Short of Westernizing and accepting that no European power has any designs on Russia anymore, the country’s strategic priority must be to restore preponderance in the “near abroad” in order to satisfy its insecurity complex. Once that it accomplished, Russia can start thinking about forming global alliances to challenge the world’s dominant oceanic power, America.
Even the Soviets, for all their early internationalist pretensions, found they could not ignore Russia’s geopolitical imperatives. The First World War had left Russia bereft of an empire. Finland, the Baltic states, the Western Borderlands, including Ukraine, and the Trans-Caucasus were all lost. Germany was defeated but the new states of Eastern Europe were too weak to resist it.
Before Germany reasserted itself, Russia managed to restore some of its empire, incorporating the Baltics, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia in the Soviet Union. But it was barely enough to block Nazi Germany. The logical course of action after World War II was to expand further — deeper into Europe and deeper into Central Asia. Hence the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Up until 1960, Russia even enjoyed an alliance with China, creating a communist empire that absolutely dominated Eurasia. No single entity had ever been so paramount on the continent and none ever would.
Such preponderance was unsustainable. The Soviets realized too late (or preferred to ignore) that their ideological novelties would not save them from the fate that had befallen their tsarist predecessors. The further Russia expands beyond its European core, the less stable its empire. Its economy cannot sustain the military expenditure needed to repress so many other peoples nor can its society bear the tensions of a multiethnic empire — especially when Russia must compete globally with a seapower determined to check its ambitions.
Defeat in the Cold War left Russia back where it started almost a century earlier. Its immediate goal now is to bring the 26 million ethnic Russians living in the “near abroad” back into the fold. They equal in number the entire population of Siberia and the Russian Far East combined.
The Baltics appeal to Russia for various reasons. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have over six million people, at least 20 percent of whom are ethnic Russians. Their subordination to Russia makes the latter a more culturally European state. And these countries command a large stretch of the Baltic Sea coast.
As naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan put it in The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies (1900), Russia’s “irremediable remoteness from an open sea has helped put it in a disadvantageous position for the accumulation of wealth.” Without Riga and Tallinn, Russia’s access to the Baltic Sea is limited and subject to winter freezes.
Russia’s search for warm-water ports has always been somewhat fanciful, though. Far more important is Ukraine.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to former American president Jimmy Carter, wrote in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997), “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” It could still be an imperial state — “but it would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state, more likely to be drawn into debilitating conflicts with aroused Central Asians,” if not China.
Take Ukraine, on the other hand, and “Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.” It raises its population by a third, gives it agricultural lands as well as access to coal and other natural resources, particularly in the Donbas region, and denies European powers energy security. It was through Ukraine that the Nazis accessed the oilfields of the Caucasus and it is through pipelines in Ukraine that half of Russia’s natural gas exports to Russia flow west.
Moreover, possession of the Crimean Peninsula and the port of Odessa enable Russia to project power into the Black Sea and from there, the Mediterranean. Hence the Soviets were quick to assert themselves in Ukraine after the 1917 revolution and hence Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and his government’s support for a separatist uprising in the Donbas.
Russian domination of Ukraine also transforms Poland into the geopolitical pivot of Eastern Europe. An independent Poland is acceptable to Russia so long as it is neutral and weak. Before the 1789 French Revolution, that was the case. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was weakened by its multinational character, its precarious finances and a nobility that kept the monarchy in check. A new constitution, proposed in 1791, proposed to change all that. The state was centralized and the monarchy made hereditary, restraining it from elite intrigue. The prospect of a strong, independent Poland that could set an example to the peoples of Central Europe who lived under the yoke of empire, was appalling not just to Russia but Austria and Prussia as well. The three powers conspired to take away half its territory. When Polish nationalists rebelled, in 1794, they wiped Poland off the map altogether.
More than a century later, after the First World War, Poland was revived and the process repeated itself. Barely two decades later, Germany and Russia carved up the country once more in the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that the Poles have not forgotten about more than half a century later.
By removing Poland from the equation, however, Russia found itself bordered on a Germany no less geopolitically insecure than itself.
