GEOPOLITICS: A CENTURY-OLD SCIENCE TO ASSESS THE FUTURE

Author : Admin | Tuesday, June 21, 2016
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Several international developments during the first half of the year 2014, such as the situation in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea, China’s claims in its coastal waters and the new strategy of Japan, or Iran’s moves to acquire a dominant position in the Muslim world, brought back to the attention old but persisting geopolitical power plays that, in the last two decades, have been considered old-fashioned. The United States and the EU in particular, are seen as having preferred to neglect the geopolitical questions of territory and military power in favor of the “new” ones of world order and global governance, such as trade liberalization, nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, rule of law or climate change.

In reality – and recent developments showed it clearly – several international actors, especially China, Iran, and Russia, were not satisfied by the current geopolitical settlement, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it. Such a process is not expected to be peaceful, and the revisionists’ efforts are beginning to result in a shift in the balance of power and the dynamics of international politics.

NATO’s outgoing secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared on 15 June that We must adapt to the fact that Russia now considers us its adversary”. Is it really “now” and was he really surprised by such a “fact”?

Some of these developments were considered important enough to be put on the agenda of the 62nd Bilderberg Conference (Copenhagen, May 29 – June 1, 2014), which included the situation in Ukraine and the problems generated by the anti-European parties that were elected to the European Parliament, as well as the implications for U.S. and Europe of the energy agreement signed by Russia and China.

A separate meeting was devoted to Russia’s moves to build an alternative world order based around the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in a multi-polar system, which can affect the dollar as the world reserve currency and largely weaken the current U.S. – EU – NATO power axis.

The next NATO summit, in Cardiff this September, will be charged with new purpose and urgency, since, according to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “we see Russia speaking and behaving more as an adversary than as a partner… Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and now Crimea… What connects those crises is one big country unilaterally deciding to rewrite international rules”.

In Europe, the post-Cold War settlement involved the unification of Germany, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, and the integration of the former Warsaw Pact states and the Baltic republics into NATO and the EU. In the Middle East, it entailed the dominance of Sunni powers that were allied with the United States (Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies, Egypt, and Turkey) and the double containment of Iran and Iraq. In Asia, it meant the uncontested dominance of the United States, embedded in a series of security relationships with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and other allies.

For many political analysts and strategists in the U.S., the conditions of the post-Cold War world, especially the collapse of the Soviet Union, meant that geopolitics came to a permanent end. At the same time, policymakers assumed that the international system would become stronger and continue to be favorable to U.S. interests.

The reality, the twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall showed an entirely different course, whether one focuses on the rivalry between the EU and Russia over Ukraine, which led Moscow to seize Crimea; the intensifying competition between China and Japan in East Asia; or the subsuming of sectarian conflict into international rivalries and civil wars in the Middle East. In very different ways, with very different objectives, China, Iran, and Russia are all aiming to change the political settlement of the Cold War.

The relationships among the three powers are complex and there are little chances that, in the long run, there might be a strategic alliance among them. However, in the current and near-future time-frame, they are bound together by their common intention to revise the status quo. Russia wants to reassemble as much of the Soviet Union as it can. China has no intention of contenting itself with a secondary role in global affairs, nor will it accept the current degree of U.S. influence in Asia and the territorial status quo there. Iran wishes to replace the current order in the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia and dominated by Sunni Arab states, with one centered on Tehran. Leaders in all three countries also agree that U.S. power is the chief obstacle to achieving their revisionist goals.

This was formulated in a recent declaration of the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who, at a meeting of Russia’s council for international affairs, accused the U.S. of limiting Russia’s abilities, as Washington does not want Moscow to unite its potential with the European Union and therefore see America losing the role of the global leader.

Lavrov also said that the geopolitical rivalry never ceased to exist and there was simply an attempt “to pretend that it was a prerogative for only a selected group of states, which were capable to revamp the situation around the world in accordance with their standards”.

At the same time, in his interview that preceded his visit to France on the occasion of the 6 June D-Day festivities, Vladimir Putin stressed that “regarding Ukraine and military blocs, this is what worries us, because if Ukraine joins, say, NATO, NATO’s infrastructure will move directly towards the Russian border, which cannot leave us indifferent”.

Such developments and above all the trend of increasing deterioration and unpredictability of the international situation made politicians, as well as analysts, “re-discover” geopolitics, either as a source for theoretical support for the political decisions or, correspondingly, a useful framework for analyzing the past and assessing the future.

Geopolitics is the study of the effects of geography (both human and physical) on international politics and international relations, as well as a method of foreign policy analysis which seeks to understand, explain, and predict international political behavior primarily in terms of geographical variables (physical location, size, climate, topography, demography, natural resources, and technological advances) of the state being evaluated. The term “Geopolitics” was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century by Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish political scientist, who was inspired by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel.

 

Geopolitics in history: Sea vs. land

 

Although a relatively new discipline, geopolitics comes from ancient history. In the Middle Ages, the cabbalists interpreted the history of the world as a combat between the powerful whale, Leviathan, and Behemoth, a land animal imagined as looking like an elephant or a bull. Behemoth tries to tear Leviathan with its defenses, its horns or its teeth, while Leviathan, for its part, tries to stop with its fins the mouth and the nose of the land animal to starve or suffocate it, in an allegory that is similar to the blockade of a terrestrial power by a maritime power.

In our days, some schools of thought still divide the world powers in terms of Land (Mother Russia) vs. Sea (the “Atlanticists”, as frequently called, especially by the Russian school of thought). Russia’s grand strategy has traditionally been obsessed with making the country less of a land power by obtaining non-Arctic ports such as St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Port Arthur, Sochi and Sevastopol in Crimea. Land-bound Russia aimed for a long time but never achieved the goal of taking Constantinople and thus securing a sea route to the Mediterranean.

Land powers – among which one can mention Russia and Germany, but also, to a certain degree, France and China, tend to have the “motherland” as the base of their political and strategic doctrines that aim to preserve a compact ethnic element. They would fight for territorial gains and create enclaves – Kaliningrad, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh are typical examples created by Russia – in order to control their border areas (Rimland).

In the American mind, land powers, throughout the history, are seen as militarist: Sparta, Prussia, the Soviet Union, and Putin’s Russia. In contrast, sea powers – Athens, The Netherlands, England and America – with natural defenses and a high-tech military, didn’t need conscript armies, martial discipline, and centralized economic control.

Instead, sea powers (among which the United States and Great Britain, but also Japan) are characterized by mobility, which translates in a shifting pattern of the control and influence areas (a lax Rimland) and, correspondingly, to doctrines that stress the “globalization” factor. Sea power was the key to freedom at home and adventure capitalism abroad. Even more fundamentally, sea powers have the privilege to project violence where they please and then go home, secure in the knowledge that they can’t easily be followed. Land powers are stuck having to live next to their rivals.

The Sea Powers’ partisans: Mahan, Mackinder, Spykman

At the beginning of the 20th century some of the books that marked the beginnings of the geopolitical science stressed the importance of the sea as a source of power. Among those, The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), by American Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, Das Meer als Quelle der Volkergrösse (The Sea as Source of National Greatness, 1900), by German Friedrich Ratzel, and Britain and the British Seas (1902), by British Halford John Mackinder.

Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914 historian and professor at the US Naval Academy) is considered the “geopolitician of the sea”, since in his work (twenty books and 137 articles) he aimed to demonstrate, based on the study of European history of the 17th and 18th centuries, that maritime power (Sea Power) determined the growth and prosperity of nations. For him, the sea can act against the land, whereas the reverse is not true and, in the long run, the sea always ends up winning against the land. Mahan is persuaded that the control of the seas ensures the domination of the land, which he summarizes with the formula “the Empire of the sea is without any doubt the Empire of the world”.

