After the splash of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, U.S. President Donald Trump is now ready for another step in his disruptive diplomacy, a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump has never hidden his desire to improve relations with Russia. Indeed it has been central to his foreign policy goals, provoking deep opposition within the U.S. institutions which has forced him to zigzag between demonstrations of toughness and diplomatic overtures in his first year and a half in office. Thus despite insisting on the need to work with Russia on various issues, he has also approved new sanctions in connection with the 2016 elections, and twice bombed Syria due to presumed chemical weapons attacks, with harsh words regarding Russian support for Bashar al-Assad.
In recent years, the most common view in the West has been that Vladimir Putin is a strongman who rules Russia with an iron fist, eliminating any democratic opposition while aiming to rebuild the Russian Empire in opposition to liberal democracies. A significant portion of the population and the business community in Europe isn’t convinced by this “enemy image” – or in any case is ready to give Putin the benefit of the doubt in the name of pragmatic deal-making – but in the U.S., questioning the dominant narrative of Putin presented by the media often brings accusations of being a traitor to the country.
Not surprisingly, inside Russia the view of Vladimir Putin is a bit different. He is not seen as omnipotent, and his openings to the West actually entail some risk due to conservative opposition. There have been grumblings in the Russian military establishment against Putin in recent years, for example: some saw him as too trusting of Obama in the past (as Trump’s predecessor also tried his own “reset”), and worry that he has no coherent strategy now either, as regards both Ukraine and the Middle East. In April 2016, General Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee, publicly expressed an opinion that close observers had already been picking up on elsewhere: that Russia wasn’t militarily or economically prepared to face the West, and that Putin’s government should mobilize for that purpose, rather than hope for better collaboration with the United States.
On June 20, I had the chance to discuss the West’s views of Russia, and vice versa, with a man who has been called “Putin’s Rasputin”, controversial conservative ideologue Alexander Dugin. The Russian professor and author was visiting Italy in the wake of the formation of the new populist government by the Five Star Movement and the League, of which not surprisingly, he wholeheartedly approves. Indeed, he sees the situation in Italy as key to breaking up the globalist, unipolar world order: “Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio represent the fulfillment of Trump’s ideas,” he said, referring to the two young leaders of the parties anchoring the new government.
Dugin says he is not an advisor to Putin; rather his influence is “much stronger,” because when Putin came to power, he began to adopt Dugin’s theories. In particular, Dugin has preached the need for a revival of Russian “imperial sovereignty” – although without returning to 19th Century nationalism – from the standpoint of the country’s central role in Eurasia, a counter to Western attempts at geopolitical encirclement of Russia.
He developed what he calls his “fourth” political theory in order to counter the advance of liberalism in his country. He affirms the need to go beyond the three major ideologies of the 20th Century; fascism, communism and liberalism, calling for a “synthesis of the social theories of the economic left and traditional values.” The application of these ideas to geopolitics, “translates into the promotion of a multipolar world view, which Putin has adopted.”
I began by asking Dugin how he sees current U.S.-Russia relations, given his high praise of Trump after the 2016 election.
“It is going a little worse than I foresaw. I believed the words of Trump, I believed in Trump, and I coined the phrase ‘In Trump We Trust’… I believed that he really could improve relations with Russia and fulfill his promises to the American people, but I underestimated the power of the deep state, and the neoconservatives… Now I say the swamp has drained the Trump.
He tries to have a kind of compromise with the deep state. He follows some lines wanted by the neocons concerning Israeli politics against Iran, he is obliged maybe to destroy possible relations with Russia because he’s under pressure. He is in a very difficult situation. But nevertheless, in spite of all that, Trump inspires in me a kind of hope, a half-hope, because now he is destroying relations between the United States and Europe. That’s good because that is the chance of multipolarity.
I am not happy at all with American involvement in Syria, I would prefer American troops go back home, and maybe let the Syrians solve the situation by themselves. But I think that his relations with North Korea are very intelligent. He made a kind of step, a gesture, and finally they have arrived at a logical, rational deal. He has avoided confrontation. If he will repeat the same in the Middle East, maybe he will restore our hope in him.”
Dugin raised the possibility of a more fundamental change in U.S. politics, the abandonment of the British geopolitical view based on control through sea power, what today he identifies as globalization and Atlanticism. America was not originally a sea civilization, he said, but a continental, heartland power, which changed after the decline of the British Empire.
