Putin’s Playbook: Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics

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The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia. Aleksandr Dugin. 1997. Reprint, Moscow: T8 Publishing: 2019.


A single book, written in 1997, signalled every significant foreign policy move of the Russian Federation over the following two decades. The United States, Europe, and every nation intertwined with Russia failed to see the signs. From the annexation of Crimea to Britain’s exit from the European Union, the grand strategy laid out in Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundation of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia has unfolded beautifully in a disastrous manner for the western rules-based international order. Perhaps, his words also telegraph the belligerent Putin’s future intentions.

In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin set the stage to maintain power past the year 2036. Jumping between the offices of Prime Minister and President, he has been in de facto control of the nation since 1999. With each change, he has ensured the office he holds maintains the most power. In January’s Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin casually mentioned he would make constitutional changes to increase the “independence and responsibility of the Prime Minister.” Shortly thereafter, much of his cabinet either resigned or left office under force. In March, the Russian Duma eased his task by introducing legislation allowing him to run for two more six-year presidential terms.

Having been in power for over two decades raises the question of what his strategy is. There are two dominant views regarding this question. The first is that Putin plans with the long-game in mind, seeking to weaken America’s ties to Europe, dissolve the European Union, and break apart the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The other is that Putin acts mostly as a reactionary, solving problems in isolation and attempting to preserve Russia’s position on the world stage.

One man has alluded heavily to the former. Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin is a Russian political theorist with controversial views and ideas. He is a contributing author to the Katehon think tank, which the New York Times accuses of pushing Russian propaganda through fake news-media sites. His website operates in 38 languages and displays far-right ideas recognizable in Russian domestic politics. Dugin has planned courses for the Russian military General Staff Academy, stood as a Department Head at Moscow State University, and been featured prominently on both Russian state-run media and conservative media with close ties to the Russian government. Journalists, albeit western ones, have called him “Putin’s Brain” and “Putin’s Favorite Philosopher.” The accolades go on.

Dugin presents the world order as one of the Tellurocracies (Land Powers) versus the Thalassocracies (Sea Powers)—of Eurasia versus the Atlanticists. The Atlanticists, Dugin claims, are the United States, Britain, and Europe, and they seek to dominate the world through NATO and other international institutions. In the socio-political spectrum, Dugin is a traditionalist, a fascist, and an anti-Semite. In the geopolitical realm, he is an aggressive Russian nationalist. Most telling, however, is how many of his earlier strategies and destructive stratagems have come to fruition.

Aleksandr Dugin (Wikimedia)

His 1997 pivotal work, The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, is a 600-page textbook that includes excerpts from some of history’s most prolific strategists. These include Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder. In eight parts, each with chapters and subchapters, he establishes the strategies of Russia’s adversaries, devises his own, and provides bold steps to regain Russia’s position of dominance lost at the end of the Cold War. The most trenchant of these recommendations include the invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Ukraine, the separation of Britain from the rest of Europe, and the sowing of divisive seeds in the United States, each of which should sound quite familiar.

Visions Come True

Suffice it to say that two of Russia’s most controversial moves this century have been the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Dugin addressed the problems of both Georgia and Ukraine in back-to-back subchapters. According to him, Russia needed the Black Sea coast-line for both trade and as a naval base of operations so that the “northern coast of the Black Sea [could] be exclusively Eurasian and centrally subordinate to Moscow.”[1]

Dugin’s stratagems rely on exploiting ethnic rifts all over the world. He specifically mentions in his Caucasus chapter the Abkhazians, the Ossetian Problem, and the need to control the Caucasus from Volgograd to Armenia. He claimed Armenia, with its ethnic ties to Tehran, was an essential ally in the prevention of Turkish expansion. Let us recall the outcome of the Russo-Georgian war. No other nation recognized Abkhazia at the time as sovereign. With Russia’s help, Abkhazia finally enforced its secession from Georgia and took half of its Black Sea coastline with it. Today, South Ossetia remains heavily occupied by Russian forces, despite not being recognized as sovereign on the international stage. Putin did, however, learn lessons of subtlety in the Georgian conflict. Maskirovka, the Russian military philosophy of deception, became a vital element of the ongoing Ukrainian conflict to avoid timely international backlash. Dugin’s ideas of scapegoating and exploiting ethno-political rifts neatly align with this purely military philosophy.

