Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is said to have been motivated by various strategic calculations: fear of NATO expansion, concern over Ukraine’s westward drift, and Moscow’s confidence in its own oil heft and economic reserves. But this analysis risks overlooking the civilizational aspect of Vladimir Putin’s fateful decision. For the current conflict involves not only Ukraine but also a broader showdown between East and West. Instead of the Soviet Union, the U.S. is facing a Eurasian continent, with Russia as its soul. In geographic space, Eurasia covers the former Soviet empire, excluding the Baltic states, as well as Mongolia and parts of northwest China. And within this territory resides a great civilization—a Russian civilization—that represents the one true alternative to the decadent, globalized West.
That, at least, is how the Russian philosopher and founder of the Eurasia Party Alexander Dugin frames it. Dugin has long argued that Eurasia is the only hope against the West’s global dominance, and he couches the difference between the two civilizations in geopolitical terms. If claims made by Western commentators that Dugin is “Putin’s brain” overstate his influence, an understanding of the philosopher’s ideas may nevertheless help clarify Russian actions.
Dugin’s most influential work, the 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics, has been adopted as a textbook in both the Russian military academy and state school system. Bearing a conspicuous resemblance to Thucydides’s comparison of Athens and Sparta, Dugin’s analysis holds that today’s contemporary Athenians are the “Atlanticists,” led by the U.S. and Britain, while today’s Spartans are the “Eurasianists,” led by Russia. The Atlanticists dominate the sea through overwhelming naval power, while the Eurasianists should seek to dominate geographic territory through superior military capacity on land. The orientation that a civilization adopts is not a choice but a geopolitical necessity. Geopolitics determines what kind of civilization you become.
Yet the implications extend beyond military orientation. Dugin argues that cultural and ideological differences are downstream of geopolitical destiny. Athens was materialistic, innovative, individualistic, and progressive; so are the Atlanticists. Sparta was spiritual, austere, communal, and traditional; so are Eurasianists. These immutable differences run much deeper than political institutions or ideas about human rights, and they trump concerns about economic systems and prosperity. Moreover, the state must use its power to serve and promote civilizational values, as these, rather than democratic consent, represent the source of its legitimacy. A weak civilization means a weak state—and that means a weak civilization.
Dugin’s approach to Ukraine follows the same logic. In the lecture he delivered to Western journalists on March 4, eight days after the offensive was launched, he claimed that the invasion was a “choice” to affirm “multipolarity.” Russia has a “right to be one of the civilizations” in the world, a right that Western global dominance has nullified since the fall of the USSR. Ukraine may be the specific target, but the larger end is to re-establish Russia’s place as a “second center,” one that serves as a model for all nations with similar civilizational characteristics. Dugin’s claim that Putin was merely “protecting [Russia’s] geopolitical interests” must be understood to include protection of the Russian civilization and way of life.
Dugin draws from Western thought to illustrate his position. In a telling phrase, he claims that “[Samuel] Huntington was absolutely right, [Francis] Fukuyama . . . was absolutely wrong.” Global politics is about the clash of civilizations. The idea that liberal democracy can encircle the globe is a fantasy because political and economic systems are ultimately functions of civilizational differences. On this view, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was a genuine Russian attempt to modernize and liberalize that inevitably failed. “For too long we tried to do [an] impossible thing, to be part of the global civilization,” Dugin has said, but “we are not . . . we are a civilization by ourselves.”
Dugin largely confines his theory of Eurasianism to the realm of ideas. International relations scholars distinguish between material (e.g., airplanes, tanks, and troops) and ideas (values and beliefs), and Eurasia—despite Dugin’s claim that geopolitics demands the emergence of a concrete, geographically bounded civilization—is the latter. In general, he plays fast and loose with this distinction, employing whichever argument suits his present purposes. While Foundations discusses geopolitics, Dugin’s other major work, The Fourth Political Theory, is all ideas and ideology. In it, he targets Western values of capitalism and individualism explicitly, arguing for a new political ideology based on the experience of existence itself (following Heidegger’s Dasein). In his public lectures, Dugin shifts his approach often, sometimes arguing from “geopolitical necessity” and other times attempting to rethink political philosophy, human nature, and the future of existence itself. He uses this ambiguity to his advantage and appears more comfortable with rhetoric than philosophy, acting more like a charlatan than a truth-seeker.
Since the war began on February 24, empirical reality has vitiated Dugin’s theoretical constructs. Foundations makes the case for a Russian-aligned Franco-German bloc, a “Moscow-Berlin axis,” on the basis that France and Germany are both land powers that have historically had adversarial relations with the Atlanticists. Early returns indicate that precisely the opposite is unfolding, with Germany rearming, reaffirming its Western ties, and looking to reduce its dependence on Russian energy. Evidently, not every nation feels destined by geographic circumstances to choose a certain path.
It’s true that Putin’s foreign policy often sounds Duginist. The Russian leader criticizes Western cultural decadence and “philistinism,” while emphasizing the corrupting influence of Enlightenment ideals—individualism foremost among them. In a speech in October 2021, Putin lambasted woke ideology and Western progressivism in general. He lays claim to a Russian civilization and insists upon Ukraine’s central place within it, having called Kiev the “cradle of Russian civilization.”
Geopolitically, Putin has demonstrated an interest in the notion of a broader Eurasian community. His recent push to expand the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) seeks to create a bloc that could rival the U.S., EU, and China’s Belt and Road as an area of political and economic integration. But in practice, that seems unlikely: only Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have joined Russia in the EEU thus far, and others in the region are not scrambling to sign up. Russia’s dominance over the EEU is total, and it uses sticks more than carrots to bring others on board.
Putin’s foreign policy, in other words, often lines up with Dugin’s geopolitical recommendations. Still, it’s unlikely that Putin makes his decisions with Dugin in mind. Despite his problem, shared by all autocrats, of being surrounded by sycophants who provide less-than-accurate information, the Russian president is a sober, strategic thinker who generally resists grand theorizing and the pull of romantic ideas. Putin also has tended to work most closely with a small core of handpicked state security officials, while his former key political advisors, such as Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky, lacked Dugin’s intellectual pretensions. His inner circle is not chosen for intelligence, but for loyalty. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that Putin likes Dugin’s ideas and the concept of Eurasianism. They provide a grand vision of the future—but it’s unlikely that the pragmatic Putin would fall too firmly under their spell.
Photo: Fars Media Corporation via WikiMedia Commons