I’ve been reading through open source media today and I’ve been both amused and irate at the same time. The top story lines all over the world are dominated by what Russia is going to do next.
One “expert” will claim that Vladimir Putin is on a roll and announcing Russia’s return to power by re-establishing the Soviet Union one annexation at a time. Another “expert” will claim that this is the most tense it’s been seen the end of the Cold War. All of this is meant to instil fear and anxiety in an attempt to drive up ratings.
I can guarantee one thing. Putin is not stupid. He’s not brash, he’s not rogue, he’s not a cowboy. He’s playing geopolitics in an intensely competitive area.
In order to understand the method to Putin’s actions we need to understand where he’s coming from. What’s going on in his mind? The famous Austrian born geopolitical analyst Robert Strausz Hupe said,
“Global war has revealed continents and oceans to be parts of one closely meshed world political design.”
“War has brought home to us an awareness of geographic realities.”
“We must closely consider geography as a primary motivating factor that drives foreign policy.”
Strausz Hupe was trying to warn and educate the world on how the Nazis were motivated and basing their land grabs during WW2. He wanted to show the world how German Geopolitik worked so that the Allies could use it against them and predict their moves.
Strausz Hupe further defines geopolitics as the adaptation of political geography to political ideology. The concept of space, politically dominated space. The struggle for space and power.
What was true for the Czars and the Soviets remains true for the present day Russians. The nation of Russia lies in a vulnerable location on the map. It lies in the middle between the strong far eastern nations and western Europe. It requires space and more space as a buffer. The German historian Oswald Spengler once said, “Distance is a force politically and militarily as yet unconquered.” When looking to invade Russia both Napoleon and Hitler succomed to the vastness of Russia’s buffer zone.
Putin realizes the pitfalls of a nation with such a vast amount of space that Russia inhabits. It’s a behemoth of a country. Most of that area is uninhabitable but still overwhelmingly large. The land the Soviet Union dominated was even larger. A vast amount of space and an economy unable to support it collapsed the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s eyes it was the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
So what is Putin thinking? Putin’s religion isn’t eastern orthodox. It’s geopolitics. Karl Ritter once wrote in Comparative Geography, "There will come a time when strong-minded humans, by their understanding of the moral and natural aspects of the world, will be able to foresee and guide the future developments of each nation on earth." To predict Putin’s next moves we need to use what Strausz Hupe called "The geopolitical method of observation".
Putin realizes as every geopolitical analyst does that Russia requires defense in depth to secure Moscow. Having NATO and the EU within striking distance of the capitol is unacceptable. However, Moscow can’t make the mistakes the Soviet Union did. The size of Russia is already too large. It has ethnic instability in the south, a growing Islamic threat, and political instability in Moscow herself. Rapidly annexing the former Soviet bloc would compound these problems not make them better.
Moscow has two main weapons to influence and control her periphery. Energy exports and ethnic nationalism.
Russia’s energy grip on Western Europe has been well documented. The political implications of this is obvious. The only counter to Russia’s advantage here is with energy diversification. I think this will happen over time. You can bet that the fleeting nature of this advantage is not lost on Vladimir Putin. However, it’s important to note the geopolitical mindset of the Russians in leveraging this advantage over the past few decades.
The British geopolitician James Fairgrieve pointed out that
“imperialists through history have been driven by the search for energy. The political center of the world usually shifts toward which source of energy is relevant at the time.”
The Soviets saw the relevance in natural gas and built the pipelines into Western Europe. Ronald Reagan of course disputed this. If Western Europe would have looked at this move through the glasses of Strausz Hupe’s “geopolitical method of observation" they would have seen this for what it was intended. A tool for control.
Putin has used this lever as a pressure point on his periphery since 2008. We basically green lit him to enact this foreign policy when Kosovo split from Serbia. Putin mentioned just that in a recent speech on Crimea,
“a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands. When they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.”
Moscow was too weak at the time to effect the situation. The west knew that, didn’t care what Russia’s stance was, and supported the secession. If Russia had been stronger we probably would have seen the Georgian invasion sooner rather than later.
Putin is taking advantage of the heavy Russification of the former Soviet bloc. He has the advantage of the threat of annexation of territory based on a high percentage of ethnic Russians in her periphery.
