Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been ever more mentions of the Russian Traditionalist (or possibly post-Traditionalist) Alexander Dugin in the Western press. The general view is, as the Washington Post recently put it, that President Putin’s “analysis came directly from the works of a fascist prophet of maximal Russian empire named Aleksandr Dugin,” and that “Russia has been running his [Dugin’s] playbook for the past 20 years.” “The recent invasion of Ukraine is a continuation of a Dugin-promoted strategy for weakening the international liberal order,” argues an article in Foreign Policy. Dugin is “the most influential thinker in Russia,” according to Haaretz.
Is this true? Dugin certainly backs the invasion of Ukraine, which fits with his vision in many ways. But did he inspire that invasion? In a Facebook post on this question, Sindre Bangstad, a prominent Norwegian scholar of the radical right, argued that Dugin’s “influence in the Kremlin and on Putin is not known - precisely due to the fact that it is ultimately unknowable to outsiders.”
Yes and no. Some things are unknowable to outsiders, or even insiders, but it is clear that Dugin is not one of Putin’s close advisors, and it is also clear that the general thrust of his geopolitical analysis is far from exclusive to him. Dugin did not invent Eurasianism, but rather refined it, in part by combining it with Traditionalism. Eurasianism was invented by earlier Russian thinkers, notably the linguist Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), and arose in the context of the debate between Westernizers and anti-Western Slavophils that is almost as old as the Russian state itself. Trubetzkoy’s Eurasianism was prefigured in the work of the Slavophil philosopher Konstantin Leontiev (1831-91), who saw the West as both a moral and military threat to Orthodox civilization and to Russia.
The Westernizing position recently had its day in Russia under President Yeltsin, and has been losing ground ever since. Putin is clearly in the anti-Western Slavophil camp, and is even said to have been reading Leontiev. The current prevalence of anti-Western and Slavophil positions in Moscow certainly helps explain the invasion of Ukraine, as Jane Burbank, a historian of Russia from New York University, recently argued in The New York Times. Burbank also proposed that “Eurasianism was injected directly into the bloodstream of Russian power in a variant developed by the self-styled philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.” This is more likely. Dugin has certainly made Eurasianism better known, and his variant is better adapted to today's world than variants from a century ago. But Dugin is a participant in a broad discussion, not the sole author of any playbook.
There is a tendency, in the West and elsewhere, to explain the actions of opponents in terms of unfamiliar and apparently bizarre ideologies. The anti-Westernism of revolutionaries in the Middle East, for example, is often blamed on Islamism or even Islam. Yes, Islamism matters, but Western policy and interventions in the Middle East since the end of the Second World War also matter, but it is harder to blame those interventions—which would mean the West blaming itself—than to blame Islamism. John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, argues that Western policy towards Russia is to blame for the current crisis. In his response to a recent article by Mearsheimer in The Economist. Sir Adam Roberts, an emeritus professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, called this argument “apparently perverse”—but then went on to demonstrate that there were also other reasons for the invasion of Ukraine, not that Mearsheimer was actually wrong. Mearsheimer is at present something of a lone voice in blaming the errors of Western policy. It is a lot easier to blame “a fascist prophet.”