U.S. President Barack Obama walks to Marine One before departing for Sweden and the G20 Summit in Russia, September 3, 2013.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

On March 11, 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department placed a new round of sanctions on 14 figures that Washington considers responsible for the conflict in Ukraine. Until now, sanctions had targeted either high-level Russian politicians or those who were part of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle—his friends and their bankers. The latest list, however, includes mostly secessionist leaders from Donbas, a region in Eastern Ukraine that roughly covers the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. But it also names individuals that do not belong to the Russian ruling circles, and are connected to the Ukraine conflict only by ideology.

Take for example, Alexander Dugin, an outspoken Russian thinker who is often noted in Western media for his fascist views and his belief that Ukraine is not a sovereign state but a region that belongs, and therefore is fated to return, to Russia. Dugin has no official status within the Russian government. He is not even a member of the Public Chamber—a consultative institution created by Putin to foster a regime-friendly civil society—although one of Dugin’s close associates, Valery Korovin, was elected by an informal public vote as a member in Spring 2014. Nor is Dugin a part of Putin’s inner circle. The two men might not have ever even met. (Dugin is known to take every opportunity to publicize his personal connections with the Russian political elite, but has never bragged about having met the Russian president.) His supposed links to the State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin are likewise unsubstantiated. Dugin has no known financial interests that could have been secured by an alleged inclusion in Putin’s inner circle, unlike many of the other officials on the sanction list. So why is Washington targeting him?

FAILURE TO LAUNCH

The story behind Dugin’s rise to so-called prominence begins in the early 1990s, when he was working closely with the communist and nationalist groups opposed to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Dugin tried to become a shadow advisor to the Russian authorities and achieved some success in the second half of the 1990s by working for political figures close to the Communist Party and to the Liberal Democratic Party of colonel and politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. However, both of these parties lost their influence when Putin came to power in 2000. Given that Dugin’s allies at home were now few and far between, he sought for nearly a decade to craft new ties with anti-U.S. groups abroad in Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Western Europe through his International Eurasia Movement, which he founded in 2003. The movement seeks to create an international coalition of countries, namely a Eurasian alliance, to counter so-called U.S. unipolarity.

In 2008, Dugin was appointed adjunct professor at the prestigious Moscow State University presumably thanks to his links to Vladimir Dobrenkov, then dean of the sociology department, who had been regularly accused of corruption and plagiarism. There, Dugin sought to attach himself to Putin’s pet project, the Eurasian Union, by boldly proclaiming that he could become its de-facto theoretician and inject the project with the ideology that it lacked. He also sought to take advantage of the Kremlin’s conservative turn and its new friendly relations with Western far-right politicians. But in these endeavors, Dugin was overshadowed by more prominent figures, such as the Eurasian Union spokesman Sergey Glazyev, historian and politician Natalia Narochnitskaya, and Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister and former Russian ambassador to NATO.

More recently, Dugin has benefited from the renewed influence of Alexander Prokhanov who is famous for representing the military, especially the General Staff of the Soviet Army. Prokhanov is also the editor of the conservative newspaper Zavtra and the founder of the nationalist think tank, Izborsky Club. Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, the Izborsky Club has resurrected the eighteenth century idea of Novorossiya, or New Russia, and warmly supports the self-proclaimed government of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The club has even offered to write Donetsk’s constitution. However, in the summer of 2014 when the Kremlin took over, the apparently overly revolutionary Donetsk elites were dismissed and replaced with more faithful figures, and the Izborsky Club lost its media visibility. Dugin was fired from the Moscow State University last year for his calls to violently subdue the Ukrainians. And since the fall of 2014, Dugin has tried, but failed, to regain his influence.

WORDS OVER DEEDS?

So why would the United States suddenly decide to include Dugin on its sanctions list, almost one year after his violent statements against the Ukrainians, and furthermore, as the only ideologically motivated figure? Is Washington punishing people for their words, not deeds? Dugin of course draws attention to himself with his fascist theories and allusions to Nazi ideology. He also fervently believes in reconstructing the Russian empire through the use of force. But the point of sanctions is to penalize those who are actually engaged in violent acts—for instance, those involved in breaking the Minsk peace agreements and the ceasefire. It is not Washington’s job to silence specific ideologies or political views, however extreme or egregious, and sanctions traditionally do not target ideologists.

