The Geopolitical Position of Russia in the World

Now that we have considered the main economic and political reforms of the last 20 years, it makes sense to look at the Russian Federation and the other countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) with respect to their geopolitical position. Although Russia is a successor to the Soviet Union, it only has half of the U.S.S.R.'s population and 70% of its territory; it is much more ethnically homogenous; and it is far less influential in global affairs.

“Geopolitics” may be defined as “the analysis of interactions between … geographic settings and … political processes” (Cohen, 2009, p. 5). The early geopolitical studies of Ratzel, Mackinder, Mahan, Bowman, and Kjellen sought to elucidate the general principles of the global world order in the periods before and between the two great wars of the 20th century. Particularly salient for us is Harold Mackinder's (1904) notion of the “Heartland” (i.e., continental Eurasia, more or less coterminous with the Russian Empire) as a pivotal world region that theoretically is destined to control the rest of the world. Mackinder's “Heartland” can be contrasted with Nicholas Spykman's (1944) “Rimland” (i.e., the coastal areas of Europe, Asia, and North America). The Heartland has a strategic advantage over the Rimland in having more natural resources and less vulnerability when attacked inland by conventional weapons (tanks, artillery). The Rimland, however, has a strategic advantage in shipping and is able to leverage its coastal positions in any warfare that involves aircraft carriers and submarines. Although the developments of the last 20 years have given much greater prominence to the Asia–Pacific and North Atlantic Rimland, the Heartland theory did receive some validation when the Soviet Union developed to rival the United States in the Cold War, and it is still an interesting starting point for discussions about the present and the future of Northern Eurasia.

The Russian Empire reached its zenith at the time of the Crimean War in the 1850s, when the country stretched from Poland in the west to Alaska in the east. By that time, it already included much of trans-Caucasia and Central Asia, and was posed to enter into several prolonged battles: with Turkey and Britain over the Balkans; with Persia over the entire Caspian Sea basin and the Caucasus; and with Japan and China over Manchuria. The only empire in recent history that was physically bigger was the British Empire, which controlled about 25% of the world's surface, whereas the Russian Empire controlled about 17%. The British Empire accounted for 13.6% of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) in 1913, while Russia's accounted for 8.3%. The U.S.S.R. was a smaller entity than the Russian Empire, because it did not include Alaska, Finland, or Poland. It did expand farther into Central Asia and the Caucasus, however. After World War II, the Soviet Union came to dominate the affairs of Eastern Europe, Cuba, and parts of Southeast Asia and Africa by setting up Communist governments there.

As one of the victorious powers in World War II, the U.S.S.R. became a dominant force in global affairs, along with its allies (the United States, Britain, and France). The four countries established themselves as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, with veto powers (China was added in the late 1960s). They thus greatly influenced the composition and decision making of the entire United Nations and the postwar world order in general. With its socialist satellites, the Soviet Union controlled close to one-quarter of all U.N. votes. Nuclear parity with the United States was largely achieved by the mid-1960s. Although the Soviet Union was trailing the United States in developing atomic and hydrogen bombs in the early 1950s, it was the first to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) by the late 1950s, and the first to put a man in space in 1961. The development of nuclear weapons and space research ensured that the Soviet Union began to be taken seriously everywhere in the world. It was the only country besides the United States capable of destroying the entire planet in a nuclear war—a true superpower.

How is Russia today different geopolitically from the U.S.S.R.? First, it is much smaller. Although Russia did retain the bulk of the richest extractive and manufacturing zones and about 70% of Soviet manufacturing capacity, it lost access to about half of the productive agricultural areas in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan; some essential mining areas (chromium and uranium ores in Kazakhstan, manganese ores in Georgia); and most of the coastline along the Black and Baltic Seas. A lot of high-tech manufacturing and final assembly of machinery and equipment used to take place in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Much of the infrastructure built in the Soviet period with nationwide efforts (e.g., hydropower plants in Tajikistan and Georgia, or nuclear stations in Armenia, Lithuania, and Ukraine) is divided now among the successor states. The Russian military had to pull out of most republics, notably the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. The nuclear warheads and missile ingredients that were deployed in Ukraine and Kazakhstan were dismantled and moved to Russia, in accordance with international agreements with the United States and Europe. However, much of the civilian infrastructure (radiolocation and generation equipment, military bases, etc.) has been given over to the respective national governments, with no compensation to Moscow. One can of course argue that this is only fair, because the entire U.S.S.R. participated in the production of those. Nevertheless, Russia's share in constructing these was greater than its proportion of the population. Moscow did retain some control over a few of these assets within the FSU (e.g., the Sevastopol naval base in the Crimea, Ukraine; an early-warning radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan; the Baikonur space launching pad in Kazakhstan). However, given the skewed distribution of production in the Soviet period, it is safe to say that Russia did not benefit from the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as much as the newly independent periphery did.

