Sergey Karaganov breaks into a broad smile when asked why his two-decades-old ideas about Moscow “protecting” Russian speakers abroad are suddenly the centre of his country’s foreign policy.

“Because almost everything I have said, happened,” Mr. Karaganov said in an interview in his high-ceilinged office in the historic Kitai-Gorod district of Moscow, a short walk from Red Square.

It’s Vladimir Putin who has made defending the rights of Russian-speakers wherever they live into a foreign-policy principle for the Kremlin. But in setting this interventionist new course, the Russian President borrowed heavily from the ideas of Mr. Karaganov, whom Mr. Putin has frequently consulted regarding foreign affairs.

Mr. Karaganov hypothesized two decades ago that the Russian speakers living in newly independent countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states would become the prime guarantors of Moscow’s political and economic influence over its neighbours after the fall of the Soviet Union. In a 1992 speech that laid out what became known as the “Karaganov doctrine,” he prophesied that Moscow might one day feel compelled to use force to protect them, and thus its interests, in the former USSR.

As such a scenario now unfolds in Ukraine, Mr. Karaganov sees Russia and the West locked in a “clash of models” – Western-style democracy versus Moscow’s authoritarian capitalism, a struggle he believes could take on a military element. But he’s confident Mr. Putin will not back down.

“My belief is that Russia has nothing to lose and has had nothing to lose for a while. It will either win or collapse. That’s my judgment. And Putin, from what I understand, will fight to the end,” he said, leaning forward for emphasis. “We are in a blind alley, or worse in a crisis that will have terrible human and economic and political costs for all of us.”

They are startling words from a man who knows Mr. Putin personally. The 61-year-old Mr. Karaganov doesn’t work for the Kremlin, but the policy papers his Council on Foreign and Defense Policy produces end up on desks there.

Mr. Karaganov – one of a clutch of foreign-policy nationalists who have gained influence in Moscow since Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 – also helped draft a key speech last fall in which Mr. Putin laid out a vision of new, more powerful Russia guided by its own ideas and values.

The gregarious Mr. Karaganov, a nationalist intellectual who cheerfully mixes chatter about his building’s architecture with talk of war in Europe, pointed out that, in a sign of the shifting political winds in Moscow, he now has the office that used to belong to a “minor oligarch” who held sway in the Kremlin while Boris Yeltsin was president during the 1990s.

In Mr. Karaganov’s telling, the doctrine that bears his name came about almost by accident.

He was invited at the last minute to speak at a conference in 1992. With only a short time to prepare, he jotted down some ideas about how policy makers, rather than mourning the fact that millions of Russian speakers were left outside Russia’s borders when the Soviet Union dissolved, should see these people as assets – tools that could be used to retain Moscow’s influence over its former colonies.

They were often the wealthiest and best-educated citizens in their new countries, Mr. Karaganov argued. By protecting their rights to speak Russian in public, to watch Russian-language television and to have their children educated in Russian, Moscow would keep their loyalty and gain access to the economies and governments of their new states.

“We must be enterprising and take them under our control, in this way establishing a powerful political enclave that will be the foundation for our political influence,” reads an online transcript of the 1992 speech.

At the time, the Karaganov doctrine was a fringe ideology, one seized upon by the nervous press in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but never embraced by Mr. Yeltsin’s Kremlin.

Now, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Mr. Putin’s threats to use Russia’s military in other parts of Ukraine – all in the name of protecting Russian speakers – the Karaganov doctrine is clearly the foreign policy mainstream.

“We must admit to ourselves that in Putin’s Russia we are dealing with an aggressive regime that is seeking to restore the empire in the borders of the former Soviet Union. Russia has never abandoned the Karaganov doctrine,” Estonian Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu said recently.

Mr. Karaganov said Mr. Putin was pushed toward his nationalist new line by the West, which ignored Kremlin protests over the past two decades as NATO and the European Union expanded towards Russia’s borders and into Moscow’s historic “sphere of influence.”

“The debate is about Crimea. It should not be about Crimea. It’s about first, the Russia-West relationship and when are we going to respect each other’s interests. And then it’s about whether Ukraine can survive as a state.”

To avoid a wider conflict, Mr. Karaganov said Western leaders needed to accept Moscow’s proposal to reinvent Ukraine along the lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with wide autonomy for Russian-speaking regions in the east and the south. Russia also wants Ukraine to be made permanently neutral, meaning it would never join NATO or the EU.

He acknowledged that Kiev and the West were unlikely to agree to such terms now, but suggested they might have a change of heart if the possibility of war became clearer. “Let’s see what will happen when they understand what kind of problems, what kind of hell, they have unleashed in Ukraine,” he said, adding he hoped the West would see in Russia’s seizure of Crimea as “a lesson” about how high Moscow sees the stakes.

“We are in a pre-World War situation, but because of nuclear weapons we will not descend into it,” he says, pausing to thank the Soviet scientists who left modern Russia with its atomic deterrent. “But there could be a military, or a quasi-military, situation.”

Sanctions, Mr. Karaganov said, will not push Russia in the direction Western leaders are hoping.

“They show our Western colleagues don’t understand anything. They think Putin and his colleagues are out for money. They’re not. They’re out for power and pride.”

MOSCOW — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Mar. 30 2014, 9:18 PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Mar. 30 2014, 9:19 PM EDT