Again, straight out of the book of the founding geopolitical minds of the 20th century. Robert Strausz Hupe warned that nations such as Nazi Germany could use alternative methods of attack that wouldn’t involve tanks and troops. He called it “Passive population attack”. The Soviets set this up in the 60’s-80’s by government directed migration. Ethnic Russians poured into places such as Kazakhstan (today they are 25% ethnic Russian), Abkhazia (Georgia), South Ossetia (Georgia), Crimea (Ukraine), Donetsk (Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan) and Transnistria (Moldova). Strausz Hupe warned that a geopolitically minded aggressive nation “would use population pressure to justify territorial expansion”. Hupe goes on to describe this as “Trojan-Horse methods - The slow and peaceful penetration of a nation to induce strife.”
So what is Putin’s next move?
Putin is using geopolitics to guide his foreign policy. He see’s security in space...politically dominated space. To do that he has to be careful not to make the mistakes of Soviets past.
His history shows us that his main tool to control his periphery is economic. His first move has always been to impose trade sanctions and use his energy monopoly to force countries into submission. Those that fall fully under his wing he adopts into his Customs Union.
For nations that don’t fully submit Putin’s goal is to keep them as neutral as possible. This was the plan for Ukraine. It was either a mistake by Yanukovich or a misstep by Putin. At any rate when Yanukovich made it so blatantly obvious who’s side he was on he tipped the balance. The last time this happened Putin invaded Georgia to “protect the ethnic Russian’s” in South Ossetia. Ukraine is Russia’s crown jewel. In my opinion the Georgian invasion was a warning to Ukraine that if they proceeded down that path the same would happen to her.
The Crimean invasion of 2014 wasn’t an offensive action...it was defensive. Moscow had lost their crown jewel. Ukraine was no longer neutral. Putin had no choice but to pull that ethnic lever one more time as a warning to his periphery that the only option from full on submission is neutrality.
The problem with playing the ethnic nationalism card too often is that it unites other ethnicities against you. Invading Crimea infuriates ethnic Ukrainians. Invade Transnistria and infuriate greater Moldova. Fully invade and annex South Ossetia and make eternal enemies out of Georgia. These are nations that won’t fully submit. Putin must make them neutral...not enemies. Fascism begets fascism. And that is the ultimate worst case scenario here.
Putin will stop at Crimea. Ethnic nationalism is much more valuable as a threat than an actual weapon. It’s a means of control. Again, as Strausz Hupe described Trojan Horse Methods, the use of population pressure is supposed to be a slow process. Not an abrupt tool. He doesn’t need enemies based off of ethnic hatred ready to raise the NATO flag a couple hours drive from Moscow. He’ll let this latest development stew in the minds of the countries around him. It’ll bide him time to make them neutral and will then attempt to re-establish economic control.
What should the West/U.S. response be?
The United States has a much different outlook on this than the EU. We have interest in very little when it comes to Ukraine. It’s not strategically important to America. Our only interest revolves around the control of Eurasia proper. That’s what brought us into two world wars to begin with.
The U.S. has strategic interest in ensuring no one entity has too much control and power in that area. That means ensuring a strong Western Europe, helping to build Central Europe, and even a strong stable Russia. The U.S. ultimately wants Ukraine either neutral or a part of a Central European alliance...not necessarily EU.
Balance of power is the goal. The U.S. (if their following geopolitics) should focus on strengthening and supporting the Visegrad Group in Central Europe. They represent the Czech Republic,Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. America will use Ukraine as a distraction gently pulling just enough to keep Moscow’s attention. At the same time they’ll put resources into strengthening Visegrad. That would be more of an adequate response to Moscow and much more covertly threatening.
The EU has more of a strategic interest in Ukraine. The obvious is that the’re a lot closer to the action than the U.S. is. They’re also in the middle of economic turmoil and adding the second largest European country to their ranks provides a huge target for the German manufacturing machine.
Putin is playing geopolitics. And just as Strausz Hupe hoped to wake up the West to this game the Nazis were playing, we need to hope our world leaders today get that same wake up call. Be careful what you believe in the media. Most of it is used to drive ratings. The reality is that much more is going on under the surface. Zbigniew Brzezinski called the Eurasian continent “The Grand Chessboard”. Putin is playing the game. Moves and countermoves.