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.
As the Arctic warms there will be increased shipping, resource development, and the potential for confrontation. Canada must increase its presence in the region, but it should do this through Canadian Coast Guard not Royal Canadian Navy procurements. Building the CCGS Diefenbaker is thus a good policy move, while the Arctic Patrol Ship Policy is a bad one.
Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made Arctic sovereignty a key part of Canada’s foreign policy agenda. Harper has visited the Arctic every summer since becoming Prime Minister. During extensive military operations on Ellesmere and Baffin islands, Harper has made grandiose speeches to Canadian Forces. In 2010 he stated: “The first responsibility of government is to take care of our security . . . Nothing comes before that.” When two Russian bombers made a routine flight along the edge of Canada’s northern airspace, Canada responded by having fighter jets intercept and shadow them, causing Harper to declare that “at no time did Russian aircraft enter Canadian sovereign airspace.” While Harper’s actions on Arctic sovereignty appear to be an attempt to use the military to secure Canada’s Arctic region, it is in fact only a façade – it is useless for Canada to project military force in the Arctic. Harper’s use of the military in the Arctic is largely to gain domestic political support.
No risk of armed conflict in the Arctic
The reason it is useless for Canada to project military force in the Arctic is because there is no risk of armed conflict in the Arctic. By ‘armed conflict’ I refer to states using military operations to resolve disputes through the use of force. International law, not military force, will maintain Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. The Government of Canada’s “Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy” points out Canada’s only disagreements over Arctic territory are with Denmark over Hans Island and the Lincoln Sea maritime boundary, and with the United States over the Beaufort Sea maritime boundary. It also states: “All disagreements are well-managed, neither posing defence challenges for Canada . . . Canada will continue to manage these discrete boundary issues and will also, as a priority, seek to work with our neighbours to explore the possibility of resolving them in accordance with international law.” Canada and other Arctic states are currently mapping the undersea continental shelves of the Arctic, which would solve the issue diplomatically through the Law of the Sea Convention. Furthermore the very idea of Canada going to war with the United States or Denmark is laughable. Although Russia has been a historic rival, co-operation reigns supreme for Canada-Russia relations as well. A 2010 Wikileaks cable revealed Harper told NATO that “Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic.” Therefore Harper’s use of the military in the Arctic is likely an effort to gain domestic political backing, as a foreign policy move it is useless.
It is necessary for Canada to occupy the Arctic – Increased Shipping
There is little doubt shipping traffic in the Arctic region will increase in the near future. As the world’s climate warms, so too will the Arctic, meaning ice will melt and the Arctic will become more accessible. This will benefit shipping, using the North-west Passage means 15% of the distance is cut from the current Rotterdam to Shanghai route, Russia’s Northern Sea Route cuts 22%. Furthermore both Arctic routes are pirate-free. In 2011 there were 22 North-west Passage transits and in 2010 there were 18 compared to a historical average of 1 or 2. In 2011 there were 34 Northern Sea Route transits. Even if one were to exclude the need to secure Arctic-resources, increased shipping caused by newly navigable transit routes alone creates a need to patrol the Arctic. The North-west passage is completely encompassed by Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. Canada therefore must increase its presence in the Arctic because of the “increase in environmental threats, search and rescue incidents, civil emergencies and potential illegal activities.” (Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy) Just as Canada patrols its Pacific and Atlantic coasts, it must also patrol its Arctic coast. Increased shipping means increased patrolling.
There is huge potential for Arctic resource development. According to a 2008 Study by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 13% and 30% of the world’s estimated undiscovered reserves respectively. Creating the infrastructure needed to extract these reserves will again increase Arctic traffic, needing an increased Canadian presence for the same reasons as increased shipping.
The potential for a confrontation
Although all Arctic disputes are currently well managed, and there is no risk of armed conflict, there is always a risk of confrontation. By confrontation, I refer to non-military operations that work to resolve situations diplomatically, not through force. In 1995 Canada confronted Spain over resources off the coast of Newfoundland. During the ‘Fish War’ Canada’s Coast Guard CCGS Cape Roger actually fired shots at Spanish fishing vessels to halt illegal fishing by Spain. The situation was later resolved diplomatically and in Canada’s favor. A similar situation could arise in the Arctic. Resource-disputes could cause confrontation, and the potential for confrontation means Canada will once again need to have an increased presence in the Arctic.
