Russia, Georgia and a Reformulation of Classical Geopolitics

August 12, 2008

A century ago, during the founding years of geopolitics as a discipline, one of the primary concerns was the differences between land powers and maritime powers. American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan stressed the importance of naval power, while a British counterpart, Halford MacKinder, thought the advantage would tip to land power in the near future. MacKinder based his ideas on the developing railroad industry, which, he believed, had the capacity to bring a mobility to the Eurasian land mass which would surpass the mobility on the seas that maritime powers had used to dominate world politics for centuries. A one sentence summary of MacKinder’s position was that trains would trump steamships. Over the next century, MacKinder’s fears were proven to be unfounded, as the maritime powers of Great Britain and the United States have continued to dominate global politics ever since.

But, the old MacKinderian calculus is back in an updated form. Today, it is not the ability to transport troops and arms that is of concern, but the ability to transport energy. Located in the heart of the Eurasian land mass is a region dubbed the Strategic Energy Ellipse, a large swath of land stretching from the northern shores of the Caspian Sea to the southern terminus of the Persian Gulf. Within this region are the world’s largest concentration of energy resources – approximately 70% of the global reserves of crude oil and 40% of natural gas deposits. There are two ways to move these reserves out of this region to the industrial nations hungry for them – land based pipelines or maritime shipping. The United States, with its unchallenged naval might, can guarantee maritime deliveries of energy supplies around the globe, and draws important geopolitical support from many nations for doing so. Some commentators like to call America the world’s “Sheriff,” and believe the world support for US policies come from that strength but, in reality, it is only our ability to keep the energy flowing that allows us the often tenuous support that we get.

Now, for the first time, there is an alternative to the US as guarantor. For the landlocked Central Asian states of the former Soviet Empire, the maritime option is not available, and almost every existing pipeline route must traverse Russia. One of the few routes that does not transit Russia is the pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia and into Turkey. A defeated Georgia will make that pipeline Russian dominated as well. Our European allies rely on the energy delivered by these pipelines as much, if not more, than on the energy supplies delivered by tanker. Thus, they are more likely to bend to Russia’s will than to America’s. This is why the Ukraine and Georgia were denied membership in NATO – America wanted it, Russia did not. Russia won.

NATO is the formal structure of the geopolitical idea of Atlanticism – an alliance based on common borders of the Atlantic Ocean. Contra to Atlanticism, Russian geopoliticians have espoused a theory of Eurasianism. With the Russian dominance over Eurasian energy supply, it looks today like Eurasianism is ascendant, and Atlanticism is in decline.



  1. […] I have written numerous times in the past (here, here and here for example), the axis of Central Asia – from the Persian Gulf, north through […]

  2. […] Russia under Putin has been trying to reformulate classical geopolitics for half a decade.  Eurasianism is seen, by the Russians, as a rebuke to Atlanticism (manifested by the US dominated NATO) and as a direct challenge to the Globalization sponsored by the Atlanticist powers.   However, Russia has forever vacillated between its dual Western and Oriental outlooks.  A reformation of the Soviet Union under a looser confederation is not necessarily a geopolitical threat.  However, a sophisticated geopolitics (of which I believe Putin is eminently capable) would use Russia’s “energy weapon” to expand those old Soviet boundaries by drawing European states such as Germany into its orbit, and to forming a political condominium with China.   Such a formulation – combining the vast natural resources of the Eurasian Heartland with the immense populations of East Asia – is the nightmare scenario that has worried Anglo American strategists since MacKinder.   The need for energy already has the potential to drive Europe toward Moscow; a foolish currency war might provide more impetus for China to look that way, as well.   Let’s hope that calmer heads prevail – on the one front, avoiding the conflict with China, while on the other, moving to open up the tremendous North American energy reserves and thus to defuse the Russian energy weapon.   These are two clear policy goals that US leaders should coalesce around soon. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_text", "61636a"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_link", "36769c"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_border", "dddddd"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_url", "399cc6"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "politics"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "atlanticism"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "coalitioning"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "energy-geopolitics"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "energy-policy"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "eurasianism"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "energy-geopolitics"); LD_AddSlot("LD_ROS_300-WEB"); LD_GetBids(); Share this:PrintEmailTwitterFacebookStumbleUponLinkedInDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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