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The spectre of Mackinder: Ukraine in geopolitical context

The spectre of Mackinder: Ukraine in geopolitical context
Published 11 Mar 2014 

Western attempts at managing Russia's intervention in Ukraine are increasingly revealing the painful tensions between competing strategic interests and brought into vivid relief Russia's continued central role in the calculus of Eurasian geopolitics.

Moscow's Crimea motivations: an 'offensive retreat'

Delivering an apparent fait accompli, Russian forces have secured the Crimean Peninsula, and with it Moscow's core interests in this stage of the most significant European security emergency in fifty years. However, despite fevered evocations of historical Russian imperialism, a closer look reveals Moscow's actions to have been limited to addressing three discrete dynamics.

First, the Kremlin has sought to adroitly staunch the loss of influence in its near abroad precipitated by the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Rather than an aggressive expansion of Russian influence, efforts to formalise control of the Crimea represent an offensive retreat on the part of Moscow, a signal internationally of its willingness to use force in defence of its strategic interests beyond its borders. Military intervention has been carefully restricted to the convenient geographic boundaries of the Crimea and will likely remain so unless Kyiv should order its military to challenge the new status quo. [fold]

Second, the change in power in Kyiv has stung the conservative, nationalist constituency that forms the Kremlin's core domestic power base. While the majority of Russians are passively sceptical of military action, the vocal minority that supports these actions, motivated by a nostalgia for the stature of the Soviet past and Putin's own promises of an equally grand future, represent the kernel of genuine support that undergirds and legitimises the Kremlin's increasingly authoritarian political apparatus.

For this group, perceptions of a Ukrainian turn away from Russia are tantamount to a betrayal of common heritage. Putin's actions in targeting the Crimea have been carefully judged at getting out ahead of popular sentiment among this base, using the minimal degree of force compatible with the expectations of this core.

Third, the prospect of widespread military tension across the eastern Ukraine carries with it the risk of outright civil war, as well as regional escalation. Moscow's intimation of a broader intervention is a red herring, designed to expand the negotiation space in which an eventual resolution with be defined: in exchange for eventually renouncing this threat, the Kremlin hopes to extract tacit acceptance of the status quo in the Crimea.

Actual armed intervention in eastern Ukraine would be a disaster. Such an escalation would at best force the West to impose crippling economic sanctions; at worst it would embroil Russian forces in actual confrontation and combat with large Ukrainian military formations. Knowing this, Moscow has surgically focused its actions on the one region of the Ukraine whose political and geographic structure limits the potential for wider strategic escalation.

Western Crimea response hobbled by competing interests

In contrast to Moscow's focused actions following the fall of Yanukovych, the response of the US and its European partners has been crippled by concerns for economic and strategic risks. Beyond the largely symbolic imposition of targeted elite sanctions, Western states lack the concerted will to deploy coercive tools to force a Russian retreat from the Crimea.

The risk of military force, with the hideous prospect of escalation to major-power conflict, is orders of magnitude more significant than any US or European interest in the Crimea.

A united front on substantive economic sanctions is also unlikely, given the degree of economic integration between Russia and the advanced industrial states. German interests in Russian energy, British interests in Russian financial flows, and French interests in Russian military sales all serve to curb Europe's enthusiasm for a hard-edged economic response.

In addition, the prospect of placing serious pressure on Moscow threatens important security interests beyond the region. Any acceptable resolution to the Syrian civil war will require Russian support. Continued progress on restricting Iranian nuclear developments also necessitates Russian engagement. A bloodied Russia with nothing to lose would have multiple avenues to undermine the stability of a swathe of the globe stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia.

Perhaps most salient for many Western governments, the rapid drawdown of international forces in Afghanistan is contingent on Russian logistic support.

Eurasia in the balance

From an even broader vantage point, the grand strategic costs of a US-led challenge to the Russian position in the Crimea should be seen in the context of the Eurasian geopolitical balance.

While the attention of the world has been drawn to the nascent competition between China and the US for the hegemonic leadership of Asia, Russia's role in this competition is pivotal. Russia's enduring strategic relevance comes, as Harold Mackinder noted over a century ago, from its ability to simultaneously affect the strategic balance in the littoral regions of both Atlantic Europe and Pacific Asia.

Aggregate strategic heft matters less than the ability to concentrate it at one point, and the balance of power in Pacific Asia is contingent on which power will be able to focus its resources and resolve on that maritime theatre.

While Washington's response to the Crimean crisis may not decisively define this balance, it will impart momentum in one direction or another. The tighter the strategic alignment between Russia and China, the more tenuous Washington's strategic position becomes, torn between two ends of the 'world-island' of the Eurasian continent.

By contrast, a true 'reset' of relations between Washington and Moscow, with a partnership securing the latter's sphere of influence along the borderlands of Europe and extending into Central Asia, would greatly complicate Beijing's ability to focus its attention to its maritime east and south, reawakening spectres of the Soviet-Chinese territorial disputes of the past.

That Beijing has careful avoided criticising Russia's move, despite the salience of its own concerns for the integrity of territorial sovereignty, speaks to these stakes. That Washington is divided over its own response to the Crimean crisis reflects less a lack of will than an awareness of the potential costs of confrontation.

Photo by Flickr user Stewf.

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