Despite his rejection of globalization, that he sees as the attempt to impose the same liberal values on different civilizations, Dugin seemed ready to embrace a similar concept, as long as the underlying principles are different.
“Three continental civilizations, Russian, European and American, in a multipolar world, can easily find common values, common interests, common geopolitical strategy, but at the same time, it is not necessary. We will be fixed on our identity, solving our own problems. We could have different political systems, different values, or some common values.
That will not necessarily lead Russia to become exactly the same liberal democracy as the United States. The United States could continue to be a liberal democracy, or choose something else, as the people want. The same for Europe, the same for Russia. Maybe it will be the case that we will accept the same system of values, being in our origins three forms of Christian societies. Maybe not, because there are differences, including in the system of values between Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy. It is clear that we are not the same exactly, because historical experience, religious, social, economic experience, everything is more or less different. But at the same time there will absolutely be common ground. We will be interested in having a peaceful world order, predictable, with the rules that everybody should accept. If we agree about the rules of international life, everybody should respect them. Rules are transcendent in that sense.
I think that the rules of a multipolar world should be established, respected and agreed upon by all cultures. I think that these three great spaces could find mutual understanding: the Islamic world, the Chinese world, and the African great space. We need to take them into consideration as well. We shouldn’t divide the world between three of us, we need to accept other subjects, other players, other decision-makers.”
Dugin initially laid claim to Putin as a supporter of his own Eurasian geopolitical view. Yet his approach changed when I asked him about opposition to Putin inside Russia. The Western viewpoint is generally to look for pro-European, pro-U.S. factions that criticize Putin as a despot. According to Dugin, the real opposition is elsewhere, revealed by Russians’ reaction to the two sides of Putin: “solar” and “lunar”, the former when he is projecting strength, sovereignty, and a return to the international stage, the latter when he seems to accept Western liberalism.
“If we consider the situation in Russia more closely, we will discover that almost all that is said in the West about Putin is wrong. It is a complete caricature. The most important criticism of Putin inside Russia is not from the liberals. Liberals represent the smallest part of the critics. They are absolutely marginal… So the West is absolutely wrong in thinking that there is this big liberal opposition to Putin that is artificially kept down.
The real opposition to Putin is growing completely on the other side of Russian society. It is growing discontent with “lunar” Putin, against the Putin who is surrounded by liberals. All the government is completely not only corrupt, it consists of pro-Western liberals. Nothing has changed after the last election.
Russian society wants strategy, wants institutionalization of sovereign politics. It needs new ideology, it needs spiritual and social revival, a new education system and social justice. There is no social justice in Russian society, and there is no coherent national strategy. But the absolute majority of our society is for social justice, and national traditional conservative values. The Russian people are absolutely populist.
I think the attacks from the West help Putin a lot. Because the West thinks the liberals cry against Putin; they help the liberals, but the liberals don’t exist. They blame Putin, they demonize him, and by demonizing him they create the image of “solar” Putin, whom we love. So the West is the main supporter of Putin, not the Russian people. If, for example, there were “lunar” Putin in our internal politics, we would revolt, but with the West creating this image of a “solar” Putin, we will not revolt against him, up to the moment when we see that he is accepted, he is loved, he is supported by the West. At that very moment, there will be a kind of reaction. So the only way to bring Putin down is [for the West] to love him, to praise him, to accept him; give gifts to him, embrace him, and that will be the end of Putin. But now I think the West does everything in order to support him. So his main support is Western hatred.”
Dugin’s view presents a fascinating paradox. Save embracing the unlikely goal of regime change in Russia, the West may actually find Putin to be its best bet, if it is true that the pro-Western liberals are marginal. At the same time though, if Putin becomes increasingly open to the West, he is likely to provoke further conservative opposition inside Russia.
If Dugin is right, the United States faces a sort of catch-22: demonize Putin and he will get even stronger; attempt to find some common ground, and the anti-Western faction will increase its sway in the country. To get out of this vicious circle, the West would need to reverse the values it has promoted in recent years, putting forward a different face. It may be that Donald Trump, with his anti-globalist “street cred”, could be just the right figure to thread that needle.