These days, having any sort of ties to Moscow is politically toxic in Washington. Recent reports indicate Donald Trump may have borrowed Russian money to keep his property empire afloat—while several investigations loom into alleged Kremlin interference in the U.S. presidential election and a host of murky connections between Trump campaign officials and Russian hackers and spies.
Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, hasn't been implicated in any of the ongoing probes. And unlike former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Carter Page, he isn’t under investigation by the FBI for possible collusion with the Kremlin. But Bannon’s ties to Russia are ideological—and therefore, arguably, they’ve had a more profound impact on White House policy with Moscow.
At least until now. In early April, Bannon was booted off Trump’s National Security Council in a White House coup that was—among other factors—also a scuffle about whether to appease a resurgent Kremlin or confront it. Days later, he lost a heated debate inside the White House with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, over whether to strike Syria after the Moscow-protected regime of Bashar al-Assad killed civilians in a chemical attack.
Bannon, a former banker turned film producer and right-wing polemicist, has praised not only Putin but also a brand of Russian mystical conservative nationalism known as Eurasianism, which is the closest the Kremlin has to a state ideology. Eurasianism proclaims that Russia’s destiny is to lead all Slavic and Turkic people in a grand empire to resist corrupt Western values. Its main proponent is Alexander Dugin. With his long beard and burning blue eyes, Dugin looks like a firebrand prophet. His philosophy glorifies the Russian Empire—while Bannon and the conservative website that he founded, Breitbart News, revived the slogan of “America first,” which Trump later adopted in his campaign.
Yet Bannon and Dugin have common cause in the idea that global elites have conspired against ordinary people—and the old order must be overthrown. “We have arrived at a moment where the world is discovering a new model of ideologies. The election of Trump shows that clearly,” Dugin tells Newsweek.
Bannon, in turn, seems to admire Dugin—as well as Putin’s Russia—for putting traditional values at the heart of a revival of national greatness. “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin] is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism,” Bannon said at a Vatican-organized conference in 2014. “When you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of [Putin’s] beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism.” Bannon declined to respond to Newsweek’s questions about his position on Russia and Dugin.
Bannon and Dugin’s speeches and writings indicate that their common enemies are secularism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism—and what Dugin calls the “globalized and internationalist capitalist liberal elite.” In both Bannon’s and Dugin’s worldview, the true global ideological struggle is between culturally homogenous groups founded on Judeo-Christian values practicing humane capitalism on one side and, on the other, an international crony-capitalist network of bankers and big business.
Bannon’s fix for the world is to revive the nation-state—precisely what Putin’s Kremlin is promoting as it backs anti–European Union candidates from Hungary to France. “I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” Bannon told an audience of Catholic thinkers at the Vatican by video-link from the U.S. in 2014. “Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism. [People] want to see the sovereignty for their country; they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan–European Union, or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up, where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”
Dugin agrees. “We are unfairly described as nationalists—but this is not old-fashioned nationalism in the sense of ethnic chauvinism, but reflects the idea that we believe in many civilizations that are all equal and have the right to their own identity and decide their own course.”
Both men are also self-styled revolutionaries. Bannon—though he once worked at Goldman Sachs—reportedly described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state.” And Dugin was the founder of the radical nationalist National Bolshevik Party, many of whose members have been imprisoned for attempting to foment armed uprisings among Russian minorities in former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan.
Trump’s election was greeted with delight in Russia, encouraged by state television, which lionized the New York real estate mogul as a man who would finally give Russia the respect it was due. A group of St. Petersburg Cossacks even gave Trump the honorary title of “captain” (which they quickly withdrew after the Syria bombing). In the early days of the Trump administration, the Kremlin had high hopes of a grand bargain with Washington based on Trump’s promise that he would be able to make a deal with Putin and work with him to destroy the Islamic State group in Syria. Trump’s starting team gave the Kremlin even more hope. Bannon was head of strategy. Michael Flynn—who had accepted a $40,000 fee to appear at the Moscow anniversary party of the Kremlin-sponsored RT channel, where he sat next to Putin—was named national security adviser. Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon-Mobil CEO, who negotiated a $7 billion oil exploration deal in the Russian Arctic with close Putin ally Igor Sechin, was appointed secretary of state.
The love-in between Trump and the Kremlin proved brief. Bannon apparently made no move to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia imposed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014—or to lift a U.S. travel ban on Dugin, imposed after his vocal support for Moscow taking over not just Crimea but all of Ukraine. At the same time, damaging Russia allegations—from an unverified dossier alleging the Russian security services had compromising material on Trump to reports of contacts between Trump advisers and Russian spies—swarmed around the White House. In the wake of the resignation of Flynn in March after being untruthful about discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kisylak about the possible lifting of sanctions, Trump quickly took the opposite tack, tweeting that he would be “tough on Russia”—and the White House announced it would not lift sanctions against the Kremlin until Crimea was returned to Ukraine. At the same time, Flynn’s replacement, General H.R. McMaster, along with Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, seemed to gain power within the administration and take a harder, more mainstream Republican line against Russia.
Many factors contributed to Bannon’s ouster from the National Security Council: He was instrumental in two travel bans on Muslim countries that the courts struck down, he was one of the key architects of a failed health care bill, and he was embroiled in a high-profile row with Kushner. But it was also clear in the aftermath of Flynn’s fall that admiration for Putin—or any kind of appeasement of Moscow—has become politically impossible for fear of giving congressional and FBI investigations evidence of collusion.
Bannon and the alt-right’s admiration for Putin has come into direct conflict with the White House’s new policies. In mid-April, in the aftermath of the Syria attack, Trump described U.S. relations with Russia as at “an all-time low” and reversed his earlier position on NATO, saying the alliance was “no longer obsolete.” At a G-7 meeting in Italy, where Britain called for more sanctions against Russia over its support for Assad, Tillerson spoke out emphatically against the Kremlin. And when he reached Moscow to meet Putin, his reception was chilly. “The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has...degraded,” Putin told Russian TV.
The ideological honeymoon is over. The only question now is whether Bannon can survive the divorce.