“[T]he geographical quantities in the calculations are more measurable and more nearly constant than the
Sir Halford J. Mackinder, The Georaphical Pivot of History
Commentary & Analysis
Understand geography and you understand why Russia is taking the Ukraine
There seems a lot more at play here with Russian troops now occupying the Crimea. Robert Kaplan told us a couple of years ago what to expect in his brilliant book, The Revenge of Geography [emphasis added]: “But while the peoples of Western Europe ‘covered their oceans with their fleets,’ Russia was expanding equally impressively on land, ‘emerging from her northern forests’ to police the steppe with her Cossacks against the Mongol nomads. So just as Portuguese, Dutch, and English mariners triumphantly rounded the Cape, Russia was sweeping into Siberia and sending peasants to sow the southwestern steppe with wheat fields, outflanking the Islamic Iranian world.
…“It was an old story this, Europe versus Russia: a liberal sea power—as were Athens and Venice—against a reactionary land power—as was Sparta and Prussia. For the sea, in addition to the cosmopolitan influences it bestows by virtue of access to distant harbors, provides the sort of inviolate border security necessary for liberalism and democracy to take root.
Though it hasn’t only been the legacy of war and destruction that makes Europeans averse to military solutions (aside from peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions), it has also been the fact that Europe during the Cold War decades it had its security provided by the American superpower, and today faces no palpable conventional threat. ‘The threat to Europe comes not in the form of uniforms, but in the tattered garb of refugees,’ says the German American academic and journalists Joseph Joffe. But what if, according to Mackinder, Europe’s destiny is still subordinate to Asiatic history, in the form of a resurgent Russia? Then there might be a threat. For what drove the Soviet Union to carve out an empire in Eastern Europe at the end of World War II still holds today: a legacy of depredations against Russia by Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, Frenchman, and Germans, leading to the need for a cordon sanitaire of compliant regimes in the space between historic Russia and Central Europe. To be sure, the Russians will not deploy land forces to reoccupy Eastern Europe for the sake of a new cordon sanitaire, but through a combination of political and economic pressure, partly owing to Europe’s need for natural gas from Russia, Russians could exert undue influence on their former satellites in the years to come: Russia supplies some 25% of Europe’s gas, 40% of Germany’s, and nearly 100% of Finland’s and the Baltic states’. Moreover, we may all wake up from Europe’s epic economic and currency crisis to a world with greater Russian influence within the continent. Russia’s investment activities as well its critical role as an energy supplier will loom large in a weakened and newly divided Europe.
So, will a debellicized Germany partly succumb to Russian influence, leading to a somewhat Finlandized Eastern Europe and even more hollow North American Treaty Alliance? Or will Germany subtly stand up to Russia through various political and economic means, even as it society remains immersed in a post-historic quasi-pacifism? The former scenario threatens to prove the fears Mackinder and other geographers right: that, in the geographic sense, there is no Central Europe or Mitteleuropa, only a maritime Europe and a continental one, with the crush zone in between. The latter scenario, on the other hand, would present a rich complex European destiny: one in which Central Europe would fully reappear and flower for the first time since before World War I; and the tier of states between Germany and Russia would equally flourish, as Mackinder hoped for, leaving European in peace, even as its aversion to military deployments is geopolitically inconvenient to the United States. In this scenario, Russia would accommodate itself to countries as far east as Ukraine and Georgia joining Europe. Thus, the idea of Europe, as a geographical expression of the historic liberalism, would finally be realized.
But Russia’s paranoia and overwhelming military force seems to be once again putting the idea of Europe in jeopardy for the same reasons it always has…
Russia is the world’s preeminent land power, extending 170° of longitude, almost halfway around the globe. Russia’s principal outlet to the sea is in the North, but that is blocked by Arctic ice many months of the year. Land powers are perennially insecure, as Mahan [Alfred Thayer] intimated. Without seas to protect them, they are forever dissatisfied and have to keep expanding or be conquered in turn themselves.
