Making Sense of the War in Ukraine
24th March 2022
David Martin Jones
Experts have lined up to comment on the geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine. But what does geopolitics actually mean? And, asks David Martin Jones, what does it mean to Putin?
Geopolitics is often used to describe the self-interested realism that shapes the international political strategies employed by states like China and Russia. In this context, geopolitics nods to a desire to revise the liberal international rules based order that evolved since the end of the Cold War. It becomes a synonym for having scant regard for international law.
But this use of geopolitics can cover up a failure to understand the evolution of the self-interested international realism employed by China and Russia and what such strategies imply for the contemporary conduct of the revisionist powers on the Eurasian landmass.
A brief history of geopolitics
It was Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish conservative geographer and political scientist, who first coined the term geopolitics. In his Lectures on Swedish Geography (1900) he applied geopolitics to the problems and conditions within a state that arise from its geographic features and their impact upon how modern states flourish and then decay. After 1914 and the collapse of the balance of power that had maintained the world order that dominated much of the nineteenth century, Kjellens’ idea of the ‘state as a life-form’, (Staten Sum Lifs Form, 1916) powerfully influenced inter-war German thinking. In particular, the German general Karl Haushofer maintained that a lack of geographical knowledge accounted for Germany’s defeat in World War 1. Haushofer developed the concept of lebensraum and his journal Zeitschrift für Geopolitik influenced the Reich’s strategic thinking. At the Nuremberg Trials, Sidney Alderman described Haushofer as ‘Hitler’s intellectual Godfather’ (1).
But ideas on the importance of geography to international politics did not flourish just in Nazi Germany. In conservative and realist circles across Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century, geopolitics offered an alternative to the balance of power thinking that broke down so catastrophically in 1914. After 1918, when Europe ‘ceased to be the centre of the world’, and instead became ‘merely the European question’, a new generation of realist thinkers conceived world politics in geographical terms (2).
It was, in fact, the English political geographer Halford Mackinder’s 1904 essay on ‘the geographical pivot of history’ that particularly influenced strategic thinking from 1918-45. Although the understanding that geography and climate affect political organisation had occurred to Aristotle, and later to Machiavelli and Montesquieu, this view assumed increasing relevance in terms of the impact of new industrial technologies, modes of communication and military organization during the nineteenth-century. Mackinder argued that a ‘heartland power’ could come to dominate Euro-Asia, the name he gave for the ‘world continent’ that stretched from Amsterdam to Shanghai. Mackinder speculated that the replacement of the balance of power in Europe, would ‘favour’ a ‘pivot state’ whose expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, from the Baltics to Mongolia, would ‘permit the use of vast continental resources’ and ‘the empire of the world would then be in sight’ (3).
A world island
Mackinder further observed that Russia held the ‘central strategical position’ on the world continent, although he also considered Germany and even China well placed for global dominance. As he subsequently wrote in his prescient work Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919 ), ‘the heartland is as real a physical fact as the world island’ (4). Moreover, ‘whoever rules East Europe, commands the heartland, who commands the heartland commands the world island, who rules the world island rules the world’ (4).
In 1894, the US naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan emphasised the importance of sea power in shaping global politics, an argument that seemed to fit global developments since the seventeenth-century and the rise of the British empire in the nineteenth-century (5). Mackinder likewise assumed that sea power would continue to play the dominant role in world politics. However, his geopolitical thinking implied that land power could ultimately trump sea power, the foundation of the British empire in the nineteenth-century and United States’ hegemony in the twentieth.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Haushofer and the Reich jurist Carl Schmitt maintained that war and technological change announced a new era of world politics dominated by territorial units of increased size. Haushofer termed this evolution lebensraum; for Schmitt it meant the Grossraum or the great space. In this process of transformation weaker states would disappear and, in their place, larger pan-regions or ‘extended spaces’ (Grossraum) would arrange themselves as friends or enemies. Haushofer posited four world regions: pan-Europe (which included Africa) dominated by Germany; pan-Asia dominated by Japan; pan-America; and pan-Russia directed by the Soviet Union. Control of the Berlin-Moscow, Berlin-Tehran and Berlin-Tokyo geographic axes would determine German dominance of the world continent.
Schmitt additionally maintained there would be a new understanding of world order that reflected ‘the highest, unchangeable and concrete qualities of order’ that reflected the ethnic homogeneity or shared values that inform the institutions of these enlarged spaces and guarantee the status quo between different Grossraum. This new nomos, as Schmitt termed it, would replace what he saw as the problem of the unstable international law or rules based order that the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations bequeathed.
