In a divisive climate of East-West tension and barbs being traded between politicians on both sides, the 14th annual conference of the Valdai Discussion Club took place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in mid-October.
Russia’s premier intellectual gathering brought 130 politicians, businessmen and diplomats together from 33 different countries around the globe. Guests this year included Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan; Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s former Ambassador to the US (2008-2017); Dominic Lieven, a Cambridge University historian; and the Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, Jack Ma.
Its star attraction, President Vladimir Putin, used his keynote speech to address world order:
“Naturally, the interests of states do not always coincide, far from it. This is normal and natural. It has always been the case. The leading powers have different geopolitical strategies and perceptions of the world. This is the immutable essence of international relations, which are built on the balance between cooperation and competition.”
So how are we to understand Putin’s speech? How does Russia’s understanding of international relations differ from that of the West? And to what extent is philosophy and intellectual thought influencing contemporary Russian foreign policy?
The pen is mightier than the sword
In the lands to the east of the Oder river, it is believed believe that writers, philosophers, thinkers and intellectuals lead nations. Their influence may not always be direct, but the effect of their work is enduring.
Long ago, Russian rulers learned to control their intellectuals. Flattery was one option: Nikolay Karamzin was a writer rather than an historian, but was given the official title of “historiographer” by Alexander I.
The Kremlin’s tenants have also tried to reach out to Western intellectual circles. The relationship between Catherine the Great and Voltaire serves as an example of this politics of flattery: the Russian empress went to great lengths to praise the genius of French philosopher.
In return, he portrayed Catherine’s Russia as a country of enlightened absolutism where civil rights would be introduced by the force of a strong ruler. Catherine’s generous financial backing is likely to have had some bearing on his thought.
Putin, too, has his intellectual advisers, some of whom were behind the Valdai Club report that accompanied the event.
Multipolarity, Dugin style
Many have poured scorn on the idea that philosopher Alexandr Dugin is an influential Putin adviser. But when reading the Valdai Club’s report, The Importance of Being Earnest, alongside Putin’s speech, one hears echoes of Dugin’s thought intertwined with a narrative tailored for Western consumption.
“Our Western partners became convinced of the justness of their cause and declared themselves the victors of the Cold War (…) Overconfidence invariably leads to mistakes. The outcome was unfortunate. Two and a half decades gone to waste, a lot of missed opportunities, and a heavy burden of mutual distrust”.
– Vladimir Putin
This conclusion bears a distinctive resemblance to Dugin’s ‘The Foundations of Geopolitics’, written in 1997. The work is, at best, controversial. It views world order as an ongoing war between ‘Land’ and ‘Sea’ civilisations.
Different states and peoples throughout history have represented these two factions, beginning with Athens (‘Sea’) and Sparta (‘Land’) during the Peloponnesian War. In their current incarnations, the United States is thought of by the book as ‘Sea’, and Russia as ‘Land’.
According to Dugin, the dissolution of the USSR disrupted the balance between these two global forces, leaving Russia on its knees. He proposes that to achieve balance and stability, the unipolar American world must be actively opposed, and the logical opposition to unipolarity is multipolarity.
Again, this echoes both Putin and the Valdai Club report. The document points to multipolarity as the best structure for ensuring stability, stating that:
“Part of the solution would be to organise the international economy and politics according to macro-regions. (…) It is also necessary to place states within an institutional framework that would limit their national self-centeredness, and to reduce the number of states that, at some stage, would have to start formulating the rules for a ‘new Westphalia’.”
In Western international relations theory, the idea of “multipolarity” is usually understood as a system with equal centres of power. This equality assures the stability of the international system; but the Russian understanding of multipolarity is different.
In ‘The Foundations of Geopolitics’, Dugin explains that Moscow, to counter the expansion of the ‘Sea’ civilisation, should unite continental forces. This union should be formed by four entities, called empires, and organised around cultural and political centres.
Applying the theory of multipolarity to the modern world
In the eyes of Putin, the Valdai Club and Dugin, the first of these empires is in Europe, organised around Germany. According to the Valdai Club’s report, “Germany stands at the centre of Europe’s transformation”.
Differences lie in the descriptions of two other empires. “The Pacific Ocean Empire”, according to Dugin, should be organised around Japan. Here, neither the Russian president nor the report agree – they point to China as the central hegemon. The third element of Dugin’s multipolar world, the Central Asian Empire led by Iran, is not mentioned in Putin’s speech or the report.
A crucial element of Dugin’s model is the Russian Empire, due to its geographic centrality in Eurasia. This, according to Dugin, indicates that it is destined to be the integrating force between the other two sets of powers, and thus the Russian Empire will dominate the others.
What will unite these “empires” philosophically? Dugin believes that “the hard resistance of that liberal-market, maritime (…) civilization, embodied today in the US and the planetary political, economic and military structures that serve Atlanticism”.
An imminent global reshuffle?
Perhaps the alternative of chaos justifies the appeal of a solution of divisional hegemony, as proposed by the Valdai Club and Putin. However, a deeper look shows that behind Dugin’s statements lies the reasoning of a thinker known for nationalism, antisemitism, and anti-democratism. It is a rationale aimed at assuring the domination of the ‘Land’ civilisation; not promoting stabilisation.
There is no definitive proof of the significance of Dugin’s influence on Russian policymakers, however similarly-minded thinkers permeate the Russian elite. Indeed, his works are more likely to be a logical effect of the evolution of Russian political thought than a unique phenomenon.
This essay expresses only the opinions of the author himself and cannot be considered the official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.