By affirming the superiority of the maritime empires, he was considered as offering a theoretical justification to imperialism, the great expansionist movement of the years 1880 – 1914.

In The Problem of Asia (1900), Mahan applies his geopolitical model to Asia, insisting on the need for a coalition of maritime powers to contain the progression towards the open sea of the great terrestrial power of the time, Russia. The admiral recommends blocking the advance of the Russian “tellurocracy” through the creation of a vast alliance of the maritime powers, “thalassocracies”, which would include the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan, with the Americans as leaders.

The British academic Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861–1947) also believed that the fundamental geopolitical reality is the opposition between continental powers and maritime powers. In 1887, Mackinder delivered a speech to the Royal Geographical Society that marked his debut on the geopolitical stage, declaring: “there are two types of conquerors today: land wolves and sea wolves”. Mackinder was obsessed by the safety of the British Empire vis-à-vis the rise of Germany and Russia and in 1902, in Britain and the British Seas, he noted the decline of Great Britain and concluded from it that it must “divide the burden” with the United States, which would take over sooner or later.

In his famous essay of 1904, The Geographical Pivot of History he formulates his geopolitical theory, that can be summarized in two principal points: (1) Russia occupies the pivotal zone inaccessible to maritime power, from which it can undertake to conquer and control the Eurasian continental mass, (2) opposing Russia, the maritime powers (Great Britain, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and Japan) are inaccessible to terrestrial power, encircle it and prohibits its free access to the open sea.

Mackinder also referred to a particular area on the Eurasian landmass that he deemed of critical geo-strategic importance, i.e., the “Pivot area” (which coincides with much of the post-Soviet space and the location of many of the world’s largest gas deposits today) surrounded by “inner” and “outer” crescents.

This book also includes the Mackinder model of the Heartland (encompassing the Asian steppe), surrounded by two densely populated crescents: the Inner Crescent, encompassing India, China, Japan, and Europe, which are territorially adjacent to the Heartland, and the Outer Crescent, made up of various islands. In what he called “the pre-Colombian” period, the inner crescent was regularly subject to the pressures of nomadic horsemen from the steppes of the Heartland. Everything changed in the “Colombian” age, which saw the confrontation of two moving powers, that of England which began the conquest of the seas, and that of Russia which advanced in Siberia.

For Mackinder, the opposition Land/Sea is likely to lean in favor of the land and Russia. Mackinder noted that if the United Kingdom could send an army of 500,000 to South Africa at the time of the Boer Wars, a performance saluted by all the partisans of the maritime power, at the same time Russia had succeeded to maintain an equivalent number of soldiers in the Far East, thousands of kilometers of Moscow, thanks to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. With the railroad, the terrestrial power was henceforth able to deploy its forces as quickly as the oceanic power. Consequently, Mackinder predicted the end of the “Colombian” age and concluded that the telluric power is superior, summarizing his thought with the famous: “Whoever holds continental Europe controls the Heartland. Whoever holds the Heartland controls the World Island”.

Shortly after the First World War, Mackinder published Democratic Ideals and Reality, in which he stressed the need to separate Germany from Russia by a “sanitary cordon”, in order to prevent the union of the Eurasian continent. This policy was pursued by Lord Curzon, who named Mackinder High Commissioner in “South Russia”, where a military mission assisted the White Russian partisans and obtained a de facto recognition of the new Republic of Ukraine. To prevent the unification of Eurasia, Mackinder also recommended the balkanization of Eastern Europe, the separation from Russia of the Baltic and Ukrainian areas and the “containment” of Russian forces in Asia so that they could not threaten Persia or India.

Mahan and Mackinder both believed in the concept of the World Heartland, basically Eurasia, with constantly changing and disputed western and southern frontiers. Mahan believed the U.S. could overcome its geographic weakness of being “an outlying continent”, distant from the Eurasian Heartland, through building and maintaining massive naval military power. Along with other contemporary and later geopolitical theorists, both Mahan and Mackinder believed that human population growth, plus economic growth, would result in border conflicts and the quest for Lebensraum or “life space” by the Hegemon.

Mahan and Mackinder’s ideas to block Russia’s access to the open sea, would be reformulated by Nicholas John Spykman (1893–1943), who introduced the concept of Rimland, that he considered to be the key region of world politics. The Rimland, in his view, is the maritime ring or the littoral zone bordering the Heartland, which runs from Norway to Korea.

Spykman defined the Rimland as an area of land between Mackinder’s Insular Crescent and the Heartland; essentially Western Europe, Arabia and southern Asia. Unlike Mackinder, Spykman believed that the Heartland and the insular crescent would fight for influence over the Rimland. If Heartland’s influence dominated the Rimland, the Heartland would dominate the world. In contrast, if insular crescent sea power exerted a domineering influence on the Rimland, it would control world events. Spykman believed the First and Second World Wars were fought specifically for the control of the Rimland. He reformulated Mackinder’s sentences into: “Whoever controls the maritime ring holds Eurasia; whoever holds Eurasia controls the destiny of the world”.

As for the Rimland, which contains most of world’s people as well as large share of world’s resources, it is an intermediate region, lying between the heartland and the marginal sea powers. Being the buffer zone between the land powers and sea powers, it must defend itself from both sides, and this is its fundamental security problem. Spykman’s conception of the Rimland is closer to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “debated and debatable zone” than to Mackinder’s inner or marginal crescent.

The Rimland has a great importance due to its demographic weight, natural resources, and industrial development. Spykman sees this importance as being the reason for which the Rimland will be crucial for the containment of the Heartland (whereas Mackinder believed that the Outer or Insular Crescent would be the most important factor in the Heartland’s containment).

Spykman sought to “develop a grand strategy for both war and peace based on the implications of its (i.e. U.S.) geographic location in the world”. In the nineteenth century, he wrote, Russian pressure from the Heartland was countered by British naval power in the “great game”, and it was America’s destiny to take over that role once the Second World War was over. Six months before the battle of Stalingrad, he wrote that a “Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals”.  Spykman also believed the Asian Rimland was of great importance for an American Hegemon and warned that China would be the strongest power in East Asia. Already in the 1940s, Spykman noted that the United States needed to ensure that no power rose to become dominant in the Eurasian Rimland.

For both Spykman and Mackinder, the geopolitical nightmare for the West was an autocratic Heartland-Rimland conglomeration able to dominate the Old World to such an extent that the seagoing Anglo-American democracies would be outmaneuvered. This scenario has often been dismissed as a highly improbable one. But in fact, the great struggles of the twentieth century, including two world wars and one cold one, were fought specifically to prevent that scenario from materializing, and without American intervention there is good reason to believe that either an authoritarian Germany or the Soviet Union would have made the nightmare a reality.

The Cold War period: containment and the “linkage” strategies

Spykman’s theory is considered as being at the origin of the famous policy of “containment” of the USSR at that onset of the Cold War, when the United States tried to control the Rimland through a network of regional pacts based in Spykman’s Rimland: NATO in Europe, CENTO in the Middle East, SEATO in South Asia and ANZUS in the Far East.

These alliances, as well as the West’s economic and trade advances, made possible, during the 1960s and later on, the first use, by the U.S. Nixon Administration, in the negotiations with the USSR, of the “third party” and especially the “linkage” strategy developed by national security adviser Henry Kissinger (who also was a partisan of the U.S. sea power status, stressing that the U.S.’ interests were to be found wherever its vessels reached).

