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Geopolitik: The Twentieth Century Perspective for Today
By HD Bedell

The essence of geopolitical analysis is the relation of international political power to the geographical setting.[1]

In the Twentieth Century, geography was an essential feature of national security, followed closely by industrial base technology and strategic resource availability. Geography, technology, and material resources were measured in exhaustive detail. However, the qualitative factors of geopolitics – territorial integrity, social and political systems, historical perspectives, and religion – were the real determinants of vital interests. Succinctly, the statisticians did not make good geopoliticians or strategists.

Early Twentieth Century political geographers, in overzealous belief in the "basic tenet of nationalism"[2] – pro patria mori – "stressed the importance of geography in determining the power of a state,"[3] i.e., a state's power was derived directly from the nature of the territory it occupied.[4] Their arguments in an era of popularized science convinced followers that a state was an organological[5] entity, and that idea quickly became systemic to the major powers. Despite the emphasis upon quantifiable factors, national capacity still was assessed through political predilections reflected by history and perception, although a country's history is admittedly largely the result of geography.[6] In this vein, one writer asserted that "geopolitics spawned a geostrategic component, combining geography and strategy into national security perspectives."[7] Perspectives are, however, uniquely Ptolemaic for each state, a fact noted by Halford J. Mackinder:

To this day, however, our view of the geographical realities is colored for practical purposes by our preconceptions of the past. In other words, human society is still related to the facts of geography not as they are, but in no small measure as they have been approached in the course of history. It is only with an effort that we can yet realize them in the true, complete, and therefore detached, perspective of the Twentieth Century.[8]

A detached, twentieth-century view of geography and geopolitics was not realized. Mackinder's own perceptions certainly were influenced by the geographical and intellectual circumstances of his time, notably the rise of Germany and World War I. Similarly, international considerations do not always proceed from historical precedents; regions often assume unique significance in extant contexts, e.g., Korea, Vietnam, and Angola during the Cold War. The scientific detachment in the material functions of scientific method was not only impracticable, but also absent in the ancient intellectual and metaphysical origins of geopolitics – and in present practice as well.

Geopolitics in the Ancient World

Geopolitics existed well before the modern era; readers of history and political theory know that "geopolitics, as it has eventuated in the Twentieth Century, with its technological development and advanced geographical research, is the result of a long line of thought."[9] As with much of the political theory in the Western world, geopolitical tenets were first articulated by the Greeks in their quest to understand man and nature. This was especially true for Plato, Aristotle, and, of course, Thucydides.

Geopolitical divisions by the Greeks were based on broad climate categories.[10] In the sixth century BCE, Hecateus employed a map that divided the world into two environments: Europe, including Siberia, representing the cold, ill-favored, northern areas, and Asia-Africa representing the warmer, more favorable southern areas.[11] Later commentary on climatic differences, especially that of Bodin and Montesquieu, seconded by nineteenth- and twentieth- century writers, conversely determined that northern areas were more favorable for vigorous political entities[12] and peoples.[13] Writing a century after Hecateus, "Parmenides proposed his theory of five temperature zones or belts, one torrid, two frigid, and two intermediate,"[14] distinctions given weight by Aristotle in subsequent discussions concerning the nature of the state itself.[15] Two thousand years later, "climatic determinism"[16] was still being discussed by Friedrich Ratzel's protegé Ellen Churchill Semple et alia.[17] However, climate was not all that the geopoliticians of antiquity considered. Topographical impact upon individuals and societies was considered under the larger rubric of territory.

Plato and Geopolitics

Plato provides the first critique of territorial geography and its political significance in Laws through the voice of the Athenian Stranger:

And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by accident of locality or of the original settlement, – river or a fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, maritime or inland.[18]

Despite its initial impression, Plato's passage does not represent a simple categorization of sea power and land power. Plato's consideration of maritime or inland influences had to do with the respective moral corruption and achievement he believed inherent in each geographic situation. It was likely that this position was influenced by his experiences during the Peloponnesian War and the degeneration of Athenian democracy during the conduct of the war. Plato's preference for an inland situation was reflected in Laws by the Athenian Stranger, as well:

Then there is some hope that your citizens may be virtuous: had you been on the sea, and well provided with harbors, and an importing rather than producing country, some mighty savior would have been needed, and lawgivers more than mortal, if your were ever to have a chance of preserving your state from degeneracy and complication of manners.[19]

Comparisons of contrasting land and sea power states also influenced autarkeia, or the state self sufficiency desired by Plato and Aristotle, was a Cold War political and strategic goal, just as it was a goal of Athens.[20] A further example of possible Platonic influence might be found in two of Plato's axioms of political life: (1) war, whether internal or external, was a staple of political life in any state; and (2) war was an instrument of peace against foreign enemies.[21]

Aristotle and Geopolitics

In Books IV and VII of Politics Aristotle critiques Plato's Republic and delineates types of governments, classes, and the desirable territorial construct of the ideal state. One of the necessary classes, according to Aristotle in Book IV, was a warrior class presumably supported by "the class of mechanics who practice the arts without which a city cannot exist."[22] Here, apparently, was the inclusion of a professional military and its industrial support within the theory of an ideal state. Aristotle continues with an analogy of the slave-state without warriors:

The warriors make up the fifth class, and they are as necessary as any to the others, if the country is not to be the slave of every invader. For how can any state which has any title to the name be of a slavish nature? The state is independent and self-sufficient, but a slave is the reverse of independent.[23]

Book VII offers several passages of interest to students of geopolitics and moral philosophy. The first passage to be noted provides assignment of human qualities to the state. This might well provide a clue to the "organological" view developed by early geopoliticians that was noted earlier in this work. In Aristotle's words:

Thus the courage, justice, and wisdom of a state have the same form and nature as the qualities which give the individual who possesses them the name of just, wise, or temperate.[24]

The model for the rational actor state can be seen here. This was reinforced by a companion passage:

Let us assume then that the best life, both for individuals and states, is the life of virtue, when virtue has external goods enough for the performance of good actions. [25]

Aristotle continues at length in his discourse on the ideal attributes of both individual and state, preserving Plato's admonitions that virtue was the ultimate pursuit of each. Both philosophers reflect the Greek premise that political life and man are inseparable from nature – indeed they are part of nature.

Like Plato, Aristotle makes some trenchant comments on the desirable geography of the ideal state:

It is not difficult to determine the general character of the territory which is required (there are, however, some points on which military authorities should be heard); it should be difficult to access the enemy , and easy for the inhabitants. Further, we require that the land as well as the inhabitants of which we were just now speaking should be taken in at a single view, for a country which is easily seen can be easily protected. As to the position of the city, if we could have what we wish, it should be well situated in regard both to sea and land. This then is one principle, that it should be a convenient center for the protection of the whole country: the other is that it should be suitable for receiving the fruits of the soil, and also for the bringing in of timber and any other products that are easily transported.[26]

Unlike Plato, however, Aristotle understood that the benefits of naval power were necessary to the well-being of the state, particularly if the state was to undertake a leading role in politics. The ideal state in pursuit of its virtue would, of course, be compelled to participate in politics just as the individual man would pursue politics in pursuit of virtue. This made naval power a necessity. As Aristotle wrote:

There can be no doubt that the possession of a moderate naval force is advantageous to a city; the city should be formidable not only to its own citizens but to some of its neighbors, or if necessary, able to assist them by sea as well as by land. The proper number or magnitude of this naval force is relative to the character of the state; for if her function is to take a leading part in politics, her naval power should be commensurate with the scale of her enterprises.[27]

Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War is probably the most studied conflict in the ancient world, its importance undiminished by the passage of nearly 2,500 years and exponential leaps of technology. The interest is due to the realization that the ancient Aegean was a "little world of warring states,"[28] and that by induction a more profound understanding of the perennial issues of politics and war may be attained. Each generation critiques and applies the lessons of Thucydides to itself.[29] Thucydides' history provides not only invaluable insights into the complexity of Greek political life in the fifth century BCE, but has served well for the study of both international relations and diplomatic history. The lessons of Thucydides are very much applicable today, and a sizable portion of those lessons demonstrate the importance of geography as both a preconditioning political factor and as a strategic factor.

Some scholars maintained the position that the epic struggle between Athens and Sparta, the greatest conflict of the Greek world and one not without modern parallel, was the classical example of the land power - sea power conflict.[30] This is somewhat superficial; the struggle between Athens and Sparta was far more complex than a complete reduction to maritime power versus land power allowed. There were fundamental and profound differences between Athens and Sparta that demonstrate the complexity of the struggle was intimately and irrevocably tied to political thought, economic modes and values, and technology. Certainly, as the pre-conditioner of these differences, a significant cause of the chasm between Athens and Sparta was geography.

