarity to Dugin’s cartographic illustration of “The Eurasist Vision.”) But journalists and some scholars who have taken note of Dugin’s ideas have often made the opposite error, assuming that Putin’s plans and motivation can be completely explained by them.
Timothy Snyder, for instance, writing for the New York Review of Books, argues on the basis of Dugin’s writings that the Eurasian Union is an enemy of the West in ideological as well as strategic terms. Whereas the European Union’s foundational commitment to universal human rights reflects wisdom hard-won through the nightmares of totalitarianism, the Eurasian Union will stand on a hodgepodge of the very fascist and Stalinist sentiments that led to the catastrophe of World War II. According to Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn, writing in Foreign Affairs, Dugin is “Putin’s Brain,” and neo-Eurasianism the “Philosophy Behind Putin’s Invasion of Crimea.” Most dramatically—and as close as it comes to a response in kind—Robert Zubrin writes in the National Review Online:
In short, Dugin’s Eurasianism is a satanic cult. This is the ideology behind the Putin regime’s “Eurasian Union” project. It is to this dark program, which threatens not only the prospects for freedom in Ukraine and Russia, but the peace of the world, that former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych tried to sell “his” country. It is against this program that the courageous protesters in the Maidan took their stand and—with scandalously little help from the West—somehow miraculously prevailed. It is on behalf of this program that the Putin regime has created a bloodbath in eastern Ukraine, which, following Dugin, it now terms “New Russia.”
From this perspective, the conflict in Ukraine is not a quarrel over real estate but the clash of radically opposed belief systems and ways of life. If Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine is the realization of Dugin’s “fourth political theory,” then both the most hawkish of American conservatives and the most outraged of liberals have it right. We are already at war with an enemy whose God-given goal is our annihilation. And Putin is an outright fascist with a principled disregard for universal human rights. His success would constitute a threat to freedom not only in Russia but also to its neighbors and, by extension, to the values of the international community.
As tempting as it is to view Dugin as the mastermind behind Putin’s foreign policy, however, sober analysis suggests a more nuanced relationship between Dugin’s neo-Eurasian ideology and Putin’s efforts toward Eurasian political integration. Without a doubt, Putin profits from Dugin’s ideological, anti-Western Eurasianist stance, to the extent that it stirs up public support for his regime. Perhaps it even sets some of the parameters for his policy. But there are clear signs that he does not entirely share it. Putin’s Eurasianism is political, not ideological, and it seems likely that his current alliance with Dugin and company is strategic rather than heartfelt.
If Putin’s recent actions were the product of neo-Eurasianist value commitments, then we could predict that Putin’s future decisions in the region would be oriented toward the political formation of a Eurasian state, even at considerable expense to the existing Russian Federation’s interests, and, further, that this task of state formation would be merely preparatory to the ultimate, morally imperative struggle against the United States and the broader Western commitment to free markets and individual human rights. It is worth noting that this prognosis does not correspond to Dugin’s interpretation of events. Dugin considers Putin a patriotic pragmatist: “Intuitively striving to preserve and consolidate Russian sovereignty,” he has written, “Putin entered into a conflict with the liberal West and its plans for globalization, but without forming his actions into an alternative ideology.” Putin, for all his anti-Western rhetoric, sees no ideological clash between Europe and Eurasia. In a 2011 article announcing the formation of the Eurasian Union, he emphasized the similarity of their fundamental ideological commitments:
In this respect, I would like to touch upon an important issue. Some of our neighbors explain their lack of interest in joining forward-looking integration projects in the post-Soviet space by saying that these projects contradict their pro-European stance. I believe that this is a false antithesis. We do not intend to cut ourselves off, nor do we plan to stand in opposition to anyone. The Eurasian Union will be based on universal integration principles as an essential part of Greater Europe united by shared values of freedom, democracy, and market laws.
If Putin does not understand democracy exactly as Westerners do, neither does he paint liberalism and those who adhere to it as a force of world-historical evil to be swept away in a coming apocalypse. It is worth keeping in mind that Putin could, after all, unleash a nuclear doomsday, should he so choose. His restraint in this matter deserves no special praise, perhaps, but in an era when a reactionary activist like Dugin has so many enthusiastic disciples, it isn’t to be taken for granted.
More importantly, though, it might be worth asking why the Western press has been so eager to depict Putin’s course of action in Ukraine as the direct outgrowth of either economic short-sightedness or an extremist anti-modern ideology, rather than as the prudential calculations of a hard-nosed, experienced student of international affairs. Dugin does indeed loom large in Russian public life, not least because he enjoys the seemingly constant favor of the mainstream news media—particularly television, over which the Kremlin exercises near-complete control. Barbashin and Thoburn argue that Dugin’s outsize media presence is a sign that Putin approves his message; logically, however, all we can infer from the evidence is that Putin wants Dugin in the limelight.
Why? That is the question. It is difficult to take Dugin seriously as a political theorist, but he is right to note that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a political drama. Its protagonist’s famed existential question is not posed in the abstract. When finally he makes his belated decision, it is by giving the lie to his usurping uncle: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane.” The true prince is not an individual—he is Denmark. Yet he lived to dither for so long by putting on “an antic disposition,” pretending to be mad out of grief, or love, or an academician’s preoccupation with words, words, words. Half a year after the Anschluss of Crimea, those who deem Putin irrational or insane all agree with Claudius: “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” They should also heed the observation of Polonius: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” It is possible that Dugin’s intellectual antics receive so much tacit approval from the Russian government—and, accordingly, so much attention from Western readers—precisely because they are theoretical flights of fancy with little direct influence on government policy. It would be rash to ignore Dugin on the basis of this conjecture. But to allow Dugin’s ideological Eurasianism to distract us from Putin’s pragmatic efforts to bring the Eurasian Union into political existence would, indeed, be madness.
Obviously, we who have ignored Russia since the end of the Cold War have much to learn. A good place to start would be with the recognition that Eurasianism, like Americanism, exists in diverse forms, and the distinctions between them matter a great deal. The more disturbing Dugin’s neo-Eurasianism becomes, the more Putin appears not as a sworn enemy of the West so much as a practically minded protector of his own constituency—defined not under (current) international law as the citizens and nationals of the existing Russian Federation but according to his own conception of an ethnic people with the historic responsibility of building a politically organized, multi-ethnic civilization.
At the same time, of course, we should acknowledge that even the more moderate, pragmatic forms of Eurasianism are indeed at odds with the (broadly speaking) liberal and democratic values that reign in North America and Western Europe, and that there is probably precious little we can do to impose these values even on Donbas, much less the vast reaches of Eurasia. It is discomfiting to think that Putin may be in the thrall of neo-Eurasianist dogma, but perhaps even more sobering to acknowledge that he isn’t—that his actions may be the result of entirely rational decisions calculated to make Greater Russia a political reality, to the Russian people’s long-term advantage, if not to ours.
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Image credit: Agence France-Presse