By George Friedman
In geopolitics, major conflicts have a tendency to repeat themselves. France and Germany, for example, fought multiple wars, as did Poland and Russia. When a single war does not resolve an underlying geopolitical issue, it is refought until the issue is finally settled. At the very least, even without another war, tension and confrontation are ongoing. Significant conflicts are rooted in underlying realities—and they do not go away easily.
Russia is the eastern portion of Europe and has clashed with the rest of Europe on multiple occasions. The Napoleonic wars, the two world wars, and the Cold War all dealt, at least in part, with the status of Russia and its relationship to the rest of Europe. None of these wars ultimately settled this question, because in the end a united and independent Russia survived or triumphed. The problem is that the very existence of a united Russia poses a significant potential challenge to Europe.
Russia is a vast region with a huge population. It is much poorer than the rest of Europe, but it has two assets—land and natural resources. As such it is a constant temptation for European powers, which see an opportunity to increase their size and wealth to the east. Historically, though, Europeans who have invaded Russia have come to a disastrous end. If the Russians do not beat them, they are so exhausted from fighting that someone else defeats them. Russia occasionally pushes its power westward, threatening Europe. At other times passive and ignored, Russia is often taken advantage of. But, in due course, others pay for underestimating it.
The Cold War only appeared to have settled the Russian question. Had the Russian Federation collapsed in the 1990s and the region fragmented into multiple, smaller states, Russian power would have disappeared, and with it the challenge it poses to Europe. Had the Americans, Europeans, and Chinese moved in for the kill, the Russian question would have been finally settled. But the Europeans were too weak and divided at the end of the twentieth century, the Chinese too isolated and preoccupied with internal issues, and after September 11, 2001, the Americans were too distracted by the struggle against radical Islam to act decisively.
Given the simple fact that Russia did not disintegrate, the Russian geopolitical question is bound to reemerge. And given the fact that Russia is now reenergizing itself, that question is likely to come sooner rather than later. The conflict will not be a repeat of the Cold War, any more than World War I was a repeat of the Napoleonic wars. But it will be a restatement of the fundamental Russian question: If Russia is a united nation-state, where will its frontiers lie and what will be the relationship between Russia and its neighbors?
A reshuffled deck
In order to understand Russia’s behavior and intentions, one must begin with its fundamental weakness—its borders, particularly in the northwest. The center and south are anchored on the Carpathian Mountains, as far north as the Slovakian-Polish border, and to the east of them are the Pripet marshes, boggy and impassable. But in the north and south (east of the Carpathians), there are no strong barriers to protect Russia—or to protect Russia’s neighbors.
On the northern European plain, no matter where Russia’s borders are drawn, it is open to attack. There are few significant natural barriers anywhere on this plain. Pushing its western border all the way into Germany, as it did in 1945, still leaves Russia’s frontiers without a physical anchor. The only physical advantage Russia can have is depth. The farther west into Europe its borders extend, the farther conquerors have to travel to reach Moscow. Therefore, Russia is always pressing westward on the northern European plain, and Europe is always pressing eastward.
Russia had its guts carved out after the collapse of communism. St. Petersburg, its jewel, was about a thousand miles away from NATO troops in 1989. Now it is less than one hundred miles away. In 1989, Moscow was twelve hundred miles from the limits of Russian power; today, it is about two hundred miles. In the south, with Ukraine independent, the Russian hold on the Black Sea is tenuous, and it has been forced to the northern extreme of the Caucasus. The Americans occupy Afghanistan, however tentatively, and Russia’s anchor on the Himalayas is gone. If there were an army interested in invading, the Russian Federation is virtually indefensible.
Russia’s strategic problem is that it is a vast country with relatively poor transportation. If Russia were simultaneously attacked along its entire periphery, in spite of the size of its forces, it would be unable to easily protect itself. It would have difficulty mobilizing forces and deploying them to multiple fronts, so it would have to maintain an extremely large standing army that could be predeployed. This pressure imposes a huge economic burden on Russia, undermines the economy, and causes it to buckle from within. That is what happened to the Soviet state.
Nor is protecting its frontiers Russia’s only problem. The Russians are extremely well aware that they are facing a massive demographic crisis. Russia’s current population is about 145 million people, and projections for 2050 are for between 90 million and 125 million. Time is working against it. Russia’s problem will soon be its ability to field an army sufficient for its strategic needs. Internally, the number of Russians compared to other ethnic groups is declining, placing intense pressure on Russia to make a move sooner rather than later. In its current geographical position, it is an accident waiting to happen. Given Russia’s demographic trajectory, in twenty years it may be too late to act, and its leaders know this. It does not have to conquer the world, but Russia must regain and hold its buffers—essentially the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.