Canada’s Arctic Policy going forward – Procurements
As previously mentioned for Canada to project military force in the Arctic is useless, however increased presence is needed to patrol increased shipping, resource development, and to mitigate potential confrontations. This presence should therefore be Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) rather than the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The Department of Fisheries and Oceans 2012 announcement on behalf of the Government of Canada that it is investing $720 million to build a new polar icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, is a necessary move in order to increase Canada’s presence. The new CCG flagship will replace the current CCGS Louis St. Laurent, and will have increased capabilities. The CCGS Diefenbaker will be able to navigate the Arctic Archipelago for three seasons per year and break ice up to 2.5 meters thick, while the CCGS St. Laurent is only able to operate for two seasons per year and break ice up to 1.3 meters thick. Both vessels will be/are armed. Canada’s procurement of the CCGS Diefenbaker accommodates an increased presence in the Arctic, and is therefore a necessary policy move.
Although CCGS Diefenbaker will still not have the capabilities over other American or Russian polar icebreakers, it still is a move to increase Canadian presence. Increasing Canadian presence in the Arctic is not a competition, but a practice in international co-operation. International shipping will require a international policing effort under international law, resource-development will require research that can be best achieved when there is international co-operation. Canada should participate in these activities to increase its presence, a goal that CCGS Diefenbaker accommodates.
Canada’s Arctic Patrol Ship Policy is a move in the wrong direction. The project will see the procurement of six to eight ice-capable patrol vessels for the RCN. As previously pointed out, there is no need for a Canadian military presence in the Arctic, and therefore the Patrol Ship Policy is misdirected. Since there is a need for increased presence, Canada should instead invest in CCG vessels. During the ‘Fish War,’ it was CCG ships, not naval vessels, that were needed to confront Spain. Furthermore the CCG is more versatile, able to respond to more situations than the RCN. As the Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy outlines, Canada must be able to respond to environmental threats, search and rescue incidents, civil emergencies and potential illegal activities. The CCG is by definition better able to do this, as the RCN is more focused on projecting military force. Michael Byers, one of Canada’s leading experts on polar issues from the University of British Columbia states: “I am personally hoping that there will be some reversal of these plans. So instead of getting new ships for the navy, we’ll get new ships for the coast guard . . . The fact that the promises haven’t been fulfilled yet means there’s time to alter the plans.”
“Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship.” National Defence and the Canadian Forces. 3 April 2012.
Bartleman, James. Rollercoaster: My Hectic Years as Jean Chrétien’s Diplomatic Advisor 1994-1998. Toronto: McClelland and Steward Ltd., 2005.
“CCGS John G. Diefenbaker.” Global Security. 13 September 2012.
Ibbitson, John. “Harper gears up for another round of Arctic chest-thumping.” The Globe and Mail, 19 July 2011.
Ibbitson, John. “Harper’s Arctic ice show: political stagecraft masks cold reality.” The Globe and Mail, 25 August, 2010.
McRae, Donald. “Rethinking the Arctic: A New Agenda for Canada and the United States.” In Canada Among Nations 2009-2010, edited by Fen Osler Hampson and Paul Heinbecker, 245-254. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2010.
“The Melting North. The Arctic Special Report” The Economist vol. 403 no. 8789, 16 June 2012.
“National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.” National Defence and Canadian Forces. 18 October 2012. http://www.forces.gc.ca/site/pri/2/pro/0/index-eng.asp
Press, Jordan and Randy Boswell. “Military spending in North ‘critical,’ despite budget overages: Harper.” National Post, 24 August 2012.
“Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy: Exercising Sovereignty and Promoting Canada’s Northern Strategy Abroad.” Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 26 September 2012.
http://www.international.gc.ca/polar- polaire/canada_arctic_foreign_policy_booklet- la_politique_etrangere_du_canada_pour_arctique_livret.aspx?lang=eng&view=d# sovereignty