Post-Cold War hopes of a new universal order were claims about the end of geography rather than the end of history. If the world as a physical space was becoming integrated by human ingenuity, while the geopolitical risks to transporting goods across the world were eliminated by a new age of peace, how could geology and the territorial location of ports matter?
This liberal conceit distorted the history of Western geopolitical ascendancy, treating the political conditions that facilitated technological innovation as necessarily more important than the distribution of material resources. Ignoring the fact that, compared to western Europe, both North America and Russia boast richer natural resources, it also radically overstated the unity of the West at the moment of supposed liberal triumph.
This misunderstanding, even self-deception, was common in US history. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr explained in The Irony of American History (1952), American rhetoric had long conflated the material abundance of the US continent with the political ideal of freedom. But that there had been no war over resources or territory to end either the Soviet Union or the older Russian empire also created a belief that a new era in human history had begun between 1989 and 1991. In this new world, the post-1945 taboo against challenging the borders of any state in the name of resources or transit finally prevailed.
These narratives didn’t take Russian power or ambitions seriously. Each was treated as a historical anachronism that would invariably disappear. Even those who wanted a more confrontational policy towards Moscow assumed that Russia’s weaknesses arose from its obsessions with geography and inattention to technology. This mindset was reflected in the late Republican senator John McCain’s comment in March 2014 that Russia was “a gas station masquerading as a country”.
Yet Russia’s power comes precisely from the resources it commands and can transport to its array of neighbours. Russia became a 20th-century power in good part because in the 19th century tsarist Russia acquired oil-rich Baku from Persia and what became the Black Sea oil port of Batumi from the Ottomans (the Bolsheviks recaptured them between 1918 and 1921). Russia remains a 21st-century power because the Soviet state pursued energy extraction in Siberia and built a transport infrastructure connecting those oil and gas fields to central Europe. This resource power has allowed Russia to weather military failures from the humiliations of the 1905 defeat by Japan to the early months of the war against Ukraine.
It was because the dissolution of the Soviet Union transformed the geography around Russia’s energy export transit and ports around the Black Sea that the post-Cold War European security order was unstable. The pipelines to Europe out of Siberia ran through the new independent states on Russia’s western borders. Meanwhile, Ukraine held the long-standing Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
The hopes Washington entertained in the 1990s of a new liberal Russia were quixotic in the light of Russian strength and ambition to restore what it had lost after 1989. In the Boris Yeltsin era, Moscow reduced gas transit dependency on Ukraine and used its neighbour’s reliance on cheap Russian energy to establish military rights at Sevastopol, even as it formally guaranteed Ukraine’s security.
Far from rending Russia’s resource geography less significant, the globalisation of the 2000s made it more important by accelerating Chinese and Indian energy consumption. By building new transport infrastructure from Siberia eastwards to meet China’s demand for imports, Vladimir Putin, a man who self-evidently thought about the Russian state in terms of resources, created the opportunity to pursue territorial acquisition from the two post-Soviet Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine. All the while, the prevailing liberal discourse that resource geography did not matter blinded Western officials and pundits to his strategic goal: to simultaneously weaken the independence of the Black Sea states and pre-emptively enfeeble the resistance of European countries once he turned to war.
Whatever Russia’s military weaknesses, the strength of Ukrainian resistance, and the medium-term consequences of losing Western capital and technology in the energy sector, Moscow is winning the resource war. Since Russia is a Eurasian energy exporter, its resource power cannot be seriously dented by energy sanctions imposed only by Western governments. As Gazprom is demonstrating by cutting gas supplies to European countries, energy is Russia’s weapon. Since the measures against the Russian central bank have not worked as a compensatory coercive force, Ukraine’s independence can only be defended by an enormous weapons supply, the provision of which must always grapple with the risk of escalation into general war in a world of mutually assured destruction.
When the war does come to some kind of end, the geography of any peace settlement will be crucial: which state controls the resource-rich Donbas; which state controls which Black Sea ports; which state controls the North Crimean Canal; and who can supply Ukraine with energy?
Ukrainians are fighting for the right to be a sovereign nation-state. They cannot win unless they emerge with a geographically viable state.
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working