February 10, 2023

The Geostrategic Value of Ukraine


An excerpt from, "Russian Geopolitical Thinking and the Ukrainian Crisis: Neo-Imperialist Aspirations or Merely a Survival Strategy?" By Carles Jovaní Gil, from the book 'Pulling Together or Pulling Apart? Perspectives on Nationhood, Identity, and Belonging in Europe' edited by Susana Bayó Belenguer and Nicola Brady, 2019 (Source):

In Russian nationalist imagery, Ukraine is known as ‘Little Russia’ and represents the cultural and ancestral heart of an ancient Slavic culture. Indeed, the ethnic group that founded the Duchy of Moscow and the Russian Empire traces its origins to a political community founded in the Kievan Rus. Leaving aside the question of identity, the geostrategic value of Ukraine was highlighted by Halford Mackinder (1919: 194) when he included the country in the western foothills of his Heartland. After the Soviet disintegration, the American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski (1997: 41) described Ukraine as a ‘geopolitical pivot’, that is, one of those states ‘whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behaviour of geostrategic players’. For his part, Wilson (2000: 292) has certified the pre-eminence of Ukraine on the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, as its choice between integration in Europe or a rapprochement towards Russia could be crucial for the continental balance of power.

An excerpt from, "Geopolitics of Ukraine" Pierre Verluise, Diploweb.com, August 19, 2014:

An interview with Philippe de Suremain, French Ambassador in Ukraine from 2002 to 2005.

Zooming out a little, what is Ukraine’s place in Europe?

Look at a map and you realize Ukraine’s geostrategic importance. In the heart of the continent, it is bigger than France and almost as heavily populated, with significant natural and human resources, and is of major importance for all Europeans, neighbors or otherwise.

As early as 1991 the Lithuanian statesman Algirdas Brazauskas said this to me : “We must monitor the development of Ukraine closely, because the balance of Europe depends on it”. In France we would do well to wake up to a reality that is of course obvious to the Russians, to the Poles, who make it a foreign policy priority, and also to the Germans, who have for long been players in the region.

One of the handicaps facing Ukraine is the provincialism that was foisted on the country by Tsarist and subsequently Soviet centralism, a paradox considering that this territory lay in the outer reaches of Empire, and was destined to become a vital crossroads on the Black Sea. Its complex history has bequeathed a great diversity that sets it apart from its neighbors and is central to its very identity. A sense of regional belonging precedes that of a national feeling that is nonetheless acknowledged by the majority, but in very personal ways. This is illustrated by surveys of public opinion. The result is an identity that defines itself by default : “Ukraine is not Russia”, said former President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004), despite apparently being a Moscow ally. Nor is it Poland, despite obvious mutual affinities. The relations that Ukraine continues to entertain with both countries still often remain fraught. A family affair that each depicts in their own fashion but that concerns us too.

What is Ukraine’s stance with respect to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

At the onset of the Orange Revolution, President Yushchenko made NATO his priority, seeing it, like the Soviet satellites of yore, or today’s Baltic States, as the necessary gateway to the European Union. Maybe we could have been more accommodating. The mistake on his part was, however, to maintain the confusion. Ukrainian public opinion, unlike that of its Central European neighbors, still has a negative image of NATO, perhaps a legacy of the Cold War, also because it sees it as an instrument of the USA. The latter is scarcely popular, and the operation in Iraq, like the pressure exerted by President George W. Bush on Ukraine to become involved, did nothing to improve this perception.

If NATO had renamed itself in 1991, Ukrainians would perhaps have seen it in a better light. Whatever the case, there are enough ongoing disputes with the Russians to avoid pouring oil on the fire, especially given that Paris and Berlin have a cool view of this chapter.

This does not prevent Ukraine from cooperating with NATO. However, the state of its army, with professionalization on hold for want of means, is at best a source of concern.

Is Ukraine still an issue for the USA?

Ukraine was for long the third beneficiary of American aid, far behind Israel and Egypt, but various factors make it a key pawn on the European chessboard : a big Ukrainian diaspora in the USA, the complex relations between Washington and Moscow, and the country’s resources. Ukraine’s “strategic income” may have been devalued but it has not evaporated.

Can agriculture become an asset for Ukraine?

