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Putin’s Playbook: The author of Putin’s failing foreign policy

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s multi-decade-spanning reign has long been marked by international accusations of espionage, manipulation, aggression, and assassination. But until the invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, the KGB strongman turned world leader was long seen as an expert strategist. Whether that’s true is subject to a great deal of debate, but it’s worth noting that there has always been an underlying method to Putin’s geopolitical madness… it just wasn’t exactly his.

The real man behind Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and overarching efforts to return Russia to Soviet levels of prestige is actually a lesser-known contemporary figure in Russian politics, a political philosopher, sometimes described as a “mystical fascist,” named Aleksandr Dugin.

Putin may be a strategist, but the strategy isn’t his

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image courtesy of the Kremlin)

I was first introduced to the work of Aleksandr Dugin in 2017 while studying Russian disinformation campaigns for my book, The Perception Wars: How Influence Shapes Conflict. I quickly came to discover, however, that his influence over Russian foreign policy extends well beyond narrative operations.

Before long, I found myself scouring the internet for a digital copy of Aleksander Dugin’s book, Foundations of Geopolitics, reading through scanned pages, plain-text translations, and forum discussions on the 600-page 1997 treatise until I came to the same somewhat surprising conclusion many others have before and since: The book has served as the literal basis behind not just much of Russia’s public-facing foreign policy in recent decades, but behind the vast majority of the nation’s grey zone operations against foreign nations as well.

This realization was startling not because it made it clear that there’s a carefully concocted method to Russia’s aggressive madness, but rather because it made it evident that Putin’s villainous behavior hasn’t been madness at all. Putin’s fearsome reputation as a former KBG agent turned world leader, the long list of dead critics and journalists attributed to his name, even his government’s apparent eagerness to flaunt nuclear threats whenever pressed — these aren’t the schizophrenic ideations of a mad villain bent on world domination… they’re much more dangerous than that. They’re the behavior of a man who sees himself as a hero, and who fervently believes the ends justify the means.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image courtesy of the Kremlin)

Rather than being the close-minded despot we’ve come to expect our villains to be, singular or even selfish in vision and approach, Putin sees himself as a champion for the Russian people. While his rise to office and his continued role within the Russian government has always been about satiating his seemingly limitless hunger for power, in the mind of Vladimir Putin, pursuing that power is entirely justified as a means to the noble end that is the modern Russian state taking its rightful place at the top of the global power hierarchy.

To that end, Putin has sought the most effective means to achieve his goals with the resources available to him. And as luck would have it, just two years before Putin took power, Aleksandr Dugin published a book breaking down exactly what he needed to do.

“Putin sees the west as his main enemy, but to come to this conclusion he lived through a lot, he lived through a historical situation,” Dugin told the press in 2015. “He came to the same conclusion in practice as we did in theory.”

Related: Russia shoots down its own advanced jet just weeks after delivery

Aleksandr Dugin wrote Putin’s megalomaniacal playbook: “Foundations of Geopolitics”

“Foundations of Geopolitics” book cover

Aleksandr Dugin was born in 1962 into a military family. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather all served in the military, with his father reportedly reaching the rank of Colonel within Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate known as the GRU. Dugin quickly proved to be a bright student, mastering nine languages and using his linguistic skills to translate foreign texts about mysticism, paganism, and fascism. These topics not only interested Dugin, but they were also of interest to a small group of intellectuals inside Moscow that eventually drew the attention of the KGB.

Dugin was detained and questioned, but it’s unclear what — if any — action the KGB actually took against the student at the time. Undeterred in any case, by 1987, the 25-year-old Dugin had made a name for himself inside the anti-Semitic Russian nationalist organization known as Pamyat, or the People’s National-Patriotic Orthodox Christian movement. As a result, Dugin began traveling to Europe to meet with other like-minded political philosophers championing the European New Right movement, which led to a reconciliation of sorts with the Soviet government just as it was reaching its twilight in the late 1980s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Dugin turned to publishing his theories. His work drew attention and support from several far-right European philosophers and importantly, a list of senior officials within the new Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. By 1993, Dugin teamed up with poet and political dissident Eduard Limonov to form the National Bolshevik Party (NBP). Although the charismatic Limonov served as the face of the party, Dugin was the primary voice behind its vision.

Russian communists and members of the National Bolshevik Party protest against Boris Yeltsin (Wikimedia Commons)

“Limonov played the role of a fascist-style leader, and Dugin served as second in command and the party’s chief theoretician.”

-John B. Dunlop, “Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics,” published by Stanford University Press

After a personal foray into politics ended in embarrassing failure, Dugin teamed up with General Nikolai Klokotov of the Russian military’s General Staff Academy (and potentially informally teamed up with Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, head of the International Department of the Russian Ministry of Defense) on a new project. The project would be a book to outline exactly how the struggling Russian state could not only get back on its feet but could usher in an era of “ethnic Russians” ruling over lands extending “from Dublin to Vladivostok.”

