The Limits of Geopolitical Thinking

With conflicts in neighbours such as Ukraine and Libya ongoing, new divides in Europe opening up, and the online world now a key space for international politics, analysing the dynamics structuring the global stage is crucial. From Belarus to Brexit, this interview with Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson explores the geopolitical world Europe finds itself in, how different powers think about foreign relations differently, and what this all means for Eastern Europe.

Adam Reichardt: On many occasions you have brought attention to the “multi-unipolar world” doctrine formulated by the late Russian thinker, Vadim Tsymbursky, which – as you argue – is a key to Russian geopolitics and which stands in opposition to the more classic US-led unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Tsymbursky’s view, the multi-unipolarity assumes the existence of regional hegemons who control their neighbourhoods. Tsymbursky died precisely a decade ago and much has happened since. Many events may even indicate that, from the Russian perspective, this doctrine or ideal-type geopolitical system is still alive and well. Do you agree with this statement?

Andrew Wilson: It is always interesting to talk about Tsymbursky. In his time he was a more fashionable Russian intellectual than Aleksandr Dugin (though we often hear more about Dugin). Using the framework of a geopolitical system implies that the active agent here is geopolitics. Certainly Russia thinks in that way. Russia loves the word geopolitics. The European Union, on the other hand, does not think in a geopolitical way. Nor have we jumped from a unipolar order to a new world order – over whatever chasm lies in between. Moreover, if you think about Tsymbursky’s ideal model, it was supposed to be a recipe for stability: with the world divided into however many regions, centred around key poles. Russia would have its region and it would establish order. In this way there would be a balance between Russia’s region and the other regions of the world, assuming that the satellites around Russia’s pole would be perfectly happy with that arrangement. That was always a mistaken vision, certainly not a recipe for stability. But Russia has been pushing in that direction – and it has actually had a more destabilising effect. We do not have a current global equivalent of the 19th century concert of great powers, stably policing the world. We may be in a post unipolar world, but we are in no way in a stable multipolar or multi-unipolar world.

You mention the EU does not think in terms of geopolitics while Russia does. Would you say this is one of the reasons why there is a clash and instability in the post-Soviet space?

It is always a challenge to generalise the EU since it is a body of 28 states. But at its core, it is an empire of rules and regulations. The EU believes in the uniformity of its model – within and beyond its borders. On the whole, Europe offers the export of the Aquis Communitaire, whereas Russia thinks geopolitically. But there are some EU countries which have adjusted towards thinking geopolitically since 2008 or 2014, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Russia loves the word geopolitics. The European Union, on the other hand, does not think in a geopolitical way.

One way of understanding Brexit is that it’s basically a geopolitical fantasy. Even the BBC talks about how Britain is “negotiating with Europe”, but that’s a totally false frame. There is a European architecture, Britain needs to decide where it fits within that architecture and then the EU will try and arrange that. Brexiteers think they can escape that framework via geopolitics, but it doesn’t look very likely that they will succeed. Russia isn’t the only country trying to disrupt the EU with its view of geopolitics.

On the topic of Brexit, and we are having this discussion still before anyone knows for certain what will happen, but if Brexit goes through, what kind of geopolitical effect could it have on the region?

The process could not have been more poorly conducted from the UK’s side, but it also shows that this fantasy of a quasi-imperial revival has not given the UK a strong hand at all when trying to get what it wanted…

Is there any direct implication of Brexit in the post-Soviet space? As someone who is both British and an expert on Eastern Europe, I am curious if you see any connection…

There is no doubt that this is a foreign policy disaster on a grand scale. The old cliché used to be that Britain punched above its weight globally. Post-Brexit we will certainly be punching below our weight. If we look at Eastern Europe, UK foreign policy has really been a part of collective EU policy, which has greater influence as a bloc of 28 states in countries like Ukraine or Moldova. That said, in reality there are around seven or eight EU states which are really interested in Eastern Europe. And that is why the EU is a useful multiplier. The UK might have some role to be a player in Eastern Europe alongside those other seven countries. But Brexit will cause the UK so many problems – such as in trade and economics – that areas like Eastern Europe will sadly become more marginal in British foreign policy. The positive side might be that we could have a little bit more freedom to pick and choose between policies, such as cybersecurity. But in order to remain visible in the region, I think we would have to act in parallel with the Eastern Partnership, and even to carry on funding it, to show that we are still relevant to the region.