Friedrich Ratzel and Political Geography

Friedrich Ratzel's theory of political geography typifies the social scientific thinking of the late nineteenth century that borrowed heavily from Darwinian concepts.[31] In his Politische Geographie published in 1897, Ratzel contended that the state was in fact a biological organism that functioned and evolved according to biological laws.[32] Included in Ratzel's adaptation of biological imperative to the state was the necessity to secure missing organs, Sarkesian's geostrategic components, by expansion – through force if necessary, and force is certainly an inherent component of the natural selection process.[33]

However, state expansion, or growth, according to Ratzel's interpreters, also is as subject to its own natural law of development as any other organism.[34] These laws appear, in effect, to comprise the origin of species canon for states. Ratzel's seven laws of state growth are:

(1) The space of states grows with Kultur;
(2) The growth of states follows other manifestations of the growth of peoples, which must necessarily precede the growth of the state;
(3) The growth of states proceeds, to the degree of amalgamation, by the addition of smaller units;
(4) The frontier is the peripheric organ of the state;
(5) In their growth, states strive for the absorption of politically valuable sections;
(6) The first impetus for territorial growth comes to primitive states from without;
(7) The general tendency toward territorial annexation and amalgamation transmits the trend from state to state and increases with intensity.[35]

Ratzel's laws of state were based on space and location; all the attributes of a state and its inhabitants – activities, character, and even destiny – were "products of location, size, altitude, frontiers, and above all, space."[36] The intimacy of the space occupied and the inhabitants of that space is a function of Ratzel's state as an organism. The state, as a Godmanland organism, "is a functioning union of three parts: people, land and a political or state idea." [37] The inseparability of these three elements, which also nurture each other, is manifested as an actual, sentient being – Kultur. In other words, the state is alive but "bound to a definite living-space."[38]

Ratzel particularly emphasized frontiers, "the peripheral organ of the state, and, as such, evidence of its growth or decline, strength or weakness."[39] Ultimately, this means that large states are strong states, and strong states are secure states with vibrant Kultur. It also means that large states continue to expand in order to evolve to their full potential. For Ratzel and the Geopolitikers he influenced, "it was natural and desirable for the healthy space organism to add to its strength through territorial expansionism."[40] The desirability of expansion that Ratzel believed necessary to fulfill "man's need for, and ability to utilize effectively, large space would be the political dictum of twentieth-century international politics."[41]

It is important to note that for Ratzel history in the Twentieth Century would be dominated by states based upon large continental areas: North America, Asiatic Russia, Australia, and South America. Of particular interest is Ratzel's consideration of Asiatic Russia as a dominating state of the Twentieth Century, an idea modified and further developed by Sir Halford Mackinder in his consideration of Eurasia as the geographical pivot of history.

Sir Halford Mackinder and Geopolitics

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island:
Who rules the World Island commands the World.[42]

Sir Halford Mackinder prefaced his remarks on the nature of the preconditioning effect geography has upon history with the following: "Man and not Nature initiates, but Nature in large measure controls. My concern is with the general physical control, rather than the causes of universal history."[43] From here Mackinder went on to outline the most influential theory of geopolitics in the Twentieth Century. According to Mackinder, the modern geopolitical world has been shaped by sea power. It is, moreover, sea power that serves as the natural counterpoint to land power moving from the great inland areas of the world island – the great landmass containing Europe, Asia, and Africa seen as one contiguous, yet variously accessible, landfall to the seaman's eye:

Europe is but a small corner of the great island which also contains Asia and Africa, but the cradle of the Europeans was only half of Europe——the Latin peninsula and the subsidiary peninsulas and islands clustered around it . . . from the seaman's point of view, Europe was a quite definite conception, even though the landsman might think of it as merging with Asia.[44]

Finally, the effect of sea power's development has been to bring the world into political closure as a single entity in which political forces work and that it is mobility that gives vent to these political forces.[45]

The closure design begins as Mackinder regards world history in the pre-sea power era as a chronicle of horse and camel borne military forces organized in the Eurasian heartland[46] and transmitted through steppe and lowland geographic conduits into the West European peninsula. The political world was dominated by this land power as long as the Europeans could not capitalize on their access to the sea.[47] As David Nicolle wrote:

For millennia the Eurasian steppes poured forth periodic waves of nomadic invaders. Some were thrown back by their settled neighbors, others were rapidly absorbed and a few established empires that lasted for several generations.[48]

In other words, a millennium of Asian peoples in successive waves swelling across the open heartland swept up the early Europeans and forced them into the peninsular mountain and forest keeps above the tide of invasion. The early Russian and Polish states were creatures of these forest and mountain redoubts unsuited to the mounted invader no less than the vast empires of the Great Khan and Tamerlane were denizens of the steppe.[49] It was a convenient inference to draw that the Eurasian military pressures organized by empire-bound, marauding nomads pressing their frontiers and the desperate European resistance formed of unavoidable, nation-building alliances required for its amelioration constituted the origin of the Eurasian and Continental states, their interaction, and the impetus for organizing superior mobility.[50] For Mackinder, organization was the beginning of civilization:

Civilization is based on the organization of society so that we may render service to one another, and the higher the civilization the more minute tends to be the division of labor and the more complex the organization. A great and advanced society has, in consequence, a powerful momentum; without destroying the society itself you cannot suddenly check or divert its course.[51]

Mobility is the thematic expression of power throughout history. Mackinder divides the mobility and political closure factor into three distinct phases: Pre-Columbian, Columbian, and Post-Columbian. In Pre-Columbian history, the Eurasians, astride their technology and unimpeded by either geographic or human obstacles, established heartland interior lines of communication superior to those available in the West European peninsula.[52] The organization behind these lines of communication met negligible resistance and established the Eurasian age of ascendancy. As noted, this Eurasian age was one of political closure; it was also one of great political pressures with the West Europeans sorting out their own relationships while wedged between the unusable sea and the eastern empires.

The Columbian era brought West Europeans onto the sea. The Age of Discovery and subsequent overseas empires represent: (1) the natural progression of mobility to sea power to counter Eurasian land power, and (2) the reopening of the world political system. The break in political closure was, however, more than simple colonization of the New World. Mackinder posited that sea power not only offered Christendom the widest possible mobility but also temporarily reversed the relationship of Asia and Europe in power and communication superiority.[53] This reversal was played out as the Europeans, pressing their own frontiers into Eurasia through the conduit offered by the sea, encircled the heartland land power with agents of superior mobility made possible by maritime technology. It was, however, to Mackinder, a temporary reversal due in part to the transient nature of technological advance.

Mackinder's Post-Columbian age relied upon the return of communication and mobility superiority to Eurasia. Mackinder envisioned technology transforming the heartland into a region of substantial economic stature linked by interior mobility that was not only competitive with maritime mobility, but superior in transmitting power into the marginal lands.[54] The key was development of a vast railway network that reestablished the pivot point of world political forces in Eurasia by providing the economic structural mobility necessary for domination in a region inaccessible to sea power. Mackinder reasoned that the heartland, with its potential wealth transformed by technology into hard political currency, would produce a military and economic empire – Russia – functionally modeled upon the Mongol Empire with all the attendant consequences for Western Europe, and India and China as well. The consequences of this new heartland empire included, according to Mackinder, expansion into the marginal lands, permitting continental resources to be focussed into sea power and, by extrapolation, world empire. Presumably, the world empire would be the ultimate political closure. Mackinder asked:

What if the Great Continent, the whole World Island or a large part of it, was at some future time to become a single and united base of sea power? Would not the other insular bases be outbuilt as regards ships and outmanned as regards seaman?[55]

Mackinder later answers his own question:

In short, a great military power in possession of the Heartland . . . could take easy possession . . . of the world.[56]

The power that Mackinder foresaw controlling the heartland was Russia; and although Mackinder was not without criticism in his theory,[57] he nevertheless was the "intellectual father of U.S. containment policy after World War II."[58]

Mackinder's most serious critic was Nicholas Spykman who considered Mackinder's heartland economic and mobility transformation scenario unlikely, if not precluded altogether, by reason of simple geographic realities. The overriding reality is, according to Spykman, that neither Russia nor the heartland was a region with the great agrarian production potential that Mackinder's projection required; without food Mackinder's empire went nowhere. Further, the combination of latitude, mountains, and bitter climate, and other obstacles in the marginal lands themselves, restricted the mobility of any empire making for the sea in order to focus its continental resources into ocean-borne expansion. The net result is that regardless of the technological and production developments that Mackinder assumed, Spykman considers the heartland incapable of cohesion on the necessary scale due to its inherent geographic liabilities.