During the nineteenth century, Prussian and later German statesman, especially Otto von Bismarck, managed to stave off conflict between the two land powers. But after fighting Germany in two world wars, Russia took no chances and occupied half of it.
There are parallels here with Ukraine. So long as it is weak and subdued, Russia can live with an independent state on its western frontier, acting as a buffer between it and the West. Once the people in that state develop too strong a sense of national identity and determine to be Central European and Western, Russia must overpower them.
Further south, Russia must command the Caucasus as a fortress against the political and religious dangers of the Middle East. Although the people there are the Russians’ cultural and political inferiors and too divided among themselves to defend the area, they — like all mountain folk — are also fiercely independent and unlikely to ever fully submit to Russian rule.
In an attempt to prevent permanent insurgency against them, the Soviets carved up the Caucasus in several autonomous republics and nominally independent states whose borders did not correspond at all with the ethnic and religious divisions of the people living in them. A few were even deported in their entirety, one of the most gruesome population transfers that took place in the Soviet Union. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Ingushes perished in their forceful resettlement to Central Asia. It was a brutal episode but not altogether a strategic failure.
In the long term, giving the people of the Caucasus autonomy and a pan-national sense of belonging would probably have been the better strategy. It would certainly have been the more humane. But the Soviets kept the region in check through fear and repression. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia declared their independence, it set off unrest in Russia’s North Caucasus as well. The priority at the time was pacifying Chechnya. Next, the Russians took to weakening the most pro-Western republic, Georgia, by having Abkhazia and South Ossetia break away from it.
Georgia matters because it could give the West a foothold on the eastern shore of the Black Sea and an alternative route for energy supplies. Russia’s absorption of Abkhazia in 2014 made the first prospect less likely. The second hinges on Azerbaijan which Brzezinski described, rather fancifully, as “the cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia.” Besides its own plentiful oil and natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan can transport hydrocarbons from Central Asia through Georgia and Turkey into Europe and thus threaten Russia’s gas monopoly.
In Central Asia, Uzbekistan is the pivotal state. The Soviets did their best to keep the peoples of Central Asia at war with themselves by forcing borders on them that did not at all correspond with ethnic realities on the ground. Uzbekistan is nevertheless relatively homogenous. Its population is 80 percent Uzbek. They can fall back on a proud history, beginning with the conqueror Tamerlane. The country is certainly independent-minded and has displayed some willingness to lead. And it has enormous natural riches to boot.
However, Uzbekistan is landlocked and would need the help of Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan to transport its wealth across the Caspian Sea or into China. For Russia, Kazakhstan, by far the largest state in the region and the wealthiest in natural resources, is the real prize. Situated on the Caspian Sea and hosting pipelines running east as well, it is indispensable if Russia is to secure preponderance in Central Asia.
Halford J. Mackinder, a British geographer and pioneer in the study of geopolitics, famously identified Central Asia as Eurasia’s “Heartland,” the pivot on which the fate of empires rests. Not because Central Asia itself is of such overwhelming economic or strategic importance, rather because whoever controls it tends to dominate Eurasian affairs — and global affairs by extension. Soviet control of Central Asia reflected its enormous power; Soviet defeat in Afghanistan foreshadowed the demise of empire.
It is not a stretch to claim, as Robert D. Kaplan does in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012), that “Kazakhstan is Mackinder’s Heartland!” If another power effectively “owns” this ninth-largest country in the world, it is likely to hold sway over the whole of Eurasia.
There are only two candidates — besides the Kazakh themselves: China and Russia. The former has the economic advantage and is busy integrating Kazakhstan’s with its own economy. The latter still had the advantage in cultural and political terms. 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnic Russian, a quarter of the population is Christian — something that helps explain Putin’s Russia’s newfound religious zeal — and the rulers in Astana still instinctively look to Moscow for direction. The Soviets also did much to integrate Kazakhstan’s infrastructure with Russia’s. China has a lot of catching up to do. The difficulty for Russia is that China has the money and the will to do so and needs Kazakhstan’s natural resources far more than anyone else.