Ukraine, Europe’s bread basket before World War I, can become an agricultural superpower once it has overcome the challenges it has been facing since independence. Given the outstanding quality of its black soil, it will be capable of doubling its cereal yield within a relatively short timeframe, with agriculture being the number one component of its GDP.

An excerpt from, "Ukraine And The Shifting Geopolitics Of The Heartland – Analysis" By Alexander Brotman, Geopolitical Monitor, September 20, 2022:

The geographer and founder of modern geopolitics Halford Mackinder famously posited in his Heartland Theorythat whoever ‘rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.’ Since Mackinder’s article was published in 1904, Eastern Europe has largely fallen under a Western orientation, with the notable exception of Belarus as a Eurasian-leaning Russian appendage, and Ukraine and Moldova progressing towards the West but still existing in a state of geopolitical limbo. Ukraine’s security guarantees are more iron-clad than Moldova’s, which remains at risk of Russian provocations in Transnistria, combined with steady support for the pro-Kremlin aligned Socialist Party of former President Igor Dodon.

In addition, over a hundred years after the publication of Mackinder’s book Democratic Ideals and Reality, the conflict between Germany and Russia, and thus Central Europe and Russia, has become more managed to the benefit of both nations, but arguably to the hindrance of heartland nations like Ukraine. Germany still faces a ‘Russia problem’ in the words of John Lough, which favours continental security over antagonism with Moscow, and places significant emphasis on the role Russia has played in defining Germany’s role within Europe. Six months on, the real ‘Zeitenwende’, or turning point as announced by Chancellor Scholz, is occurring in the heartland much closer to the recently recaptured city of Izium than it is in the corridors of power in Berlin. Germany still has major targets to meet as it engages in a dramatic overhaul of its security and defence policy, and successes by Ukraine in its counteroffensive may finally force Berlin to act.

The conflict in Ukraine has also revealed the perennial significance of Eurasia to the ambitions of rival powers. Jeffrey Mankoff in his book Empires of Eurasia argues that Post-Cold War Eurasia is a continent ‘less of states than of regions,’ where ‘large, powerful polities’ and outside powers like the EU and US battle for influence over the smaller states that rest between them. This heartland is a renewed great game of conquest, with the sovereignty of states existing on a ‘limited and conditional’ level according to Mankoff, as witnessed in Putin’s conception of Ukraine. Well over a century ago, the historian Henry Adams’ assessment that the core problem of Europe was Russia still rings true, and efforts to firmly shape Russia’s strategic destiny as either Euro-Atlantic or Eurasian have failed to materialise. Putin has shown a much greater interest in reintegrating the imperial borderlands of Europe from the old Kyivan Rus that have long formed the heart of Russian culture and identity rather than merging the Central Asian states to counterbalance the EU.

The Eurasian Economic Union, often seen as Putin’s response to the EU, is more of a practical economic arrangement amongst long-allied states rather than an ideological mainstay or legacy-shaping project for the Kremlin. The most critical change from Mackinder’s day is the role of China in Eurasia, with Russia playing the role of junior partner on almost all matters of importance, led from Beijing despite being engaged in a relationship with ‘no limits.’ Similarly, Russia’s role as a security guarantor in the Caucasus, a pivotal region at the crossroads of many former empires, is also being tested because of its actions in Ukraine. The ability of Russia to use its leading role in collective security organisations across its sphere of influence like the CSTO is waning, causing other powers from China to Turkey and the US to make inroads.

In Eastern Europe, Russia’s influence remains strong from a cultural and identity-driven perspective, but weak in terms of prospects for alliance building and economic development when compared with the EU. This is the case in Serbia, a longstanding ally of Russia with Slavic roots that is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy as it seeks investment from China and also membership in the EU. In Ukraine, despite having many ethnic Russians with longstanding connections to Moscow, broad popular support exists across regions from the Polish border to the Donbas for a European integration and strategic outlook. As such, Ukraine may exist physically in the contested space of the heartland, but it is now ever-closer ideologically, militarily, and strategically with its neighbours in the West. Putin’s war in Ukraine has only accelerated this trend, causing the very threats he imagined over NATO expansion to come to fruition as Sweden and Finland are now set to join the alliance. Thus, the heartland is likely to become not just uncontested but treaty-bound to Western-led institutions that are perceived by Putin to be existential threats to the survival of Russia.