The origins of the contraposition between what, using a Cold War denomination, albeit inaccurate and obsolete, we may call West (which according to this pattern is meant to include the United States of America and its allies members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and East (that is the former Soviet Union’s federated countries and the former Warsaw Pact satellites) can be thoroughly explained through two classical geopolitical theories, that of the “Heartland” and that of the “Rimland”. The former theory had been wholly exposed by Sir Halford J. Mackinder (1861-1947), a British geographer, strategist and explorer, firstly in an article published by the Geographical Journal entitled The Geographical Pivot of History (1904), and later in the book Democratic Ideals and Reality. A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (1919). On the other hand, the latter theory is mainly due to Nicohlas J. Spykman (1893-1943), a Dutch-American geo-strategist and political scientist, who had started his research following Mackinder’s analytical outline before diverting from it.
It is often underestimated the reality that in a way or in another geopolitical theories show models that describe the means to gain supremacy over the world, and ultimately full power. Notwithstanding, the itineraries of power that geopolitics pursue are sometimes perceived by a wide slice of public opinion as immoral, or at least amoral, and thus it is discouraged to speak or argue about the subject. To the simple minds of many journalists and politicians, that nowadays teem throughout the TV channels, geopolitics is still strictly linked to, say, “evil” or “wicked” ideas like imperialism, power politics (Machtpolitik) or even fascism. However, in terms of political realism, geopolitics appears as the foremost milestone of international relations, and it is through geopolitical calculations that governments and policymakers take their decisions in foreign, and often inner, affairs.
Let us thence start by introducing the Heartland’s theory. First of all it is useful to highlight Mackinder’s world partition. “Heartland” (or “Pivot area”) was the name given by the British geographer in 1904 to the central area of the Eurasian continent, including Eastern-Eastern Europe, Turkestan countries, Western Mongolia, Caucasia, Northern Afghanistan, Northern Persia: up to some extent, this area was that dominated by the czarist Russian empire at its heyday. The Eurasian central heartland added to the remainder lands that form the Eurasian continent on one hand and the Northern part of the African continent on the other were called “World-Island” (another name might be “Eurafrasia”). Below Northern Africa was the “Desert”, and outside the World-Island laid the so-called “Periphery-islands”, which included Northern America, Southern America and Australasia.
We must further add that Mackinder’s theory is based upon the antagonism between land-powers and sea-powers. The sea-power as a geopolitical weapon for hegemony had had already been exposed by Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914), an American admiral, in the successful book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) and Mackinder was clearly aware of it. In terms of historical comparisons we may acknowledge the Russian and the German empires as examples of land-powers and the British and Japanese empires as of sea-powers. Likewise, in later time the Soviet Union and the United States have embodied the examples of respectively a land-power and a sea-power.
That being said, Mackinder considered the Heartland the “core of the world” for being unreachable by sea-powers and the mainland from which the hegemony over other territories could be exercisable.
The postulate of Mackinder’s theory reads as follows:
“Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island, who rules the World-Island commands the World.”
Being so things, every sea-power is frightened by the possibility for a unique land-power of gaining control over the entire Eurasian continent through the possession of the Heartland and of Eastern Europe because this would imply a marginalization of the same power from the World-Island.
It is important, however, to add that the actual dimensions and frontiers of the Heartland pivot have changed from time to time, often shifting eastwards or westwards and thus making it almost impossible to establish precise borders to the area.
This theory explains the historical antagonism between the Russian and the British empires during the nineteenth century, the succeeding one between the Soviet Union and satellites against the United States and allies, and the present-day one between the Russian Federation on one hand and the axis USA/NATO/EU on the other. Now, as we can easily understand, Ukraine lies exactly within the border of the Heartland and of the Rimland (see below) and controlling her territory would contribute significantly for further expanding into the Rimland and for ultimately gaining hegemony over the whole World-Island.
Alongside with Mackinder’s theory, Spykman afterwards postulated the Rimland’s theory, which is basically based upon the evolution of that of the Heartland. “Rimland” was the name given by the American strategist in the 1930’s to the land-ring that encircles the pivotal Heartland area and can be divided into three separate parts: Europe, the Middle East, the Far East. According to Spykman who controls the Rimland controls the Heartland/Pivot area and who controls the Pivot area controls the World-Island: as we can see, this theory considers Mackinder’s the other way round. It is further detected that within the Rimland dwell populations that are highly developed, economically advanced and with demographic high rates.
Remarkably, the Rimland has been the area of opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War (e.g. the Korean war, the Berlin crises, the Vietnamese war, the Afghan invasion, etc.) as well as the area where the two superpowers held buffer States under their direct or indirect influence.
