The United States of America has decided to endure its longest war. It has made this decision not because it believes it will prevail against a native insurgency, but because of grander geopolitical interests. By continuing to occupy Afghanistan, America is ensuring it is not overlooked in this century’s ‘New Great Game’.
Trump does not possess much interest in governing, he never has. On most of foreign policy, he has boasted of deferring decisions “to the generals”. While separating an ill-informed, uninterested, impulsive president from perilous decision-making is undoubtedly beneficial to the United States’ interests, it must be noted that the consequence is a markedly more imperialistic state with a renewed interest in realpolitik. This observation is clearest when considering the American administration’s decision to continue America’s longest war.
The geopolitical importance of Central Asia
To India’s north, the Himalayas serve as a wall protecting India from foreign invasion. To the northeast, the Burmese jungles also present harsh enough conditions to shield India from advancing armies. It is from the northwest that India is most vulnerable. Here lies the Persian-Afghan plateau (a gradual incline rather than a divisive mountain range). It is from here that India has faced invading Greeks, Persians, and Mongols, because it is easier to march armies across a plain than over mountains or through jungle.
During the nineteenth century, the British Empire’s Indian holdings stood at the foot of the Persian-Afghan plateau. British officials, peering across this expanse, were concerned by an expanding Russian empire, fearing that Russian invaders would use the Afghan route to seize the crown jewel of the empire. Meanwhile, St Petersburg feared British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia. As such, Afghanistan was the key to security for each rival power – securing Afghanistan would counter each empire’s vulnerability. This rivalry was dubbed ‘the great game’.
The great game example illustrates a geopolitical reality of Eurasia: it is from Central Asia that all other Eurasian powers are most vulnerable. This reality was opined on by the geopolitical scholar Halford John Mackinder, who presented a paper titled ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, and later published his book Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, which restated his ideas, in 1919. He summarizes his theory with overly quoted and simplistic maxim:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland [Central Asia]:
Who rules the Heartland [Central Asia] commands the World-Island [Eurasia]:
Who rules the World-Island [Eurasia] commands the World.
The first line of the maxim must be contextualized. Democratic Ideals and Reality was published during the Paris Peace Conference, and was meant to influence the statesmen at Versailles in their division of Europe after World War I – (the sub-title ‘A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction’ makes the book’s purpose clear). The Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires had all collapsed, and Mackinder was making the case that it was a “vital necessity that there should be a tier of independent states between Germany and Russia”. This was a political goal rather than a geopolitical observation.
The second two lines are Mackinder’s maxim are more mechanical. Mackinder observed the world at a time when railways were opening Central Asia to trade, commerce, and conquest. Where once the area had been controlled exclusively by horse-riding nomads, it would soon be controlled by an industrialized power. Just as the Mongols had conquered all of Eurasia (and consequently terrorized medieval Europe) so too would Russia – and Mackinder was warning Britain and France that their navies would no longer allow them to command the World.
In one way, Mackinder’s maxim was proved right. After World War 2, Russia was able to project power globally because it controlled Central Asia, and most of Eurasia. Had it been preoccupied in Central Asia (for example, if it had to send armies to Siberia to counter Japan), Russia would have lost World War II. Instead, Russia could focus all its efforts on defeating, Germany, and in World War II’s aftermath, Russia asserted itself as one of the world’s great powers. By controlling Central Asia, Russia won World War II, and thereafter could project power as far away as Cuba.
On the other hand, Mackinder’s maxim was proved to be overreaching. Russia, even by controlling Central Asia, never commanded all of Eurasia, and never the World – it lost the Cold War. But it must be remembered that throughout the Cold War Russia remained vulnerable in Central Asia, China was often more of a rival than an ally, and in the Cold War’s final days Russia fought a prolonged War in Afghanistan. Moreover, I do not rely on Mackinder’s maxim as an empirical truth, rather it simply illustrates the geopolitical reality: it is from Central Asia that all other Eurasian powers are most vulnerable.
Modern geopolitics in Central Asia
The tectonic forces of geopolitics are reawakening in Central Asia. Where once the Soviet Union had dominated the region, new forces are asserting themselves: the rising powers of China and India, a Russia that hopes to claw back its Central Asian losses, and an invigorated Iran. China, in particular, deserves some further analysis.
