This essay is the first in a series of analyses on the historical, geopolitical, and economic underpinnings of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Part I establishes a parallel between Russia and 19th century Germany’s geopolitical constraints. Part II will focus on the economic ramifications of the Ukraine invasion. Part III will consider potential end points of the crisis. Part IV will examine the psychological aspect of the conflict, including the role fear plays in geopolitics.
The balance of power in Europe has been broken.
One of her major political hubs, recently humbled, is now facing a crisis of identity. After its fall, the remaining great powers have ensured containment through careful treaties and diplomatic ties. For reasons geopolitical, economic, agricultural, and civilizational, it needs to expand, or die.
Geography provides this empire with a chance at security and stability: Just across its borders are its ethnic brothers, a wealth of smaller nations that once comprised its former sphere of influence. Careful annexation and conquest could be justified on this demographic basis, rooting nebulous security concerns in apparent historical fact.
Other major powers do not agree with this assessment. Letting their common adversary rebuild and expand would come at the expense of regional stability by creating a juggernaut in the heart of Europe.
Reconstructed superpower, or sustained balance of power?
This was the German Question, the tumultuous resolution of which marred Europe with war for over two centuries. And now we encounter the same dilemma, but with Russia in the starring role.
Like Prussia in both the 18th and 19th century, Russia’s European borders are neither defensible nor natural, having been determined by the instability of the 20th century’s Eastern front. The Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War created a number of buffer states between the USSR and the rest of the major continental powers for reasons that were completely determined by Balance of Power diplomacy. All of these states had been territories of the Russian Empire at the start of the century, a historical grounding Putin has used to legitimize his claims in Eastern Ukraine and beyond.
Both countries relied on arguments about ethnic unity in order to justify eating their neighbors. While Bismarck’s were comparatively straightforward (though largely historical conveniences in the service of a geopolitical goal), Putin’s assertions in regards to these territories hinge on a number of seemingly self-contradictory statements (that is to say, spurious).
Prussia’s consolidation into the German Empire came at the expense of, most notably, Denmark, Austria and France. Schleswig, Holstein (which ironically had the same flag as Ukraine), and Alsace-Lothringen represented key strategic interests, most notably control of the wealth of the Rhineland and more substantial access to the North Sea. The wars likewise nullified Austria’s influence in German lands and ejected them from the German confederation, a necessary step in creating a unified Prussian-led polity.
Any similar move towards a modern Russian consolidation that would include the territories in Putin’s sights (that is to say, those that are necessary for Russian geopolitical security) would result in the disappearance of the Baltic states, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Romania. The cherry on top, at least from Putin’s perspective, is that it would deal a significant blow to the legitimacy of the EU, NATO, American hegemony, and the greater liberal international order all at once.
The Putin Doctrine
Russia’s role as a destabilizer isn’t a new development. Every move Putin has made since 2008 has been aimed at ensuring geopolitical security for Russia, and neighboring countries have always paid the price for it.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the principal foreign policy objective of Russia was simply survival. Fledgling attempts at economic liberalization and integration were pursued simultaneously by most post-soviet states, resulting in the expansion of NATO into territories that, at other points in Russian history, had been deemed essential, most notably the Baltic states.
The Soviet Union and the Russian Empire provided the example of effective Russian territorial security. This dictated a key set of defensively significant regions: If Russia was to survive it needed to be protected from incursions coming from the Mongolian mountains, northern Siberia and Finland, the Baltic Sea, Europe, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia.
Because those regions were no longer part of Russia, it became necessary to look at integrating them once more.
First there was Georgia, which could be considered a trial run: Russia intervening in a conflict born out of the post-Soviet era, to (cynically/officially) come to the aid of an ethnic minority mostly present in Russia, and seeking independence from Georgia since 1991. Of course, self-determination was only ever a pretext: Russia took unofficial control of South Ossetia, with little to no repercussions.
This in part cemented the idea that Russia’s backyard was strictly its own purview. It wasn’t clear how far that backyard actually extended, since many of the former Soviet satellites wanted nothing to do with their ex-suzerain. In 2014, Russia dissipated any confusion: freedom for post-Soviet states was at best a temporary reprieve, at worst a pipe dream.
Next came Ukraine, which had been engaging in talks with the EU, and was close to establishing formal economic ties with Western Europe. That would not do, so Russia made financial promises to Ukraine that dwarfed what the Europeans were willing to give, coupled with a propaganda campaign against the EU. This led to the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich refusing to sign the EU agreement. However, the plan backfired: the Euromaidan protests that followed became a revolution which deposed Yanukovich and put EU-Ukraine cooperation back on the table.
Soon, pro-Russian protests sprouted in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, and after only months of Russian-backed unrest, Putin’s troops marched on Crimea and annexed the region outright. Add a pinch of pretend interest for self-determination, threaten to use nukes if anyone interferes, and one sham of a referendum later Crimea was no longer a part of Ukraine, its government replaced by Russian stooges. That was for the southern friends of Russia. Taking the east would require applying more force, as evidenced by the Donbas War.
As Eastern Ukraine was set ablaze, Russia came upon an opportunity to build up its capabilities as a global player. With its intervention in the Syrian civil war from 2015 onward, Russia scored a significant victory: Beyond the immediate concerns of strict territorial defense, Putin was now clearly engaging in power projection more globally, and successfully at that. For all the lines drawn in the sand, Russia emerged as a kingmaker, as it stood by the Assad regime and thereby secured strategic access to the Mediterranean sea. The US response to the Syrian War was ineffectual, and propped Russia up as a regional power, securing its position as a geopolitical actor.
Despite this, Russia’s geopolitical insecurity remained a pressing issue, particularly given the distinctly anti-Russian flavor to Ukrainian politics and the legitimacy crisis of Lukashenko in Belarus. There are also structural weaknesses domestically – most notably, demographic decline and persistent health crises – that would serve to curtail any Russian ambitions until addressed. But last summer’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated that President Biden was willing to risk substantial reputational damage and loss of life to abide by the American people’s growing distaste for protracted military engagements. Any shift in America’s willingness to project power was an opportunity for Putin to exploit.
Modernity and Sovereign Rights
There is, of course, one major distinction between the Russian Question and the German one. Germany’s national unification may have come at the expense of nearby powers, but this was in an era during which territorial conquest was still viewed as a legitimate exercise for great powers. Its great sin was irreparably threatening the balance of power between states that were already striving for unilateral supremacy.
Russia, on the other hand, has violated international law. Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his contempt for Wilsonian principles of international relations and unilaterally degraded Europe’s durable peace. While Germany’s formation was threatening, it wasn’t outright illegal. This crucial piece of context should have a corresponding effect on the international community’s response.
This is no longer Bismarck’s Europe. Small powers are no longer the playground of greater ones, but sovereign entities with their own political agencies and deep ties to the international community.
That being said, Russia’s destruction of the status quo creates opportunities for other European players on a diplomatic level. Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson have sought to make political hay, projecting strength by firmly opposing Russia’s expansionism. The general sentiment is surprisingly unanimous: In the words of Bret Stephens of the New York Times, “As goes Ukraine, so […] goes liberal democracy.”
Shane McLorrain and Noé Sainderichin
Image credits: Shane McLorrain, 2022