Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Russian intelligence analyst. It is March 1, 2020. Your task is to determine why President Donald Trump authorized the Doha Agreement, a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Suppose you know the following facts:
Donald Trump is known to watch the television show Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Tucker Carlson has said that Afghanistan “is never going to become a civilized country.”
Donald Trump often echoes Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric about caring for Americans first.
Ergo, you conclude that Tucker Carlson is the intellectual architect of the Doha Agreement. You report that Carlson is “Trump’s Brain,” the grand strategist, the hidden hand in plain view.
Does this sound plausible? Carlson is not a policymaker, nor does he provide policy-relevant advice. Moreover, Trump had long advocated for a U.S. withdrawal himself. To attribute so much influence to a television host seems like an absurd leap in logic. And yet—over the past year, many political commentators have alleged that Alexander Dugin, a far-right Russian television personality, was the intellectual architect of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. His supposed influence on Putin and Russian elites has become a recurring theme in Western media coverage.
In the first half of 2022 alone, Dugin was mentioned in Foreign Affairs and featured in both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Smaller publications, like the left-leaning Jacobin, the center-right Bulwark, and the Jewish Tablet all ran similar stories. Even the YouTube-famous intellectual Jordan Peterson later claimed that Putin “collaborates in his thinking with a genuine philosopher, Alexander Dugin.” The assassination of Dugin’s daughter in August, allegedly by Ukrainian security forces, has since raised his profile even further.
What many commentators get wrong, besides overrating Dugin’s prominence, is the complex relationship between intellectuals and politics. They mistakenly assume that: 1) Patronage means proximity, 2) ideology equates to strategy, and 3) using a thinker’s favorite jargon means embracing his specific ideas. In reality, intellectuals peddling big ideas are rarely in the driver’s seat of politics—especially in autocracies without freedom of expression. Dugin is no exception.
Fallacy #1: Patronage Means Proximity
Before we get ahead of ourselves—who is Alexander Dugin? According to an influential Foreign Affairs article, he is “Putin’s Brain,” a “professor at Russia’s top university, Moscow State University, and the head of the national sociological organization Center for Conservative Studies” from 2008–2014. True enough, though he was only an adjunct, not a full professor, and his research center was national only in name. He was also abruptly fired from Moscow State after students protested his call to “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Ukrainians in the 2014 invasion of Donbas. Since then, he has worked as the editor of the pro-regime television channel, Tsargrad TV.
These posts strengthened Dugin’s reputation in the West as a philosopher and advisor to Putin. But a cursory look at his career reveals that he is just one of many pawns in Putin’s curated media ecosystem. The regime’s “political technologists” are known to impersonally employ thousands of media personalities like Dugin to shape public opinion. These personalities do not control their public profile, nor do their ideas necessarily even reflect official policy. The regime also sponsors extremists and pseudo-oppositionists to make itself look moderate in comparison.
Before his stint at Moscow State, Dugin had played some small television roles on Russia’s Channel One. Like everyone else, his profile waxed and waned depending on Putin’s needs. In the early 2000s, when Putin aligned with the United States in the Global War on Terror, ultra-nationalists like Dugin were given less airtime and pushed into the “opposition.” They were then somewhat rehabilitated after the Color Revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005) created a need for more nationalistic content. This was what increased Dugin’s notoriety. But there is no evidence that Dugin ever came in contact with Putin.
Indeed, Dugin has never claimed to have met Putin, nor has he spoken as though he has. In a rambling VKontakte post after his firing from Moscow State, Dugin wrote: “There are two identities to Putin - the patriotic, heroic (solar) and the one inclined toward liberalism and compromises of the West (lunar). Therefore it is impossible to rule out that the decision to dismiss me was taken by one half, obviously the lunar.” Such a man, who has played the role of an academic, opposition leader, talking head, and regime loyalist, seems much more like a court jester than an éminence grise. He too might profit from a window into Putin’s brain.