Whereas Russia has always coveted access to the ocean, China is a similarly sized land power with a coastline in both the tropic and temperate zones. Therefore, according to Mackinder, China is theoretically in the world’s most geopolitically advantageous position, in that it can both control Central Asia and project power from Eurasia.
China is asserting itself in the former Soviet sphere of influence. It has become the leading trading partner for all the former Soviet republics (apart from Uzbekistan), as well as the region’s largest investor. Currently China is spearheading its “belt and road” initiative, in which China plans to invest billions of dollars in Central Asian infrastructure – ostensibly to project economic power.
The American Top Brass’s realpolitik
The result of all this is clear. The balance of power in Central Asia is changing. China is asserting itself. Russia is vulnerable. Iran (who no longer has the regional rival Iraq to worry about) is projecting power as far away as Syria and Yemen – it could just as easily turn east. Whichever power controls Central Asia (in the end, most likely China), can then control Eurasia.
Serendipitously, it is at this time that America finds itself with an outpost right in the heart of Central Asia: Afghanistan. Why would America squander the opportunity to have its thumb on the scale during this ‘new great game’? Another president may have overridden his (or her) generals’ focus on the geopolitical forces in favour of domestic or even global humanitarianism, but this president is happy to cede such decisions to the military. The result is a renewed realism. Security is paramount. Any opportunity to influence the dynamic forces of Central Asian geopolitics must be seized because he who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island, and he who rules the World-Island commands the World.
The Economist, What is China’s belt and road initiative? https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/05/economist-explains-11
The Economist, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin behave like the best of buddies, https://www.economist.com/news/china/21725611-suspicion-between-russia-and-china-runs-deep-xi-jinping-and-vladimir-putin-behave-best
Kaplan, Robert D., The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
Mackinder, Sir Halford J., Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1942.
Understanding the Kremlin’s new found aggression towards Ukraine requires an understanding of Russia’s history, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy motif. An understanding is essential in avoiding the frigid hostility of the Cold War.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. The world turned a blind eye, partly because Georgia is an insignificant state on the fringe of Europe but mostly because the costs of cutting Russia adrift would be too high. Days after the Sochi Olympics, Russia annexed Crimea. The world accepted it because Crimea should have been Russian all along – the territory had been transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. If the Soviet leader were alive today he would likely admit that in hindsight the transfer was a mistake. Now the Russian army is infiltrated eastern Ukraine, albeit subversively. Putin denies any such action, however this is highly implausible. The attacks were co-ordinated, and in strategically useful places that had seen few prior protests. Ukraine is a part of Europe, it was moving towards EU membership, and despite Moscow’s perception it is a sovereign state. Disregarding minor sanctions, why is the West standing by while Russia destabilises its neighbour? The answer is that ultimately, Ukraine remains within Russia’s sphere of influence and the land matters more to Putin than it does to any Western leader. Those two reasons are what the whole conflict is over, after all.
Its all about geography – the vast Russian landmass and its foreign policy
The Russian foreign-policy paradigm is one I have examined many times; recent events make the explanation relevant once again. The Russian landmass is incredibly large, flat, and thus vulnerable. Throughout history, the peoples that populated this landmass secured their frontiers aggressively. This is true of the Scythians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Russian Empire of the Czars, the Soviets, and the modern Russian Federation. Throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945.
Today Russia is the most vulnerable it has been in centuries
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow gave up much of its influence of both the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Republic states. Many of these states subsequently joined the EU and NATO. This left Russia even smaller, and in Moscow’s eyes even more vulnerable as a result than it was in the aftermath of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the Central Powers. Indeed, Russia holds a similar amount of territory today as it did under Peter the Great.
Expanding EU integration is seen by Moscow as an attempt to install Russia-hostile political regimes in Russia’s former sphere of influence. In contrast to the EU’s value-driven foreign policy, Russia’s government places importance on stable governance, it believes the promotion of democracy and the rule of law risks regional stability. Thus, Moscow remains very wary of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an attempt to deepen EU ties with the post-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To Moscow this is an attempt by the EU to contain Russia by removing the legitimate authoritarian regimes and installing Russia-hostile governments. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Ukraine is of utmost importance. If the country were to slip out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, Russia would be left that much more vulnerable. The nation feels cornered.
