Why Ukraine was particularly vulnerable to Putin’s ambitions
1) MACKINDER AND THE HEARTLAND
Between 1909 and 1943 geographer Halford John Mackinder outlined the Heartland theory which goes like this. You can split the world into three parts: The World-Island (Europe, Asia, and Africa combined), the Offshore Islands (British Isles, Japan, etc) and the Outlying Islands (North America, South America, and Oceania). The World-Island can in turn be split into three: the Heartland (approx the Soviet Union), the Southern Heartland (basically Africa), and the Rimlands (the bits between the two: Europe to China via the Middle East and India)
The Heartland is bounded by seas and mountains. But there are gaps and the task of the Heartland state is to plug them. And the biggest state in the Heartland is Russia…
2) SPYKMAN AND THE RIMLANDS
Then in the 1940’s the American political scientist Nicholas Spykman said that if the Heartland could control the World-Island, then the Rimland could control the Heartland by containing it. This theory underpinned Cold War containment and China’s Belt and Road initiative.
So if you want to control the Heartland, you must control the Rimlands and the border between them. And Ukraine is on it…
3) DUGIN AND NEO-EURASIANISM
The Soviet Union collapsed and needed to replace Communism. Enter Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian academic who resurrected 1920’s Eurasianism and created 1990’s neo-Eurasianism. He maintained that the Heartland constituted an ethnos and should become a nation-state, Eurasia. And Russia loved it.
4) NAZARBAYEV AND PRAGMATIC EURASIANISM
Dugin is a bit crazy. But Nazarbayev is very sane. Nursultan Nazarbayev was the five-term post-Soviet ruler of Kazakhstan. He knew how to take an idea and turn it into institutions. In March 1994 he made a speech in Moscow State University outlining the need for Eurasian institutions, starting with a Customs Union
5) PUTIN AND EMPIRE
Ethnos and institutions are not enough: if you want to build an empire, you need an emperor. Enter Vladimir Putin. Putin has been ruler of Russia since at least 2000, and is very good at using force and bureaucracy. The institutions multiplied: the Eurasian Economic Community, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And he expanded the military, albeit not well.
And he started plugging the gaps…
6) ZAIHAN AND DEMOGRAPHY
Peter Zeihan is a 2010s geopolitical analyst. He’s spotted what Putin’s doing: plugging the gaps. Putin’s been moving from East to West doing little border wars, like Thanos acquiring Infinity Stones, and we didn’t care. But now it’s hit Europe and now we care. Secondly, he’s spotted Russia’s demography: it’s running out of young people. In the 90’s the birth rate collapsed and Putin is running out of soldiers because there aren’t enough young people to conscript. And because he’s skimped on education, he’s run out of smart people to conscript.
Here’s the James Burke bit. Mackinder pointed out the Heartland, Spykman showed how to contain it, Dugin gave it an ethnos, Nazarbayev outlined the institutions, Putin built an empire, and Zeihan did the maths. The war happened in Ukraine because that’s one of the few gaps left, and it’s happening now because Putin is running out of people. If Putin doesn’t win now he never wins, and he’s not finished. He’s still got gaps to plug in the East European Plain: Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, the Baltics. More Infinity Stones to collect. Putin is not going to stop until he’s stopped.