… The Russians have pushed in the central and Eastern Europe to block 19th-century France and 20th century Germany. They have pushed toward Afghanistan the block the British in India and to seek a warm water outlet on the Indian Ocean, and have pushed into the Far East to block China. As for the Caucuses, those mountains constitute the barrier that the Russians must dominate in order to be safe from the political and religious eruptions of the Greater Middle East.
Maybe geography trumps ideology, even though ideology is what motivates us politically and often allows us to be manipulated by our respective leaders accordingly…
For the upshot of World War II was the creation of the Mackinder’s Heartland power in the form of Soviet Russia, juxtaposed with Mahan’s and Spykman’s [Nicholas J.] great sea power in the form of the United States. The destinies of Europe and China would both be affected by the very spread of Soviet power over the Heartland, even as the Greater Middle East and Southeast Asia in the Eurasian rimland would feel the pressure of American sea and air power. This was the ultimate geographic truth of the Cold War, which the ideology of communism coming from Moscow and the ideal of democracy coming from Washington obscured.
Putin understands geography much better than either President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry it seems; and Ukraine first, and then Poland is the pivot…
Yet even Putin has not altogether given up on the European dimension of Russian geography. To the contrary, his concentrations on Ukraine is part of a larger effort to re-create sphere of influence in the near abroad is proof of his desire to anchor Russia in Europe, albeit on nondemocratic terms. Ukraine is the pivot state that in and of itself transforms Russia. Abutting the Black Sea in the south and former Eastern European satellites in the West, Ukraine’s very independence keeps Russia to a large extent out of Europe. With Greek and Roman Catholics in the western part of Ukraine and Eastern Orthodox in the east, Western Ukraine is a breeding ground for Ukrainian nationalism while the east favors closer relations with Russia. In other words, Ukraine’s own religious geography illustrates the country’s role as a borderland between Central and Eastern Europe. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that without Ukraine, Russia can still be an empire, but a ‘predominantly Asian’ one, drawn further into conflicts with Caucasian and Central Asian
states. But with Ukraine back under Russian domination, Russia adds 46-million people to its Western-oriented demography, and suddenly challenges Europe even as it is integrated into it. In this case, according to Brzezinski, Poland, also coveted by Russia, would become the ‘geographical pivot’ determining the fate of Central and Eastern Europe and, therefore, of the European Union itself. The struggle between Russia and Europe, and in particular between Russia and Germany-France, goes on, as it has since the Napoleonic Was, with the fate of countries like Poland and Romania hanging in the balance.
But, given all this, Kaplan finds it unlikely the Russian empire will emerge again in the twenty-first century because of another power on the scene with geographical advantage in Central Asia and elsewhere—China…
At the end of his famous article ‘The Geographical Pivot of History,’ Mackinder has a disturbing reference to China. After elucidating why the interior of Eurasia forms the fulcrum of geostrategic world power, he posits that the Chinese ‘might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom, just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, and advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region.’ Leave aside the inherent racist sentiment of the era, as well as the hysterics with which the rise of any non-Western powers is greeted, and concentrate instead on Mackinder’s analysis: that whereas Russia is a land power whose only oceanic frontage is mainly blocked by Arctic ice, China is, too, a continental-sized power, but one whose virtual reach extends not only into the strategic Central Asia core of the former Soviet Union, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, but also to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific three thousand miles away, where China enjoys a nine-thousand-mile coastline with many good natural harbors, most of which are ice-free. (Mackinder actually feared that China would one day conquer Russia.) Furthermore, as Mackinder wrote in 1919 in Democratic Ideals and Reality, if Eurasia conjoined with Africa forms the ‘World-Island’—the heart of the dry land earth, four times the size of North America, with eight times the population—then China, as Eurasia’s largest continental nation with a coastline in both the tropics and temperate zone, occupies the globe’s most advantageous position.
It’s getting very interesting out there. From a currency perspective, those countries leveraged most to growth could suffer—commodity currencies. Stay tuned.