FP | Russia’s push into Georgia in 2008, into Ukraine in 2014, and its recent campaign in Syria, as well as its efforts to consolidate a sphere of influence in the inner Eurasian heartland of the former USSR called the Eurasian Union, all are eerily foretold in geopolitical theory. Mackinder held that geography, not economics, is the fundamental determinant of world power and Russia, simply by virtue of its physical location, inherits a primary global role. Under President Vladimir Putin, the slightly kooky tenets of Mackinder’s theory have made inroads into the establishment, mostly because of one man, Alexander Dugin, a right wing intellectual and bohemian who emerged from the Perestroika era in the the 1980s as one of Russia’s chief nationalists.
Largely thanks to Dugin’s murky connections within the elite, Geopolitics today is mainstream. Mackinder’s arguments were useful to Dugin and other hardliners who contended that conflict with the West was a permanent condition for Russia, though they had trouble explaining why. The reasons for the Cold War had seemingly evaporated with the end of ideological confrontation, in a new era of universal tolerance, democracy, and the “end of history.”
The Englishman’s elevation to the status of grand mufti of Atlantic power was assisted by Dugin, who in 1997 published The Foundations of Geopolitics, one of the most curious, impressive, and terrifying books to come out of Russia during the entire post-Soviet era, and one that became a pole star for a broad section of Russian hardliners. The book grew out of Dugin’s hobnobbing with New Right thinkers and his fortnightly lectures at the General Staff Academy under the auspices of General Igor Rodionov, the hardliner’s hardliner who would serve as defense minister from 1996 to 1997. By 1993, according to Dugin, the notes from his lectures had been compiled as a set of materials, which all entrants to the Academy were supposed to use, and which were frequently amended and annotated by new insights from the generals, or following the odd lecture by a right-wing ideologue flown in from Paris or Milan.
Dugin thus set out self-consciously to write a how-to manual for conquest and political rule in the manner of Niccolò Machiavelli. Like The Prince (which was essentially a fawning job application written to Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici after Machiavelli had been out of power and exiled for ten years), Dugin wrote his book as an ode to Russia’s national security nomenklatura from the depths of his post-1993 wilderness. Until 1991 he had been one of the hardliners’ chief propagandists, writing a combination of conspiracy theories and nationalist demagoguery for The Day, a newspaper funded by the defense ministry. But following the failed coup by the KGB and the Red Army in August of that year, Dugin had been in internal exile with little way to support himself.
Together with fellow nationalist intellectual Eduard Limonov he had founded a cantankerous political movement called the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), which he called a “political art project” and in addition he rather improbably landed a visiting lectureship at the Academy of the General Staff as a result of connections to the hardliners and to Rodionov. Drawing on his connections with military academics and sitting in the dirty basement of the NBP’s Frunzenskaya Street headquarters, Dugin wrote a book that would become a major influence on Russia’s hardliners.
In Dugin’s capable hands, Mackinder was transformed from an obscure Edwardian curiosity who never got tenure at Oxford, into a sort of Cardinal Richelieu of Whitehall, whose whispered counsels to the great men of state provided a sure hand on the tiller of British strategic thinking for half a century, and whose ideas continue to be the strategic imperatives for a new generation of secret mandarins.