Crimea: The Revenge of Geography?

Crimea: The Revenge of Geography?
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The Obama administration claims it is motivated by the G-8, interdependence, human rights and international law. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a more traditional historical actor. He is motivated by geopolitics. That is why he temporarily has the upper hand in the crisis over Ukraine and Crimea.

Geopolitics, according to the mid-20th century U.S. diplomat and academic Robert Strausz-Hupe, is "the struggle for space and power," played out in a geographical setting. Geopolitics is eternal, ever since Persia was the world's first superpower in antiquity. Indeed, the Old Testament, on one level, is a lesson in geopolitics. Strausz-Hupe, an Austrian immigrant, wanted to educate the political elite of his adopted country so that the forces of good could make better use of geopolitics than the forces of evil in World War II.

Adherence to geopolitics allowed the British geographer and liberal educator Sir Halford J. Mackinder in a 1904 article, "The Geographical Pivot of History," to accurately forecast the basic trend lines of the 20th century: how the European power arrangement of the Edwardian age would give way to one encompassing all of Eurasia, with a battle between Western sea power and Russian land power. Geopolitics was at the heart of 19th-century America's bout of imperialism in the Greater Caribbean: By dominating its nearby sea the United States came, in turn, to dominate the Western Hemisphere, enabling it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere -- the story of the 20th century. Geopolitics was at the heart of World War II, with the German military machine's lunge for the oil of the Caucasus and the Japanese military machine's lunge for the oil and raw materials of Southeast Asia. Geopolitics was at the heart of the Cold War, with U.S. bases and allies guarding the southern Eurasian rimland from Greece and Turkey to South Korea and Japan against the Soviet Union. The celebrated diplomat George Kennan's "containment" strategy was, in significant part, a geopolitical one.

It isn't that geography and geopolitics supersede everything else, including Western values and human agency. Not at all! Rather, it is that geography in particular is the starting point for understanding everything else. Only by respecting geography in the first place can Western values and human ingenuity overcome it. It is not one or the other, but the sequence of understanding which is crucial.

To wit, the late military historian John Keegan explains that Great Britain and the United States could champion freedom only because the sea protected them "from the landbound enemies of liberty." Alexander Hamilton observed that had Britain not been an island, its military establishment would have been just as overbearing as those of continental Europe, and Britain "would in all probability" have become "a victim to the absolute power of a single man."

Likewise, the Berlin Wall may have fallen in 1989, but Russia is still big and right next door to Central and Eastern Europe. And Russia remains illiberal and autocratic because, unlike Britain and America, it is not an island nation, but a vast continent with few geographical features to protect it from invasion. Putin's aggression stems ultimately from this fundamental geographical insecurity. Though, this does not doom him to be a reactionary. A far-sighted ruler would see that only civil society can ultimately save Russia. But Russia's geographical setting does place Putin in an understandable context.


Geographical facts are often simple, brutal, obvious -- not interesting or inspiring or intellectually engaging in any sense -- but they are no less true as a consequence. It is not a matter of denying them, but of overcoming them. George H. W. Bush intuited such truths and thus was careful not to offend Soviet sensibilities, even as the Soviet empire was collapsing in Europe, for fear of providing Moscow with a pretext to crack down more than it did in the Baltic states, next door to the Kremlin. The elder Bush administration was aware, amid all the euphoria surrounding the events of 1989, that geography was still depressingly relevant, if not determinative.

Putin is for the moment in a strong position in Ukraine because Ukraine simply matters to him more than it matters to the United States or even to Europe. And it matters more to him because of geography. Ukraine, for all the familiar reasons, is central to the destiny of European Russia, to Russia's history and identity and particularly to Russia's access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean via the Black Sea. And because Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based on the Crimean Peninsula, Putin feels he cannot just stand by and watch his fleet become subject to an emerging, overtly pro-Western state in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, geography dictates that Ukraine has a long border with Russia and is not separated from it by any formidable geographical features. Thus, even as Putin needs Ukraine and Crimea more than the West does, he also has more leverage over Ukraine and Crimea than the West does. Because of geography, natural gas deposits are primarily in Russia rather than in Ukraine. And thus Ukraine is dependent on Russia for not only trade, but energy, too. (Ukraine's shale reserves are mainly in the eastern, pro-Russian part of the country.)

Because of geography, the Baltic states, Poland and Moldova are threatened: They are contiguous to Russia and Ukraine, with no natural impediments to protect them. In the Baltic states in particular, there are Russian minorities useful to Putin, for the flat geography of the North European Plain has enabled the flow of peoples and changeability of borders over the centuries (even if most of the Russian speakers in the Baltics ended up there during the Soviet period).

Again, these are obvious, elementary school facts, but ones that are central to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the West and Russia in the current crisis. Only from such facts can a useful narrative of the crisis emerge, and ways found to trump Putin's geographical advantage. The Baltic states, Poland and Moldova are in danger primarily because of where they happen to be located. Ukraine, despite its pro-Western upheaval, cannot ultimately be entirely independent of Russia because of where it happens to be located.

And Ukraine and Crimea are but prologue to a reality across the globe.

In Asia, the crises in the South and East China seas are all about geography -- lines on the map in blue water and where they should be drawn. This is traditional geopolitics, stunningly unaffected by the advance of Western liberal thought. In the Middle East, Israel faces the tyranny of distance in its planning for any military strike against Iran -- the fundamental fact of the Israel-Iran conflict. Tunisia and Egypt, while politically troubled, are nevertheless cohesive, age-old clusters of civilization -- natural outgrowths of geography, in other words. This keeps them viable as states, unlike Libya, Syria and Iraq, which are geographically illogical within their present borders and thus have collapsed in various degrees following the weakening or toppling of their dictatorships.

Geography is no less relevant to the 21st century than it has been throughout history. Communications technology has not erased geography; rather, it has only made it more claustrophobic, so that each region of the earth interacts with every other one as never before. Intensifying this claustrophobia is the growth of cities -- another geographical phenomenon. The earth is smaller than ever, thanks to technology. But like a tiny wristwatch with all of its mechanisms, you have to disaggregate its geographical parts and features in order to understand how it works.

Thus, any international relations strategy must emanate initially from the physical terrain upon which we all live. And because geopolitics emanates from geography, it will never go away or become irrelevant. Strausz-Hupe had it right. If liberal powers do not engage in geopolitics, they will only leave the playing field to their enemies who do. For even evolved liberal states, such as those in America and Europe, are not exempt from the battle for survival. Such things as the G-8, human rights and international law can and must triumph over geography. But that is only possible if geopolitics becomes part of the strategy of the West.

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