The age of liberal international law
This twentieth century liberal order had overturned the nineteenth century nomos of European order, the Jus Europaeum Publicum (European Public Law), the inter-state system that had determined the global balance of power between 1815 -1914 and ended with its collapse in 1918. It was superseded by liberal international law that lacked any spatial reference. The pursuit of liberal international law replaced the more concrete order of European public law, or volkerrecht. This meant that only a shadow of the old European order remained in the international legal regimes after 1918. The Versailles treaty had dethroned Europe and international law distorted the nineteenth-century understanding of European public law that had evolved with the Westphalian system of European state sovereignty after the collapse of the Respublica Christiana in the sixteenth-century.
After 1918, the Wilsonian universalist view of international law sought to subjugate all inter-state or revolutionary conflict to abstract liberal norms, assessed according to criteria of justness and adjudicated by international courts. Schmitt considered this normative universalism to be unstable and illegitimate. Both the League of Nations and the ‘Europe’ that emerged after Versailles were new and ambiguous formations that ultimately benefited a liberal imperialism. The new universalism implied a world order subject to a liberal code ultimately enforced by the US, itself a continent-wide extended space. Ultimately, the US Grossraum, that sat outside the world continent, asserted its view of liberalism as a form of world governance.
Meanwhile, the British empire, the superpower of the 19th century, was ill-suited to the heartland based environment of Eurasian politics that contested the liberal Versailles regime in the 1930s and would, as Haushofer foresaw, disintegrate. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the US and Russia emerged as the two geopolitical units best situated by size and location to define the post 1945 era.
Geopoliticians vigorously disagreed, however, about the character, number, and location of the entities that would prove most viable. In this context, the American geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman contended that it was, in fact, the rimland region of the world island, which stretches in a crescent from Europe to East Asia, which had the geopolitical potential to unite in the hands of one state. Contra Haushofer and Mackinder, Spykman considered that the country that controlled the rimland, controlled Eurasia and would control the destiny of the world or would at least be able to contain the heartland.
The popularity of geopolitical theory declined after World War II because of its association with Nazi aggression. Nevertheless, geopolitics continued to influence US Cold War thinking. George Kennan’s promotion of the doctrine of containment and deterrence reflected the influence of Spykman’s Geography of the Peace (1944). It served as the US template to limit the expansion of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Back to the future: The return of the heartland after 1990
Despite the decline of geopolitical theorising in the 1950s, Schmitt continued to adumbrate his criticism of the unstable secular, liberal project of world governance. In Nomos Der Erde (1960) Schmitt argued that the development of the new world order after 1945 continued to confront its antithesis, namely distinct and separate extended land spaces like the Soviet Union and China. Moreover, while liberal universalism suited what Schmitt termed the maritime based ‘thalassocratic’ powers, firstly the United Kingdom and, after 1945, the US, this liberal order was inimical to land based or telluric power. Summating his thinking in his panoptic overview of geopolitics, Schmitt showed, at least to his own satisfaction, that an international order reflecting maritime power could never suit land based great spaces or ‘tellurocracies’ physically grounded in the world island. The telluric state retained a more intimate connection with blut und boden (blood and earth) in a way that thalassocrat liberal internationalism could not.
Schmitt further argued that, reflecting its maritime character, liberal universalism was inherently unstable. It licensed transnational bureaucrats to reduce international affairs to regulations and procedures that gave international law courts a central role in the creation and maintenance of a normative regime antithetical to the particular concrete order of a telluric world island Grossraum. Tellurocracy thus offered a concrete order opposed to universalist liberal rules. In the Law of the Sea (1942) Schmitt presented this conflict in Manichean and Old Testament terms as an irreconcilable conflict between the land based Behemoth and the maritime Leviathan.
This myth, Heinrich Meier argues, reflected Schmitt’s thinking on the ‘fundamental jurisdiction of political theology’ in international and domestic politics. It is from his eschatological view of history that Schmitt developed the idea of the katechon. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, St Paul wrote that a katechon would be necessary to ‘restrain’ the ‘lawless one’, namely the Antichrist, during the last days prior to Christ’s Second Coming when the eschaton would be immanentized. Schmitt’s pluralistic ideal of multiple Grossraum, therefore, was not only geopolitical but also apocalyptic. He believed that multipolarity was necessary to restrain the more destructive features of liberal universalism through the mutual recognition of friends and enemies against the Antichrist of world unity.