Dugin grew in relative fame after the Ukraine conflict began, as this was his most efficacious recommendation. As he explained, “Ukraine, as an independent state with some territorial ambitions, poses a huge danger to the whole of Eurasia, and without solving the Ukrainian problem, it makes no sense to talk about continental geopolitics.”[2] The Crimean Peninsula has been home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and a major military hub since 1997. Ukraine is also a significant economic hub on land, as a majority of Russia’s natural gas exports travel through it. This is an important factor in Dugin’s idea of stripping Europe’s energy dependence away from third-world energy reserves controlled by the Atlanticists.[3]

Forces from the Russian Black Sea Fleet conduct amphibious exercises. (Defense Ministry of Russian Federation/Wikimedia)

Russia’s political and economic hold on Ukraine had dwindled over time from the fall of the Soviet Union to the late 2000s. In response, Putin supported Viktor Yanukovych for election. The first time Yanukovych ran for President in 2004, there were several re-votes, his pro-western opponent suffered dioxin poisoning, and citizens took to the streets in the so-called Orange Revolution. Yanukovych finally took power in 2010 before he reversed two decades of pro-western policy. In 2013, Yanukovych backed out of an EU-Ukraine summit and immediately met pivotal protests. He fled to Russia, and Mr. Putin seized the opportunity to exploit unrest. Professional soldiers of Russia in unmarked uniforms, known in the West as “Little Green Men,” stormed naval bases and facilities in Crimea. Shortly thereafter, a proxy war began in the Donbas region, which would have given Russia a land bridge to the peninsula. It was not until December of 2019 that Russia opened a rail bridge crossing the Kerch Strait.

Not all of Dugin’s recommended strategies resulted in violence. He provided specific recommendations in an article entitled “The Rest Against the West.” In it, he advocated “encourag[ing] pacifist movements in the U.S.A., using an important factor of neo-religiosity and neo-mysticism.”[4] In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the primary target of Russian propaganda was the religious alt-right, supporting a candidate who favored American retrenchment. Dugin himself posted a video series of “Guidelines” heavily based in U.S. policy issues. Recently in 2020, the U.S. government found Russia supporting Bernie Sanders, likely seeking to exploit the divisiveness of American politics. As John Dunlop’s thorough analysis of Dugin points out, Dugin believes severing the United States and Great Britain from Europe will initiate the fall of Atlanticism. It should be no surprise, then, that the British Government caught Russia meddling in the BREXIT vote the same way it had in U.S. elections.

Visions Yet to Come

Dugin’s strategic vision spans the entirety of the world; it is ambitious and reeks of eschatological fantasies. There are, however, several points that can be seen as near-term concerns for western powers. The cornerstones of his grand strategy, Dunlop says, come in the form of three axes: the Moscow-Berlin Axis, the Moscow-Tokyo Axis, and the Moscow-Tehran Axis. The Moscow-Berlin Axis focuses on the separation of former-Soviet states in Europe from the Atlanticists, specifically, breaking them away from the European Union and NATO. The Moscow-Tokyo Axis seeks to combat China. The Moscow-Tehran Axis aims to influence the Islamic world. The critical points Dugin makes are not so much in the headlines of this grand strategy, as they are in the stratagems meant for execution.

The Moscow-Berlin Axis seems the most familiar in the West’s interaction with Russia. It should be no surprise that Russia sees NATO and the European Union as threats to its objectives in Europe. Dugin refers to Halford Mackinder’s strategy of a cordon sanitaire of post-Soviet nations to provide a buffer between Russia and the West—from the Baltic to the Balkans. To counter this, Dugin seeks to push Great Britain and France away from Europe, increase engagement with Germany, and absorb the rest of Europe into a “European Empire” to act as the western extension of Eurasia. Dugin further wants to destabilize Great Britain by promoting “separatist tendencies” in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. With Great Britain out of the EU, France distanced from NATO, and increasingly hostile narratives aimed at the Western international order from around the globe, Dugin’s vision for Europe is not all that fantastical.