The Linkage aimed to persuade the Soviet Union, as well as communist China, to accept to restrain from helping Vietnam, as well as revolutions in various parts of the Third World, in return for concessions in other fields, mainly in the nuclear arms race and the economic. The premise behind linkage, as a policy, was to connect political and military issues, making progress in one area dependant on progress in another area. An important aspect of this policy was that deviations from respecting the rights and interests would go punished. In this way, conflict itself would contribute to stabilizing the international order.

The linkage policy originated from Kissinger’s idea that a proper balance of power is attained only if the great powers resisted the temptation to jockey for tactical advantage and created a stabilizing equilibrium. He also believed that national interests (rather than ideals), measured in terms of security and power (military, economic, political, and psychological), should govern both international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. He argued that the United States should pursue its global “interests”, but before doing so, American decision-makers needed to reach a “mature conception” of foreign policy by clearly defining the nation’s interests and objectives and then by matching its capabilities and commitments to those interests and objectives.

The linkage strategy was combined with the so-called “triangular diplomacy”, with the inclusion of China in the process of the Vietnam war negotiations, after the resuming of the bilateral relations marked by the historic 1972 Nixon visit to Beijing and meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Triangular diplomacy and linkage provided tactical models to achieve the interests identified by realist analysis. Based on balance-of-power theory, triangular diplomacy involved using relations with one country as leverage to extract concessions from another. The deepening Sino-Soviet split and the emergence of China as a global power presented the Nixon administration with an opportunity to establish relations with the PRC which, by serving as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, would provide additional leverage for extracting concessions from Moscow.

Linkage complemented the Nixon Doctrine, the president’s intellectual response to the war and shifts in the global balance of power. The doctrine held that, while the United States would honor its treaty obligations and continue to extend its nuclear shield to allies, it would come to its allies’ defense only in the event of an invasion by a major power and only if doing so was in its own interest.

A reaction to the Vietnam crisis, the Nixon Doctrine also represented an attempt to harmonize the United States’ still vast global interests and commitments with its declining capabilities and the emergence of a multipolar world order. Kissinger and Nixon used the doctrine to promote self-sufficiency among U.S. allies in Asia, Latin America, and Europe, but the doctrine’s tools (including foreign aid, strategic assistance programs, and regional alliances) also sought to contain nationalism, independence, and self-reliance within an American dominated network of relationships.

After the Cold War, the specific linkage between security and trade weakened. Lacking a compelling security imperative in a unipolar strategic environment characterized by rapid advances in global telecommunications, transport and exchange, policy-makers separated the concepts of trade and security into autonomous policy “baskets,” each with its own set of guiding criteria and rationales that were left largely uncoordinated within the larger strategic perspectives of the day. There was a common belief that the decline of Stalinism and triumph of capitalism in an era of globalization made unnecessary the application of the linkage strategy to foreign affairs.

This period lasted from 1990 until the early 2000′s. After that, as new powers began to emerge in world affairs and new and old rivalries began to mark their relationship, the linkage strategy re-appeared in foreign policy as an analytic construct and conceptual tool. This was aided by the development of what came to be known as the “critical” or “human” security school of thought, in which non-military causes of inter-state conflict such as environmental degradation, refugee flows, climate change and other non-traditional areas of security concern were factored into the strategic equations that inform foreign policy making. The notion of “security community” now encompasses traditional and non-traditional security policy, thereby promoting a disposition towards linkage in foreign affairs.

Some countries, such as the U.S., have returned to the linkage strategy, tying security to trade. The former is a hard power projection and the latter is a soft power complement, the combination of which is applied as a “smart power” approach to international affairs. This approach is applied regionally, so as to bind geographically proximate states into a U.S.-centric strategic orbit.

From Spykman to the “Grand Chessboard”

In the 1970s, Mackinder and Spykman’s theories were taken over by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a co-founder of the Trilateral Commission in 1973 and U.S. National Security Advisor from 1977 to 1980. His work, The Grand Chessboard, stresses that Eurasia, which comprises half the planet’s population, constitutes the spatial center of world power, and that the objective of the American Grand Strategy must be to fight against a China-Russia alliance.

Zbigniew Brzezinski also stressed the importance of Ukraine, without which Russia can still be an empire, but a “predominately Asian one, focused on the Caucasus and Central Asia”.

As soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the containment strategy turned into a massive rollback, starting in 1996, when U.S. President Bill Clinton declared that the first of NATO’s new partners “should be full-fledged members” by the organization’s 50th anniversary in 1999 and the U.S. Congress authorized the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act. It was a clear breach of the West’s engagement, during the negotiations that led to Germany’s unification, that NATO would not expand eastward, but instead it expanded almost to the suburbs of St. Petersburg, with the inclusion of the three Baltic republics. From the adversaries’ point of view, there is no better way to ensure U.S. dominance along the European Rimland than drawing Europe back into NATO’s (i.e. U.S.) security orbit and subverting the Russo-German tellurocratic rapprochement – a new version of the anaconda strategy[1].

All along, Ukraine had remained the glittering prize, however, the key to limiting Russia’s access to the Black Sea, and a potential geostrategic knife in southern Russia’s soft underbelly.

While the advent of nuclear weapons seemed to negate the importance of geography, allowing for the Heartland and the Insular Crescent to bypass the Rimland and strike one another directly with InterContinental Ballistic Missiles, deterrence neutralized any chance of this happening and the Rimland retained its geographic importance. By 1989, the U.S. domination of the Rimland had caused the Soviet Union to collapse.

The Land powers’ geopolitics: Ratzel and Haushofer

One of the early representatives of the “land power” geopolitics was Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), considered the founder of the GermanGeopolitik.Influenced by Alfred Thayer Mahan, Ratzel wrote about the aspirations for German naval reach, agreeing that sea power was self-sustaining, as the profit from trade would pay for the merchant marine, unlike land power.

Ratzel was also influenced by thinkers such as Darwin and zoologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, and developed a model ofstates thatare organic and growing, with borders representing only a temporary stop in their movement. He statedthat the expansion of a state’s borders is a reflection of the health of the nation, meaning that static countries are in decline. Ratzel published several papers, among which was the essay Lebensraum (1901).

It was later, under the influence of Karl Haushofer (1869–1946, a Bavarian artillery officer and professor at the War Academy) that geopoliticians, diplomats, and National Revolutionary and National Bolshevik theorists would oppose sea power or thalassocratic theories. In 1924, Haushofer, the intellectual heir to Friedrich Ratzel and the Swede Rudolf Kjellén (who introduced the term of geopolitics), founded the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (Journal of Geopolitics).

Karl Haushofer was sent to Japan in 1906 to reorganize the Imperial Army and during his return to Germany on the Trans-Siberian railroad, he became vividly aware of the continental vastness of Russian Eurasia. In 1931, in Geopolitik der Pan-Ideen (Geopolitics of Continental Ideas), Haushofer advocated the constitution of vast continental spaces as the only means to go beyond the territorial and economic weakness of traditional States.

Haushofer’s anti-thalassocratic position was exposed in Der Kontinentalblock-Mitteleuropa-Eurasien-Japan (The Continental Bloc Central Europe-Eurasia-Japan, 1941), written after the German-Soviet pact, which argued for a German-Italian-Soviet-Japanese alliance that would radically reorganize the Eurasian continental mass. He stressed that the permanent fear of the Anglo-Saxons is the emergence of a Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo axis, which would completely escape the influence of the commercial thalassocracies, which practice the policy of the anaconda, gradually encircling and slowly suffocating its prey. A unified Eurasia would be too large for the Anglo-American anaconda since, due to its mass, it could resist any blockade.