One way of understanding Brexit is that it’s basically a geopolitical fantasy.

Another negative side here is that Russian propaganda is already depicting the UK as a spoiler power. And you know how Russian propaganda works, by combining all sorts of conflicting messages. So they push a Brexit in the UK, but in Europe argue that Brexit is a negative process. Britain could be depicted as a spoiler undermining the Eastern Partnership, too. And so Britain will have to cope with that.

As will Europe…

Exactly. In mainstream Europe, Russian propaganda will focus on how Brexit is disruptive, and of course it is. I guess in Eastern Europe the message will be that states like the UK are not interested in Europe anymore.

And which opens up room for other players to step in. In Belarus, for example, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm about the role China can play to be an additional balance to Russia…

Here we can return to Tsymbursky’s geopolitical vision. I think we can say that he was actually quite old-fashioned in one respect, in that he was still thinking in terms of traditional geography – that Russia’s natural sphere of influence would be its immediate neighbourhood. We are really in a world of post-modern geography. China’s role in Eastern Europe is largely determined by its One Belt, One Road policy, which I guess can be seen as an old-fashioned geographical project. But proximity is only one factor which influences politics. So the idea that Belarus can rely on China makes perfect sense in this world of post-modern geography.

There appears to be some anxiety in the regime that a Crimea scenario could unfold in Belarus if it does not succumb to the Kremlin’s demands. Is this realistic in your opinion?

In the context of the One Belt, One Road policy, Belarus is not the final terminus for the project – that is Germany and the rest of Europe. Yet, Belarus has become an important stop along the way. If you go to Minsk you can see Mandarin at the airport. There is a big Chinese-Belarusian business park nearby. So clearly, countries like Belarus think that China gives them extra options. China does not impose rules and regulations, like the EU. And it doesn’t make an offer that you can’t refuse, like Russia. But it isn’t a free ride. China is interested in good deals for Chinese companies. So the relationship between Belarus and China has not blossomed as much as Alyaksandr Lukashenka had hoped a few years ago. It certainly increases his options, which he clearly needs at the moment when relations are worsening with Russia, and when Minsk’s attempt to diversify foreign policy in other directions have been semi-successful, but not yet provided a full range of alternatives.

Going back to Tsymbursky again; his vision of a world, with its regions and poles, was very “pole-centric”. He looked at a given region through the prism of the would-be pole and its interests. But that didn’t necessarily mean a stable formula for the relationship between the poles and the satellites. In fact Russia does not behave as a very good pole. It is too demanding of all its clients (or friends). The relationship with Viktor Yanukovych never worked long-term. The relationship with the new Ukrainian president, in a country that has changed considerably since 2014, will not be what Russia would expect at all. And for Lukashenka, the Kremlin is not only demanding the kind of loyalty which he cannot deliver, but in the last five years it has completely redefined what loyalty means.

We are really in a world of post-modern geography. Proximity is only one factor which influences politics.

Balance is a difficult and even misleading word to use to describe the relationship between Russia and Belarus. Lukashenka is not standing in the middle of a metaphorical plank, balancing between Russia and the West. The primary relationship is with Russia. But Belarus needs sovereignty and manoeuvre ability in order to bargain in that relationship. Russia now seems to want to tie Lukashenka down so that he is left with no options. Russia is frustrated with Belarus, while Belarus wants to preserve its room to manoeuvre.