Consequently, according to Spykman, the vagaries of power mobility and interest rendered Mackinder's marginal lands, the prize of his neatly divided land power and sea power conflicts, into Spykman's more realistic and historically accurate Rimland buffer zones where the fluctuations of empire mobility and ascendancy were displayed through various combinations of land power and sea power alliances. As Spykman said: "Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world."[59]

Spykman apparently forgot that "Mongol nomads took to the sea with remarkable alacrity, just as the desert-dwelling Arabs had during their period of empire building six centuries earlier."[60] It was only by combining the outlines of Mackinder and Spykman that a cogent, overall picture is framed; the differences in their world views and history are fairly negligible. Where both went awry was in being unable to foresee (1) the aberrant way an ascending Soviet Union would organize the heartland, and (2) that strategic nuclear forces would provide such an extraordinary means of mobility and power projection.


Eurasia is a philosophical, sociological, and historical concept that denotes an area of intellectual transition between Europe and Asia. It also is a definite territory within the world island.[62] It was here that "Russia began in the great Eurasian plain and in due course embraced all of the flat stretch of land extending from the Baltic to the Pacific."[63] The Eurasian plain actually is a series of interlocking plains: The White Sea-Caucasian plain, the Western Siberian plain, and the Turkistan plain. These plains in their collective entirety cover eastern Europe and northern Asia and are divided by the north-south running Urals.

The Urals reach their altitudes (6,200 feet) on gentle slopes and there are many valleys and easily traversed passes; most at far less than half the highest altitude the mountains possess. Communication is not impeded between the European and the Asiatic plains by the Urals. The mountains also do not extend across the entire distance of the plain, the southern tip stops at roughly the 51st parallel, leaving a vast area of open country stretching south to the Caspian Sea.

If Eurasia is considered as one unit, it must be considered a subcontinent by reason that its northern border is the Arctic Ocean, its eastern border the Pacific Ocean, and its southern border delineated by natural land boundaries. Specifically, the southern border is formed by a continuous chain of mountains, deserts, and inland seas that stretch from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean: the Caucasian Mountains, the Caspian Sea, the Urt Desert, the Aral Sea, the Kyzyl Kum Desert, the Hindu Kush, the Tian Shan ranges, the Gobi Desert, the Khingan Mountains, the Altai-Sayan ranges, the Yablonovy range, and the Stanovoi range.

The litany of geographic features of Eurasia's boundaries does not really do justice in depicting Eurasia's scale; it is enormous beyond anything that most Westerners conceive: "From the Pripet marshes in the west to Vladivostok in the east is a distance of more than six thousand miles. From the Arctic north to the southern deserts is more than four thousand miles."[64] Moreover, there is no defensible frontier; the natural frontiers of Eurasia are to the south. As John Harrison observed, "The homogeneity of the Eurasian stage becomes most evident at the height of winter when this whole vast territory, one-sixth of the world, lies beneath a single blanket of snow."[65] It was here, one can imagine, that the idea of the Russian Imperial state was conceived and nurtured by geography.[66] It was here as well, perhaps, that the idea to expand to the frontiers of "properly organized states" came to Prince Gorchakov.[67] Russian history may be simple after all; Russia expands to prevent invasion. Its position in the world has not changed since Muscovy.

Russian History and the Influence of Eurasia

You must flay a Muscovite alive to make him feel.[68]

For centuries, visitors to Russia have seen the poverty and squalor of its people and concluded that the Russian state was near collapse, its military power an illusion. Yet consistently, despite deprivation, revolution, and war, Russia advanced militarily, fulfilling Dostoyevsky's vision of a "fatal troika dashing on in her headlong flight."[69] The fact that "Russia covers a vast and varied territory" has led many Westerners to believe that Russian history is longer and more complex than that of most nations.[70] This was not altogether untrue; as a correspondent present at the Moscow purge trials in the 1930s said, "In [Russia] you can believe everything but the facts."[71] One fact that can be believed, however, is that throughout the course of Russian history military power has always been used as the indicator of state viability. As Derek Leebaert noted:

Russia has cherished its military power for three reasons: first, military power has supported expansion in whatever guise – conquest, Leninist revolution, or a post-Stalin contest for assets and influences; second, military power has been imperative for maintaining order within that land of subjection, so long called the "prison house of nations;" and third, military power is needed for defending the so often invaded and devastated rodina.[72]

The elevation of military power to icon status has been argued to be the result of Russian geography. "In effect, the steppe frontier, open for centuries, contributed hugely to the militarization of Russian society, a trend reinforced by the generally unprotected and fluid nature of the Western border of the country."[73] Others argue that Russia developed in a single, monumental unit – Eurasia – and that it is as unique in its geopolitical influences as it is in its geographic location and size. As George Vernadsky wrote:

All civilizations are to some extent the product of geographical factors, but history provides no clearer example of the profound influence of geography upon a culture than in the historical development of the Russian people.[74]

It has been argued also that the most pertinent geographical factor influencing Russian expansionism, and by extension, militarism, is that there are very few natural, effective frontiers between what is known as European Russia and Asia. Nicholas V. Riasanovsky summarized:

As the boundaries of the Russian empire ultimately emerged, they consisted of oceans to the north and east and, in large part, of seas, high mountains, and deserts to the south; only in the west, where the Russians merged with streams of other peoples, did the border seem unrelated to geography.[75]

Other geographers and historians have seen Russian expansionism as a quest to relieve Russia's essentially landlocked condition. Robert J. Kerner, the most widely known of these writers, in his work The Urge to the Sea: The Course of Russian History, stressed Russian geographical disadvantage as the impetus for a struggle to gain access to the world's oceans.[76] Besides its landlocked condition, according to Kerner, the pattern of rivers also facilitated the Russian "urge to the sea."[77] The river pattern and the river basins provided the avenues for the expansion of the empire; the pattern of grasslands from China to the Black Sea provided the means of invasion from the east.[78]

In any case, the geography facing the fledgling tsardom of Muscovy would have compelled it to expand – even if only to secure its Eurasian frontiers – to the west, the south, and the east. The inducement to expand also was an obvious invitation to establish an empire. It was, as well, the signal that the Muscovite empire would be restructured as the Russian empire of the Heartland, an empire that did not follow the pattern of the Imperial overseas expansions of Western Europe. Russian Imperialism was expansion of the contiguous state; conquest is the fact of Russian history: "For over six hundred years, almost every generation saw a substantial growth of the lands under the sway of Moscow."[79]

The price of Russian expansion almost always has been war and the currency of the Russian state was its military power. As a consequence:

The empire merged with the Russian state and so became much more important for Russian than for Western powers. Security always seemed to be served by pressing the borders farther away, both to overcome enemies on the frontiers and to occupy territories from which an attack might be launched. Size was a prime strength and a compensation for the fact that the Russians, though technically superior to the Asiatics, continued to lag somewhat behind the West.[80]


It is not known when the first Rus', or Eastern Slavs as they originally were known, came onto the Eurasian steppe.[81] What is evident, however, is that they came "from the west"[82] and that they were heading east, the route to their ultimate empire, and were fairly well established in the region by the third century. It was not an easy route. Over the centuries the Slavs were caught in an almost continual ebb and flow of empires from the west and east. The crossroads of empires was not a particularly good place for an agricultural people to take up residence, but attachment to the soil has always been the lure, and downfall, of farmers. As Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky noted:

This penalty of a central position between two continents accounts for the continuous atmosphere of state of siege and martial law in all subsequent Russian history and also for the sporadic and uneven movement in the growth of Russian civilization. . . . And here it became apparent in view of the special geographic features, in particular the river systems, no two masters could cohabit peacefully in this plain.[83]