Eurasianism: from the 19th century to Aleksandr Dugin

In Russia, the “land power” geopolitics is mostly known through the so-called neo-Eurasianism[2], currently represented by Aleksandr Dugin, who warned, in his book Foundations of Geopolitics: the Fourth political theory against the same “strategy of the Anaconda” by which the United States and its close allies are seen as exerting unrelenting pressure on all of the coastal zones of Eurasia.

In fact, Eurasianism was developed in the Russian émigré community in the 1920s, based on the idea that Russian civilization does not belong in the “European” category (developing the “Slavophile” concept of Konstantin Leontyev). It considered that the October (1917) Revolution of the Bolsheviks was a necessary reaction to the rapid modernization of Russian society and believed that the Soviet regime would evolve into a national, non-European, Orthodox Christian government.

Among the key leaders of the Eurasianists there were Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, P.P. Suvchinskiy and Peter N. Savitsky (1895-1968). One of the main books of Eurasianism was Nikolai Trubetzkoy’s essay Europe and Man, where he argued that the very project of Europeanization was an ideological trick, designed to achieve permanent Western dominance over the non-West. True Europeanization, in his view, could only be achieved through the racial mixing of peoples. Without it, Europeanization created rootless elites suffering from low self-esteem. Furthermore, the economic attempt to catch up with the West misdirected the scarce resources of an undeveloped nation and created greater backwardness rather than modernity.

The Eurasianists also insisted that the relations between the Russian nation and the other nations of Eurasia were fundamentally different than those among other nations and in particular “do not have any analogies in the international relations of the colonial empires” of the European states.

After several discrediting operations by the Soviet regime, by 1929, the Eurasianists ceased publishing their periodical and faded quickly from the Russian émigré community.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, The Eurasianist ideology was partially incorporated into the so-called neo-Eurasianism that later became the ideology of the “Eurasia Party” founded by Aleksandr Dugin.

Lev Gumilev is often cited as the founder of the Neo-Eurasianist movement, and he was quoted as saying that “I am the last of the Eurasianists”. In fact, he was a disciple of Petr Savitsky, whom he met while they were political prisoners in the GULAG, until 1956, and with whom he exchanged letters until Savitsky’s death in 1968. Both Savitsky and Gumilev believed that Eurasianism was about imagery and opposition to the West, as well as an ideological basis for the future.

Gumilev’s contribution to neo-Eurasianism lies in the conclusions he reaches from applying his theory of ethnogenesis: that the Mongol occupation of 1240 – 1480 AD (known as the “Mongol yoke”) had shielded the emergent Russian ethnos from the aggressive neighbor to the West, allowing it to gain time to achieve maturity.

Besides the Russian émigrés of the 1920s, the neo-Eurasianists claim to be preceded by other Russian figures, like Dostoevsky, who denounced the West, and Alexander Herzen, the radical critic of Russian autocracy who claimed that Istanbul was the true capital of the Russian Empire.

Although major differences have been noted between Gumilev’s work and those of the original Eurasianists, and although he is controversial for its scientific methodology (the use of his own conception of ethnogenesis and the notion of “passionarity”), he was a source of inspiration for the neo-Eurasianist authors, the most prolific being Aleksandr Dugin.

In his writings, Dugin sees Eurasianism as a geopolitical agenda of projected political alliance between the nations of Europe and Asia (including Russia and the Islamic world) designed to counteract what he calls the “Atlanticism” of American-European Union objectives/agendas. He also insists on the necessity of the restoration of the status of Russia as a superpower within a reviving Eurasian Union as one of the centers of a polycentric world.

Dugin proposes that the renascent Eurasian (Russian) Empire direct all of its powers (short of igniting a hot war), as well as those of the remainder of humanity, against the Atlanticist Anaconda. In fact, the basis of the Eurasian Empire geopolitical construction would be the principle of the “common enemy”, the “repudiation of the strategic control of the United States, and the rejection of the supremacy of economic, liberal market values”. The anti-Americanism of the Japanese, “who remember well the nuclear genocide and the disgrace of political occupation” must be unleashed, as well as the anti-Americanism of the fundamentalist Islam.

He also suggests the use of Russia’s raw material riches in the relationship with Eastern and Western potential partners, as a “compensation for exacerbating their relations with the U.S.”, the attacks within the U.S.’ own hemisphere, and throughout Eurasia. Within the United States itself, there is a need for the Russian special services and their allies “to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States”. Dugin’s Eurasian project also mandates that the United States be attacked through Central and South America.  As a result of such destabilization efforts, the United States and its close ally Britain will eventually be forced to quit the shores of Eurasia (and Africa). “The entire gigantic edifice of Atlanticism”, Dugin prophesies, “will collapse”. Expelled from the shores of Eurasia, the United States would then be required to “limit its influence to the Americas”.

Dugin’s theories are said to be at the base of Russia’s current efforts to revert to its power through regaining geopolitical relevance. The 2008 invasion of Georgia, much in the same vein as the invasion of Crimea, was an attempt to reestablish Russian control over the South Caucasus, which has historically been part of the Heartland. The Eurasian Union has extended Russian influence over the states of Central Asia, bringing them once more into the old Soviet sphere of influence. Ukraine, lying at the south western corner of the Heartland, must, in Putin’s mind, either retain a government friendly to Russia or become a part of Russia proper. In the coming years, it may become more common to see attempts by Russia to influence the European part of the Rimland.

In a recent interview, Aleksandr Dugin stressed that the struggle for geopolitical power must be seen as “the old conflict of land power represented by Russia and sea power represented by the USA and its NATO partners. This is not a new phenomenon; it is the continuation of the old geopolitical and geostrategic struggle. The 1990s was the time of the great defeat of the land power represented by the USSR. Mikhail Gorbachev refused the continuation of this struggle. This was a kind of treason and resignation in front of the unipolar world. But with President Vladimir Putin in the early years of 2000, came a reactivation of the geopolitical identity of Russia as a land power. This was the beginning of a new kind of competition between sea power and land power”.

 

Geopolitics of the world wars for understanding the present

 

Analysts from both sides agree that that the Ukraine crisis and other current evolutions can be understood by considering European geopolitics since 1914, at the beginning of World War I, or even earlier, at the moment of Germany’s unification, in 1871, which created a geopolitical necessity.

Western assessment

According to Stratfor analyst George Friedman, the unification of Germany created an extraordinarily dynamic nation-state which, by the turn of the 20th century, matched the British economy. However, the British economy pivoted on an empire that was enclosed and built around British interests. Germany had no such empire. The international economic system was based on a system of imperial holdings coupled with European industrialism. Germany lacked those holdings and had no politico-military control over its markets. While its economy was equal to Britain’s, its risks were much higher. There was also the strategic risk, since Germany was on the North European Plain, relatively flat, with only a few north-south rivers as barriers, with the Russians to the east and the French to the west. If Moscow and Paris were to simultaneously attack Germany at a time of their choosing, Germany would be hard-pressed to resist. If there was to be war, the Germans had to strike first in one direction, achieve victory there and then mass their forces on the other side. Consequently, a war that began with a German strike was inevitable. The Germans struck against the French first but failed to defeat them. They were therefore trapped in the two-front war that they had dreaded, but they were at least fully mobilized and could resist. A second opportunity to implement their strategy occurred in the winter of 1917, when an uprising took place against the Russian czar (Germany actually set the revolution in motion in March, by repatriating Lenin to Russia).

The growing possibility of a German victory in Europe triggered the U.S. entering the war. The United States had a deep interest in making certain that the Eurasian landmass would not fall under the control of any single nation (again, the “Mackinder nightmare”).

The American intervention was decisive and defined American strategy in Eurasia for a century. It would maintain the balance of power. As the balance shifted, Washington would increase aid and, if absolutely necessary, intervene decisively in the context of an existing and effective military alliance.