The major geopolitical threat would be incarnated by the unification of the Heartland and the Rimland under the rule of a same world power because this would lead to a breakdown of trade and economic growth for all other countries in the “Periphery islands”. In other words, Eurasia would turn into a huge self-sufficient stronghold, defended by the water of the oceans that coast it and in a hegemonic position in relation to the countries that lay on the outer crescents. As history shows to us, the control of the Rimland has been the main goal of all those powers that wanted to achieve a global supremacy: think of Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, Hitlerite Germany, US-led NATO military alliance, USSR-led Warsaw Pact.
What must be underlined here is that Ukraine lays within the Rimland and borders with the Heartland. This geostrategic position is the main reason why bigger actors like the US, the EU and Russia have decided to focus their attention on the Ukrainian regional conflict.
As far as Russia is concerned, it is important to highlight the fact that Russian mentality always suffered from the terrible disease of considering its country encircled, if not sieged. This encirclement-phobia, although having historical roots, was further nourished by the post-World war Two Truman’s “Containment strategy” and the deployment of NATO or US troops all across the USSR’s borders. Historically we can say that the czarist Russian empire had continuously expanded into both the Heartland and the Rimland. As a matter of fact, Russia needed to seek for “warm seas” in order to continue to trade in the winter, despite the glaciation of the Arctic sea: this led to a territorial expansion towards the Black sea, the Mediterranean sea, the Caspian sea, the Yellow sea. Russian enlargement was being felt as threatening during the nineteenth century by the British empire, mainly because it could interpose or shatter the British communication lines with the Indian Raj. Thus, Britain began containing Russian power and this often led to wars and struggles (see for instance the Crimean war). When this Russo-British antagonism shifted towards Central Asia, challenging British India with Russian Turkestan, its name changed into “Great Game” or “Tournament of Shadows” as Peter Hopkirk showed in his awesome book.
During the Cold War the USA replaced Imperial Britain in containing the Soviet Union in several fringes laying through the Rimland. At the same time, the USSR attempted to break the US-NATO encirclement (think of the Cuban missile crisis, the Afghan invasion, the penetration in Middle East, etc.).
Finally, all this brief overview leads us to the current Ukrainian crisis. To understand the reasons of its breakout we must begin by inserting it within the new “Western-Eastern” antagonism. We must face the fact that today we are living a second Great Game, a “New Great Game”: once again, on one hand fight the United States, the NATO members and the European Union and on the other the Russian Federation sided by close friends (e.g. Serbia) and some former Soviet States (e.g. Belarus, Kazakhstan). Now, as we may recall, the Ukrainian crisis started with the desire of a part of Ukrainian politicians to join the EU and the NATO alliance (which would have implied, think carefully of it, the deployment of NATO troops and marines in Crimea, some few hundred miles away from Russian core land...).
As a matter of fact, despite Ukraine’s request for adhesion to the European Union, the EU expansion into Eastern Europe has been ultimately threatening an area of Russian traditional influence. We must remember that the current member States of the EU are 28 after Croatia’s adhesion in 2013: among these 8 belonged to a signatory State of the Warsaw Pact and 4 were actually Soviet republics within the USSR. Moreover, other candidate States lay as well in former Russian, or at least Soviet, area of influence: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia (FYROM), Moldova and Ukraine herself. Other potential candidates such as Turkey or Georgia could reasonably foster even more Russian feeling of encirclement. Hence we can affirm that the main scenarios of contraposition between the “West” and Russia include the Balkans (cf. the Kosovar crisis of 2008), the Caucasus (cf. the Ossetian and Abkhazian crises of 2008) and the Baltic area.
Notwithstanding, Russia has answered to EU and NATO expansion by taking countermeasures. Russia has been steadily building a so called “Eastern NATO” through economic, military and political cooperation with the CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States) and China. This cooperation led to the creation of the SCO (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). The ability of these newly born organizations to counter the “Western” NATO are still to be tested, but before that moment comes we know that Russia will continue to rely on her energetic resources as a kind of soft-power weapon to blackmail possible rivals or to gain specific benefits.
In conclusion, the reasons behind the Ukrainian crisis are remote and it is difficult to foresee how will the crisis actually end, or even if it will end soon. What we can say is that geographically speaking Ukraine lies in the very middle of the historical territorial antagonism between sea-powers and land-powers for the control of Eurasia. This delicate position naturally exposes the country to struggles for regional hegemony and political control. Once again we must admit that whereas old empires fall and new rise they may well change their name but they cannot change the geographical position of their antagonism.