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The return of geopolitical struggle to Europe’s heartland

EPA/Maxim Shipenkov

One of the most venerable metaphors in the study of international relations is the idea that there is a geographical pivot of history. Writing in the early twentieth century, Halford Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the Heartland of Europe – stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze, and from the Himalayas to the Arctic – would ultimately rule the world.

This sort of grandiose geopolitical thinking has rather gone out of fashion, as – thankfully – has the ambition to rule the world. And yet the current struggle over the future of the Ukraine looks remarkably like the sort of contest that characterized the Cold War or even the great power rivalries of the nineteenth century.

But there is currently a good deal more at stake than just the ambitions of major powers to carve out ‘spheres of influence’. On the contrary, it is not too fanciful to argue that what is happening in the Ukraine is part of an enduring struggle between authoritarianism and democracy - the outcome of which is a lot less certain and contested than seemed possible to many only a few years ago.

There can’t be too many revolutions in history that have been triggered by the failure to ratify a trade agreement. Yet the failure to cut a deal with the EU and the tilt toward Russia proved to be a fatal misjudgment on the part of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. In one of the great ironies of the current struggle, many Ukrainians plainly have more faith in the ideals and potential that the European Union represents than most of the EU’s citizens do.

The big geopolitical question is whether this confidence is justified. Can the EU deliver on the promise of economic assistance in the short-term and possible EU membership in the long-term? Given the EU’s recent record it is difficult not to be pessimistic. The EU’s ambitious expansion eastwards is causing increasing domestic unease in the prosperous western core where fears about an influx of impoverished Bulgarians and Romanians are already undermining any notion of regional social solidarity.

And yet for all the skepticism about Europe’s ability to solve its own problems, let alone those of the outsiders, it is worth considering what the EU represents and what the alternative might look like.

The EU itself was a product of the greatest geopolitical cataclysm the world has ever known. We sometimes forget that Europe has blood-soaked history and long-standing enmities of a sort we now associate with East Asia or the Balkans. And yet Western Europe is still generally synonymous with peace, cooperation and prosperity. This is its unparalleled historical achievement and why so many Ukrainians wish to join it.

Vladimir Putin has his own vision of what Eastern Europe’s future might look like and it could hardly be more different. The so-called Eurasian Economic Union is Putin’s brainchild and involves a proposed grouping that includes a number of central Asian states and former satellites of the Soviet Union. Timothy Snyder, writing in the New York Review of Books, argues that:

…any democracy within the Eurasian Union is a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia … which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian.

At this stage it is not clear whether Russia will directly intervene to restore its influence over its former ally, although the announcement of unscheduled war games involving 150,000 troops near Ukraine is clearly designed to send an ominous message. More hopefully it is reported that when Yanukovych asked Putin if he would back him by sending in troops at the height of the crisis, Putin refused.

Yet even if Putin recognises the enormous costs and risks involved in direct intervention and backs off, it is not clear that the EU will be able to ensure Ukraine’s democratic future. When the EU’s resources are currently stretched by still unresolved internal economic problems there may be little appetite or capacity to stump up the estimated €25 billion it will take to stabilise the bankrupt and looted Ukrainian economy. And yet the failure to do so may ensure that Ukraine’s aspiring democrats rejoin the growing ranks of authoritarian regimes.

It is easy to be cynical about the EU’s limited foreign policy capabilities, its bloated bureaucracy and even its self-importance at times, but it remains the greatest example of the beneficial effects international cooperation the world has yet produced. Pacifying and democratising even a part of Europe is an historically unparalleled achievement we forget or diminish at our collective peril. For all its problems the EU remains a beacon of hope for the benighted Ukrainians and their best hope of escaping the authoritarian alternative.

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