Ukraine: Russia’s Reactionaries Have a Plan

June 18, 2014

Fears of further escalation in Ukraine seem to be going away. President Vladimir Putin has moved his military back from the Ukrainian border, to the satisfaction of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Ukraine’s presidential elections took place more or less without incident and produced the expected result. Financial markets don’t seem to be too worried about the crisis anymore.

Maybe it’s not time to relax yet, though. Tanks of unidentified origin crossed the border and joined separatist forces on June 12. Fighting in the east of the country is escalating by the day. In Luhansk, government airstrikes have killed civilians, and the separatist rebels seized a border post after a long firefight. That city is now almost entirely under rebel control. In Slovyansk and Donetsk, multi-day battles between hundreds of rebels and Ukrainian troops using airstrikes and heavy weapons have left dozens killed, and the rebels have shot down helicopters using man-portable air-defense systems. On the rural roads in between the cities of southeastern Ukraine, rebels boldly ambush the Army’s large armored convoys. Does this sound like a conflict that’s winding down to you?

Don’t worry, the optimists say: Ukraine may bleed for a while, but the worst dangers of Russian intervention have passed. Eventually the conflict will be settled as part of a diplomatic agreement between the United States, European Union, Ukraine and Russia. Russia’s threats of interventions were merely a temporary ploy to advance its interests. But there’s reason to doubt Russian intentions. Russia’s foreign policy establishment is influenced by the theories of an ideological camp of reactionary “Eurasian pan-nationalists,” led by Alexander Dugin, an academic and author. Dugin and his compatriots are well regarded by some in Moscow, and they are openly calling for intervention in Eastern Ukraine.

Why should anyone care what some “wacky” Russian nationalists think? Well, Dugin has been right before. In 2008, he predicted the Russian invasion of Georgia and annexation of the Crimea. And the influence of his ideas is apparent in many areas of Putin’s policies. Dugin envisions a pan-Eurasian confederation under the protection of a revitalized Russia, acting as a sort of “liberated zone” from the spiritually and socially corrupting influence of Western capitalism and democracy. A reactionary Russia will derive legitimacy and support for its reformed empire by acting as the defender of traditional cultural identities. This is the basic idea behind Dugin’s “fourth position” theory, as elaborated in his magnum opus, Foundations of Geopolitics.

Dugin certainly has some influence in Moscow. He is a close adviser of Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin and Sergey Glazyev, Putin’s designated coordinator for the Ukraine crisis who was recently sanctioned by the Obama administration. Anton Shekovstov, a noted researcher of European far-right groups, claims that Dugin’s “ideas are taken seriously by people who are close to Putin,” Whether or not the Putin government is explicitly following Dugin’s plans as a deliberate policy, similarities between Russia’s actions and fourth position ideas are increasingly visible. For example, Putin’s tight alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church is directly pulled from Dugin’s playbook; in 2012 Dugin declared, “It is up to the Europeans to decide which kind of spirituality to revive. For us Russians, it is Orthodox Christianity. We regard our tradition as being authentic”. In keeping with Dugin’s program of pan-Eurasian spiritualism, Putin has also made clear attempts to burnish his image with Russia’s Tibetan Buddhists. Dugin identified Shia and Sufi Islam as valuable sources of potential adherents to the Eurasianist project and allies in Russia’s fight against Salafi jihadists in the North Caucasus. Sure enough, Putin selected Ahmad Kadyrov, a Sufi scholar and sheikh, to be his viceroy in Chechnya. Kadyrov’s son Ramzan has continued the aggressive promotion of Sufism as the traditional, native Caucasian alternative to the radical Salafi Islam that motivates the North Caucasus jihadis. Russia’s clear support of the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah Shia axis in the Middle East also mirrors Dugin’s recommendations. Dugin’s book is used as a textbook at the military general staff academy in Moscow.

The formation of a “Eurasian Union” to link up the former Soviet economies is Putin’s primary international ambition. It was the primary reason that Putin was willing to threaten Ukraine with economic collapse and then offer tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine’s allegiance. You can’t get much more Eurasianist than Eurasian Union. So far, the Eurasian Union’s been a somewhat frustrated project. Putin’s customs union has so far only attracted Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. The inclusion of Ukraine (or at least most of Ukraine’s gross domestic product) is critical to the success of the project. Perhaps all of this is just a result of the fact that from a Russian perspective, Dugin’s recommendations are simply geopolitical common sense, rather than his personal influence. But does that make his ideas any less valuable when analyzing Russian intentions?

So what does Dugin have to say about Ukraine? For one, he predicted months ago that the Eastern portion of the country would attempt to break away, and that the Kyiv government’s attempts to control it would be thwarted by an “Eastern Front of Resistance consisting of Russian and Ukrainian men.” The validity of that prediction has been borne out by the escalation of combat in the East. The presence of the eight-pointed star flag – the symbol of the Eurasianist movement – among the young men manning the barricades of the “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk indicate that some of them are Dugin’s followers. He advocates for a policy of waiting: allow the Kyiv government to launch a ham-fisted counterinsurgency campaign sure to cause civilian casualties and destruction, and watch the justification for Russian intervention build up.

Now, Dugin predicts that intervention. His latest article on the subject, “The Crimean Way”, states that Russia and pro-Russians in the Ukraine view advanced federalism in Eastern Ukraine as non-negotiable. This is likely a fair assessment of the situation. According to Dugin, the Kyiv government will never agree to a federalized Ukraine unless it is forced. In Dugin’s view, this necessitates a “Crimean scenario,” for which it is “necessary and acceptable to pay any price.” In other words, if the Kyiv government can’t be brought to concede many of the separatists’ demands, and the conflict continues with more and more killed, Russia should and likely will make another military move. This could come in the form of a quick seizure of territory like in Crimea, or a “slow roll” of infiltration and de-facto take-over via the proxy people’s republics. One thing’s for sure: Ukraine isn’t over.

 

Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks.

Photo credit: greg westfall