Russia's leading ultranationalist philosopher, sometimes labeled "Putin's Brain," says that Kremlin "hesitations" over extending military support to east Ukraine's embattled pro-Russian rebels could lead to a domestic political backlash against Vladimir Putin.
Alexander Dugin, whose extreme right-wing "Eurasianist" ideology has often seemed to foreshadow Kremlin actions, says that war between Russia and Ukraine is inevitable. Mr. Putin's apparent decision to abandon retreating east Ukrainian rebels to their fate risks turning into outright betrayal, which could split Putin from his key electoral base of "patriotic" Russians, he says.
"Putin started this by signaling that Russia should defend east Ukraine from attacks by Kiev military forces," Mr. Dugin told the Monitor in a phone interview Monday.
"He declared the unity of the Russian World, and this was understood by leaders in east Ukraine that Russia would help them. But after a difficult struggle inside the Kremlin, the decision to help has been delayed. This is seen as a sign of betrayal by the patriots.... I wouldn't call it betrayal yet. But Putin has changed the timing, and this has created a very critical situation," he says.
Dugin is widely viewed as chief ideologist for the hawkish wing of Russia's ruling elite, and his persistent influence inside the Kremlin has been widely documented. A good deal of Western commentary portrays him in somewhat hyperbolic terms as "Putin's Rasputin," or the guiding mind behind Kremlin geo-strategy. But even Dugin admits that Putin's brain and inner-Kremlin politics are considerably more complex than that.
"The balance between Russian patriots and the pro-Western, liberal modernizers has been ruptured," he says. "Putin created a balance, and has ruled by it, but now the situation is very unstable," and both east Ukrainian rebels and their supporters in Russia are muttering of betrayal and could begin to turn against him, he adds.
Polls suggest that this may not be an idle threat. Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow, says that Russians are almost evenly split on extending military aid to east Ukraine's insurrection, though most oppose direct Russian intervention in the conflict.
Mr. Grazhdankin says that 64 percent support Russian volunteers participating in the conflict on the rebel side, and majorities consistently say Moscow should do more to back the rebels. But 68 percent also say they fear the local conflict could develop into full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine, while 54 percent worry it could grow into "World War III."
"On one hand, people want Russia to give more backing [to the Ukrainian rebels]. On the other hand, they deeply fear catastrophic development of the situation," says Grazhdankin.
Another survey published last week by the state-run VTsIOM agency suggests that Russians have grown increasingly alarmed and pessimistic about the drift of events in next-door Ukraine, and more than three-quarters now believe things are going to get "markedly worse" in the near future.
Dugin, who is in regular contact with east Ukrainian rebel leaders, says that without more Russian aid they probably can't hold out more than a few weeks against the full-scale Ukrainian military operation now arrayed against them. He says that Putin's "hesitations" will come back to haunt him if he fails to come to east Ukraine's assistance.
"When Kiev finishes with the revolt in Donetsk and Luhansk, the next target will be Crimea," which was annexed by Russia in March, he says. "War is inevitable. Either we start to fight now, or we shall have to fight later."
Dugin alleges that Putin is holding back from taking this fateful step out of fear of Western sanctions and hopes that he can work with European leaders to fashion a negotiated peace settlement.
"Putin's dilemma is that he could lose the momentum of the Russian Spring, while no matter what he does he will never win any understanding from the West," he says. "The US uncritically supports Kiev's military operation against east Ukraine, and it will support them if they attack Crimea. There is nothing to gain by waiting," he adds.
It may be a sign of the growing ferocity of inner-Kremlin discord over Ukraine that Dugin was fired from his post as director of the international sociology department of Moscow State University late last month, a move he describes as "political repression." But he adds that the university is under great pressure to take him back, and much will depend on the outcome of the Kremlin struggle over Ukraine.
"Putin has realized that it was easier to start these events than to end them," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
"We can see that Putin is not interested in more direct involvement in Ukraine's civil strife. But there are influential forces in Russia who are clamoring for action, and Putin cannot ignore them," he adds.