This book was to be a road map for a fascist Russian regime to rise up as the new dominant global military and geopolitical power, though it seemed evident at the time that Russian President Boris Yeltsin would not be the leader to bring about Dugin’s revolution.

This project was published in 1997 under the name Foundations of Geopolitics.

Related: How false flag operations work and Russia’s history of using them

Dugin’s incredible influence over Putin’s shady policies

Aleksandr Dugin
Aleksandr Dugin (FARS News Agency)

At this time, Vladimir Putin had already left the secretive world of the KGB, serving in a variety of local political appointments around Saint Petersburg until 1996, when he moved to Moscow and continued to find appointments in government positions. As Putin continued to climb the political ladder, which many contend was less about his savvy approach to policy and more about his shady and secretive intelligence ties, Dugin’s book was becoming extremely popular among the Russian military elite.

By 1999, the book had become an official part of Russian military education programs. In fact, in March of 1999, Russian State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev (similar to America’s “speaker of the house”), openly called for the book to become a compulsory part of Russia’s public school system. In August of that year, Putin was appointed acting prime minister of the Russian Federation by Yeltsin. Putin’s direct ascent to power has been the subject of a great deal of speculation, as it has been tied to strong evidence indicating the use of false flag operations against the Russian people to stir support for the former KGB officer.

Vladimir Putin with first Russian President Boris Yeltsin (Wikimedia Commons)

Since taking office, Putin has seemingly followed much of the advice laid out in Dugin’s book. One of the bigger tenants of Dugin’s philosophy, for instance, called for the “Finlandization” of Europe — a reference to the level of Soviet influence exercised over Finland during the Cold War. In short, Dugin wanted to see Russia use military and political power to install friendly puppet governments throughout Europe, while simultaneously weakening Western powers on the continent.

Some of the other priorities Dugin laid out to this end included using underhanded media manipulation and influence campaigns to discredit the democratic processes and sitting governments of Western powers, to encourage Great Britain to pull out of the European Union, and annexing Ukraine to serve as a geographical buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe.

Foundations of Geopolitics also offers a startling glimpse into Russia’s role in shaping American discourse.

Dugin’s book called for Russian special services “to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States (it is possible to make use of the political forces of Afro-American racists).”

“It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements– extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the United States. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”

The book also calls for using conflicts with Kurds and Armenians to keep Turkey politically “off balance,” and to use influence campaigns to increase China’s focus on the south and Pacific in order to maintain Russia’s dominance over the “Eurasian mainland.” It suggests using grey zone and media operations to establish Germany and France as the predominant powers in Europe while also encouraging anti-American sentiment throughout the continent to simultaneously weaken both the European Union and the NATO alliance.

As a reminder, this book was published in 1997. It didn’t predict the future. It helped to shape it. It’s also important to remember, however, that Russian influence operations don’t usually invent discord within nations; they exacerbate organic conflicts to exaggerated levels. In other words, Russian operations don’t often start these fires. They simply use covert methods to rapidly fuel and expand them when they find a spark.

And it seems increasingly clear that Putin’s Russia has closely followed the guidelines laid out in Dugin’s book, including the invasion of Ukraine, although that’s been a sticking point between the two prominent Russians in the past.

Related: How Russia’s warfare doctrine is failing in Ukraine

Aleksandr Dugin openly criticized Putin for not taking all of Ukraine in 2014

Aleksandr Dugin
Aleksandr Dugin (FARS News Agency)

It’s important to note that Dugin and Putin have not always seen eye to eye, despite Putin’s apparent appreciation for the philosopher’s work. In 2014, when Russian forces invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine, for instance, Dugin publicly called the Russian president out for not going further and taking the entire country.

In an interview with the Hungarian Alfahír online news outlet, Dugin said Putin was “too slow” and “indecisive” in what he called the mission “of reconquest of Russia’s [western] neighbor.”

In fact, Dugin has been critical of Putin more than once over the years, often for not being extreme, aggressive, or fascist enough. In Dugin’s own words, he ascribes to “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism.” Despite Putin’s villainous behavior, in Dugin’s terms, Putin is often not villainous enough.

In August, an apparent attempt on Dugin’s life in a car bombing in Moscow ultimately claimed his daughter, Daria Dugina. Putin was among the long list of suspected masterminds behind the bombing, but the Kremlin quickly offered up its own conclusions, seemingly solving the case in just a matter of hours.

Now, with the Ukrainian counteroffensive seeing widespread success, one can’t help but wonder if Putin will begin to see outspoken and powerful individuals like Dugin as an intolerable threat to his continued hold on power… Or if he already does.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.