In the 1990s, few listened to Alexander Dugin.
But this shaggy-bearded ultranationalist has come a long way from those days as a lonely pamphleteer. Then, amid the ruins of the Soviet Union, he forecast that Russia's inevitable return to great power status would be via Georgia.
Once derided by Russia's pro-Western elites, Mr. Dugin now looks like a geopolitical prophet. And he apparently has the Kremlin's ear.
His books championed the view that Russia's efforts to integrate with the global community were doomed to be swept away by fresh waves of conflict between Moscow and Washington over control of Georgia, Ukraine, and the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia.
This summer's lightning war with Georgia and the emerging political crisis in next door Ukraine are happening right on Dugin's schedule. President Dmitry Medvedev's recent foreign-policy manifesto, outlining Russia's claim to its own sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, might have been penned by Dugin.
For the near future, Dugin prophesies more regional conflicts, including possible civil war in Ukraine, and an intensifying US-Russian confrontation that could even erupt in war. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to add fuel to that view in a tough speech Thursday that, according to excerpts, criticizes Russia's "aggressive" actions that are leading to isolation rather than a renewed prominence on the world stage.
But Dugin says Moscow will create a new Russian empire over much of former Soviet territory. "There is a struggle by the US and its allies to encircle Russia, place NATO bases all around us, and force us to submit to the logic of a unipolar world," says Dugin, the leather-jacketed professor of sociology during an interview at Moscow State University. "The Americans are openly following the main law of geopolitics: whoever controls Eurasia, controls the world. It's a war against us, open war.... I was a voice in the wilderness about this a few years ago, but now it's the view of our political leaders and the majority of the population."
These days Dugin seems to be everywhere, with regular newspaper columns, frequent appearances on TV public affairs shows, and his own radio program on the state-run FM-107 station in Moscow.
He counts many top officials, policy-makers, bankers, and businessmen as belonging to his 30,000-member International Eurasian Movement, and claims his ideas have been adopted on a practical level by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Mr. Medvedev because they offer a logical explanation for why Russia failed to find open doors or concern for its interests when it tried to join the West after the Soviet collapse.
"Putin started out as a pro-Western liberal, but step by step he moved closer to Eurasian ideas," he says. "I know people who are very close to Putin, and it's clear to me that his views have evolved as he came to understand that Western pressure against us is rooted in age-old hatred of Russia. Medvedev and Putin now are turning to the Eurasianists" for answers, he adds.
Eurasianists say their sphere of influence includes the Middle East. Eurasia, Dugin says, is the cradle of human culture and civilization. Russia is, and always has been, the crucial bridge between East and West, between Asia and Europe.
Critics of Dugin argue that he is a self-promoter who's seized upon a superficial coincidence between his deeply anti-Western philosophy and a recent spate of friction between Russia and the West.
"It's a vast exaggeration to suggest that Dugin is the ideologue behind today's Kremlin leaders," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Admittedly, he's been reasonably prominent lately and, apparently, there are people with money and clout among his supporters. But Dugin is vehemently anti-Western, while Putin and Medvedev never forget to refer to the Western world as Russia's partners. None of Russia's leaders wants a new cold war."
In a nutshell, Dugin's philosophy holds that Russia is a "special geopolitical formation" that is fundamentally different from the West and therefore fated to fight for its own separate space. "Russian values hold that justice is more important than freedom, that the collective is more important than the individual," he says. "Russia is not a country, it's a civilization."
The West, particularly the US, believes its system is suitable for everyone, leading to a drive for hegemony, he argues. "If Americans identify their values as universal ones, they become our enemies," he says. "Americans think their victory over us in the early 1990s was irreversible and final. They will not accept that they were wrong without some dramatic events, such as wars."
Russia must build alliances with like-thinking nations, such as China, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and others who oppose US hegemony, he says. "Russia badly needs allies. The US won't let the multipolar world be born without struggle; there will be dramatic collisions."
He says the Russian military's longer reach these days, including the November Caribbean war games between a Russian naval task force and Venezuelan warships, is something he has long advocated.
"If the US insists on encircling Russia, why shouldn't we put our bases in Latin America?" he says. "What we want is a Monroe Doctrine for Eurasia. If the US recognizes our sphere of influence, then we could recognize theirs."
The coming battle will be in Ukraine, he says, where pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko looks increasingly beleaguered in his efforts to lead his country into NATO. Dugin says that if Ukraine pledges neutrality and normalizes its relations with Moscow, the issue can be settled peacefully. Otherwise, "there could be civil war, mass disturbances, and Ukraine could break up," he says. In time, "Russia will create a supernational state" to absorb pro-Moscow territories such as Belarus, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, eastern Ukraine and possibly large tracts of ex-Soviet Central Asia, Dugin says.
This goes beyond anything Russia's pragmatic leaders, Putin and Medvedev, are contemplating, insist the critics. "People in the Kremlin are scared of Dugin; they think he's dangerous," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "The strategy offered by Dugin is a formula for disaster. Russia needs to do everything it can to avoid isolation, and that means not behaving like a great power.... The Eurasianist way is to promote confrontation, ratchet up the jingoist propaganda, and take over power in the country. If that happens, Russia is finished."