The tenuous dominions under which the Slavs frequently found themselves led them to adopt assimilation as a survival strategy. It was a strategy that worked well; they benefited from exposure to foreign influence, particularly in trade for "[D]uring all these centuries of war and migration the ancient riverine trade passed through the Slav settlements . . . ."[84] By the middle of the eighth century the Slavs had established several prosperous city states – Kiev, Novgorod, Pinsk, Chernigov, Polotsk, and Smolensk – that soon proved unfortunately attractive to Viking and Asiatic marauders. Prosperity was a mixed blessing for the Russians; the threat of destruction led to consolidation of the cities into the first Russian state. It was, however, a state ruled by the mercenaries hired by Slav merchants to protect their prosperous trading cities from Asiatic raiders. Political leadership of the early Russian state was assumed by Rurik, a Dane, who established his headquarters in Novgorod.[85] This, too, is a definitive pattern in Russian history emanating from the origins on the Eurasian plain and reverberating into the twenty-first century: Control must be established and maintained by whatever political means necessary – whether it be foreign domination, religious cohesion, tsarist dynasties, or ideological suppression. Rurik's successor, Oleg transferred the "capital" south to Kiev, after first murdering the Swedish Rus' leaders of the city, another ancient tradition of Russia held in high esteem for its utility. Despite its brutal beginning, Kiev flourished.[86] It was a military and trading state "based economically on control of the Dnieper waterway."[87] This control was expanded under Oleg until by the end of the ninth century Kiev was the "acknowledged leader of the other duchies, principalities, and free cities of the Eastern Slavs and a great commercial center linking Europe to Constantinople and the East on a route that was not subject to Moslem interference."[88] Holding the Muslims at bay became more than a territorial and commercial imperative; relations with Byzantium and subsequent conversions to Byzantine Christianity imbued the Russians with a sense of religious mission as well, a sense being carried in one form or another, again, into the twenty-first century. The later establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church also further isolated Russia from Europe and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Kievan state became a true empire of Eurasian proportions under Prince Sviatoslav, an empire larger than any yet seen on the Russian steppes.[89] It was the first political empire with Sviatoslav rebuilding and maintaining under his control the areas that he had despoiled. This policy not only gained wealth and influence for the Kievan state but enemies as well. Sviatoslav's empire stood in defiance of the nomadic forces still swirling like whirlwinds across the Eurasian plain, the powerful Greek trading colonies to the south, and the expanding Bulgar empire to the east. Eventually, defiance was not enough and the empire began to crumble, ending with Sviatoslav ambushed, his head made into a drinking cup by a treacherous ally.[90]

The Mongols

It would be difficult to overstate the effect that the Mongol domination of Eurasia had upon the Russians. The Mongol method of war, total devastation, was a national catastrophe of almost incalculable proportion; in four years (1237-1241) all of Russia was at the Khan's feet. The Mongols finished the Kievan state, destroying it utterly in 1240 along with most of the Russian men-at-arms, and established the seat of their dominion in Moscow.

In short, the effect was brutal. The conquest was heralded as a visitation from hell; the domination was only slightly less so:

The protracted drain on Russia's manpower and financial resources which followed prevented any quick recovery of the nation. The destruction of the Russian cities during the invasion was a serious blow to the urban civilization which had flourished in the preceding period. The periodic conscription of skilled artisans for the khan's service completely disorganized Russian industrial production. A number of Russian industries, including such arts as enamel filigree, and niello work, as well as stone cutting ceased to exist.[91]

Even today, Russian proverbs on the Mongols, Tatars in Russian history, exist to describe disastrous and inexplicable social and political events.[92] As Bodin noted: "The most temperate parts of Persia, Turkey, Muscovy, and Poland have not been able to recover perfectly from the devastations of the Tatars."[93]

The Mongols recognized nothing as independent from their own empire and claimed to rule the world; and in the Mackinderian sense they did, establishing the Pax Mongolica, the peace of the prison house that later served the Russian and Soviet empires so well.[94] It was a dominion of total control, the model of totalitarian empire. All power was centered in one personage, the Khan, just as it was later centered in the Tsar and still later in the "Chairman." All of Russia was a vassal to the Khan, who exacted tribute from the populace through the abject Russian princes who had failed to defend their land.

The collection, more accurately extraction, of taxes, or tribute, by the Russian princes inadvertently led to the downfall of Mongol rule in Russia, and coincided with the rise of Muscovy. However, the rise of Muscovy was not easy:

The political edifice of the tsardom of Muscovy was built on the autocratic rule of all human and material resources of the country. The exertion of power required unceasing and very intensive efforts by the central authorities in the areas of organization and administration."[95]

The Mongol investiture of the Russian princes reduced the Russian peasants to chattel and defined the Russian repressive and exploitative relationship of government to governed. The princes, however, grew wealthy and powerful under the noses of their Mongol masters.[96] This, too, was not without price:

The Russian nobility have indeed been reduced to slavery by the ambition of one of their princes; but they have always discovered those marks of impatience and discontent which are never to be seen in the southern climates. Have they not been able for a short time to establish an aristocratic government? Another of the kingdoms has lost its laws; but we may trust to the climate that they are not lost in such a manner as never to be recovered.[97]


The Muscovite state, from its very inception, was the political focus of Great Russia."[98]

This was especially true after Kulikov Meadow where, on September 8, 1380, Moscow, under Grand Duke Dmitri Donskoi, fought the Mongol Horde and decisively defeated them.[99] Although the victory was short-lived, it was enough to create a psychological reorientation for Russia. The Mongols were no longer the invincible foe albeit they were still formidable for many years after Kulikov Meadow.[100] Eventually, the Mongol empire, as most empires do, collapsed from internal dissension and conspiracy. However, even in its demise the Mongol empire still shaped the future of Russia: "[T]he character of Russia' political organization found its basis in the subordination of the entire social fabric and all resources of the country to the powerful and unlimited central government of the grand prince."[101]

The Muscovite state was the beginning of Great Russia in many ways.[102] It was from Muscovy that Ivan IV, inheriting the work of able autocrats before him, proclaimed himself Tsar of All Russia in 1547.[103] "[T]he character of Russia' political organization found its basis in the subordination of the entire social fabric and all resources of the country to the powerful and unlimited central government of the grand prince."[104] It was from Muscovy, as well, that All Russia was defined with intensive efforts to expand militarily and commercially; it became the Eurasian Empire. Interestingly, claims involving one variation or another of the All Russia credo are still prominent in Russian politics. It is perhaps more than an intriguing parallel that Muscovite Russia faced a geopolitical infancy following the collapse of the Soviet Union similar to that of Muscovy after the collapse of Mongol rule. Additionally, there seem to be parallels between the Russian political landscape and economic condition and the Time of Troubles era, spawned by the demise of the original Muscovite dynasty that immediately preceded establishment of the Romanov dynasty.[105] It is not beyond reason to believe that the Russian crisis begets autocracy, as evidenced by the Time of Troubles, the Revolution, the death of Lenin, and, perhaps, by the flirtation with a pseudo-democratic presidency.

In any case, the indefensible frontier was pushed back by the Muscovites simultaneously and aggressively to the west, south, and east in an effort to master the steppes, defend against the nomad, and secure their frontiers. The Muscovites also recognized, as Kernen's interpretation maintains, that "without access . . . to the sea, the challenge of building a better economic order and national culture could not be met."[106] The ultimate aim was empire, as Colin Gray succinctly states:

Great Russian statecraft has been in the empire-building business since at least the reign of Ivan IV ("the Terrible," 1547-84). The Imperial mind-set has long-term consequences; it is trained in methods over nonnationals; it is multiregional (if not truly global) in its orientation; it is pragmatic as befits a system that must cope with great complexity; and it tends to seek security through an expanding hegemony.[107]

Unfortunately, Russian political character also was defined by Muscovy: "The Muscovites sell themselves very readily: Their reason evident – their liberty is not worth keeping."[108]

Siberia and the Eurasianists

"Russia's conquest of northern Asia was an event of momentous historic, political, cultural and geopolitical consequence."[109] That Russia even today is relying upon the resources of Siberia to consolidate the economic future demonstrates its status as a vital interest to any Russian regime.[110] "On the whole the Russian expansion, together with the mastering of Western techniques, resulted in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries in providing . . . the Soviet Union with a vast territory well stocked with mineral ores and natural resources of various kinds."[111]

Eurasianism developed in the early Twentieth Century as a methodology for integrating geography, economy, history, and other factors relating to the unique development of the Russian state. Historian George Vernadsky and geographer Peter Savitskiy are well known followers of the Eurasian school of thought, as are several prominent geopoliticians of Russia today. Certainly, it was mentioned in many articles and was a founding precept for geopolitical theory in the Twentieth Century. It was also a point of departure for Russian geopoliticians who made claims that the U. S. had as its geopolitical goal the destruction of any Eurasian, or Heartland, power as a natural consequence of the land power-sea power conflict.

