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Back to the future: Putin’s return to classical geopolitics

Ezra Sharpe discusses Putin 's return to classical geopolitical strategy in his foreign policy towards Ukraine.

The Russo-Ukrainian border has been conflict-ridden for over a century. An estimated 100,000 Russian troops now lie in wait on the eastern frontier of Ukraine, ready to test the limits of Western lip service. Diplomatic frenzy has ensued; Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin discussed tensions and exchanged warnings over Ukraine on the 30th of December, whilst US National Security Advisors continue to urge dialogue with Russian Foreign Policy aids. This is nothing new; Russian presence on Ukraine’s eastern-most border has become a routine exercise since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The strategic importance of Ukraine to Putin’s regime cannot be understated. Since the formation of the USSR in 1922, the insatiable Russian bear has always looked westwards for its next meal. The answer to conflict prevention lies in asking why this happens, and how we might prevent it.

Most of the grand theories of classical geopolitics were sequestered at the end of the Cold War. They were overly totalising, generalising, and universal to explain modern phenomena. The new neoliberal world, with all its messy contradictions and complexities, was simply too vast and too unforeseeable to be predicted with grand theories, most argued. But Putin’s Russia has proven itself to be an exception, reviving the age-old, dusty theories of Halford Mackinder’s ‘Heartland’ and Nicholas Spykman’s ‘Rimland’ from the shadows. If the recent actions of Moscow are explicable, that is where the answer lies.

The inspired military mood of Moscow has prompted much debate amongst geopolitical strategists. Should the West adopt a line of appeasement, nodding to Putin’s unwavering request that the US rescind the eventual admittance of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO? For many analysts, this is just another one of Putin’s bluffs to add to the large catalogue of unrealised threats. To others, Moscow is slowly curating a milieu to exploit as a pretext for military invasion. Either could be possible. 

That is why it is essential that the US, amongst other Western powers, take the initiative to mobilise active troops within Ukraine – albeit, without the intent to ever raise a fist. If the US is seen to flinch when clarion calls are issued and violence is threatened to be exerted, the consequences for global geopolitics could be fatal. Wars occur not when aggression is snuffed out early, but when peace is no longer deemed to be worth fighting for.

The best way to prevent war is not to deploy troops once it has already started – it is to ensure that the guns are never loaded in the first place. To achieve this, however, politicians and strategists must learn to identify the precursors of war when they lie brazenly before us, much like a canary in a coal mine. History proves that large-scale conflicts do not erupt out of thin air. They occur when flickers of unchecked aggression become the status quo. And they also occur when pacifists become blind to division and identity politics, which sow the seeds for hatred, blame, and anger. Recognising the rationale for Putin’s foreign policy is good, but understanding the common denominator in the outbreak of war alongside that is even better. 

The most famous translation of geopolitical hypothesis into geopolitical reality has been through Halford Mackinder’s ‘Heartland’ theory. Mackinder postulated that control over the core of Eurasian territory would be the key to global power:

“Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island

Who rules the World-Island commands the world”

The ‘Heartland’ would be the most advantageous geopolitical location, located at the pivot of Eurasia, inaccessible by militant sea-vessels, and impregnable through its harsh winters and vast land fortress. He argued that power would lie in the victory of the dominant land powers over the sea powers. This was built upon by Spykman’s ‘Rimland’ theory, which argued that the strip of coastal land surrounding Eurasia was more significant. The ethos of these theories can be seen in the repudiation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941. Despite sealing the diplomatic promise that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would not invade one another during the Second World War, Hitler chose to do so anyway. Rather than being a symptom of power-hungry petulance, it was likely that gaining control of Eastern Europe, or the ‘Heartland’, was always in the Nazi blueprint. After all, the chief Nazi geopolitician, Karl Haushofer, was an avid disciple of Mackinder’s work which explicitly outlined that the successful invasion of Russia by a Western European nation could be used as a catalyst for the reclamation of global hegemony. 

Putin is the most recent leader to follow suit, but with a new flavour. Of course, these theories are grossly outdated. They were written at a time before airpower had come into fruition, and where the power of the digital world would be nothing other than a figment of one’s imagination. Moscow has chosen to rewrite them instead. 