World War II was fought similarly. The Germans, again in a dangerous position, made an alliance with the Soviets, assuring a single-front war, and this time defeated France. In due course, Germany turned on Russia and attempted to dominate Eurasia decisively. The United States was first neutral, then provided aid to the British and Russians, and even after entering the war in December 1941 withheld its main thrust until the last possible moment. It was an intervention in the context of a powerful military alliance.

In the Cold War, the Soviet Union positioned itself by creating deep buffers. It held the Baltic republics, Belarus and Ukraine as its first line of defense. Its second defensive tier consisted of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the Soviet buffer moved to the center of Germany on the North German Plain. Given history, the Soviets needed to create as deep a buffer as possible, and this line effectively precluded an attack on the Soviet Union.

The American response was more active than in the first two wars, but not as decisive. The United States positioned forces in West Germany in the context of a strong military alliance. This alliance was likely insufficient to block a Soviet attack. The United States promised the delivery of additional troops in the event of war and also guaranteed that if needed, it was prepared to use nuclear weapons to stop a Soviet attack. The model was similar with the previous wars, since the hope was to maintain the balance of power with minimal American exposure.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the revolutions of 1989 stripped away the buffers that the Soviets had captured after World War II. Their strategic position was worse than it was before the world wars or even since the 17th century. If the inner buffer, the Baltics, Belarus or Ukraine, were to become hostile and part of a Western alliance system, the threat to Russia would be overwhelming. The Baltics were admitted to NATO and the alliance was now less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg. If Ukraine and Belarus went the same route, then the city of Smolensk, once deep in the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, would be a border town, and the distance to Moscow from NATO territory would be 250 miles.

The fact that NATO was weak and fragmented was not a consolation for the Russians, who had seen Germany transform from a weak and fragmented country in 1932 to a massive power by 1938. Therefore, for Russia, preventing the Western alliance system from absorbing Ukraine was critical.

As for the American strategy in Europe, Friedman considers that it remains the same as in 1914: to allow the European balance of power to manage itself, since there is no threat of a Hegemon emerging. In Washington’s view, Russia is still struggling to regain its buffers and Germany is not prepared to engage in aggressive actions.

The Russian approach

For the Russian analysts, the West’s geostrategic objective is the same, with the sea powers using all methods (including intrigue and massive bloodletting) to prevent the continental powers from colluding against them. For them, history shows that shadows of the past still hang over the head of the future.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder understood very well that geographic location is a strong determinant of action. Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, which argued that sea power is the key to controlling the land. Mackinder took this a step further in 1904, writing, in The Geopolitical Pivot of History, that sea power’s obvious geographic limitations necessitate a strong control over the Heartland in order to dominate Eurasia.

Since Germany was seen as a rising threat to British naval hegemony, and, additionally, Germany and Austria-Hungary were the masters of Central Europe and Russia controlled the Heartland (essentially ‘winning’ the Great Game), Russian historians argue that the UK, using its centuries-long diplomatic expertise (and cunningness) in great power balancing, instigated Germany and Russia into war after the events of Sarajevo in order to destroy its two greatest foes (in different Eurasian theaters). During the Cold war, Zbigniew Brzezinski also cautioned American decision makers, in The Grand Chessboard, about the possibility of a German-Russian alliance that would isolate America from Europe, and thus, collapse America’s Eurasian strategy. The U.S.-inspired (and allegedly backed) “Color Revolutions” are seen as aiming to penetrate the former Soviet Heartland and remove Russia from the Great Power game.

In the Russian approach, since the combination of sea and land power, properly coordinated and applied across Eurasia, is the basic formula for global control and geography cannot be changed, Mahan and Mackinder’s theories will continue to guide the US and any other aspiring global Hegemon.

Moreover, the British moves that triggered World War I – escalating the Sarajevo events into a European war in order to eliminate simultaneously two of its primary rivals, Germany and Russia and to have a free hand to dictate across Eurasia – also had unexpected consequences, the main one being the U.S.’ entry into World War I and acquiring a deciding power in the makeup of post-World War I Europe. The UK was no longer the king of the continent, and from that moment, its global power began to decrease as America’s rose. At its turn, Russia transformed into the Soviet Union returned to its Imperial boundaries and status.

After the Cold War and the collapse of communism, just as the British gambit for power led to the unexpected emergence of several power centers, so did the U.S.’ moves. China, with which the U.S. had allied with, in order to counter the USSR, became an economic superpower, and Russia returned to its historic great power status after the 1990s downturns. Russia and China are now enjoying the best state of mutual relations in their history, and coordinate their policies in the UN, BRICS, APEC, and the Mideast and North Africa. The multipolar future is growing out of the unipolar past, and the process appears to be irreversible.

Consequently, Russian analysts assess that the U.S.’ “battle for Eurasia” will accordingly result in a “myriad of dark horses” that can upend the global balance of power”. Second and third-tier states are more endangered since Brzezinski’s “Eurasian Balkans” strategy is seen as specifically targeting the states in the Rimland. The “Color Revolutions”, were aimed to create a geopolitical earthquake to shatter the Eurasian Rimland and bring about the collapse of the Heartland.

For the Russian analysts, the West’s geopolitical calculus remains the same – the sea power (the U.S.) and its allies cannot allow a combination of continental states (Russia, China, Iran, and India) to unite in repelling it from Eurasia. Brzezinski’s “Eurasian Balkans” strategy, the “Color revolutions” and the Kosovo Precedent, carried out under US/NATO leadership, affected the international relations and may even disrupt the post World War 2 balance of Great Powers.

 

Old models in the post-Cold War Europe

 

Even before the current events in Ukraine, analysts from both East and West were preoccupied by the evolutions in the area between Russia and the sea powers and brought to the attention the present-day significance of some century-old geopolitical ideas and models.

Empires vs. nation-states at the beginning of the 20th century

As defined by Stratfor analyst George Friedman, a borderland is a region where historically, everything is in flux. The region comprising Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland occupies the borderland between Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity (thus being also the typical example for Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”). Roman Catholic Hapsburg Austria struggled with the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries, with the Ottomans extending northwest until a climactic battle in Vienna in 1683[3]. Beginning in the 18th century, Orthodox Russia expanded from the east, through Belarus and Ukraine. For more than two centuries, the belt of countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas was the borderland over which three empires fought.

World War I created a new architecture in this region. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed, the Russian empire was replaced by the Soviet Union, and the German empire was overthrown and replaced by a republic. No region in the world suffered more or was left more impoverished by the war than this region. Indeed, the war didn’t end for them in 1918. It went on as the grip of empires reluctantly subsided and the new nations struggled within and among themselves.

The collapse of the empires allowed the emergence of several independent nations, from the Baltic states to Bulgaria, which became nation-states. Many of the borders and some of the nations were fixed by the victorious powers at Versailles and Trianon. An example is Yugoslavia, which means “land of the southern Slavs”, formed out of several hostile nations.

The border between the Russian empire/Soviet Union and Europe is divided into two parts. The Carpathians form a rough boundary between the Russians and the rest of Europe from Slovakia to the south, but the northern part of Europe is dominated by a vast plain stretching from France to Moscow. It is a good terrain for armies to move on and it is the route of Europe’s conquerors. Napoleon moved along the plain to Moscow, as did Hitler (who moved across the Caucasus as well).

Zwischeneuropa – a prize for both sea and land powers

The geopolitical term of Zwischeneuropa (Europe-In-Between) was introduced in the context of the territorial reorganization of Europe after the World War I, defined as a buffer zone between Germany and Russia as holders of opposing Germanic and Slavic identities, whose formation was the result of the Versailles Conference and the peace treaties that followed the war.