The Russian drive eastward has been likened by some writers to the American westward expansion:

The two movements took place at about the same time: Ermak's Siberian venture took place almost simultaneously with the first settlement on Roanoke Island; and Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607, three years after the building of Tomsk in Western Siberia.[112] (sic)

There are other parallels:

. .the colonization of Siberia recalls that of North America. Both these vast areas were sparsely populated. The Siberian peoples were as primitive as the Red Indians, and as ruthlessly exterminated. If the Russian colonists were cruel, they had, like their American equivalents, the courage and the individual enterprise of the pioneer. . .[113]

As the American expansion coursed through the great waterways of North America, Muscovy's voyage to the east also was water-borne. The great rivers of Eurasia became available to the Muscovites through Ivan IV's conquests of Kazan and Astrakhan in 1552 and 1556, respectively, which opened the Kama and Volga river basins.[114] The "urge to the sea" continued:

Between 1585 and 1605 the Russians moved through the lower systems of the north-flowing Ob and Irtysh. By 1628 they had explored the snaking Enisei and its main tributaries, the Lower, Stony and Upper Tunguska rivers. In the 1630s they navigated the length of the Lena and its principal tributaries. In the 1640s they sailed and poled the length of the swift Amur, the Indigirka, Kolmya and Anadyr rivers. Between 1638 and 1650 they penetrated the broken maze of the Baikal taiga.[115]

Parallels do not make similarities; North America was not Northern Asia and Muscovy has no real Western equivalent. While colonial possessions were disputed in North America among the European powers, Russia was virtually unchallenged as it expanded to brush against the great empire on its eastern frontier: China.[116] The subsequent development of an indistinct border with China in the Amur region is still a concern to Russia today.

The real conquest, or consolidation, of Siberia was not accomplished until the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), the ubiquitous autocrat of Russian histories. The Petrine motivation for the consolidation of Siberia was two-fold: security and taxes; Peter needed wealth for his almost constant wars of expansion, creating a navy, and introducing manufacturing and other Western European conventions. In other words, Peter the Great was focussed upon Western Europe and concerned himself with Eurasia as a means of supplying Russia with security and wealth.[117]

Peter the Great's Urge to the Sea

Peter the Great required wealth; he "nurtured expansionist ambitions from his earliest years."[118] It is easy to suggest that these ambitions were connected with Russian "urges to the sea." The first military action Peter undertook was against Turkey, the power controlling the Black Sea and the southern Russian shore. The 1695 campaign against Azov, a strong Turkish fort, was almost as disastrous as it was instructive. The Muscovite army, unable to control Azov's sea lines of communication and prevent resupply, was forced to retreat. However, the ignominious withdrawal launched the Russian navy which Peter constructed in one winter on the Don river at Voronezh with indefatigable energy. The combined land and sea offensive in May of 1696 led to the July surrender of Azov.[119] Peter set immediately to building a fleet in the Sea of Azov to challenge Turkey for supremacy in the Black Sea.[120] It was a challenge that led to three wars in the eighteenth century with Turkey, the sea power controlling the Bosphorus and Dardanelles as well as the Black Sea.

The victory at Azov set a pattern for the tsar's subsequent military forays: combined arms. Using his navy to support the army became Peter's campaign signature, even if it required gut-wrenching portages as in moving the White Sea flotilla from Archangel to Lake Lagoda to support the siege of Nöteburg.[121] The tsar, as did Aristotle, "understood the mutual relationship of sea and land power more completely than did most statesmen of his time."[122]

The Great Northern War with Sweden (1700-1721) was a long, arduous, and spectacular episode for Petrine Russia. In summary, during its twenty-one year course Peter founded St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland (1703), built a Baltic fleet, restructured the Russian army, and secured St. Petersburg by seizing control of the Gulf of Finland. The Treaty of Nystad, which ended the war, ceded the Baltic provinces of Estonia and Latvia, the "essential window into Europe," and south-eastern Finnish territory located strategically near St. Petersburg and the Gulf of Finland.[123] In the end, Peter had a Black Sea fleet, a firmly established Baltic fleet, and a White Sea fleet. "The struggle of centuries . . . had at last given her a favorable position."[124] Additionally, by defeating Sweden, Russia became the dominant power of northern Europe. It still was not enough; at the end of his reign Peter gained the south and west coasts of the Caspian and even sent an expedition to take Madagascar and then proceed to India.[125]

Expansion to the Revolution

There was no pause in war following Peter the Great's death. Russia's geopolitical imperatives continued throughout the eighteenth century with nine major wars, not counting the effort to suppress various insurrections, mount punitive forays, and the mobilizations to maintain effective control of the empire. Russia remained on a war footing for almost the entire century. "There were three wars with Turkey (1735-39, 1769-74, and 1787-92); two with Sweden (1741-43 and 1788); and three waged over Poland (1733-35, 1763, and 1795); in addition to the massive struggle against the Prussia of Frederick the Great."[126]

The Black Sea was perhaps the largest concern and focus of Russian geopolitical efforts in this period. "In their struggle against Turkey the Russians aimed to reach the Black Sea and thus attain what could be considered their natural southern boundary as well as recover fertile lands lost to Asiatic invaders since the days of the Kievan state."[127] The wars with Turkey were a series of geopolitical victories for Russia, although the struggle was intense and victory was never certain. It was also a series of frustrations, the outcome not completely satisfactory until the Treaty of Jassy (January 9, 1792) in which Turkey recognized Russian annexation of the Crimea as well as ceded the Black Sea shore to the Dniester River. In the end, however, Russia reached her boundaries and the Turkish problem was eliminated. Still, Russia's Black Sea-Crimea problems were not permanently settled.

The eighteenth century saw Russia established as a Great Power of Europe. However, the age of Russian territorial conquest in the west had in effect come to an end, even though Russia acquired Finland in 1809 and Bessarabia in 1812.[128] It was the peak of Imperial Russia, unequaled until the Soviet expansion after World War II, with a precipice called Crimea.


The Crimean War was a bitter defeat for Russia and set against the complexity of historical and geopolitical relations of the European powers.[129] After the debacle, Russia withdrew from an active role in European affairs for almost twenty years.[130] The origins of the Crimean War were complex, as noted, but in effect eventually centered around control of the Black Sea, at least from the Russian perspective:

Many historians have emphasized Russian aggressiveness toward Turkey, explaining it by the economic requirements of Russia,[131] such as the need to protect grain trade through the Black Sea or to obtain markets in the Near East, by the strategic control of the Straits, or simply by a grand design of political expansion more or less in the footsteps of Catherine the Great.[132]

Turkey declared war on Russia in 1853 and Russia promptly destroyed the Turkish fleet in the Massacre of Sinope,[133] the most "spectacular success in the history of the Black Sea Fleet."[134] The early victory was not to last. Russia soon faced all the Western powers as it attempted to retain control of the Black Sea and move further into Europe via the Danube.

Although the war involved the major states of Europe, actual combat operations were narrowly restricted to the Crimea, more specifically, to the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.[135] Despite a heroic defense, Sevastopol fell on September 11, 1855.[136] The Crimean War was negotiated to its end by the Treaty of Paris which proved devastating to Russia. In brief, Russia lost the right to maintain a Black Sea Fleet, the Bosporus and Dardanelles were closed to military vessels of all nations, and Bessarbia was ceded to Turkey, removing Russia's access to the Danube.[137]


The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) was precipitated by Russian aggressiveness and military build-up in the Far East.[138] Interestingly, remembering Mackinder's belief that railroads would transform the Heartland, Russian aggression followed construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad that linked Russia to Manchuria, China, Korea, and, indirectly, Japan. Having been thwarted in Europe Russia sought an easier connection to the sea in the Far East. Further, "the tsarist regime in 1904 sought to resuscitate the ailing empire by acquiring Korea and Manchuria."[139] It was, however, a tenuous connection and one that was easily severed by the more competent Japanese who had Westernized their industries with far more success than the Russians.

The victory anticipated by tsar Nicholas II was not forthcoming. The Japanese defeated the Russians at sea from the surprise attack on Port Arthur to the destruction of the Baltic fleet in the Tsushima Straits. Russia's Far Eastern forces were outmatched by the Japanese and defeated in several engagements at a cost of over 200,000 casualties.[140] The Treaty of Portsmouth (August 1905), which soon followed the Tsushima Straits disaster, effectively ended tsarist Russia expansion in the Far East.

