Thursday, March 06, 2014

Putin and Geopolitics

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, igniting what British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the "biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century." While answers to the question of why Putin invaded Crimea have ranged from the fanciful to the comical, no one seems to have a good grasp on Putin's thinking. Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has even questioned whether Putin is "in touch with reality." While it may be hard for us 'rationalists' in the West to understand why Putin would accept international condemnation of his actions for what we see as insignificant gains, this way of thinking underscores the West's fundamental misunderstanding of how Putin views the world.

Born and raised at a time during the Cold War when it was generally accepted in the West that the Soviet Union was ascendant in world affairs, Putin must have been crushed by the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s. Indeed, in a speech in 2005, Putin said as much when he called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Indeed, while the speech seems to be forgotten in the context of the media's coverage of the events in Ukraine, it underscores that, to Putin, the East-West conflict of the last century was rooted much more in geopolitical differences between the US and USSR than in ideological or economic differences. If this holds true, the only way for us to understand why Putin acted in Ukraine is to understand the underpinnings of the geopolitical contest between the two superpowers of last century and how Putin unique brand of Russian irredentism hopes for a return to that contest.

The basic precepts of the geopolitical contest between the US and USSR can be found in the works of British geographer Halford Mackinder. To Mackinder, the world seemed to be divided into two parts; the first and most important was the 'world island.' The world island consisted of both the Eurasian and African continents and contained most of the worlds resources. Within the world island was, Mackinder believed, a 'pivot area' or heartland. The heartland, as Mackinder defined it, was a geographic area inaccessible to influence from the sea. This was important, Mackinder noted, due to the fact that the other major area of the world, the 'insular crescent' of North and South America, had its power based in its unfettered access to the sea. This access to the sea made the insular crescent wholly a maritime power, whereas the heartland was a singular land power. Competition between land and sea power is one of the main precepts of Mackinder's theory.
Mackinder's world, where the 'pivot' or heartland and insular crescent lie in opposition to one another
At the time of Mackinder's writing, in the early 20th century, heartland power was manifest in the Russian Empire, while insular power was manifest in British Empire. The advantage in the competition between land and sea power had, in the past centuries, as Mackinder saw it, laid with sea power and thus the British Empire. This was mostly due to the efficiency sea transport held over land transport and indeed Britain's navy allowed the Empire to exist. However, in a time when rail networks and new transportation options like air travel, were beginning to come online, Mackinder believed the advantage had swung to land power. An industrializing Russia would be able to take advantage of the interior lines of communications the heartland provided to expand its influence. With its new found advantage over sea based power, Mackinder foresaw the inevitable expansion of Russian heartland power out of its traditional boundaries until it controlled the world island and thus world events. Mackinder summed up his argument as:

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island,
Who rules the World-Island commands the world.

Improving upon Mackinder's theory, American political scientist Nicholas Spykman, writing mid-century, added one more important geographic area to the world, the 'rimland.' Spykman defined the rimland as the area of land between Mackinder's insular crescent and heartland; essentially Western Europe, Arabia and monsoon Asia. Unlike Mackinder, Spykman did not believe the expansion of the heartland out of its boarders was preordained. Instead, he believed the heartland and insular crescent would battle one another for influence over the rimland. If heartland 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 had been fought specifically for dominance of the rimland. he summed up his theory:

Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destines of the world.

Spkyman's world, where the heartland and insular crescent (here the new world) vie for control of the rimland
Mackinder and Spykman's theories were both extremely influential in the 20th century. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US became, much like Mackinder, ever fearful of Soviet expansion out of the heartland. In response, the US attempted to hem in or 'contain' the Soviet Union by developing a series of alliances (NATO, CENTO, and SEATO) based in Spykman's rimland. While the advent of nuclear weapons seemed to negate the importance of geography, allowing instead for the heartland and insular crescent to bypass the rimland and strike one another directly with ICBMs, deterrence theory effectively neutralized any chance of this happening and the rimland retained its geographic importance. By 1989, US domination of the rimland had caused the Soviet Union to collapse.

In the post-Cold War era United States, geography, and its study, fell victim to the 'end of history' and 'world is flat' mindsets popularized by social scientists at the time. US power began to be measured in megabytes and silicon valley start-ups. Geography was bunk. Nevertheless, in the Second World of the former Soviet Union, where the technological revolution was only in its infancy and economic opportunities were limited, the only obvious way, it seemed, to restore Russia to greatness was through regaining geopolitical relevance.

This is what Putin is attempting to do. His 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 fold of 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. Hopefully, with a better understanding as to why Russia is acting in this way, the US will better be able to preempt or respond to Russian actions. Of course this will require Americans ease back on believing technology has conquered geography a task that, in the age of cell phones and high speed internet, seems almost as untenable as Ukraine retaking the Crimean Peninsula.


Lex14 said...

And, most importantly, his actions are understood and, therefore, quite supported in Eurasia; while, the EU and the U.S. are not well-explored by the CIS citizens in order to make a true choice.

Unknown said...

Without knowledge of Heartland and Rimland objectives one would fail to understand what's happening in Ukraine. I'm perhaps one of the few Americans not swindled by the buffet of lies from our so called democratic news media. Thanks for posting this. Im not taking any side on this issue by default for 2 reasons. 1. Im not citizen of Ukraine therefore I cannot fully grasp the entire situation. 2 The sources of news and information where I live resembles the quality of dog excriment.