Second, Yeltsin's agreement with the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine in December 1991 essentially accepted the Soviet internal boundaries as the new international ones: The FSU republics' outlines today are the same as they were in the Soviet period. This was probably the easiest choice, and it helped to prevent a major conflict developing along Yugoslavian lines. However, those internal boundaries only loosely conformed to where the respective ethnic groups actually lived in the U.S.S.R., and they were never intended to become permanent international borders. They were physically unmarked, had no checkpoints, and frequently did not follow any physical landmarks. Locals used to cross them routinely on the way from home to work, just as people in the two Kansas Cities do when they travel between Missouri and Kansas every day. The borders were internal matters of administrative convenience for the Communist planners in the 1920s through the 1950s, not matters of international politics.

Today, however, each new country has its borders recognized by the international community as if they were indeed national borders that had been carefully delineated by some impartial committee. Unfortunately, they were not. Large Russian minorities (totaling about 25 million in 1991) lived in Estonia and Latvia; in eastern Ukraine; on the Crimea Peninsula and much of Ukraine's Black Sea coast; in Moldova; in northern and eastern Kazakhstan; in parts of Kyrgyzstan; and elsewhere. Russians had only moved to some of these places during the last 60 years or so, but they had lived in others ever since permanent settlements of any kind were established by the expanding empire. (The special case of Kaliningrad Oblast—an “exclave” of Russia that is now completely surrounded by other FSU republics— is described in Vignette 9.1.) Similarly, millions of Ukrainians lived throughout Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Far East. Ossetians found themselves divided between Russia and Georgia. The Abkhazy people in Georgia, who are closely related to the Cherkesy and Adygi people of the Russian northern Caucasus, were now part of independent Georgia—a country with a very different predominant ethnicity and a strongly nationalistic government. Many Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Estonians, and members of other ethnic groups lived in large numbers in most big Russian and Ukrainian cities, in villages along the Black Sea coast, in the Caucasus, and so forth. All of these people were suddenly thrust into dealing with the increasingly nationalistic governments of the new states. Many chose to move, but many others stayed and had to adapt to the new realities. A few are still living as unrecognized citizens of the now extinct country, without passports or even a path toward full citizenship.

Third, Russia lost much of its international influence outside the former Soviet borders. The Soviet Army withdrew from central Europe (in particular, East Germany) and from Afghanistan in 1989. It also left dozens of allied countries in the developing world (e.g., Cuba, Angola, and Vietnam) without critical economic assistance. Gorbachev's decision not to oppose unification in Germany led to a hasty withdrawal of the Soviet troops, with virtually no compensation from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In fact, Gorbachev made an extremely generous gift to the West: Not only did he not request any financial support for troop withdrawal and resettlement; he did not even ask for a firm political guarantee from NATO that it would not expand its borders toward the U.S.S.R. (or later Russia). Gorbachev did ask for and receive plenty of financial loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and various Western governments (which Russia is now repaying with interest), but he obtained little free assistance. Billions of rubles of assets in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and East Germany were simply left behind. Putin's final task as an official of the KGB in East Germany was to personally oversee the destruction of KGB archives there, as well as to dispose of Soviet assets in a last-minute “fire sale.” The Soviet troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan in that same year led to a creation of a power vacuum there, which eventually was filled by the Taliban movement. By 1990 the Baltics were de facto free, and the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 left each country of the FSU pursuing divergent goals in a new geopolitical space.

Russia's Neighbors

Is Russia Asian or European?