Amongst other enticements, Putin’s desire to irreversibly absorb Eastern Ukraine into his desired territory can be reduced to two main factors relating to these theories: access to warm water ports, aligning with Spykman’s ‘Rimland’, and the expansion and protection of Eastern land power, reflecting Mackinder’s ‘Heartland’. In a globalised world, the ability to trade with ease brings economic leverage, and leverage brings power. For a country with such vast coastal territory, Russia has appallingly bad access to global sea routes and trading, with many ports frozen year-round. The Crimean Port of Sevastopol is a missing piece to Putin’s strategic puzzle, providing warm water access to global shipping routes and allowing the Russian military to aggrandise control into the Black Sea and further beyond. Secondly, as in traditional cold-war fashion, any westwards territorial expansion is deemed as advantageous to the Russian regime, who see the US and NATO as omnipresent and ever-looming threats. To understand the actions of Putin, it is critical we attempt to analyse his motives. These examples do not tell us that Putin will invariably stick to Mackinder and Spykman’s geopolitical blueprints. But, crucially, they demonstrate that diplomacy over the new ‘Eastern Question’ only serves to kick the can down the road. If the well-thumbed geopolitical playbook continues to be followed with increasing resolve, we should preemptively prepare for escalated flare-ups along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Just as much as it is important to recognise Putin’s raison d’état, it is equally important to learn the signs of warmongering before conflict is allowed to ensue. Large scale wars are not momentary spasms in the peacekeeping status quo but rather emerge when small-scale escalations of violence are left unchecked. The First World War was not a global bicker over who was responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; it was the culmination of decades of colonial jostling, battles for naval supremacy, and military sabre-rattling. By the same token, the outbreak of The Second World War was steeped in years of uncurbed aggression extending from Nazi Germany, both in its domestic and foreign affairs. Appeasement does not work when you are sat across the table from warmongers. The placement of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border may only seem like a momentary spasm in the otherwise smoothly running peacekeeping operations of Europe. But it is these very glitches which, when left unchallenged, can mutate into actions far more deleterious. 

Biden claiming that stationing US troops in Ukraine was “not on the table” is therefore a serious diplomatic blunder, severely weakening NATO’s standing by ruling out preventative military responses to Russian aggression. Global security cannot be left strictly to the realm of rhetoric. When world leaders claim their unwavering support for the retention of autonomy, sovereignty, and democracy, boundaries must be drawn and the red-line must be enforced. Otherwise, we risk it becoming clear to firebrands that the words of our leaders are just mere paper promises. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 is one of the first obvious signs of an increasingly arthritic western backbone. This will only add teeth to the expansionist desires of Putin, Xi Jinping, and other global autocrats who will surely be looking to relish the opportunity to bring a beleaguered United States to heel. When true colours are shown in flickers of violence, it is imperative that global powers with the capabilities to do so stand strong and unflinching if confronted. Failure to do so only invites the threshold to be increased even further.

Where wars are waged, identity politics are often widespread and deeply ingrained. To prevent conflict, we must first recognise the growing splinters of division within and between our societies. Consider, for instance, how Putin has deftly exploited means of cultural power in order to ensure the rapid Russification of eastern Ukrainian territory. Through a long strategy of cultural impregnation, Crimean’s – pro-Russian or not – now have no choice but to be Russian; their hotels are filled with state bureaucrats, the Russian flag is raised high over many buildings, and the rouble has become the norm. 

This strategy can be easily traced too. Putin has had no qualms in expressing his nostalgia for the USSR and remorse for its collapse. The expansionist outlook peddled by Putin’s politics is strongly reflected in Pan-Slavism and Russian populism which are nostalgic over the restoration of Russian-speaking territories and are reminiscent of the similar mythologies of pan-Germanism and Italian irredentism. Identity politics does not just latch onto unifying principles, but also divisive ones, working in zero-sum terms; one population cannot thrive alongside the survival of another. The absorption of one group forecasts the eradication of a different one. Consider, for instance, Putin’s claim that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people”, and that ethnic Ukrainians do not actually exist. The 6-7% of Western Ukranians who would banish Russians from Ukraine would likely be the group at the brunt end of this policy. Where there is a guise of unifying identity politics, we must learn to recognise the ossifying polarisation occurring beneath the surface. These are, after all, the very ‘unifying’ claims which are preached by war-hungry regimes.

For every war that has been waged, the warning signs and flashes of danger seem obvious in retrospect: expansionism starts with a hypothesis – for Putin, this is the ‘Heartland’ and ‘Rimland’; Ideology and division are then used to wed factionalism and disunity within a society, weakening their resilience. We must learn these signs for the sake of peacekeeping. Putin’s recent threats of encroachment should not be taken lightly by Western powers; economic sanctions and diplomacy have been unable to alchemise Putin’s hunger for Eastern Ukraine. The Russo-Ukrainian tensions should be recognised for what they are: a situation of Chekhov’s gun. The pistol has already appeared in the story, and if NATO powers do not stand resolute and act fast, it is inevitable that shots will be fired. As 2022 marks the centenary of the formation of the Soviet Union, we ought to be wary of a new and junior spectre looking to once again reach its hand into the depths of Eastern Europe.

Artwork by Ben Beechener

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