Conquering Russia and the ‘heartland’

What happens when US moralistic interventionism collides with Russian imperial inertia?

The US never stopped containing Russia, just as Russia never ceased seeing itself as an imperial power, writes Oskanian [AP]

Those who value geopolitics understand why the then-almighty United States would have felt so threatened by the fall of a small, nearby island into the Soviet camp, that it tries to invade Cuba. Or why China and Japan, two of the three largest economies in the world, would quarrel over a few rocks (the Senkaku Islands) in the East China Sea.

Sir Halford Mackinder is one of the founding fathers of geopolitics. Mackinder labels the three contiguous continents, Asia, Europe and Africa as the “world Island” and the “heartland” as the rough center, occupied by Russia and Eastern Europe. His theory, conceived in 1904, goes as follows: Whoever rules east Europe commands the heartland; whoever rules the heartland commands the world island; whoever rules the world island controls the world.

Mackinder’s ideas are believed to have appealed to a German geographer, Karl Haushofer, who became Adolf Hitler’s favourite geopolitician, and is partly responsible for Hitler’s obsession with Lebensraum to the east and his determination to conquer Russia and the heartland.

One might think that in this age of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, distinguishing between the heartland, the rimland and the world island is meaningless. But no, because those mutually destructive arsenals offset each other, and so conventional armaments, warfare and of course, geopolitical calculations, continue to remain the likely components of any military confrontation.

This is true in the recent confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine and a few other former Soviet republics.

EU borders move east

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Kremlin first lost eastern Europe as NATO’s and EU’s borders moved east. Then, the three Baltic States joined the EU and NATO. Just recently, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the European Union, setting the stage for deeper integration with Europe, including NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Not coincidentally, Russia’s two encroachments towards those in its immediate vicinity were Georgia in August 2008 and Ukraine more recently.

The United States never stopped containing Russia, just as Russia never ceased seeing itself as an imperial power. Vladimir Putin’s ascendency to power simply accentuated this reality.

The specificity of the post-Cold War period was that those very institutions that contributed to first the containment, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union – NATO, the EU, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation – were the ones that were modified and reinvented to accommodate and embrace the newly emerged states and outline the contours of a new world order.

Containment is an amazing word. It defined US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union during the entire Cold War period. It has generated debates, disagreements, and controversies among the foreign policy establishment. Volumes have been written explaining and analysing the essence and the meaning of that one word. Furthermore, it has been twisted and turned, redefined and reshaped with every new US administration from Truman to Ike, to Kennedy and Johnson, and from Nixon on, till the collapse of the Soviet Union during the transition from Reagan to Bush senior, to accommodate the changing circumstances of the Soviet-US confrontation.

As events in Ukraine transpire, and the tension between Russia and the United States grows, one may wonder about the root causes of this new confrontation. One should not look any further than what both Russia and the United States do best. The United States never stopped containing Russia, just as Russia never ceased seeing itself as an imperial power. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to power simply accentuated this reality.

For Putin, gestures like including Russia in the G8, the G20, the World Trade Organization, and the NATO-plus-Russia format, could not make up for NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, the placement of anti-ballistic missile sites in Eastern Europe, or the dismemberment of Serbia. The overthrow of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and ongoing efforts to undercut the Kremlin’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has only made matters worse.

Train wreck on global scene

Indeed, there are two foreign policy characteristics that come head to head, often causing a train wreck on the global scene. It’s the interventionism, along with the moralism and missionary zeal from the US side, and the imperial inertia and the common and unequivocal expectation of submission to authority from the Russian side.

The US attitude arises from the nation’s perception of itself as a unique and morally superior society. The US believes to have the appropriate democratic solution for every other society regardless of cultural and historical differences. It also seems to see US hegemony as the solution to the world’s ills. Russia’s attitude is anchored in its imperial past and a sense of betrayal and humiliation from what it perceives as unfair treatment of Russia since the end of the Cold War. Putin believes that the West reneged on its promise to be considerate of Russia’s security interests, and that the West is still intent on weakening Russia.

The United States is blamed for being heavily involved through its soft power techniques to manipulate and shape the will of the people while advocating the independence, the sovereignty of states and respect of the will of those people to determine their future. Russia is reproached for pressuring and coercing states and populations into submission, while advocating no interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.

This vicious cycle is hard to break. Both sides have their reasons, suspicions, doubts and convictions.

As I was finishing writing this piece, I was interrupted by a high-ranking official from Finland on a visit to Armenia. As a former colleague, he had asked for a meeting to hear my take about events in Armenia and the region. I asked him about Ukraine, since he had served there, too, as ambassador. He said Ukraine changed the thinking in Finland. Although we do not feel threatened by Russia’s moves in Ukraine, nevertheless, they were a wake-up call for all, he said.

A recent poll showed that 60 percent of the Finnish people still don’t want to see Finland as a member of NATO, but when asked whether they would agree if the government recommends NATO membership, 60 percent agreed.

The world – the West and Russia – have applauded Finland’s nuanced geopolitical stance of the last several decades. Russia’s recent moves are impacting that sophisticated decision-making on the one hand, while reinforcing the profound value of people’s power and democratic decision-making, on the other. It would be ironic if that is the lesson that is to be culled from this most recent episode of tug-of-war between the two world-views. What a lesson to be learned.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.