Sir Halford Mackinder, at the beginning of the 20th century, considered the Zwischeneuropa as a warfare area where two confronting powers would aim to transform into a “sanitary cordon”, a buffer zone separating Germany and Russia. For Mackinder, an even greater danger (the “Mackinder nightmare”) would be represented by the cooperation of the two land powers, which would destroy the balance between land and maritime powers, particularly the status of the United Kingdom as the leading colonial power.

Karl Haushofer also observed the advantages of a cooperation of Berlin and Moscow, but he did not get the support of Hitler’s regime, which nonetheless would sign later the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Zwischeneuropa includes border-states from the Baltic Sea in the north, to the Adriatic and the Black Sea in the south, the West and the East. This group of countries includes, in its most extended approach, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and possibly Turkey.

After World War II, the same sanitary corridor was considered by each group as a barrier against the spreading of communism/capitalism in their respective areas, and the buffer zone became a line border, the famous “Iron Curtain”, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

The geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Zwischeneuropa increased again after the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Despite Russia’s opposition, NATO has not only crossed over the border of former blocks, but also stepped into the territory of the former USSR by expanding to the Baltic states. Moreover, the integration of Romania and Bulgaria into NATO and the EU has weakened Russian influence in Southeastern Europe.

Following the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO, Zwischeneuropa can also be considered as an area of penetration of the Rimland into the Heartland, which adds a new dimension to its geopolitical importance.

In our days, U.S. geopolitician Saul B. Cohen, in his book Geopolitics of the World System[4] (2003), draws a geopolitical structure of the World for the 21st century and points out that the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, the unification of Germany and the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU, not only brought changes in the balance between the Heartland and the Rimland, but also within the Rimland, particularly between the U.S. and the EU. In fact, while the Russian Heartland retreated in its continental centre, the EU has made a spatial and population strengthening.

Cohen perceived the area of Zwischeneuropa as a region whose position in the geopolitical World depends on the relations between the Maritime geostrategic realm and Russia (the Heartland). This area has the opportunity either to be a gateway between these two geostrategic realms, or, if there is no dialogue between them, to become (again) a shatterbelt, a region caught between stronger colliding external cultural-political forces, under persistent stress, and often fragmented by aggressive rivals.

On the other side, Aleksandr Dugin proposes the theory of the clash of the Land and the Sea, the East and the West, as a geopolitical reality. He sees the Heartland only within the boundaries of the Russian Empire surrounded by the Rimland, stressing that Russia-Eurasia can only be continentally built if the western border of the continental geopolitical block ends with coastline, which would include the alliance of the Eurasian Heartland and the Rimland against the overseas occupiers.  Dugin sees Central Europe as “a natural geopolitical creation”, part of the Rimland, which includes “the nations of the former Austro-Hungary, Germany and parts of Poland and western Ukraine”.

According to Dugin, the Moscow–Berlin axis prevents “the organizing (n.n. by the adversary) of a sanitary corridor in Eastern Europe”, whereby it should “break the illusions of inter-states about their potential independence from geopolitically powerful neighbors”, namely Germany and Russia. Dugin also notes that each bilateral relationship of any of the inter-states with Germany or Russia must include both partners, but without the “Atlantists”.

The Intermarium revisited

The Intermarium is a framework developed at the beginning of the 20th century by Polish General Jozef Pilsudski, also known for having blocked, in 1920, a Soviet invasion in Poland.

The Intermarium was seen by Pilsudski as an alliance of the countries between the Baltic and the Black seas, that would be in place before Germany and Russia recovered from the war. The alliance would be built around Poland, to include Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Baltic states.

Although Intermarium never existed, the idea is reconsidered by geopoliticians and analysts in the “after-NATO” and “European federation” perspectives.

Intermarium’s main drawback is also the geography, since the Intermarium area is caught between Russia and Europe and the decision doesn’t rest in these states’ hands. It depends partly on what Russia wants and plans to do and it depends on what Europe – namely Germany – wants and plans to do.

This brings the Intermarium model back to the “Mackinder nightmare”, the Russian-German relationship’s perspective, being known that, since 1871 and the German re-unification, the Germans and Russians have been allies as well as mortal enemies. Currently, analysts point out at the logic in closer German-Russian ties. Economically they complement and need each other. Russia exports raw materials; Germany exports technology and neither cares to be pressured by the United States.

In the ending post-Cold War world, Russia is re-emerging in a historically recognizable form, Germany is in the process of redefining itself in Europe, the EU’s weaknesses have become manifest, and Turkey is becoming a regional power.

The Intermarium is seen by some U.S. analysts as a possible move to somehow balance the amalgamation of the European Peninsula’s technology with Russia’s natural resources that would create a power that could challenge American primacy. Since, from an American point of view, moving France or Germany is both impossible and pointless (they have their own interests and the wrong geography), the Intermarium (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and perhaps Bulgaria) might represent an alliance capable to blocks the Russians, splits them from the Germans and gently limit Turkey’s encroachment in southeastern Europe. A U.S.-backed Poland guarding the North European Plain, with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania guarding the Carpathians would prevent what the United States should fear the most: an alliance between Russia and Germany plus Western Europe.

Russian corridors

The importance for Russia of the Baltic-Black Sea security buffer was highlighted by Russia’s recent military exercises in Kaliningrad that, for some analysts, could presage a Russian move to try to guarantee its better access to Kaliningrad in the name of “protecting” the rights of ethnic Russians there.

Local analysts point out that such a move is also motivated by Vladimir Putin’s need of such campaigns to boost his own rating, to marginalize the Russian opposition, to distract attention from the failures of his economic policies, and, most of all, to block the appearance of a Russian Maidan.

According to those analysts, the main targeted country is Lithuania, whose leadership has been outspokenly critical of what Putin has been doing in Ukraine and which Moscow has already shown it can punish by restraining the passage of goods through Lithuanian ports. According to local sources, Russian special forces have been thinking about this for some time, even in advance of the annexation of Crimea.

Allegedly, Moscow initially planned to occupy only Sevastopol and then make a demand on Kyiv for extraterritorial access to the city through the territory of Crimea (which at that time was not supposed to be declared part of the Russian Federation). Another such “corridor idea” under consideration would extend from Russian-occupied Crimea to Transnistria.

Moscow has already begun a propaganda campaign against Lithuania, and it may very well expand it in the coming days, which may be followed by “a demand for extraterritorial status” for all transportation across Lithuania, something Vilnius would view as a direct threat to its sovereignty.

Once the demands were made and rejected, Russia could then increase its military presence in Kaliningrad and spark border clashes. What would happen then would depend on the reaction of the leading countries of NATO.

To bring Lithuania to its knees and underscore what it sees as the continuing weakness of NATO, Moscow would want to bring pressure on Vilnius not only from Kaliningrad but from Belarus as well, which might entail a destabilization of this country on the model of the turnover of power which took place in Abkhazia. If Moscow’s agents are able to do that – and there is an extensive network of them in Belarus which remains without any significant support from the West – then Putin is likely to move forward with plans for a new edition of the “Danzig corridor”[5].

 

 

New challenges for geopolitics

During the last hundred years of humanity’s history, geopolitics witnessed and analyzed a “great game” in which the actors were continental or regional entities: empires and nation-states in World War One, nation-states and military blocks in World War Two and the Cold War.

But we are also seeing that the “great game” is still not over and that geopolitics has yet to develop models and patterns for the current and near-future evolutions.

The Shift to the East

Mackinder’s 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, which presented his theory of the Heartland and contained the famous quote “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World” also appears to have been prophetic in its prediction of a long-term power shift from West to East, reversing the trend of previous centuries.