There are three more independent states that frustrate Russian security in the south. Neither the tsars nor the Soviets quite managed to subdue either, let alone all, of them. Coming down from the Caucasus, Imperial Russia was able to overpower Iran in the late nineteenth century but only for a few decades and only in league with the British. The reason for seeking access to Iran is straightforward: it barrs Russia from the Persian Gulf.
Russia has another reason for maintaining close relations with today’s Iran. Its millenarian regime could foment religious strife in Russia’s Muslim-populated south. Iran doesn’t seem quite as interested in exporting its Islamic revolution as it once did. Still, Russia must not make an enemy out of the country if it cannot be an ally.
Turkey similarly checks Russia’s ambitions in the Black Sea and the Caucasus. It can deny Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea but will only feel strong enough to do so when it is backed by a powerful Western ally. Hence British support for the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and America’s extension of NATO membership to Turkey in the twentieth. Russia must seek to weaken that link if it is to have unimpeded access to the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.
Brzezinski predicted that Turkey’s future orientation would be decisive for the region.
If Turkey sustains its path to Europe — and if Europe does not close its door to Turkey — the states of the Caucasus are also likely to gravitate into the European orbit, a prospect they fervently desire. But if Turkey’s Europeanization grinds to a halt, for either internal or external reasons, then Georgia and Armenia will have no choice but to adapt to Russia’s inclinations.
Russian overtures to Ankara, in the form of energy diplomacy, appear to be conspiring with the country’s own cultural retrogression and Europe’s wariness about admitting Turkey to the European Union to bring that second prediction about.
Finally, Russia requires the acquiescence of Greece to fully project its power into the Mediterranean and beyond. Mackinder warned, “Possession of Greece by a great Heartland power would probably carry with it the control of the World-Island.” If it subordinates Turkey, Russia could still be blocked by an oceanic power in the Aegean Sea. Once Greece succumbs to its influence too, the Mediterranean will be wide open.
Working in Russia’s favors are ideological affinities. Both countries are Orthodox Christian and much of Greece took to communism after World War II — to the point where Western powers felt compelled to support the royalist side in the 1946-1949 Civil War and prevent it from sliding into the East Bloc. But it will take more that a sense of kinship to establish Russian influence in Greece and for that it needs to reclaim its dominant position in the Black Sea first.
The Russian strategy cannot be one of imperial restorations, rather it must be aimed at “creating a web of relations that would constrain the new states and preserve Russia’s dominant geopolitical and economic position,” as Brzezinski put it. Territories that used to be in its empire must be denied full independence in terms of energy and foreign policy. Russia’s weapons are its hydrocarbon reserves, pipeline politics and its ability and, perhaps more importantly, willingness to use military force — even if it is on a small scale; Russia’s readiness to resort to intimidation and shows of force distinguishes it from the democratic, seabound Western nations that are uncomfortable with militarism.
Russia has one more advantage, one that can be exploited alongside the gradual subjugation of its borderlands: its vague, unstated, but not altogether incredible assertion to be leading an “anti-hegemonic” alliance against the West, specifically the United States. Its most important partners in this endeavor are China and Iran. There is some appeal for the latter in this. Iran has been ostracized by the West and no allies in its own region. Russia could be an important patron. It makes less sense for China to entertain such notions when its economy depends to a great extent on trade with America. It also competes with Russia for influence in Central Asia and could compete with Russia for influence in Mongolia and the Far East in the future.
Moreover, China is both a land- and a sea power and has far more natural advantages. Its climate is temperate, its rivers and the Great Canal facilitate national integration. China is ethnically more homogeneous than Russia. The Han Chinese comprise 90 percent of the population. While China’s history of a settled agricultural civilization battling nomads from the drier uplands is a mirror of Russia’s, the century-long struggle — which was invariably won by the sedentary civilization in the long term — did not leave China any less self-confident. There is every reason to suspect that in an “anti-hegemonic” alliance with Russia, China would be the senior partner.