The foundational division between Western Europe and Eastern Europe is essentially a racial divide between what are largely the Germanic peoples of the West and the Slavic peoples of the East. In turn, the divide between Northern Europe and Southern Europe is between Germanic and Slavic peoples on one hand, as well as the Latin and Greek peoples on the other hand. As the largest Slavic nation, Russia seeks hegemony over Eastern Europe. Traditionally, Poland has acted as the buffer between the West and East. Nevertheless, Slavic ties extend deep into Poland as well, which is why Poland has not fully exited the Russian orbit despite its assertions of independence and neutrality.
Eastern Europe’s strategic importance stems from the “World-Island” and “Heartland” theories of Sir Halford John Mackinder, a 20th century British geographer and academic. These theories can be summed up by the following statement:
“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”
Eastern Europe is thus a platform for imperial expansion throughout Eurasia. The “World-Island” comprises of Afro-Eurasia, which is the largest, most populous, and richest of all land combinations. Both Eastern Europe and Central Asia can be considered as the “Heartland” of this land combination. Eurasia alone consists of half of the world’s land surface. Seeking and establishing control over the “World-Island” is one thing. Sustaining control over the “World-Island” is another issue, which no country in history has yet to accomplish. In part, sustaining an empire requires a balance between assets and income on one hand, and costs and liabilities on the other hand.
After NATO expansion into Eastern Europe in the 1990’s and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States was on course to dominate the “World-Island” and thus the entire world, despite its offshore status. But due to an ill-advised endeavor into Iraq which contributed to the rise of both populism in the United States as well as the sudden rise of Russia and China, the United States is perhaps no longer in the position to corroborate Mackinder’s theories.
For Mackinder, European civilization was “the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion.” Eastern Europe fits into the overarching European experience shaped by the fear of Asian invasions by virtue of its encounters with the Mongols and the Turks through the 13th and 15th centuries. As a result, the European psyche is essentially shaped by the fear of invasions by Asian “horse riders and nomads.” The bifurcation between Europe and Asia within the minds of many Europeans is based on notions of a “Civilized Europe” on one hand, and a “Barbaric Asia” on the other hand. Eventually, industrial and technologically advanced European powers would dominate the nomadic and agrarian peoples of Central Asia in the age of colonialism.
Russia would replace the Mongols and Turks as the most preeminent force in both Central Asia and Eastern Europe, thus setting the foundation for Soviet expansion in the 20th century. How the Russians were able to emerge out of virtual seclusion to create the world’s largest land empire is the result of a combination between the insecurity stemming from Napoleonic and Mongol invasions of Russia, as well as a vision by leaders such as Peter the Great in the 19th century who sought to make Russia into an imperial power along European lines. It is also quite certain that Russia’s decision to pivot from a largely agrarian economy to an industrial economy in the 20th century contributed to its imperial expansion. One of Mackinder’s peers summed up the key dynamic of geopolitical competition by stating: “It will not matter whether [people] are in the center of a continent or on an island; those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and of science will be able to defeat all others.”
By expanding into Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was setting the foundation for the “world-empire” that Mackinder had hypothesized. What kept the Soviet empire together in the latter half of the 20th century was the imposition of a collectivist ideology on satellite states through brute coercion and force. With Gorbachev’s concession in the 1980’s that open and free societies were far more economically and socially vibrant than closed and authoritarian societies, Russia’s empire would shrink to just half of what it was at its peak in the early 1990’s. Russia could no longer aspire to a “world-empire.”
Also, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asian and Eastern European nations would salvage some of their pre-Soviet cultures and heritages and thus undergo somewhat of a cultural and social revival after the Soviet collapse. After the collapse of its empire in the early 1990’s, Russia’s economy and political system was in shambles. At the beginning of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin managed to seize the reins of power from Boris Yeltsin and place Russia on a path towards some sort of national revival, even if it could not reclaim its lost empire.
After its blunders in Iraq, the United States sought a “reset” in relations with Russia in 2009 under the Obama Administration, even though NATO maintained its dominance in Eastern Europe to a large extent. Russia had no choice but to live with NATO at its doorsteps, but there were certain redlines that the Russians sought to impose, namely, Ukraine and Georgia. However, America and Western Europe would continue to push the envelope against the Russians in Eastern Europe, despite the Russian redlines, and in 2014 the West would support the overthrow of a Russian-backed government in Ukraine. In response, Russia would invade and annex Crimea in an attempt to establish a foothold in Eastern Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea would in effect end any semblance of relations between Russia and the West, and as a result Russia was left with no choice but to pivot towards China for economic and political support. The political and social divide between the West on one hand, and the Sino-Russian alliance on the other hand is now self-evident.
Belarus is perhaps another Russian satellite that is on the verge of collapsing. Recently, there have been massive protests against the Russian-backed president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Although Lukashenko has been able to cling onto power, for Belarus to descend into the type of social turmoil that was experienced in Ukraine a few years ago does not bode well for Russia. Russia’s aspirations of re-establishing a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe now stand on shaky grounds.
Today, it is China – with its talk of a Trans-Eurasian “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) – which evokes fears of a “Yellow Peril” coming into Europe in the modern age that might parallel the Mongol, Turkish, and Russian invasions of Europe in the past. Mackinder forewarned that China would perhaps replace Russia as the dominant land power in Eurasia, by stating: “Were the Chinese…to overthrow the Russian Empire and conquer its territory, they might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region.” But before China embarks on its efforts of power projection throughout the Eurasian landmass, it must unify its own territory by reconciling Taiwan with the mainland. The United States has been steadfast in thwarting that possibility. However, it could only be a matter of time before the United States decides that it is time to roll back its efforts of creating a “world-empire,” only to create a scenario whereby three distinct centers of power could arise within the international system, namely, America, Europe, and a Chinese-led Asia. The age of “world-empires” which had preoccupied Mackinder and his colleagues is perhaps over.