Would the Kremlin consider military means to force Lukashenka to become more subservient?

Primarily I see them using economic force. Belarus has always been dependent on Russian subsidies – this is well known – and the country has been in a low-growth trap for almost a decade. So, Russian leverage to assert pressure economically is a strong tool. And we saw this with the “Medvedev ultimatum” that was issued in December 2018, trying to get Belarus to strengthen the relationship within the framework of the Union State. We will not have a Crimea scenario because we do not have a Crimea. We do not have an enclave like that within Belarus. We do not have any equivalent of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Nor is there an open back door, like in Ukraine after the Kharkiv Agreement in 2010, through which Yanukovych allowed Russian security services to roam all over Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. Yes, the Belarusian KGB has a long relationship with the Russian FSB and there are some weaknesses in security terms. The Orthodox Church has the potential to be a Russian fifth column in Belarus. So there are opportunities to build pressure through more hybrid means. But I would still expect economic pressure to come first, as it is most effective. But that depends if Russia gets what it wants. If Russia doesn’t get what it wants, it may try other means.

I want to come back to this idea you brought up earlier, this idea of post-modern geography. Because when I think of geopolitics, I think we can argue that there is a return to the 19th century where regional powers are trying to establish their spheres and balance with other powers. We can certainly see Russia in this framework, maybe Turkey as well. So what do you mean by this term exactly?

In the 19th century, when you had the Concert of Europe and a plurality of powers, the geopolitical system was thought about in terms of geographic determinants (even if the word geopolitics was only invented around the turn of the century). And, of course, the literal facts of geography are still important for relative power. But in today’s globalising world, I wouldn’t look at international politics in terms of the 19th century. Sure, it helps highlight some behaviour, like Russia’s obsession with sovereignty and its willingness to use hard power. But Russia’s power also depends on technology and the disruptive role it can play to advance its interests.

So you would say that this concept of post-modern geography is related to the fact the information space is a key area of interaction, and where physical location has less meaning?

Indeed. Speed is also a factor.

But if we look at countries like China, and to some extent Russia, we see these countries trying to control their own domestic information space – essentially putting up borders in that sphere…

Yes, but Russia is nowhere near China in that regard. They do not have that kind of infrastructure in place. Certainly, after the 2011 opposition protests in Russia we saw the Kremlin impose restrictions and perfect its use of trolls domestically, which it later employed outside Russia. But that was an alternative way to assert control without shutting down the internet or imposing Chinese levels of control.

Russia’s power also depends on technology and the disruptive role it can play to advance its interests.

Do you think we have learnt any lessons from the disinformation campaigns, especially after the US election? Should we expect some interference during the May European Parliament elections?

Academically there is now a lot of good analysis of social media propaganda and how it works. Academics have been able to get into both the big data and micro levels. The policy response, however, is not necessarily on either of those levels. The policy response is thinking about the way these technologies are mediated through local politics, local media, local cultures, etc. There is also a sense that Russian propaganda works well in some circumstances but not so well in others. In the French presidential elections, for example, there was a robust legal response that was quite effective. The problem in America, on the other hand, was that Russia was able to operate in and exploit areas that it recognised. In the US, you have a sort-of disintermediated polity, particularly on the Republican side: a whole world of “astroturfing”, fake or proxy politics and covert political finance that Russia recognised and found it easy to operate in. Hence, the problem for America is structural. It is not just about social media.

Back in Europe there are some countries which are more robust than others. I think robustness is the response that is needed. I would certainly expect Russian interference in the EU elections. Not just country by country, but strategically trying to undermine the very idea of the elections as a legitimate process. In the European elections Russia will support the hard-left and the hard-right, any disruptive force it can find. But it will also try to spread more doubt about the legitimacy and functionality of democracy in Europe. We will see this in Ukraine this year as well…

This interview was originally published in the New Eastern Europe on 5 March 2019.


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The Limits of Geopolitical Thinking

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