Late 20th Century Russian Geopolitik

The most important thing for Russia is the defense of her geopolitical interests and territorial integrity.[141] - Doctor of Law Gennady Melkov, Consultant, Duma Committee on Geopolitics

The available literature, commentary, and documents concerning contemporary Russian geopolitics seem to be arranged in three distinct categories, each concerning a specific aspect applicable to the Russian geopolitical perspective. The three categories – strategic, economic, and nationalistic – are not unique to contemporary Russian thought; they reflect the long history of geopolitical theory, the Muscovite world view, and, perhaps most importantly, the significant legacy of Soviet military doctrine. Russian geopolitical conventions replaced dialectical materialism as the rhetorical formula for determining state policy. Readers familiar with the stylistic peculiarities of CPSU-sanctioned writings by Soviet military and political officials certainly will notice many similarities in articles employing geopolitics as a rationale for state actions and those employing dialectical materialism for similar actions. Dialectical materialism was used as a deterministic "science" in the Soviet era just as geopolitics was, and is, used in the Imperial Russia eras, and geopolitics carries similar – if not greater – potential dangers to the West. As Johannes Mattern wrote in 1942:

In other words, viewed as an ideology Geopolitik of the "have-not" nations brand is the nationalist counterpart of Marxian international "dialectical materialism", the allegedly scientific formula . . . . As such Geopolitik is an integral part of the seething social and political world situation.[142] [Emphasis in original]

Geopolitical matters also merged with nationalism fairly early in Russian writings. In the extreme, one writer referred to Russia as the "FatherLand":

. . . the most sacred gift given to us from above and preserved by preceding generations . . . the highest property of a nation for which every person bears responsibility to the memory of those who assembled the state and also to our descendants.[143]

The same writer suffused Russia into the Soviet Union; Russians created the USSR as the Russian Eurasian empire. Further, the "salvation of the Fatherland is in the deep consciousness of the improper substitution that has occurred and in the revival of the true enlightened patriotism that will save not only Russians, but also all surrounding peoples." The implications and similarities to the Blut und Boden propaganda of the Nazi regime are evident,[145] particularly when the writer refers to democracy as "just a method for the functioning of society, a method for realizing national, that is collective, interests and individual rights."[146] Almost as an after-thought, the same writer dismissed the regime of a state as irrelevant to its national interests, relying instead on the immutability of geography for the determination of interest.[147] This "irrelevance" hardly seems characteristic for a Russian cum Soviet; the Soviet Union placed great emphasis upon the nature of regimes, dividing the world into socialist and Imperialist camps. Further, the nature of regimes has been the stuff of politics, including geopolitics, since the ancient Greeks.

It was not a coincidence that references to geopolitics occurred within official military and academic media; the most prominent were Voennaya Mysl', the official journal of the General Staff, and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, both of which had a "Geopolitics and Security" section that formed in November 1991. Again, it was not a coincidence that some of Russia's most prominent military theoreticians were members of the Geopolitics and Security Section. Additionally, strong ties to the military-industrial complex are in evidence and the Military Academy of the General Staff, the most prestigious military academy in Russia, was a notable sponsor.[148] It was foreboding to consider that a similar situation occurred in the early 1960s when Military Strategy, the official military doctrine of the Soviet Union, was published under the editorship of Marshal of the Soviet Union V. D. Sokolovskiy. Prominent scholars of Russian military doctrine have described Military Strategy as "the most significant military writing of the 1960s, and perhaps of the Twentieth Century."[149]

Geopolitik Revealed

Geopolitik first came into the Russian forefront officially on January 21, 1994, when the State Duma approved the formation of the Committee for Geopolitics.[150] Immediate observations on the committee were not encouraging to the West: "[T]he parliamentary committee [on geopolitics] is certain to approach geopolitical issues from [a] neo-Imperial position . . ."[151] This was largely borne out,[152] and rather quickly: "Zhirinovsky and others of his ilk, playing demagogically on Russians' wounded national pride, are threatening to resurrect the Soviet Empire by force of arms."[153] And beyond Zhirinovsky, among more moderate nationalists, lies a deeper sentiment:

A large role here was played by [the] collapse of Russia's economy and statehood, the degenerating morals of the political elite and of society as a whole, rampant crime, the mafia's penetration of all pores of society and its plundering of public property and actions in channeling Russia's national wealth abroad, and, most importantly, the general public's impoverishment and its deep disillusionment with the post-August [1991] reform course pursued by the Yeltsin-Gaidar government . . . . This also led to an increase in anti-Western, especially anti-American, sentiments. Suspicions crept into peoples minds: . . . Was there not a secret U.S. intention to destroy Russia's economic and scientific-technical potential? [154]

The Russian remedy for such a litany of ills historically has been autocratic government, expansionist policy, and military expenditures held together by doctrine. The Russian people were, understandably, concerned about the future.[155] Unfortunately, being Russian apparently meant being unable to discern that national political life was not necessarily synonymous with militarization and expansion.[156] Geopolitics also had an effect on Russian foreign policy issues. Themes presented by geopolitical writers were prominent in the Russian Federation Policy Concept approved by President Yeltsin in April 1993. The basic provisions of the policy emphasized vital interests of the country and its citizens.[157] Not surprisingly, the vital interests included defending territorial integrity, fostering conditions that ensured stability, and active participation in a new system of international relations with a worthy place.[158] An item of particular note in the foreign policy concept was the emphasis upon economic vitality, or rather the access to the means to achieve it; special emphasis was "placed on precluding any actions that would undermine Russia's strategic stability and defense potential and its position in world arms markets."[159] The actions that would be precluded apparently include opening up the Russian economy which could weaken Russian autarky and threaten its technological and industrial potential, particularly if access to sophisticated technology continues to be restricted by the West. In fact, a "front" already was in place:

There will be a great impulse to conduct tax-exempt [military-industrial] modernization via arms sales and call it conversion, especially since its supporters place extravagant hopes upon arms sales as the defense industry's salvation. Thus the potential for military abuse of arms sales, especially since a special business center has been set up in Marshal Shaposhnikov's staff, is high. There also is the possibility that, under the guise of foreign cooperation that has the approval of Yeltsin and other figures, ways of evading reform may be found.[160]

Geopolitics in Russian Strategic Considerations

Many in the Russian military officer cadre believed that to survive Russia must become as powerful as the Soviet Union, in both military capability and territory, to preclude a one superpower world.[161] Others contended that Russia existed for 70 years in "the form of the USSR" and should use it for a contemporary model.[162] In early 1992, two senior Russian military officers asked: "If we allow the disintegration of the Armed Forces, then who can guarantee that this will not push the West to review not only its geopolitical goals and tasks but also possibly the methods of achieving them?"[163] The writers had a list of specific concerns as well: violation of the military-strategic parity; uncontrolled disintegration of the military-industrial complex, and the associated brain-drain. Civil unrest would open the door to occupation of Russian territory under the flag of multinational forces in order to control access to nuclear weapons, ultimately destroying Russia (as Sparta feared Athenian occupation).[164]

Other articles soon followed with a general pattern of key words and phrases in common. One that appeared early in 1994, by Moscow News editor Alexei K. Pushkov, reported that public opinion polls conducted by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion in June 1993 showed that "Russia is widely seen as a great power with important geopolitical and international interests to defend . . . ."[165] In just two years geopolitics went from apparent obscurity to widely held public opinion. This would seem to indicate a very concerted effort to make geopolitics the doctrinal heir to dialectical materialism as the rationale for state actions. It was an effort that worked. Many of the articles were designed to bolster previous articles, or to provide precedents for subsequent ones. For example, geopolitics either was described as or referred to as a scientific theory in many articles, in much the same language that Mackinder used in 1919. Often, Mackinder and others prominent in geopolitics are cited and their theories described in detail with special references to applicability to Russian interests. Several articles recounted virtually the entire evolution of geopolitical theory since the nineteenth century. There was little doubt that the writers and the policy makers in Moscow had an extensive knowledge of geopolitics and applied that knowledge in decisions concerning Russian security and policy. There were, as well, frequent references to the land power-sea power conflicts and the geopolitical designs of the United States. One article of particular interest in the early stages was "Geopolitics and Russia's National Security '' which appeared in Voennaya Mysl' in October of 1992. The author, Colonel A. S. Sinayinski, a candidate of historical sciences, introduced his article as follows:

The process of fundamental changes which has accelerated in the world is directly affecting Russia's national security, which depends upon a correlation of objective and subjective factors. A special place among the former is held by geopolitical factors (geographic, ethno-economic and confessional conditions of development) which are determining in shaping a country's foreign policy course. They are embodied in national interests and reflected in the political part of military doctrine.[166]

