Letter From Europe

As I watched events unfold in Ukraine during the last three months, I couldn’t help but dwell on something President Putin said in 2006: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. That was a huge call. It’s obviously highly debatable as a statement of historical fact but that’s not really the point. The real relevance of the quote is its exposure of the mindset of the Russian president.

These days, most European leaders and even, more arguably, President Obama regard the era of great power rivalry and foreign policy as an extension of national security policy as anachronistic. That was how the world was through the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but in the era of globalisation, digital technology, transnational corporations and multilateral institutions, all that seems old hat.

Well, if they thought that, they should think again. The very term ‘geopolitics’ should remind everyone that a country’s security policy is naturally defined by its geography. Let’s take Russia, the world’s largest country, but a country with few natural borders. Whereas Britain’s greatest city, London, and its hinterland are protected by the English Channel, Italy is protected by the Alps, India by the sea and the Himalayas, Russia has few natural frontiers. As history has shown, it’s relatively easy for Russia to be invaded especially across the northern plains through Poland and Ukraine. While Britain’s defence policy has depended for centuries on the Royal Navy, Russia’s has depended on the concept of defence in depth. Sure Napoleon and Hitler marched for hundreds of kilometres into Russia, but in the end they were overwhelmed by the vastness of the country.

The concept of the Soviet Union suited Russian security policy perfectly. To the east it included Ukraine and Belarus – and even, according to Moscow, the three Baltic republics. To the south-west there was Georgia, Moldova and Armenia and to the south-east the Central Asian republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Russia had buffer states in every direction.

When the Soviet Union collapsed all those countries became independent. For a while Moscow was too weak to do anything about it. Not surprisingly, the newly independent countries to the west wanted to integrate with the prosperous and secure world of Western institutions, especially NATO and the European Union. Most of Soviet dominated Eastern Europe succeeded as did the three Baltic republics. This was a huge strategic setback for Russia.

As post-Soviet Russia has regained its strength, largely through oil and gas, so it has started a process of trying to secure its neighbourhood. As the Russians see it, they can’t allow the former Soviet states to fall under the spell of the seemingly hostile West, dominated as it is by the United States and the European Union. In 2008 Moscow used the Georgia crisis as an excuse to invade and occupy part of the country. Now it’s Ukraine’s turn. The Russians simply won’t allow the strategically sensitive Crimean peninsula which contains Russia’s Black Sea fleet base of Sevastopol to be controlled by a pro-Western, pro-EU regime in Kiev. So they’ve sent in the troops using the same pretext they used in Georgia: to protect Russian speaking minorities.

For the West, this is outrageous. It is a blatant act of invasion. But for the Russians it’s all about geopolitics. They use the time worn excuse they need to protect the Russian speaking Ukrainians. Anyone with a sense of history will recognise this argument. In the 1930s Germany invaded Czechoslovakia to protect German Czechs. Or go back 100 years to the Balkans where the First World War started. The Serbs wanted the Austro-Hungarians out of Bosnia Herzegovina because they wanted to protect the Serbians living there. After the assassination of the Archduke, Vienna wanted to invade the recalcitrant Serbs and the rest is a horrible history.

Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen. But understand this: the Russians are not going to let NATO and the EU nestle up along their borders.

These days, our media don’t explain all this to the public.

My guess is the lazy days of easy relations between Russia and the West are over. That’s not good news. The Americans have tried for two decades to draw the Russians into the mainstream of Western diplomacy. While NATO and the EU have expanded eastwards giving those countries a greater sense of security from Russian imperialism, they have tried to compensate the Russians as best they can by bringing them into institutions like the G8 and APEC. My guess is that’s failed. And it’s failed for a good reason. Russia wants to consolidate its security because history tells them, for right or for wrong, that the West will always be a threat to them.

In far-off Australia, that seems absurd. After all, NATO and the EU have no aggressive intentions towards Russia. But in Europe, as elsewhere, history matters. They remember the Germans came after them in the 1940s and over a century before that, so did the French. These things matter in world politics. 


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