Another possible reason is that Dugin’s youth movement, the Eurasian Union of Youth, has been sending dozens (the real numbers are unknown) of young volunteers to fight in Donbas. However, there are many other movements not on Washington’s sanctions list that have also sent their young supporters to the Donbas front, and in larger numbers. Their omission may signal a certain media bias by Washington. Because Western news outlets reported more heavily on Dugin’s projects than on other movements sending recruits to eastern Ukraine, such as, it seems, the Imperial Legion, they remain unknown in the West.

Similarly, Dugin has benefited from an odd scenario of being more famous abroad than at home. Since the mid-1990s, he has drawn the curiosity of Western scholars because of his prolific work as a nationalist ideologist in Russia. The media caught on as well since the extreme nature of his theories made for appealing stories and headlines. However, this fixation on Dugin has gone too far. He is now being presented by the U.S. media as Putin’s “godfather” or “brain.” But that isn’t how Putin’s regime functions: Nationalist slogans are produced a posteriori with the indirect or direct support of the presidential administration, and the decision-making process is motivated by strategic interests, not by ideology. Dugin certainly tried—but failed—to use the Ukrainian crisis to gain prominence and influence the Kremlin. But he is not the one who made the decision to start the conflict in Crimea or the Donbas. In a way, the sanctions list might please Dugin. He now has greater notoriety in the White House than in the Kremlin.

FAULTY LOGIC

The logic behind Washington’s latest sanction list is unclear. Although the first round of sanctions in March 2014 targeted government officials responsible for Crimea’s annexation and the civil war in Donbas, the following rounds were directed against Putin’s close associates, those suspected of enjoying a high level of state protection for covering up their financial operations. The logic of the sanctions thus moved from condemning the perpetrators of violence to denouncing the entire Putin regime, perhaps in reaction to the failure of the first round of sanctions to end the violence in Ukraine.

Some sanctioned officials, such as Andrei Fursenko, who was Russia’s science and education minister from 2004 to 2012, had no direct involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. He seems to have been guilty only by association since he was an old friend and former aid of Putin’s. If Washington seeks to target those who have called for and instigated violence in Ukraine, then it should have included figures like Chechnyan dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. He is currently under European, but not U.S. sanctions. This lack of consistency is problematic because it undermines Washington’s reasoning, and therefore credibility, for the sanctions, which is to correctly identify those who are responsible for perpetuating violence.

If the United States plans to target ideologists like Dugin who support the Donbas insurgency, it will have to grow the list by several dozens of names. It could include, for example, the Izborsky Club’s director Alexander Prokhanov and many of its members, as well as Natalia Narochnitskaya, director of the Paris-based Russian Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, who is a fervent supporter of Russia’s interventionism in the Balkans and in Russia’s so-called “near abroad.” If Washington wants to punish the different ultranationalist movements that have sent fighters to Donbas, it will have to include the leaders of other movements, such as the Imperial Legion and the National Bolshevik Party of Eduard Limonov (a longstanding opponent to Putin but who now celebrates Crimea’s “return” to mother Russia). This rationale would still be problematic because research shows that volunteers often go to Ukraine by their own initiative and through personal connections, not because of systematic recruitment efforts by organized networks.

By putting Dugin, a lunatic fringe writer, on the sanctions list, the United States is essentially conveying that it considers the Russian decision-making process susceptible to irrational extremism, and that it truly believes that nationalistic ideology is the dominant motivation for Russia’s position on Ukraine. If that is correct, then the United States dangerously misunderstands Putin’s strategy: He may use nationalistic rhetoric to justify his decision-making post hoc, but he is not motivated by nationalism in and of itself. Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine is primarily strategic. It believes—rightfully or not—that Russia’s sovereignty is under threat and that it cannot be guaranteed without a pro-Russian regime in Kiev. 

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  • MARLENE LARUELLE is a Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.
  • More By Marlene Laruelle