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Russian intellectual Aleksandr Dugin is also commonly known as 'Putin's brain'


Just before his army launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long and bizarre speech in which he denied one simple fact, the existence and sovereignty of Ukraine. But to many observers of Putin, the claim sounded familiar. It aligned closely with the writings of one man, Russian intellectual Aleksandr Dugin. David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post. And in a column published this past week, he says Dugin's views help explain Putin's ambitions in Ukraine. David, welcome to the show.

DAVID VON DREHLE: Thank you for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: You wrote that Dugin is commonly referred to as, quote, "Putin's brain." Can you give us a sense of Dugin's ideology?

VON DREHLE: Dugin is a good old-fashioned mystical fascist of the sort that kind of flourished after World War I, when many people in Europe felt lost, felt like the Old World had failed, and were searching around for explanations. And a certain set of them decided the problem was all of modern thinking, the idea of freedom, the idea of individual rights. And in Dugin's case, he felt that the Russian Orthodox Church was destined to rule as an empire over all of Europe and Asia. And eventually, in a big book in 1997, he laid out the road map for accomplishing that. He's continued to be intimately involved in the Russian military, Russian intelligence services and Putin's inner circle.

RASCOE: And so you talk about how this ideology has manifested in Putin's actions, this idea that Russia should basically, as you said, rule over all of Europe and Asia.

VON DREHLE: Well, he felt that this was the great land-based empire and that it was in competition with a great sea-based empire that was led by the United States and Great Britain. So step one was to weaken the U.S., weaken Great Britain and disconnect us from our ties to Europe. And if you look at the way Putin has manipulated the internet over the past 20 years, the rise of social media to drive division and heat up the culture wars in the United States, to influence the Brexit movement in Great Britain. All of these things are steps to weaken the West because it's Russia's destiny to draw Europe toward Russia.

RASCOE: And how does Ukraine fit into this line of thinking?

VON DREHLE: Yeah, well, Dugin and then Putin has given voice to this, as well. They say that Ukraine is not a separate country, that it's another Russian Orthodox-dominated country. But from a strategic standpoint, it is the nation on the north shore of the Black Sea. And Dugin says that Eurasia, as he calls the future Russian empire - Eurasia has to have complete control of the Black Sea.

RASCOE: And what would happen in Asia in that point? Because Russia and China have fairly good relations, or they're pretty close.

VON DREHLE: Yeah, Dugin does not believe that Eurasia, you know, the great Russian empire, will be complete until China has been basically destroyed, that if only Hitler had never invaded Russia, then together, Russia and Germany and Japan could have formed a fascist alliance that would have dominated the world with Russia as the strongest partner from - as he puts it, from Dublin to Vladivostok.

RASCOE: I just wonder, with that sort of ideology driving Putin, like, how do you or how does anyone negotiate with that?

VON DREHLE: Well, it's tough. I mean, it's clearly - it's delusional thinking. It's messianic. It's, you know, apocalyptic. It's highly religious. We're seeing all these qualities in Putin lately to a degree that we haven't seen before - this idea that he's on a religious mission to basically universalize the Russian Orthodox faith through power and violence. As I said at the end of the column, it's a delusion. But when dictators with nuclear weapons have delusions, we have to pay attention to them.

RASCOE: That's David Von Drehle, columnist for The Washington Post. Thank you for being with us.

VON DREHLE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.