There are several points of note within Sinayskiy's introduction. The first point was that the demise of the Soviet Union was covered as part of a process of fundamental change. This was implied by Sinayskiy to be similar to the Marxist view of the inevitability of history. It also seems to carry a warning that geopolitics was as potentially confrontational as Marxism. The second point was that the correlation of factors recalls Soviet military doctrine and the Russian sense of mission in establishing their hegemony. In another sense this recalls Thuycidides' description of the "compelling" nature of events and actions. Third, the identification of geopolitics as having a special place in determining policy, especially in determining national interest and the political part of military doctrine can be seen as descended directly from Sokolovskiy's Military Strategy. However, in the case of geopolitics, the combatants are not opposing world social systems as Sokolovskiy describes, but geopolitical opponents whose conflict was determined by either Rimland or Heartland orientation.[167] According to Sinayskiy, "Not to consider geopolitical factors in a state's foreign policy and in military organizational development is at the very least short-sighted . . . ."[168]

There was nothing short-sighted about Sinayskiy's view that economic and scientific might form the basis for Russian security and, as a precondition, political stability that "will be helped by the formation of a uniting national ideology . . . ." Sinayskiy's conclusion left no doubt about his intention:

Russia can and must make optimum use of the advantages of its continental disposition and the tendency to close with other states . . . forming a symbiosis of continental and oceanic vectors of development of Earth civilization advantageous to Russia. Only a unified, indivisible, strong Eurasian-oceanic Russia can promote regional and world stability. If necessary, Russian national interests must be supported by all guarantees, including military ones.[170] [Emphasis added]

The optimum use of continental disposition was directly related to size of territory in most Russian geopolitical thought: "Territory is an immanent part of any state's vitally important interests . . . ."[171] Many echo Spykman's well-known dictum: "Geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.[172] Still others echo Ratzel's concepts on frontiers and lebensraum as indicative of a state's vitality: "[T]he political system's role in ensuring national security is enormous, since a nation is capable of preserving historical territory and cultural makeup only because of a state's strength."[173] [Emphasis in original]. Territorial integrity, however, depends upon military capability. This view has remained consistent in virtually every respect with Military Strategy. Geopolitical writers maintained, as did Sokolovskiy, that Russia's national security depends upon economic viability, scientific-technical capability, and moral superiority. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the Russians view strategic nuclear weapons, the weapons that elevated the Soviet Union to superpower status, as the foundation of their national security.

This was affirmed in November 1992 when Russian President Boris Yeltsin told senior generals that Russia would continue to rely upon a nuclear deterrent and that Russia's prestige as a great power relies on its nuclear force.[174] Strategic nuclear forces were, and are, seen as the most capable part of Russia's armed forces, and the force around which Russia builds its defenses.[175] Andrei Kortunov, an analyst at the U.S.A. - Canada Institute (founded by Sokolovskiy) commented:

There is a growing trend toward rehabilitation of nuclear weapons, and a sense that all these Gorbachev ideas about nuclear disarmament are outdated. There is a growing perception, especially in military circles, that if Russia wants reliable defenses, and cheap defenses, it needs to keep a nuclear deterrent – and possibly even reconsider its no-first-use strategy.

Kortunov was on the mark. Russia subsequently revised its nuclear policy, ending the Soviet no-first-use pledge.[177] A more expansive commentary on Russia's nuclear policy was published by Professor V. N. Tsygichko in Voennaya Mysl' in March 1994. Tsygichko posited that Russia's nuclear forces serve several vital Russian interests, stability, prestige, territorial integrity, and deterrence. Tsygichko maintained that the most vital interest in maintaining nuclear capability is:

. . the existence of the enormous military-industrial complex that has to do with the development and production of strategic-nuclear weapons. It employs hundreds of thousands of highly skilled people and a considerable part of the state's scientific and technical potential. The military-industrial complex is a giant chain of high-tech and costly productions ranging from initial raw materials and their processing, to the production of strategic nuclear weapons, to their testing, to equipping the troops with them which adds up to a very complex industrial, military and social infrastructure.[178]

In other words, the military industrial lobby was still very strong in Russia, and likely to remain the basis for Russia's economy. The most important reason, however, for Russia to maintain its nuclear forces, according to Tsygichko, was to maintain nuclear parity with the United States under the old Cold War formula.[179] This formula left a lot to be desired; the Soviet Union enjoyed nuclear superiority for nearly two decades. It was not likely that the Russians would settle for parity. The Russians also were thinking about new warfare technologies. In an early 1995 article, three senior military officers discussed, in addition to nuclear weapons and space geostrategic concerns, an entirely new field of geopolitics – information warfare:

There is also a completely new area in geopolitics. In the period under review the United States will transfer the struggle for keeping the status of the world's single superpower into a qualitatively new area – information warfare. One may assert that it plans, prepares, and wages a permanent information warfare. . . . In the present conditions it would be logical to assume that the greater information capabilities the state has, the more likely it is that it will achieve strategic superiorities . . . It is becoming clear why the U.S. military-political leadership defines information as a strategic resource.[180]

The authors did not go into any detail about the geography of information; certainly, information has had strategic value since Sun Tzu. One implication was that the U.S. was the architect of a conspiracy to deny Russia the resources to become economically strong and technologically sound in this area.[181] Ironically, the article ends with a discussion of classic land power - sea power conflict scenarios.

Gennadiy Zyuganov: The Final Portion

Gennadiy Zyuganov was many things; he was head of the Russian Communist Party, a front-running candidate for the Russian presidency, and a geopolitical writer reflecting much of what geopolitics was all about in Russia. However, as are many things in Russia, geopolitics was not a simple matter to decipher. It was not any great leap for a former CPSU insider to become, if not already, a geopolitician. In a two-part article in the Sovetskaya Rossiya, Zyuganov outlines his geopolitical perspective on Russian national interests. If Zyuganov wins the Russian presidency, these two articles should be required reading for everyone in the U.S. national security milieu. Zyuganov begins with a reference to the "majestic power and spiritual purity" of the "fatherland."[182] This was followed by an outline of his intentions to (1) formulate the concept whereby the "geographical invariants" of Russian national interests provide the methodology for security and stability, (2) formulate an ideological correction procedure to restore the historical continuity of Russian national life as well as the spiritual health and "ensuring the moral immunity of public opinion to relapses into 'foreign mania.'"[183] The concept was later identified as geopolitical analysis.

For Zyuganov, there are two approaches in geopolitical interests: the continental, expansionist approach of continental states and the maritime approach which bases its prosperity on controlling the sea for economic and strategic security. There are as well, reminiscent of Plato's concerns about the respective moral nature of states, opposing moral implications for Zyuganov:

In such a system the coordinate of the notorious "new world order" appears to be nothing other than an attempt to enshrine on a planetary scale the leading role of the "ocean power" United States and its satellites by way of the power imposition on the entire world community of the "liberal market" values of the trading nautical civilization.

No one could have imagined that Rus, ravaged and perishing in the turmoil of princely fratricidal strife, would have taken over the baton from the empire of the Genghis Khanates and at a price of incredible sacrificial efforts have united within it the giant expanses of Eurasia, becoming forever a guarantor and custodian of world geopolitical balance.[184]

The history of Russian expansion also was described as the discovery of natural geopolitical borders, and as a mission of peacekeeping. In other words, Zyuganov remains an excellent propagandist as well as an excellent communist cum Russian Imperialist. Nonetheless, the summary of Great Russian geopolitical intentions can be found in a single statement by Zyuganov:

They consist primarily of gathering on its land, under its own roof, under the protection of a single powerful state, all Russian people, all who consider Russia their motherland, all the peoples that agree to link their historical destiny with it.[184]

The New-Old Regime

It seems indisputable, in assessing strategic culture, autocratic and totalitarian political traditions, and geopolitical reasons described by de Tocqueville, that "if there is a regime change in Moscow, the new government will be built on the foundations laid by both czarist and Soviet rule."[186] Accordingly, if there was to be any near-term prospect of Imperial success, the Russians, with their predilection for military means of influence, "still need to perfect their tools of war."[187] This was echoed by Defense Minister Pavel Grachev:

The political-military situation in the world, Russia's new geopolitical and geostrategic situation and its national interests oblige us to ensure that the state is readily defended. Though the ideological confrontation of two systems, the rigid stand-off of two blocs, and the stereotypes of the Cold War have receded into the past, there is a danger in the world today of regional armed conflicts arising which are capable of sparking off a big war.[188]