Fallacy #2: Ideology Equates to Strategy
Dugin’s current standing is often misinterpreted through his past intellectual achievements. In the 1990s, he found his first major patrons in Igor Rodionov (then head of the Russian General Staff Academy) and Leonid Ivashov (then head of defense cooperation with other post-Soviet states). Both generals supported the failed 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev to forestall the USSR’s dissolution. Rodionov invited Dugin to lecture at the General Staff Academy from 1992–95 to fill the post-Soviet ideological vacuum, while Ivashov secured funding for Dugin to turn his lectures into a best-selling monograph, The Foundations of Geopolitics (1997).
Commentators have characterized Foundations as a strategic blueprint for the Putin era. But I sincerely doubt, as one writer alleges in The Washington Post, that Putin has followed the book’s “counsel to the letter.” Dugin’s chief contention is that the Cold War was only one phase of an eternal and occult struggle between civilizations of “land,” i.e. Russia, and “sea,” i.e. the United States and its allies. Russia’s destiny, he argues, is to build a multipolar order by re-uniting post-Soviet “Eurasia.” The framing is unusual but offers no new strategic insights. Neither Putin nor the generals needed Dugin to convince them that the USSR’s dissolution was a disaster.
More importantly, the book contains little intelligible counsel. It is several hundred pages of intellectual history and philosophical exegesis. Here is a representative quote: “Geopolitics as it exists today is certainly a secular, ‘profane’ and secularised science. But perhaps, among all the other modern sciences, it has preserved in itself the greatest connection with tradition and with traditional sciences. René Guénon said that modern chemistry is the result of the desacralization of the traditional science of alchemy, and modern physics is the result of magic. Similarly, modern geopolitics [results from] sacred geography.” What is Putin to do with this?
Strategy is about connecting means to ends. It involves calculating risk, deciding on the most prudent sequence of actions, and adapting to a changing environment. Dugin is not interested in any of this. When he offers advice in Foundations, he often proposes extravagant ideas like partitioning northern China with Japan while supporting Chinese expansion into Southeast Asia “as geopolitical compensation.” He never reflects on whether Russia has the means—the military capability, state capacity, and economic resources—to achieve these maximalist ends.
To be fair, Dugin does make one seemingly prescient suggestion—he encourages “separatism and ethnic, social, and racial conflicts” in the United States. Western observers have made much of this thought. Did Foundations influence Putin when he decided to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Likely not. Besides being an unoriginal idea (fomenting civil unrest was a well-known Soviet tactic), the quote is also vague and impossibly hard to find, appearing in a single throwaway line in a twenty-page section about “space in the West of Eurasia.” Other famous recommendations are presented in equal abstraction. They reflect the imagination of an ideologist—not a strategist.
Fallacy #3: Using a Thinker’s Favorite Jargon Means Embracing His Specific Ideas
Nonetheless, some observers suggest that the increasing references to “Eurasia” in Russian foreign policy initiatives point to the influence of Dugin’s overall vision. For instance, in May 2014, three months after the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan signed a treaty forming the Eurasian Economic Union, a customs union meant to reduce trade barriers across post-Soviet states. The organization replaced the Eurasian Economic Community, an ineffectual predecessor founded in 2000 during the height of Dugin’s intellectual profile.
The attempt to establish a connection between Dugin’s ideas and Eurasian integration is highly dubious, to say the least. One useful window into the foreign policy debate in Russia at the turn of the millennium is Dmitri Trenin’s 2003 book, End of Eurasia. Although Trenin cites Dugin as an influential theorist of “Eurasia,” he also refers to a dozen other geopolitical thinkers working with the idea. Indeed, U.S. statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski had also outlined a strategic concept of “Eurasia” in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, which was translated into Russian in 1999.
There is a red herring during this period as Dugin does enter the halls of power in 1999—at least nominally—becoming an advisor to the Speaker of the Duma (the lower legislative house) and the chair of the geopolitical section of the Duma’s Advisory Council on National Security. But Russian foreign policy lies primarily in the hands of the executive. And though Boris Yeltsin was ineffectual, his deputy Yevgeny Primakov (foreign minister, 1996–98; prime minister, 1998–99) had been trying to restore Russian foreign policy to its old direction for several years.