By Andrew N. Liffring
Since Vladimir Putin’s ascension to the Russian presidency, the country has promoted nationalism in an effort to achieve its foreign policy objectives. There is fear throughout the international community that Russia’s reluctance to abide by established international protocols could further destabilize the Middle East and expand current conflicts to new frontiers in Asia and Europe. Although developed over 100 years ago, Halford Mackinder’s theory of “The Geographical Pivot of History” could be useful in explaining the rise of Russian nationalism. Mackinder’s emphasis on geography, land power, and the importance of controlling the Heartland could help us predict Russia’s future ambitions.
“Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls,” Halford Mackinder wrote when he laid out his theories of geopolitics in 1904. He went on to explain that the geographical differences of the world have forced humans to adapt differently to survive. The friction we see today between Russia and the West is fundamentally based on cultural differences developed because of geography.
Mackinder theorized that the harsh environments of the oceans, the Himalayas, the Arctic, and the Sahara don’t just define where cultures develop. These world borders also — like the chess board — divide the world into playing areas. Mackinder described these playing areas as the Heartland, Inner Crescent, and Outer Crescent.
The Heartland represents Central Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe. People from the Heartland depended on their herds and horses to feed and defend their families. These cultures developed differently than the cultures near the sea. The cultures developed in Northern Europe, North America, and East Asia characterize the Outer Crescent. These cultures developed with access to the sea and depended on navigation and trade to prosper. The places in between, such as Eastern Europe, Western China, and the Middle East are the collision zone for the cultures of the Heartland and Outer Crescent and symbolized the Inner Crescent.
World geography has not changed nor has there been any major discovery that would alter Mackinder’s perception of the Heartland’s importance. As Mackinder pointed out over 100 years ago: “In Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia, there is scarcely a region left for the pegging out of a claim of ownership, unless as the result of war between civilized or half-civilized powers.” Satellites have only confirmed the geography Mackinder described.
The struggle continues between cultures developed in the Heartland and cultures developed in the Outer Crescent. At the conclusion of the Second World War, a balance of power existed between the countries of the Heartland and those of the Outer Crescent. The Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe and the Heartland from 1945 to 1989 offsetting the power of the Outer Crescent countries organized around the United States. We lived in a bipolar world where the Soviet Union had great influence throughout the world.
By the late 1980s the pendulum of power swung in favor of the Outer Crescent, resulting in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992. Russia lost her influence and her control over Eastern Europe with the signing of the Belavezha Accords in 1992. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Russia decreased by 62% from 506 billion USD in 1989 to 195 billion USD by 1998, and NATO expanded to include 12 additional countries in Eastern Europe, further hampering Russia’s global influence.
Russia’s actions today indicate the pendulum is shifting back in favor of the Heartland’s control over the Inner Crescent. Russia’s use of energy as a political weapon, its unlawful annexation of Crimea, and its excursions into Syria all indicate Russia’s intention to control the Inner Crescent once again.
Mackinder surmised in 1904 that technological changes such as railroads would make Heartland countries stronger than the sea faring countries of the Outer Crescent. Today we see the same phenomenon happening in the natural gas industry with pipelines replacing the railroads that Mackinder referenced in the early 1900s.
Pipelines move hydrocarbons such as oil and natural gas more efficiently than super tankers. Natural gas is transported through pipelines as Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) or in ships in the liquid form called Liquid Natural Gas (LNG). According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy dated June 2015, Europe imported 361.9 billion cubic meters of CNG in 2015 versus 52.1 billion cubic meters of LNG in 2014. Making the assumption that price is the only discriminatory factor that natural gas customers use, we see Europeans choosing the lower cost CNG over LNG, thus increasing the influence pipelines have over the seas in international affairs.
In 2008, 80 percent of Europe’s natural gas imports were in the form of CNG, with Russia providing 37.6 percent, Norway providing 28.4 percent, and Algeria providing 14.7 percent. The pipeline network in Europe is dominated by Russia, thus changing the balance of power in favor of the Heartland and Russia.
Russia’s dominance over Europe’s natural gas market shows the advantages that land power has over sea power as well as Russia’s willingness to use natural gas as a political tool in their international relations. When Russia stopped the flow of natural gas in pipelines passing through the Ukraine in January 2009, Eastern Europe was crippled. Bulgaria, which imports almost all of its natural gas from Russian pipelines, was particularly impacted. Numerous manufacturing plants were forced to close and families were left without a means to cook or heat their homes. “The impacts on the Bulgarian economy are catastrophic,” the Bulgarian Economy and Energy Minister, Petar Dimitrov, said at the time. “The impact very much resembles that of a terrorist attack.”
Mackinder’s final point on the importance of controlling the Heartland may give us insight into future Russian objectives in Europe. In his essay “Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction,” Mackinder proposed that “who rules East Europe commands the Heartland, who controls the Heartland controls the World-Island, and who controls the world island controls the world.”
Boris Yeltzin’s Russian government lost control of the Heartland with the dissolution of the USSR. Overnight 25 million Russians found themselves living abroad in countries such as Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, and these former Soviet states were increasingly turning toward the West. Russian influence around the world was at an all-time low. In 1999, Russia was unable to gather the support in the UN Security Council to prevent NATO’s military intervention against Serbia in Kosovo. Additionally, they could not prevent a Chechen invasion of Dagestan at home. From 1989 to 1999, the Russian economy shrank by almost 50 percent, causing massive unemployment, hyperinflation, and out of control violence. Over one million Russians migrated to places like the Netherlands, Cambodia, South Korea, and the United States to find a better life. This massive migration of native Russians expanded the Russian nation geographically. The borders of the Russian state remained intact creating a condition where the state of Russia was not synonymous with the Russian nation.
Recent events have shown that the rise in Russian nationalism is the means that Russia has chosen to regain control of the Heartland and her influence over the Inner Crescent. Vladimir Putin is influencing Russian populations outside of Russia by reminding them what it means to be Russian. He then persists with overwhelming military and economic power to support his claims. Putin is manipulating sovereign states like Ukraine and Georgia by using such means on their ethnic Russian populations to regain control of the Inner Crescent and assure Russian hegemony in the Heartland.
Other scholars might not agree that Mackinder’s theory of “The Geographical Pivot of History” adequately explains Putin’s recent activities in Eastern Europe. They may propose that Clausewitz’s theories on war would be a better model to understand Russian nationalism. Unfortunately, Clausewitz’s model does not adequately describe the economic and social intricacies of the problem. Clausewitz fails to account for the geographic significance of natural gas pipelines which originates in Russia and falls short of understanding the impact of the massive Russian migration in the early 1990s. Mackinder’s model does both and allows us to see the problem holistically.
Since the late 19th century, scholars have been developing theories to explain the relation of geopolitics and the geography of Earth. In 1904 Halford Mackinder published his first essay entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History” to explain how the balance of power was maintained in Europe between Outer Crescent countries of the West and the Heartland economies in Central Asia. He further suggested that those countries in the Heartland were inherently more powerful due to advancement of technology. In a later work, “Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction” published in 1919, Mackinder furthered his ideas and detailed the importance of controlling the Heartland to establishing the international order. Mackinder’s ideas are still as true today as they were in the early 20th century and can help us understand Russian foreign policy goals and objectives.
Andrew N. Liffring is an Army engineer officer, he currently serves as the senior engineer on the 8th Army staff at Camp Humphreys, South Korea. Liffring is a Professional Engineer, registered in Kansas. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the Colorado School of Mines and a master’s in business management from Norwich University. His previous assignments include battalion command, brigade engineer, observer/controller, company command, company executive officer, and platoon leader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.