During most of the modern era, Europe was at the center of international politics, with capable militaries, dynamic economies, and assertive foreign policies. Even during the Cold War, when Rimland nations in Western Europe were overshadowed by external superpowers, the European continent – particularly Germany – remained the geopolitical prize for which those superpowers contested.

The end of the Cold War was widely considered, especially in the West, as the end of geopolitics. But in reality, it introduced a new distribution and ranking of great powers, characterized by a dominant America, a resentful Russia, a European Union with no unitary strategy, and a rising group of Asian nations.

As economies like China’s have grown very quickly, allowing them to build up and modernize their armed forces, there has been a massive shift in relative economic and military capabilities from the Atlantic toward the Pacific. The chief focus of international great power competition is moving along the eastern, rather than the western end, of Spykman’s Rimland. And the most dramatic development within that zone has been the rise of Chinese power – economically, diplomatically, and militarily.

In geopolitical terms, China is not a Heartland but a Rimland power. That is to say, it is accessible by both sea and land, with security concerns in both directions. The collapse of the Soviet Union represented a windfall for China, reducing the threat from the north. Starting in the 1990s, Beijing also resolved many of its border disputes with neighboring countries on land. This has sometimes been taken as an indication that China has few aggressive intentions. But in fact, the resolution and security of China’s vast land frontier – an exceptional achievement, by historical standards – allows Beijing to be more assertive and expansionist at sea.

In recent years, aware of American preoccupations with economic recession and counterterrorism, China made several moves in the South and East China seas, triggering several maritime international incidents. At the same time, China has built up and modernized its navy, both to lend greater weight to its diplomatic assertions in the region, and to protect its extensive and growing merchant marine. In fact numerous Chinese naval strategists refer explicitly to Admiral Mahan and his concepts of sea command. The practical Chinese goal appears to be effective mainland command over the South China Sea.

The purpose of the Chinese naval buildup is not to go looking for war with the United States, but precisely to coerce and deter the U.S. from acting in the region, notably in the defense of Taiwan. Securing control of Taiwan would constitute not only a sweeping national accomplishment for the Chinese Communist Party, but a dramatic improvement in China’s geopolitical situation at sea. What Chinese strategists call the “first island chain”, stretching from Japan to Malaysia, would then be breached. Beyond that, they will continue to define their maritime interests more expansively, as they acquire greater maritime capabilities. China is increasingly in a position to challenge the U.S. for predominance along the East Asian littoral, and has considerable interest in doing so, especially given its grinding sense of historical grievance. Indeed for the Chinese such a challenge would only be a return to the natural order of things, whereby the Middle Kingdom leads within East Asia.

The Russians, share with China a long-term desire to expel American influence from their immediate spheres of influence. The most persuasive accounts of Sino-Russian cooperation tend to suggest that this cooperation is opportunistic and pragmatic. Still, from an American point of view, this is not exactly reassuring. If these two massive and authoritarian powers are able to cooperate pragmatically and case by case against American interests, the U.S. will face a severe geopolitical challenge in much of Eurasia. When Rimland powers are able to secure their borders by land, as China seems to be doing, and then take to the seas convincingly, this is exactly what should worry offshore powers such as the United States.

Russia and China: closer to “Mackinder’s nightmare”?

A significant evidence of the Eurasian century-in-the-making was Russian President’s Vladimir Putin recent visit to Beijing and the signing of the “trillion-contract” between the state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom and the giant state-controlled China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for the supply with 3.75 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas a day for no less than 30 years, starting in 2018. Gazprom will use this deal to boost investment in Eastern Siberia and the whole region will be reconfigured as a privileged gas hub, also intended for Japan and South Korea.

The $400 billion deal is seen by analysts at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, to strongly favor the Chinese company. Gazprom is to supply 38 billion cu m/year of gas under the 30-year deal at an average price, confirmed by Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, of $350/thousand cubic meters (Mcm), although this was not officially confirmed. Undisclosed take-or-pay requirements and future price negotiations are estimated to be less favorable to Gazprom than those with European customers. CNPC had the stronger bargaining position because of its alternative gas supplies from Central Asia, Myanmar, and its own domestic resources of gas and coal.

Another significant aspect is the possibility that Moscow and Beijing agree on payment for the Gazprom-CNPC deal in Chinese yuan, which might also add to the push, led by China and Russia, toward a new international reserve currency that would supersede the dollar (at least in the optimistic dreams of BRICS members). Beijing would pay Gazprom in yuans convertible into roubles and Gazprom would accumulate the yuan with which Russia would buy Chinese goods and services.

The West’s economic sanctions against Russia, especially the moves aiming to cancel the projected 16 billion euro South Stream pipeline are seen to trigger an increasing Russia’s symbiosis with Asian markets. For Beijing especially, it’s a win-win situation, since energy supplied through steady, stable land routes out of Siberia is preferable to energy coming across seas policed and controlled by the U.S. Navy.

Russian-Chinese synergies in the development of new military technologies are also visible, since after Russia’s S-500 air defense anti-missile system comes online in 2018, Beijing is sure to want a version of it. Meanwhile, Russia is about to sell dozens of Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters to the Chinese as Beijing and Moscow move to seal an aviation-industrial partnership.

The Russian-contemplated free-trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok is mirrored (not by accident) in China’s dream of a new Silk Road to Germany.

The new force growing in Eurasia, if the Sino-Russian strategic alliance comes to become a tangible reality, threatens to dominate the heartland along with great stretches of its inner rim, in a new “Mackinder nightmare”.

If the two massive, authoritarian powers are able to cooperate pragmatically, the U.S. will face a severe geopolitical challenge in much of Eurasia. When the Rimland powers are able to secure their land borders, as China seems to be doing, and then convincingly take to the seas, this has to worry offshore powers like the United States. Should Russia and China combine in the 21st century, there would be a new threat that autocratic great powers could once more control the Heartland and the Rimland. Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman are therefore once more highly important in international relations thinking.

BRICS

The growing Sino-Russian alliance of expansive trade and commerce across much of the Eurasian land mass, as well as the evolution of new economic centers around the world led to a growing power of new world actors, active mainly the so-called BRICS group of emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), but also in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (an Asian counterweight to NATO), inside the G20 and via the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Despite recent serious financial struggles, the BRICS countries have been consciously working to become a counterforce to the original Group of 7 (G7). They are eager to create a new global architecture to replace the one first imposed in the wake of World War II, and they see themselves as a potential challenge to the U.S.-dominated unipolar world.

The (unstated) BRICS long-term plan involves the creation of an alternative economic system featuring a basket of gold-backed currencies that would bypass the present America-centric global financial system. (No wonder Russia and China are amassing as much gold as they can.) The Euro (a currency backed by large liquid bond markets and huge gold reserves) would be welcomed in as well.

A new step is expected to be seen at the coming BRICS summit in Brazil in July, when a BRICS development bank, announced in 2012, will officially be born as a potential alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as a source of project financing for the developing world.

The U.S. response

The Obama administration’s “pivoting” strategy to Asia aimed to contain China (and threaten it with U.S. Navy control of the energy sea lanes to that country), as well as the moves against Russia are not seen as likely to change either China’s “peaceful development” strategy, or Moscow’s moves to ensure that Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine remains strong without compromising trade and commercial, as well as political, ties with the European Union (above all, with strategic partner Germany).

When the disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea and between that country and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyou islands meet the Ukraine crisis, the inevitable conclusion will be that both Russia and China consider their borderlands and sea lanes private property and aren’t going to take challenges easily – be it via NATO expansion, U.S. military encirclement, or missile shields. The facts on the ground suggest that, in the years ahead, Beijing and Moscow will grow closer, slowly but surely creating a new geopolitical axis in Eurasia.