The man with the plan
Putin has stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He sees the world as in a state of transition from an American dominated power balance that began with the fall of the USSR to one that is made up of several global powers. As such the Russian President’s goal is to re-establish Russia as a great-power, if not in a bipolar state system than in a multipolar state system. Allowing Ukraine to drift westwards is in direct conflict with this goal, and thus the overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in favour of a European oriented interim government is anathema to the Kremlin. The Ukraine is in particular a more personal-desire to the Russian national narrative, as it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Furthermore the country borders Russia, cutting deep into its southern flank. To the Kremlin, a western-oriented Ukraine is likely even more undesirable than a western-oriented Poland.
So what does Putin hope to achieve in the Ukraine? It is unlikely that the intention is to annex Ukraine’s east, occupation would come at heavy costs, both politically and militarily. It is more likely that the Kremlin hopes to incite civil conflict to erode the authority of the new pro-Western government in Kiev. In Putin’s eyes, a destabilised Ukraine is better than a Western one.
The West’s Balancing Act
With this in mind, how best can the West counter Russia’s new found aggression? Both sanctions and NATO military exercises are certainly necessary, the latter to assure the Baltic states that they are not second-class NATO members, and can count on NATO to come to their defense. However, the West must be very careful not to overact, thereby plunging the world back into a Cold War, or worse. A complete isolation of Russia would be devastating to Europe’s economy, a distraction to America’s “Asian Pivot,” and destructive to overall global security. A cornered bear is a dangerous one, and West must understand where it can act, and what is outside of its own sphere of influence. Henry Kissinger eloquently described the balancing act the West must achieve in order to counter Moscow without ostracising it, and it all comes down to understanding Putin’s motives.
“Paradoxically, a Russia is a country that has enormous internal problems … but it is in a piece of strategic real estate from St Petersburg to Moscow. It is in everybody’s interest that it becomes part of the international system, and not an isolated island. One has to interpret Putin not like a Hitler-type, as he has been, but as a Russian Czar who is trying to achieve the maximum for his country. We are correct in standing up to him, but we also have to know when the confrontation should end.”
Bugajski, Janusz. Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions. Washington D.C.: The Center for Strategic and International Studies Press, 2008.
Insatiable, The Economist, 19 April 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
Kissinger, Henry. GPS, 11 May 2014.
Light, Margot. “Russia and Europe and the process of EU enlargement.” In The Multilateral Dimension in Russian Foreign Policy, edited by Elana Wilson Rowe and Stina Torjesen, 83-96. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Zagorski, Andrei. “The limits of a global consensus on security: the case of Russia.” Global Security in a Multipolar World (2009): 67-84. Accessed March 6, 2012.http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/cp118.pdf
Anyone who glances at the Eurasian map and concludes that the countries that make up the continent came about due to the decisions of men or women is sadly mistaken. Although government actions are indeed at times a factor, the overriding force that forms nations, states, and empires in this region is geography. Anyone studying Eurasian politics should be aware of these geopolitical realities.
On Eurasia’s western end (Europe) there exists a collection of countries, while its eastern end is dominated by a single state: China. Eurasia’s northern swathe is controlled exclusively by Russia, while its south is divided amongst a number of countries. These are the realities of the Eurasian map; they do not come about because of mere chance, but are caused by geography. I will examine these realities.
Europe consists of a multitude of states while China consists of one
Looking at the Eurasian map, does it not appear peculiar that while the West consists of so many states that none dominate the region, the East is clearly dominated by a single state? This phenomenon has existed throughout history. Since 221 BC, China has been a single unified nation. China has occasionally disintegrated during ‘warring states’ periods, but generally a single dynasty has always maintained control of the area. This fact is due to geography. Meanwhile in Europe, no single state has ever dominated the entire continent – at one point Rome may have come close, but this remains the exception. The continent resisted the aspirations of Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler. This fact is again due to geography.
Europe has a highly indented coastline. It has five large peninsulas, all of which evolved independent people, languages, and subsequent governments. These peninsulas are Norway/Sweden, Denmark, Portugal/Spain, Italy, and Greece. Europe also has two major islands, Britain and Ireland. Europe is further carved up by a series of mountain ranges, the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, and the Norwegian Border Mountains. Finally Europe’s two major rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, serve as borders to further divide the continent. The division of Europe by geography served to develop a multitude of ethnic groups, governments, and states. Such is Europe’s division that its nations have historically been in a state of near-constant war, be it between the Athenians and the Spartans, or between the Prussians, Habsburgs, and Ottomans, or between the British, French, Germans, and Russians. Today Europe’s peoples bicker over economics and are less unified than many would have us believe.