From Schmitt’s political theological perspective, the malady that beset Europe after 1918 was the disintegration of western faith in both Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism that had made possible the only sustainable nomos of the earth, the Jus Europaeum Publicum of the nineteenth-century. No longer the centre of world politics, Western Europe had also lost its geopolitical grounding. As a consequence of the ubiquitous liberal critique of the European Age of Discovery, ‘everything European is on the defensive’ and so also was western civilization.
Europe as a peninsula of greater Eurasia
Apocalypse and Europe’s inexorable decline notwithstanding, it was the US rimland version of geopolitical strategy that ultimately triumphed during the Cold War. George Kennan’s policy of ‘firm and vigilant containment’ eventually brought about the internal collapse of the Soviet totalitarian model over the course of the 1990s. The Russian Commonwealth of Independent States that replaced it after 1993 was a profoundly unstable affair. The loss of former Russian territories like Georgia and the Ukraine with their predominantly Slavic populations provoked a sense of growing unease about western liberal designs on the Russian Commonwealth. Significantly, George Kennan the architect of the containment doctrine warned against the West’s eastward expansion. NATO and EU expansion would, Keenan wrote, ‘inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion’ and have an ‘adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy’ ultimately impelling ‘Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking’.
This is indeed what happened. Wounded pride, a sense of grievance and resentment toward US backed liberal democratic universalism, shaped the emergence of a new irredentist, pan Russian nationalism. Vladimir Putin’s Presidency and the United Russia party that legitimates his authority cemented national revival at the core of domestic and foreign policy at the millennium. Geopolitical considerations became central to Russian strategic thinking as its wealth and internal resilience recovered under Putin’s autocratic guidance in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Whilst the European Union dismissed geopolitics after the Cold War, it now happened on its doorstep with the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014. What then is the geopolitical vision animating Putinism?
It is, not surprisingly, a potent and promiscuous mixture of Schmitt, Haushofer and Mackinder’s analysis of the political geography of the world island that currently informs both Putin’s vision of a Russian led enlarged space of Eurasia and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) thinking on global domination of the world island. Schmitt is widely read in Chinese policy circles.
Putin’s geopolitical brain
In Moscow however, it is Alexander Dugin, Russia’s most influential exponent and interpreter of Schmitt, who has, in a number of books and essays, adapted Schmitt’s conservative, geopolitical eschatology to the current dilemmas of Eastern Europe. Dugin’s adaptation of Schmitt to post-Soviet Russia has given intellectual and strategic depth to Putin and his core advisers’ thinking on rectifying the trauma left by the dismemberment of the Soviet Union between 1990-1996. Since 1997, Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics has been a prescribed text at the Russian Military Academy. What, we might then wonder, is Dugin’s understanding of multipolarity, and ‘the last war of the world island’?
Dugin is a Russian ultranationalist philosopher and mystic. His writings on philosophy and geopolitics contemplate the unification of all Russian speaking peoples within a single enlarged space, by force if necessary. He considers the revival of a Eurasian heartland to offer the concrete basis for building a new Russian Tsardom. To achieve this, he argues, Russia must ‘defeat the maritime world exemplified by the United States’.
Dugin’s most widely known work, The Fourth Political Theory (2012) offers a ‘conservative revolutionary’ ideology for a post-liberal age. His new political theory transcends the failed dogmas of communism, liberalism, and, somewhat less certainly, fascism, and offers instead an ethnically based, Neo-Eurasian, alternative.
Neo-Eurasianism may be characterised as the latest non-liberal response to the inevitable conflict Schmitt first identified between tellurocracies (land powers) and thalassocracies (sea powers) the nomos of the earth. In Dugin’s version, Russia replaces Germany as the Reich (Empire) and Eurasia is its Grossraum, acting as the pivotal hegemon within an enlarged territorial space. The Russian imperial duty is both to promulgate the ‘political idea’ necessary to unify the Grossraum and decide upon its external relations with other Grossraum.
Dugin considers the great spaces on the world continent as ‘a unification’ between themselves as geographical units and ‘the narodni’ (people or ethnos), an imperial condition ‘built on historical kinship’ and a ‘common fate’. Indeed, for Dugin, the political ideal of a Great Space is the homogeneity of its narod. Thus Neo-Eurasianism promotes a positive attitude toward the native population. By contrast ‘liberalism…is entirely incompatible’ with nativism and ethnocentrism.
Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory thus revives a German nationalist rhetoric of Blut und Boden in a Eurasian guise. It maintains that the sea based or maritime order that emerged with the British and US empires is inherently unstable because it lacks the geographical fixity necessary for a healthy civilization’s ‘ethnic sphere’. Geographical determinism means that civilizations rooted in the structural fixity of land ‘generate conservatism’, whereas those founded on the sea generate instability, hostility and isolation as they are ‘constantly subject to change’.
Dugin’s Eurasianism, as opposed to the ‘westernism’ that oversaw the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, is reflected in his book The Last War of the World Island (2015) as ‘the constants of Russian history’. After 2011, Dugin welcomed the fact that Putin spoke increasingly of the need for a Eurasian union founded on a pan-Slavic ethnos. He considered Putin to have effectively embraced the Eurasian model, ‘a new supranational organization built on civilizational commonality’ (8).
A revived Eurasia would, moreover, form a pole in a multipolar world order that Dugin, following Schmitt, argues would contest the unipolar liberal order that America and its allies seek to impose globally. The unipolar order seeks legally to transform itself into a universal world government through the ‘depoliticisation’ and ‘de-sovereignisation’ of nation states.
By contrast, multipolarity and Eurasianism would offer a ‘model of the world based on the paradigm of unique civilizations and Great Spaces.’ Consequently, Dugin argued that if Putin secures Russia’s sovereignty and instantiates a successful policy for building a multipolar world, re-establishing Russia’s strategic role in the global context, ‘we can state that Russia has not yet passed the point of no return’. Dugin concludes his account of the last war of the world island with the observation that the geopolitical cycle Putin began in 1999 remains unfinished. The historical fate of the government and ‘the civilization of …the heartland Russia-Eurasia remains open’ (8).
The interchangeable use of multipolarity and Eurasianism reflects the important role that Schmitt’s concept of the katechon also plays in Dugin’s, and by extension, in Putin’s geopolitical thought and its eschatological justification for the invasion of Ukraine. Dugin’s 1997 article, ‘Katechon and Revolution’ first introduced Schmitt’s notion to a Russian audience. Given that it evoked a long-standing tradition of invoking the katechon in Russian Orthodox theology, it received a receptive audience.
Dugin’s Neo-Eurasian dream thus revives Russia’s divine purpose in world history, combined with the historic spatial understanding of Russia as Grossraum, unified by the Russian Orthodox faith. The main Neo-Eurasian government backed think-tank is aptly named Katechon and subtitled ‘Geopolitics and Tradition’. Its mission is to ‘defend the principle of a multipolar world’ with distinct ‘civilizational spheres’, and it frequently features articles by Dugin himself. Significantly Dugin concludes his Last War with a quote from Curzio Malaparte: ‘nothing is lost until all is lost.’ His suggestion is that there remains the capacity to create this great continental Eurasian future for Russia ‘with our own hands.’ (8)
Putin’s conversion to Neo-Eurasianism enables him to depict Russia, in the world-historical role of katechon, confronting the unipolar American Empire – the Antichrist. Yet as with the Third Reich in 1942, the Russian attempt to establish its civilizational great space has foundered disastrously in the borderland of Central Europe that is Ukraine.
It is crucial that western diplomacy and military support for Ukraine takes into account this millenarian background to the Russian invasion. At some point the west will have to decide how best to confront a nuclear armed power informed by a messianic determination to fight the world island’s last war.
(1) Herwig Holger, H. (1993) ‘Geopolitik: Haushofer, Hitler and Lebensraum’, in Journal of Strategic Studies. 22 (2-3).
(2) Taylor, A.J.P. (1954) The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918. Clarendon Press.
(3) Mackinder, H. J. (1904) ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, in The Geographical Journal 23 (4).
(4) Mackinder, H. J. (1962) Democratic Ideals and Reality. Greenwood Press.
(5) Mahan, A. T. (1894) The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783. Little Brown.
(6) Schmitt, C. (1942) Land and Sea. Telos Press.
(7) Dugin, A. (2012) The Fourth Political Theory. Arktos.
(8) Dugin, A. (2015) The last War of the World Island. Arktos.
Map shows the boundary of Ukraine claimed by the Ukrainian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 in comparison with the modern Ukraine boundary.
David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College, London. His latest book is Terror in the Western Mind: Cultural Responses to 9/11, co-authored with M.L.R. Smith and published by Academica Press.