First some brief comments on the progress of the “Special Military Operation” or Invasion of Ukraine, depending on your perspective. The “fog of war” is incredibly thick. There are no reliable public sources of information – it seems to me that even “insiders” are being duped by their own narratives and are being driven as much by their desires rather than facts on the ground. That seems to apply much more to the pro-Ukrainian side than the pro-Russian side, and while both public faces are pushing competing narratives the US, NATO, Ukrainian side seems outright delusional. So where do things stand? For what it’s worth, here’s my “multi-source integration” perspective …
The forces of the Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics, supplemented with Russian troops and backed by huge amounts of Russian supplied indirect fire (artillery, rockets, air strikes) continue to grind down the NATO backed forces in Ukraine. Russia isn’t by any stretch “all in”; it does not seem they have committed the bulk of their military to this operation. The US/NATO aid is increasing Russian casualties (and resentment) and slowing things down, but not really changing the ultimate outcome. Advances on the ground may seem small, but Ukraine has spent eight years digging in on this front line, and was supposedly preparing for an invasion of Donbas according to some reliable sources so had large forces on that front. Ukrainian advances have the feel of “Lucy and Charlie Brown kicking the football” – Russian and allied forces pull back, Ukrainian forces are pushed to leave their trenches as much for propaganda purposes as military strategy, then get mauled by indirect fire, and Russian allied forces advance. So be a bit skeptical of Ukrainian “counterattacks” – aside from the areas reoccupied after Russia’s initial feints towards Kiev in the beginning of conflict, on the Donbas front Ukrainian “counter attacks” appear to have been fairly quickly reversed, leaving the Ukrainian forces worse off than before. It appears a new Russian allied offensive started yesterday, so things may lurch forward after a somewhat quiet period.
This kind of war isn’t like any faced by the US since Korea, so even if they weren’t embedded in the narrative machine, the vast majority of US analysts (much less reporters) who do not have a long historical view don’t really have a good grasp on the conflict in military terms. This is an old school ground war of attrition, and Ukraine (and indirectly NATO at large) are arguably bleeding out faster than Russia and allies (LDR/DPR). At some point Ukrainian organized military resistance is likely to collapse. Once past the fortified areas, movement across the areas of Ukraine that Russia wants to ultimately occupy should be rapid (which again contrary to belief in the west, probably isn’t the whole country). That’s not to say all is wonderful in Mother Russia: as I have said previously, the hoped for initial collapse didn’t happen, the slog is more costly and isn’t going as fast as Russia would like, but it’s still progressing toward their objectives. What are they? I suspect the re-integration of historical and economically important and viable “novorossiya.” When? I would guess by winter, although it could well drag in to next year.
Could the narrative above be wrong, and Ukraine doing as well, and Russia as poorly, as the Western governments are saying? Possible, but what independent data there is says otherwise. I think there is a 60% chance the above is reasonably correct, and only a 10% chance the prevailing media narrative in the US correct. That leaves maybe a 30% chance something else is going on.
But the military conflict is only one part of the picture, and maybe not even the most important part. This conflict is mostly an economic and resource war, and in that respect it’s hard to come to any conclusion except that Russia is inflicting severe damage on the “West”. We tend to focus on Europe and Japan, but far from being isolated, the rest the world continues to do business as usual with Russia either directly or indirectly. The sanctions have arguably failed, and the Russian economy seems stable. Contrast this with the run away inflation in the US and Europe, looming recession, and pending collapse of energy markets this winter that have the potential to cause major unrest across Europe.
Worst, from the US perspective, parallel financial systems are being put in to operation that bypass US and European financial structures, and are decoupled from the dollar while linked to hard resources. In that context, the “go slow” approach that Russia seems to be using makes more sense. As one Russian analyst said, loosely translated, why end this before winter when it is likely the US led financial system will collapse if it continues? If that is the strategy, it’s an interesting one, potentially successful, but playing with fire – the longer this goes on, the greater the potential for an “Archduke Ferdinand” moment and miscalculation. Which brings me to the main point of this post.
The attempted assassination of Alexander Dugin, resulting in the death of his daughter Darya, may be an inflection point in the conflict. I never met her, but those who know her said she was an intelligent, vibrant young woman with a bright future in either journalism (her current field) or politics. Was she herself the target? Was it from a Russian government or internal dispute? I seriously doubt it, but some have floated that idea, most likely to muddy the water. Was this terrorism, or collateral damage from a justified target, and how does it fit within the wider war? Complex issues. I would argue he was not a legitimate target (she certainly was not), and this was terrorism. The Ukrainian Nationalists are obsessed with her father in some ways, so I can see elements of Ukrainian intelligence (with, perhaps, the support of some misguided NATO operatives) as the most likely scenario. Either way, what concerns me here is what the coverage says about western understanding of Russian internal politics and where this is going.