China, on the other hand, has a much smoother coastline. Only the Korean peninsula and the peninsula of South-East Asia are sufficiently separated to allow for the formation of separate nations. China’s two largest islands, Taiwan and Hainan, are each less than half the size of Ireland. Japan is the only island to be large enough to form a separate state. China’s only mountain range (the Himalayas) separates it from India rather than separating its people. China’s heartland is bound together by two long navigable rivers, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. North and South China are bound together by a relatively easy connection between these two rivers that was later linked by the Grand Canal. Europe’s two major rivers are much smaller, and connect much less of the continent, and thus do not serve as the unifiers that China’s rivers do. What appears as peculiar at first is really quite simply a result of geography.
The Northern swathe will always be dominated by a single aggressive nation
The Russia political elite have historically always believed they must defend Russia from influence and invasion by securing its frontiers. This foreign policy paradigm is traceable to the thirteenth century, when Russia was smashed by the Mongols who rampaged across Eurasia, and was denied access to the European Renaissance. Russia was thus branded with bitter feelings of inferiority and insecurity. To maintain its security, Russia must conquer as much territory as it can. Kaplan argues throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Kremlin attempts to bring Eastern European countries back into its sphere of influence, and why it invaded Georgia in 2008. My article The Wiley Bear – Russian Motives for the Nord Stream Pipeline analyses this phenomenon in relation to pipeline politics.
Only analysing Russia’s paradigm today ignores the fact that throughout history any nation that controls Eurasia’s North acts in this way. Just as the Mongols devastated medieval Europe, the Huns sacked Rome, and the Scythians raided from the east before that. The Great Wall of China was built to defend against steppe raiders. Each of these nations aggressively secured their frontiers in a similar manner to that of Russia in the last century. This fact is caused entirely by geography. From the Hungarian plain, through Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and Central Asia to Manchuria of the Far East lays the Central Asian steppe, the world’s vastest grassland. It was called “the great grass road” by Russian scholar W. Bruce Lincoln. Any peoples who reside on this steppe are inevitably insecure, because they have no natural defenses such as mountains or forest. They must conquer or be conquered. After the High Middle Ages, Russia became the single nation to dominate this region, but this region has always been dominated by a single nation, be it the Mongols, the Huns, or the Scythians, and this fact is due to geography.
The Middle East and Southern Asia: again a multitude of states
Because of geography a single state dominates Eurasia’s north. It is also because of geography that Eurasia’s south is divided. Like in Europe, no single nation has dominated this region. Although the Persian Empire of 500 BC, Alexander the Great, and the Ottoman Empire have each come extremely close, these remain exceptions to the rule.
Geography defines the Middle East’s borders. The borders of Iran are defined by the Iranian plateau while the borders of Turkey are defined by the Anatolian land bridge. The Arabian Peninsula is dominated by Saudi Arabia. Yemen exists at this peninsula’s south because this area is characterised by mountains and a network of oases.
India too is defined by geography. It is a peninsula framed by the Arabian Sea on its west, and the Bay of Bengal on its east. The mountainous Burmese jungles separate it from the nations of South-East Asia, while the Himalayas separate it from Tibet. But geography has also left India vulnerable to attack from the northeast. India is bordered by the Persian-Afghan plateau, which consists of a gradual incline rather than a divisive mountain range. India is thus dangerously close to the Central Asian steppe. It is from here that India has faced invading Greeks, Persians, and Mongols. The British Empire felt most vulnerable at this frontier during the Great Game, and it is here that India faces its rival Pakistan today. I outlined this last fact when I argued India is ‘cursed by geography’ in my article The Era of the Eagle – American Hegemony is Here to Stay. But while India is indeed defined by geography, it is also divided by it. India does not have the same unifying rivers that China does. Its multitude of river systems (be it the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Tungabhadra, Godavari etc.) only divide the region. Its weak borders mean other nations such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh exist on the Indian subcontinent. These non-unifying factors mean historically India has been made up of many polities, and more recently a Hindu-Muslim drama has occurred.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.