In the Moscow-Tokyo Axis, Dugin sees one obvious choice to ally with India, and one difficult choice between China and Japan. The only role for India in this stratagem is as a strategic outpost of Eurasia as an ally against the West and a key economic partner. This stratagem has recently come to fruition in the form of a Free Trade Agreement between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. With Japan, Dugin argues that its strategic positioning, its varied resources compared to Russia, and growing dissent between the Japanese and the Americans make it a prime choice for an ally.

Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin meet at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2019. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)

On the other hand,  Dugin sees China as a threat, because it increasingly seeks to expand into post-soviet Central Asia. Even today, Russia finds itself in competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, specifically in Kazakhstan. The Moscow-Tokyo Axis does diverge somewhat from the current reality. Although Putin and Japanese President Shinzo Abe have met no less than 25 times in an attempt to improve relations, the United States has so far succeeded in keeping Japan on its side of competition. The longevity of Chinese-Russian relations is also up for debate.

As for the Moscow-Tehran Axis, Dugin explicitly calls out Iran and Libya as possible strategic partners against Atlanticists and cites the need to use Turkey as a scape-goat. “The idea of a continental Russian-Islamic alliance lies at the heart of the anti-Atlanticist strategy on the southwest coast of the Eurasian continent,” he explains.[5] Russia has twice tried to convince the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to join its post-Soviet alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), once in 2007 and again in 2015. Late last year, in an attempt to exploit the United States’ absence and gain favor with Iran, the Collective Security Treaty Organization promised to uphold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran has likely refused to join on each occasion because Russia has also sought greater influence with Israel, a sworn enemy of Iran.

It is important to note that Libya has fundamentally changed since overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, but the point stands nonetheless. Libya has enough oil reserves to be the largest exporter in Africa. Putin attempted for some time to lobby both sides of the Libyan civil war, ebbing and flowing his support between the two. Lately, Russian military support has taken the form of nearly 1,000 mercenaries from the Russian proxy mercenary group, Wagner. Should Putin succeed in resolving the conflict, he will have a significant strategic foothold in the underbelly of Europe.

Concluding Thoughts

Dugin’s ideas are neither new nor unfounded, and they should not be ignored. He cites, on several occasions, the need for Russian access to the “Warm Seas,” a policy that has existed since Peter the Great. He cites Alfred Thayer Mahan as having “carried to the planetary level the principle of ‘anacondas’, applied...in the North American Civil War of 1861-1865,” which Dugin tries to counter throughout his work.[6] Mahan, Dugin believes, was a principal founder of Thalassocratic thinking. All the more reason not to ignore his ideas is the dark side of them. He often refers to a final, triumphant victory for Eurasia against the Atlanticists. He suggests scapegoat stratagems and exploitation of cultural divides to subvert the Liberal International Order led by western institutions.

It might be argued that this review overestimates Dugin’s influence on Putin and the Russian government. Despite his high profile on state-run media, his connections with military officials, and his experience in prominent state-run educational institutions, let us assume it is, in fact, an exaggeration. Regardless of his direct influence on Putin, Aleksandr Dugin’s geopolitical stratagems have come to fruition for 23 years straight. If he is not a man Putin follows directly, he is still a man the West should observe with a watchful eye.


Chace A. Nelson is a U.S. Marine Corps officer. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Dugin, Aleksandr. 1997. Ð?????Ñ? Ð???????Ñ????: Ð???????Ñ??Ñ?????? ?Ñ??Ñ?Ñ??? ??????. Reprint, Moscow: T8 Publishing 2019, 349. All translations herein are proofed using Google Translate API. There is no known english publication of this work.

[2] Dugin, Ð?????Ñ? Ð???????Ñ????, 348.

[3] Dugin, Ð?????Ñ? Ð???????Ñ????, 226-228.

[4] The article “The Rest Against the West” was enclosed in Part VII of the 2000 edition as a ‘Classical Geopolitical Text.’ Other editions, however, did not include this article among others. It was originally published in Elements: Eurasian Review No 7.

[5] Dugin, Ð?????Ñ? Ð???????Ñ????, 158.

[6] Dugin, Ð?????Ñ? Ð???????Ñ????, 56.



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