Meanwhile, for some analysts, America seems to be working for the deconstruction of its own unipolar world order, while offering the BRICS a genuine window of opportunity to try to change the rules of the game. With no endgame in sight, the world will continue to watch on Russia pivoting to Asia, China pivoting across the world, and the BRICS hard at work trying to bring about the new Eurasian Century.

Revived nationalism

Another significant trend was recently analyzed by U.S. economist Nouriel Roubini who warned about the “new nationalism” that is seen growing all over the world, in various economic forms: trade barriers, asset protection, reaction against foreign direct investment, policies favoring domestic workers and firms, anti-immigration measures, state capitalism, and resource nationalism. In the political realm, populist, anti-globalization, anti-immigration, and in some cases outright racist and anti-Semitic parties are on the rise.

The main causes of these trends are mainly economic, since anemic economic recovery has provided an opening for populist parties, promoting protectionist policies, to blame foreign trade and foreign workers for the prolonged malaise. Also, the economy is perceived as benefitting only elites and distorting the political system, both in advanced economies (like the United States, where unlimited financing of elected officials by financially powerful business interests is simply legalized corruption) and emerging markets (where oligarchs often dominate the economy and the political system). For the many, there has been only depressed employment, stagnating wages and economic insecurity.

The result was shown at the recent European Parliament elections, dominated by the far right and populist parties and this is seen as a similar situation with the Great Depression of the 1930s that gave rise to authoritarian governments in Europe.

Similar trends are to be seen in Russia and many parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the fall of the Berlin Wall did not usher in democracy, economic liberalization, and rapid output growth. In this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s destabilization of Ukraine cannot be separated from his dream of leading a “Eurasian Union” – a thinly disguised effort to recreate the Soviet Union.

Another worrying development is the move to unite and organize the far-right and new nationalist groups of Europe and Russia. Recently, in Vienna, leaders of the Russian “Eurasia” movement met with Western European right-wing populists, aristocrats and entrepreneurs to talk about “the rescue of Europe from liberalism and gay lobby”. The official theme was the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna and the founding of the “Holy Alliance” which was considered as having brought to the continent “a century of relative calm and geopolitical equilibrium”.

The Vienna conference was organized by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev’s “Sankt Basil the Great” Foundation and the “star guest” was the chief ideologue of the Eurasian Movement, Aleksandr Dugin. The main groups represented were the French National Front, the Spanish Catholic-monarchist Carlist movement, led by Prince Sixtus Henry of Bourbon-Parma, the Austrian right-wing populist Freedom Party, the Bulgarian far-right Ataka party, right-wing extremists from Croatia and noblemen from Georgia and Russia.

Although the proceedings of the meeting were secret, it was noted that Aleksandr Dugin advocated a Euro-Asian alliance under the leadership of Russia, in a similar logic with his ideas about the creation of the “Eurasian Union”. He also called for the support of a “pro-Russian fifth column in Europe” formed by “European intellectuals who want to strengthen their identity”.

As for Konstantin Malofeyev, he is considered by Financial Times as a “modern Rasputin” with direct access to President Putin. Russian media suspected Malofeyev of financing the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. In an interview with the Russian edition of “Forbes” magazine, Malofeyev confirmed that Aleksandr Borodai, the newly declared Prime Minister of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, was one of his former employees and wished him “good luck” in his work because what is happening in Ukraine should alarm any Russian.

Nationalist and far-right revivals are also to be seen outside Europe. In Asia, new leaders in China, Japan, South Korea, and India are political nationalists in regions where territorial disputes remain serious and long-held historical grievances fester. The Middle East remains a region mired in backwardness. The Arab Spring has given way to a long winter in Egypt and Libya, where the alternatives are a return to authoritarian strongmen and political chaos. Even in the U.S., the rising influence of the extreme right is more than visible with the increasing popularity of groups as the Tea Party factions of the Republican Party.

 

Conclusions

 

Geography is no less relevant to the 21st century than it has been throughout history. Communications technology has not erased geography. Any international relations strategy must emanate initially from the physical terrain upon which we all live. And because geopolitics emanates from geography, it will never become irrelevant. If liberal powers do not engage in geopolitics, they will only leave the playing field to their enemies who do. For even evolved liberal states, such as those in America and Europe, are not exempt from the battle for survival. Such things as the G-8, human rights and international law can and must triumph over geography. But that is only possible if geopolitics becomes part of the strategy of the West.

The geopolitical dynamics are not necessarily leading to a situation of absolute gains and losses in a geopolitical contest between Russia and the US and/or the EU. Rather, the major actors are involved in a complex game of relative advantage, hinging on economic interdependence, geo-economic competition and shifting alliances.

Geopolitics and globalization offer contrasting images of global evolution after the end of the Cold War. While globalization indicates interdependence, transnational flows and obliterated state frontiers, geopolitics conjures great power games and power politics. The balance has tilted in favor of geopolitics with the rise of China and India, the reassertion of Russia, and the repercussions of 9/11. This balance does not only change over time. It also works out differently in various parts of the world.

In fact, the dichotomy between globalization and geopolitics is a false one. The military-economic competition that inspires geopolitical reasoning necessarily incorporates the processes of globalization. This is part of the playing field on which states and non-state actors compete. States are forced to take these trends into consideration, and in many cases use them for strategic gain. In many of today’s bilateral strategic relationships, non-state globalization processes, state corporations and national economic policies interact in complex ways. States both shape the relationships through these processes and are also shaped by them.

This is how Mackinder re-enters the picture. His Heartland theory posited that controlling Eurasia was the source of world power because rail networks allowed for the efficient extraction of the region’s raw materials while shielded from adversarial maritime powers. It was not Eurasia per se, but its strategic resources and the geographic advantages it afforded. Over a century later, the sources of material power have shifted, as have the means of extracting them. The Mackinder of today should look to the current sources of national power: demographics, economic strength, technological advantages, state structures that allow for the efficient wielding of national power (including military power), and so on. As is the case with many historical texts, the reasoning remains relevant but must be reapplied to the features of the current strategic environment. Tomorrow’s Heartland may lie in the Arctic, South Asia, Africa… or even in outer space.

 

oooOOOooo

 

 

[1]The Anaconda Plan or Scott’s Great Snake is the name widely applied to an outline strategy for subduing the seceding states in the American Civil War. Proposed by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, and later implemented by General George B. McClellan, the plan emphasized the blockade of the Southern ports, and called for an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Because the blockade would be rather passive, it was widely derided and likened it to the coils of an anaconda suffocating its victim.

[2] Eurasianism was analyzed in a previous work (Eurasia: nostalgic geopolitical idea or trend for the future, 2012)

[3] In this context, it is relevant to recall Count Metternich’s remark (at the beginning of the 19th century) that “Asia starts at the Vienna train station”.

[4]  The book examines the changes wrought by ideological and economic forces unleashed by the end of the Cold War. Saul B. Cohen traces the geopolitical restructuring of the world’s different regions, its major powers, and the global networks that link them, thus creating a map of dynamic equilibrium. Presenting a global spatial scope, the book considers the hierarchy of geopolitical units – subnational, national states, and quasi-states; geopolitical regions; and geostrategic realms, managing to propose a new global geopolitical map.

[5] The Danzig Corridor, also known as the Polish Corridor, was a territory located in the region of  Eastern Pomerania (formerly part of West Prussia), which provided the Second Republic of Poland (1920–1939) with access to the Baltic Sea, thus dividing the bulk of Germany from the province of East Prussia.

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