Crimea: The Revenge of Geography?

By Robert Kaplan

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.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, and author of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Reprinted with the permission of Stratfor.

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