I know quite a bit more about her father than Darya Aleksandrovna. Alexander Dugin was good at self promotion outside Russia, but it does not seem he was so respected within and was considered a bit of an extremist. It seems that most of the people in the west commenting on Dugin’s writings and philosophy haven’t actually read any of his works. I have two of his books on my Russian Bookshelf, Основы геополитики (Foundations of Geopolitics) and his most infamous work, Четвертая политическая теория (The Fourth Political Theory). The first is used as a University textbook and studied in Russian military circles, and is somewhat respected, (although not of course in the West, where it is seen as a blueprint for Russian Manifest Destiny). The second is a bit more rambling and polemic, and more popular with various nationalist groups across Europe. In 2014 his colleagues at Moscow State University rebelled at Dugin’s proposed appointment to as Head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations due to his extreme comments over Crimea and Ukraine, and the appointment was withdrawn. Rumors are that Putin was behind his rejection, but any time anything happens in Russia people attribute it to Putin (often incorrectly) so that’s not diagnostic one way or the other. It is clear he is not part of Putin’s inside circle, although some of Putin’s advisors and supporters do adhere to some of Dugin’s philosophies.
So the US media depiction of Dugin as “Putin’s Brain” is absurd; an analogy might be saying someone like Derrick Bell (one of the creators of Critical Race Theory) is “Biden’s Brain” because some of his circle or supporters use CRT based interpretations of society to inform their worldview.
In context trying to assassinate Dugin seems to me to be one of the more idiotic things Ukraine (or their supporters) could possibly do. I can see why elements might feel it is justified, Dugin was vehement that Ukraine should cease to exist and that “Ukrainians” should be destroyed. Assassinating him would certainly would be popular among Bandaraists and ultrnationalists, as well as certain segments in the West who see Dugin as a boogie man. But it reflects a serious and potentially dangerous misconception of Russian internal politics and may end up making things worse for Ukraine and the world.
At the risk of simplification of a complex set of dynamics, throughout his career in order to maintain power Putin has been trying to balance three broad foreign policy groups, as well as trying to keep the Oligarchs who back and profit from these groups under control. First there are the “Europeanists” who wanted closer ties with the West. While Putin was originally one of these, they have been increasingly marginalized since 2008 and became mostly irrelevant after 2014. The second, currently largest force are the “Pragmatists” who feel a measured approach balancing improved internal self sufficiency, military ops (like the SMO) where essential, avoiding provocations while only responding to western provocations where also essential. This is where Putin has been since probably the 2004 time frame.
Then there are the Nationalists. They argue Russia is in an existential battle with the west, both over values as well as practically. Dugin is a significant figure with some in this movement, and Darya was becoming more popular. It should be noted that Dugin was demoted from his position at Moscow State University supposedly on Putin’s “suggestion” because he was encouraging too many radicals, and stirring up trouble for a stronger move in Ukraine post 2014. They want to go all-out against NATO, reclaim Ukraine using all available force – and the Baltics as well. The most radical want to create a Russian hegemony from “Dublin to Vladivostok”, but these are a fraction of a fraction. Originally the smallest of the three groups, they have grown over time as it has become increasingly clear that the West will never accept an economically strong and independent Russia. Since 2014 Putin has had to constantly watch his nationalist flank as their criticism of his lack of more forceful responses – including strong words from Dugin himself – have started to resonant in certain circles.
This assassination by a terrorist attack in the heart of Russia may have given the Nationalists a boost, worse than if the Ukrainian agents had succeeded in killing Alexander Dugin himself. In one sense Darya is just another young victim in a cynical geopolitical game. But she risks becoming a highly emotional symbol; “За Дарья” – for Darya – slogans have appeared within the Russian military. It has certainly put Putin in a bad place. A key misunderstanding in the US is that in compared to what many believe, Putin has been restrained in Ukraine as well as in other conflicts and has been criticized for being too timid. Against those (like Dugin) who were pushing him to invade Ukraine in 2014, he only did the minimum he felt required to preserve Russia’s key strategic interests (the bases in Crimea) and tried for eight years to negotiate (Minsk/Minsk II accords). He has been trying to avoid going “Full Chechnya” on Ukraine, but now will probably have little choice but to escalate. He can’t risk terror attacks in Moscow, stopping the wave of terror attacks in the early 2000’s is why he is in power. If he doesn’t respond with a major, violent, action, Putin won’t be around much longer, and his replacement will certainly be likely to be more confrontational, and less restrained.
Added Note: Just to be clear, again, I think the Ukraine situation is a tragedy that should never have happened. The above comments on the progress of the conflict aren’t what I hope happens, they are what I think is happening. The ship carrying my hopes with respect to Ukraine and Eastern Europe was torpedoed, crashed in to a rock, exploded, and sank a long time ago, circa 2008. At this point all we can hope for is one of the least bad outcomes that leaves the world less unstable than it is at the moment. As for Dugin, no, I don’t agree with his philosophy. But some do, and it is important to understand them. And you can’t do that without reading and trying understanding that perspective … as I constantly harp, understanding is not sympathy or agreement.