Putin’s philosophers: Who inspired him to invade Ukraine?

To understand the war in Ukraine, we can turn to the men who likely helped built the Russian President’s geopolitical vision.

Alexandr Dugin, Russian political strategist and philosopher
Alexandr Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory, and the book of the same name he published in 2009, inspired many in the contemporary European populist far-right, from Le Pen to Salvini, and undoubtedly inspired Putin, write Gallo and Zabala [Wikimedia commons]

Who would have imagined that news of the pandemic – which is not over – would be replaced with news of a new war in Europe? If we are to go by the shock expressed by so many in the media over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine, the answer is not many.

Actually, there was little reason to be surprised. Just as many scientists and institutions had been warning that a new influenza pandemic was imminent years before COVID-19, many political scientists and journalists, from John Mearsheimer to Pepe Escobar, have long been warning that if NATO continues expanding towards Russia’s borders, a deadly confrontation in Ukraine could be on the cards.

If the world took these warnings seriously, the horrific consequences of both events could have perhaps been limited. But over a month into the conflict, it feels counterproductive to talk about what could have been or discuss the origins of or motivations behind the war. Nevertheless, it is vital to understand why we ended up here because understanding this could be key to resolving it. So who could help us understand?

Before we start naming names, we must understand that Putin’s longer-term motivations for invading Ukraine are much more important for our purposes than the acts and events that eventually led him to give the order for this “special military operation”. While NATO’s continued efforts to encircle Russia, despite many warnings from the Kremlin, appear to be the immediate trigger that led Putin to invade, there were also deeper philosophical and ideological motivations behind this invasion – motivations only certain Russian thinkers can help us understand. Of course, after seeing the devastation the invasion has brought upon the Ukrainian people, none of these motivations can justify Putin’s actions – but they can help us understand the many dimensions of the global geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, and help us come up with recipes for its resolution.

Vladislav Surkov, or “Putin’s Rasputin” as Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev once called him in an article for the London Review of Books, is the thinker most widely cited as the ideological mastermind behind Putin’s politics and thus the Ukraine invasion. A long-term councillor to the Kremlin, Surkov was the main ideologist behind the doctrine of Russian “sovereign democracy” that has been guiding the Kremlin since at least 2006. An authoritarian brand of mild liberalism that gives a lot of control over the economy to the state, Surkov’s sovereign democracy presents itself as an alternative to decadent Western liberalism. A staunch supporter of the “there is no Ukraine” narrative, Surkov is more a political consensus organiser than a philosopher, but he is undoubtedly someone who played a primary role in the development of the ideological and philosophical framework that paved the way for Putin’s invasion.

In the eyes of many of Putin’s critics, however, it is the ideas of Ivan Ilyin not Surkov, that guides the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions and that paved the way for the invasion. The philosopher, who died in exile in Switzerland in 1954, was the main ideologue of the Russian anti-communist White Movement whose devotees emigrated out of Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Ilyin opposed Bolshevism and advocated for a form of Christian authoritarianism similar to that of the Francisco Franco regime in Spain. Echoing renowned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ilyin believed Russia had a duty to preserve its traditional autocracy and resist Western liberalism.

Over the years, Putin showed his admiration for Ilyin in several ways. In 2004, he facilitated the philosopher’s posthumous repatriation by ordering his remains to be moved from Switzerland to the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. In 2014, he recommended his regional governors read Ilyin’s book, Our Side, alongside Justification of the Good by Vladimir Solovyov and Philosophy of Inequality by Nicholas Berdyaev. The thing that tied together these three authors, who all had very different visions for the future of Russia, was their adherence to the “Russian Idea” – a set of concepts expressing the historical uniqueness, special vocation and global purpose of the Russian people and, by extension, of the Russian state. And this is no coincidence – if you read through the speeches Putin gave over the years that included quotes from Ilyin, you will see that the Russian President’s interest in the philosopher had always been tied to the “Russian Idea”.

While it is clear that both Surkov and Ilyin influenced Putin in different ways over the years, neither thinker can be credited with building the ideological foundations of the Kremlin’s current geopolitical stance and ambitions alone.

So is there a figure who in their thought marries Putin’s authoritarian ideological vision with a philosophy that puts Russia at the centre of the historical stage, and can be seen as the architect of a world vision that required the invasion of Ukraine to materialise?

There certainly is, and his name is Alexandr Dugin.

Dugin, who was born in Moscow in 1962, is not only a philosopher, political analyst and strategist but also one of the leading organisers of the ultra-nationalist National Bolshevik Front and the Eurasia Party. These political organisations combine Neo-paganism, Slavic Nativism, and Eastern Orthodox traditions under Dugin’s “Fourth Political Theory”, which integrates elements of liberal democracy, Marxism, and fascism in a new ideology designed to counter liberalism and its individualist denial of mysticism and traditions. “We are all,” he once wrote, “against liberal postmodernity.”

Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory, and the book of the same name he published in 2009, has inspired many in the contemporary European populist far-right, from Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy, and undoubtedly inspired Putin. Nevertheless, the work by Dugin that inspired the Russian president the most, and perhaps guided his decision to invade Ukraine was his earlier book, Foundations of Geopolitics.

Soon after its publication in 1997, the book, which outlined how  Russia could reassert itself on the international stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union, became mandatory reading in Russian military universities.

In the book, Dugin argues that to return to its former might, Russia must ensure that “Atlanticism” – the liberalism, free markets and democracy representing North America and Western Europe – loses its influence over “Eurasia” – the territories once governed by the Soviet Union, which needs to stand for hierarchy, tradition and a strict legal structure.

What is most intriguing is perhaps how Dugin suggests Russia should push Atlanticism out of Eurasia and regain its global influence. He argues that to achieve this goal Russia must “destabilise internal political processes in the US”, encourage Britain’s exit from the European Union and begin the annexation of Ukraine.

Whether Dugin’s theories literally inspired Putin to interfere – if he interfered at all – in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in 2016, or encouraged him to invade Ukraine in February, is impossible to ascertain. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny the Russian state’s actions in the past few years have been in line with Dugin’s philosophy, ideology and geopolitical vision for building a Great Russia.

It is stunning how similar Dugin’s – and perhaps Putin’s – view of a world spatially divided between different cultures is to the one portrayed by Samuel Huntington in the Clash of Civilizations (1996). The difference is that the American social scientist bet on Islamic civilisation becoming the main challenger to the West. Dugin, however, is betting on a new world order in which Russia is the one countering Western civilisation as the leading Eurasian power.

While NATO’s expansion certainly played a role in provoking Moscow to embark on an all-out invasion of Ukraine, it was likely the aforementioned philosophers who put the Kremlin on a path that runs contrary to the predictions Francis Fukuyama made in The End of History (1992).

We will see in the following months what will come out of the dangerous vision of Putin’s philosophers. A peaceful solution to the conflict between the West and Russia, however, is becoming more elusive with every passing day as the conflict in Ukraine further radicalises both sides. Indeed, there is little indication that either party is willing to enter into good faith negotiations.

It seems as if it was only yesterday that The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman was celebrating the wonders of globalism in his book, The World is Flat.

Today, however, the bitter judgement Canadian historian Quinn Slobodian made in his 2018 book, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, rings truer than all else: “The legitimacy crises that have plagued the WTO since its creation suggest that ordoglobalism as a distinct strain of neoliberalism may have overreached. If the goal was to fine-tune the rules to prevent disruptive demands for social justice or redistribution, then victory is nowhere in sight.”

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.