Who is Russian ultranationalist Alexander Dugin?

Alexander Dugin has been described by some as Vladimir Putin’s “brain”, but dismissed by others as a “harmless cult figure” with little influence on the Russian president.

For years, analysts and observers have offered competing views about the 60-year-old ideologue’s true level of influence among Moscow’s political elites.

This week, the longstanding debate has taken on a new intensity after his daughter was killed by a car bomb in the Russian capital.

Moscow has accused Ukrainian secret services of killing Dugin’s daughter, Darya Dugina, a claim rejected as “propaganda” by Kyiv.

There is growing speculation that Dugin himself may have been the target of Saturday’s attack, reflecting his prominence as a leading advocate for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Calls for an imperial Russia

Thirty years after his birth to a high-ranking military family in 1962, Dugin first attracted national attention in the early 1990s amid the collapse of the Soviet Union as a prolific writer for Russia’s far-right Den newspaper.

In a manifesto named “The Great War of the Continents”, which was serialised by the paper in 1991-1992, he set out his ultranationalist vision for Russia as the leader of a Eurasian empire destined to face off against what he saw as a decadent West.

By 1997, Dugin’s ideas on so-called Eurasianism had coalesced and he published The Foundations of Geopolitics – a book that would go on to become widely recognised as his most significant work and reportedly become compulsory reading at the senior staff college of the Russian armed forces.

He called in the text for Russia to rebuild its influence, minus the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, through alliances and annexations, including the seizure of Ukraine, which he claimed had “no geopolitical meaning” and “no ethnic exclusiveness” as a state.

Susan Smith-Peter, a Russian historian and professor at the City University of New York, in the United States, described Dugin’s notions as “fascist”.

“His life’s work has basically been to take fascist ideas and modify them for a Russian audience so that they kind of have this Russian veneer,” Smith-Peter told Al Jazeera.

“And he’s been influencing people on a variety of different levels,” she said.

Alleged influence ‘grossly overstated’

In more recent decades, Dugin has held a range of high-profile posts, including serving as head of Moscow State University’s prestigious Department of Sociology of International Relations between 2009-14 and briefly holding the position of chief editor at the pro-Kremlin Tsargrad television channel following its launch in 2015.

Meanwhile, his hardline ideas have steadily trickled from the fringes into Russia’s political mainstream as Moscow’s relations with the US and its European allies plummeted to post-Cold War era lows under Putin’s leadership.

The Russian president’s own rhetoric on Ukraine has also given rise to suggestions from some analysts that he has been directly influenced by Dugin’s work.

In a lengthy July 2021 essay entitled, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin said he believed the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia”, echoing Dugin’s scepticism about its claim to independent statehood.

But other observers dismiss the notion that Dugin, who in 2014 said he believed Russia should “kill, kill, kill [Ukrainians]”, has directly shaped Putin’s decision-making.

“Dugin’s actual influence over Russian policy has been grossly overstated,” Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the United Kingdom-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“He has never really held an official title within Russia … and he isn’t that in touch with the current establishment, least of all Putin,” Ramani said.

He noted Dugin had always “wanted to go much further [on foreign policy] than Putin is willing to go”, citing the former’s calls during Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia for the overthrow of the country’s government and in 2014 for Russia to declare war on Ukraine and annex the country’s eastern regions after Moscow invaded and seized the Crimean Peninsula.

Ramani also pointed to differences between the pair over current strategy in Ukraine, highlighting that Dugin had repeatedly called for Russia to introduce general mobilisation and conscription – moves Moscow has not yet taken, with it yet to have officially declared itself at war.

‘A new Russian time is coming’

Dmitry Babich, a Russian political analyst and journalist, was also sceptical of suggestions that Dugin had helped sculpt the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine and other foreign policy matters.

“In the last few years, he [Dugin] was more or less a harmless a cult figure in his own small group,” Babich told Al Jazeera.

“He has not made any impact on politics and certainly it would be wrong to say he is Putin’s ‘brain’ or the person behind Putin’s policies, this is all simply not true,” he added.

But while discussions continue about the extent of Dugin’s impact, or irrelevance, in Russia’s halls of power, he himself has continued to press for Moscow to ramp up its deadly offensive in Ukraine.

In a post on Telegram published before the killing of his daughter on Saturday, Dugin called on the Kremlin to gear Russian society up to a total war footing, stating that Kyiv and its Western allies had shown no sign of conceding defeat in the conflict.

“The Supreme Commander-in-Chief said: ‘we haven’t really started anything yet’. Now we have to start,” Dugin said, citing Putin’s claim on July 7 that Russia had “by and large … [not] started anything seriously yet” in Ukraine.

“Russia … challenged the West as a civilisation. So we have to go all the way,” he added. “The mighty forces of history have come into play, the tectonic plates have shifted … A new Russian time is coming. Relentlessly.”

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