The situation still was this: "there is no way that the present Russia can escape a combination of old and new realities."[189] The old realities are "powerful tendencies toward territorial expansion, high levels of military spending, and dictatorial government propped up by military and police power."[190] The new reality can be put simply: Imperial Russia.[191] This was an imperative stated publicly by Defense Minister Grachev: ". . . we must strengthen and qualitatively renew our Armed Forces. . . . it should not be forgotten that the cause of defending the state is the cause of the whole people."[192] And Grachev does not speak just for himself; it was important to note that Grachev was a member of what Moscow News deputy editor-in-chief Alexei K. Pushkov calls the "statist bureaucrats" which include:

. . . the bulk of the state bureaucracy, the military-industrial complex, top army officers, high-level officials in the Ministry of Defense, the Security Ministry, the former KGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. . . .it constitutes the hidden opposition [to reform] inside the state machinery.[193]

Russian Capability

Russian capability resided within the military-political leadership, the pervasive military-industrial complex infrastructure, and, most importantly, the legacy of a professional military, many of whom, as noted in the previous chapter, have written professionally on geopolitical factors in Russian national security. Additionally, in support of the military-industrial complex "Russia maintained 90 percent of Soviet oil, nearly 80 percent of the natural gas, 62 percent of electricity, 70 percent of gold production, and 70 percent of the trained workers for the overall union" – all essential resources for doctrine fulfillment and perpetuation of the linch-pin military-industrial complex.[194] These facts are doubly important, "as Ukraine's experience has amply shown, in that almost all of the newly independent states relied on Russia's oil and gas, as well as other resources and machinery. It was only natural that in this setting Russia acts as the economic nucleus of an emerging community."[195] The real question from the professional Russian military and the political leadership perspectives, was the efficacy of the military and its product, the military-industrial complex, in lifting Imperial Russia from the "ash heap of history" into which the Soviet Union collapsed.[196] This question seems to have been answered early in the Russian post-Soviet struggles:

In August and September, 1993, Boris Yeltsin courted the Armed Forces. He visited the Taman Motorized Division and the Kantemirov Tank Division, the two primary divisions in the Moscow Military District. In the past their major peacetime purpose was to help assure the security of the Communist Party leadership. As an ex-politburo member, Yeltsin was very much aware of this.

Yeltsin spent Thursday, September 16th, 1993, with the well-known Dzerzhinsky Division, also in the Moscow area. This Division was previously under KGB control, but in the reshuffle of the MVD and the KGB, it became the MVD. There were rumors in Moscow that Yeltsin had given this division 3 billion rubles - then the equivalent of about 3 million dollars, presumably for loyalty, or at least neutrality. It was interesting to note that a "Moscow Internal Troops District '' and a "North Caucasus Internal Troops District were formed, the only two of their kind.[197] It also was reported that "Yeltsin met with key members of the Ministry of Defense"[198] shortly before the assault upon the Russian White House, a move reminiscent of Leonid Brezhnev's approach to Ministry of Defense leaders prior to leading the October 1964 coup that ousted CPSU First Secretary Kruschev.[199] While perhaps shocking and indicative of duplicity to Western pundits who believe in the Russian democratic tradition, Yeltsin's actions confirm the political realities in the transition of the Soviet Union into Russia: "the two strongest elements of political continuity would be the professional military and the secret police."[200] "As Yury Afanasev, one of perestroika's ideologues, said about Yeltsin, 'In his several years in power, Yeltsin made a full circle, returning to the community, nomenklatura, and bureaucratic apparatus he grew from . . . Remaining faithful to his strategy, Yeltsin made his choice and he has been drifting more and more to the right.'"[201] Additionally, "in the consciousness of an enormous mass of military men, especially officers, the conviction remains that unified Armed Forces should belong to a single state – Russia – by which was understood not the present Russian Federation but the territory of the former USSR."[202]

It seems logical to conclude that if the professional military was a powerful player in Russian politics (which it still is), then the military-industrial complex must be considered an equally powerful player since it was not only the supportive creation of the military, but the basis for strategic viability. In Russia, "the fact remains that the military-industrial complex has the best production technology, the best equipment and infrastructure, and large material stocks."[203] Russians still rely upon military power for political legitimacy, as evidenced by current Russian commitments to modernization of both conventional and nuclear forces.


Scholar Leon Aron cited the Soviet military command economy as an essentially Russian phenomenon, one predating the Soviet Union by centuries:

For four centuries, the well-being and rights of the Russian citizenry, as well as most of Russia's economic priorities, were defined by, and largely sacrificed to, national security strategy.[204]

"Today's Russians, yesterday's Soviets,"[205] inherited a defense-industrial complex, "the scale of which had no comparison in the West."[206] It was a defense-industrial structure capable of producing for the Russians, just as it did for the Soviets, "the full range of modern weapons systems."[207] And, contrary to Western expectations fostered by alleged Russian economic fragility, Russia not only showed few signs of altering the state-defense-industrial interrelationship, but gave strong indications of maintaining it as "the core and substance of the economy."[208] Vitaly V. Shlykov, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense, summarized the defense economy entrenchment:

Such an economy is unknown in the West, which explains an excessive...optimism of the Western public and especially politicians about the prospects of market reforms and democracy in general in Russia.

The difficulties of dismantling a structurally militarized economy are ignored by the Russian reformers themselves. As a result they have committed several grave mistakes, have wasted precious time, and, most unfortunately, lost some irretrievable opportunities to thoroughly dismantle Russian militarism.[209]

It was noteworthy that Russian foresight[210] placed "85 percent of the [Soviet Union's] military industry and 90 percent of its military R&D facilities . . . in the Slavic republics, percentages that would only increase if efforts are made to transfer the most mobile assets."[211] In addition to industrial production and development capacity, these facilities were replete with the resources to continue the tasks inherited from the Soviet Union, tasks now required by Imperial Russia. As Vitaly Shlykov reported, "from its very beginning the Soviet defense industry was built up in such a way as to be able to function autonomously for long periods of time (months and even years)."[212] Shlykov also remarked that personnel associated with these facilities are not anxious to dismantle the Russian military-industrial complex for free-market forces ideology; "they would like to retain the sense and purpose of their lives."[213] This was a source of paradox and concern; the democratically applied influence of those associated with the defense-industrial complex ensured its continued economic priority.

And influence certainly was within their capability. "The US Central Intelligence Agency estimates that Russia had almost 140 major final assembly plants or production facilities, scattered in about eighty-eight cities."[214] These facilities were staffed by the most articulate and cohesive industrial workers in Russia; it was unlikely that they would allow themselves to be economically and socially disenfranchised without a struggle. This appears to be Shlykov's assessment as well:

But the stiffest resistance I predict comes from the defense-industrial complex, a formidable force of 30-35 million people (with families) organized along military lines and highly resistant to change. Unlike the rest of the population, which had developed over many years a high tolerance to hardships and being lied to by the government, this segment of society was raised in the belief that the government won't lie to them, the most loyal servants of the state. For the last two years the highest representatives of the state were promising them slow defense conversion (over 15-20 years) with huge investments from the government, arms exports, access to Western money and technologies along with future increased defense procurements (and indeed, in 1993 defense procurements increased by 10 percent compared to 1992).

Resistance already is organized within the defense-industrial sector: There has also been a proliferation of independent organizations attempting to represent the interests of the defense industry and its members. The best known is probably the All-Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, headed by Arkadii Volsky, a former department chief in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). [Emphasis added]

Additional lobbies included the League of Defense Industrial Enterprises and the Russian Trade Union of Defense Industrial Workers, which organized more than 600 defense facilities in support of a "national industrial policy" similar to the Soviet Union's, based on "direct state funding."[217] It seems obvious that these organizations were simply thinly veiled, and unreformed, CPSU organizations. Shlykov failed to note that the purpose of their worker lives was providing a totalitarian, militarist state with the means to perpetuate itself and dominate the Heartland.

It is still their purpose.

* * *

Show Notes

* * *

© 2024 HD Bedell.

Published online: 03/25/23.

Written by HD Bedell.

About the author:
HD Bedell has a B.A. in Writing/English from Missouri State University and an M.S. from the Center for Defense and Strategic Studies.He served as a USN Surface Warfare Officer with assignments in engineering and operations before injuries forced his medical discharge. After naval service, he worked as a software documentation editor and writer in defense industries. He later held related academic posts. Currently, he lives in Apollo Beach, Florida.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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