Between their geopolitical, economic, and demographic problems, the Russians have to make a fundamental shift. For a hundred years the Russians sought to modernize their country through industrialization, trying to catch up to the rest of Europe. They never managed to pull it off. Around the year 2000, Russia shifted its strategy. Instead of focusing on industrial development as they had in the past century, the Russians reinvented themselves as exporters of natural resources, particularly energy, but also minerals, agricultural products, lumber, and precious metals.
By de-emphasizing industrial development, and emphasizing raw materials, the Russians took a very different path, one more common to countries in the developing world. But given the unexpected rise of energy and commodity prices, this move not only saved the Russian economy but also strengthened it to the point where Russia could afford to drive its own selective reindustrialization. Most important, since natural resource production is less manpower-intensive than industrial production, it gave Russia an economic base that could be sustained with a declining population.
It also gave Russia leverage in the international system. Europe is hungry for energy. Russia, constructing pipelines to feed natural gas to Europe, takes care of Europe’s energy needs and its own economic problems, and puts Europe in a position of dependency on Russia. In an energy-hungry world, Russia’s energy exports are like heroin. It addicts countries once they start using it. Russia has already used its natural gas resources to force neighboring countries to bend to its will. That power reaches into the heart of Europe, where the Germans and the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe all depend on Russian natural gas. Add to this its other resources, and Russia can apply significant pressure on Europe.
Dependency can be a double-edged sword, however. A militarily weak Russia cannot pressure its neighbors, because its neighbors might decide to make a grab for its wealth. So Russia must recover its military strength. Rich and weak is a bad position for nations to be in. If Russia is to be rich in natural resources and export them to Europe, it must be in a position to protect what it has and to shape the international environment in which it lives.
In the next decade, Russia will become increasingly wealthy (relative to its past, at least) but geographically insecure. It will therefore use some of its wealth to create a military force appropriate to protect its interests, buffer zones to protect it from the rest of the world—and then buffer zones for the buffer zones. Russia’s grand strategy involves the creation of deep buffers along the northern European plain, while it divides and manipulates its neighbors, creating a new regional balance of power in Europe. What Russia cannot tolerate are tight borders without buffer zones, and its neighbors united against it. This is why Russia’s future actions will appear to be aggressive but will actually be defensive.
Moscow’s next steps
Russia’s actions likely will unfold in three phases. In the first phase, Russia will be concerned with recovering influence and effective control in the former Soviet Union, recreating the system of buffers that the Soviet Union provided it. In the second phase, Russia will seek to create a second tier of buffers beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. It will try to do this without creating a solid wall of opposition, of the kind that choked it during the Cold War. In the third phase—really something that will have been going on from the beginning—Russia will try to prevent anti-Russian coalitions from forming.
Here, it is important to step back and look at the reasons why the former Soviet Union stayed intact in the latter half of the twentieth century. The Soviet Union was held together not simply by force but by a system of economic relationships that sustained it in the same way that the Russian empire before it was sustained. The former Soviet Union shares a common geography—that is, vast and mostly landlocked, in the heart of Eurasia. It has extremely poor internal transport systems, as is common in landlocked areas where the river systems don’t match with agricultural systems. It is therefore difficult to transport food—and after industrialization, difficult to move manufactured goods.
Think of the old Soviet Union as that part of the Eurasian landmass that stretched westward from the Pacific Ocean along the wastelands north of populated China, northwest of the Himalayas, and continued along the border with South Central Asia to the Caspian, and then on to the Caucasus. It was buffered by the Black Sea and then by the Carpathian Mountains. Along the north, there was only the Arctic. Within this space, there was a vast landmass, marked by republics with weak economies.
If we think of the Soviet Union as a natural grouping of geographically isolated and economically handicapped countries, we can see what held it together. The countries that made up the Soviet Union were bound together of necessity. They could not compete with the rest of the world economically—but isolated from global competition, they could complement and support each other. This was a natural grouping readily dominated by the Russians. The countries beyond the Carpathians (the ones Russia occupied after World War II and turned into satellites) were not included in this natural grouping. If it weren’t for Soviet military force, they would have been oriented toward the rest of Europe.
The former Soviet Union consisted of members who really had nowhere else to go. These old economic ties still dominate the region, except that Russia’s new model, exporting energy, has made these countries even more dependent than they were previously. Attracted as Ukraine was to the rest of Europe, it could not compete or participate with Europe. Its natural economic relationship is with Russia; it relies on Russia for energy, and ultimately it tends to be militarily dominated by Russia as well.
These are the dynamics that Russia will take advantage of in order to reassert its sphere of influence. It will not necessarily re-create a formal political structure run from Moscow—although that is not inconceivable. Far more important will be Russian influence in the region over the next five to ten years, which will surge in three theaters of operation.
The Caucasus serves as the boundary between Russian and Turkish power, and has historically been a flashpoint between the two empires. It was also a flashpoint during the Cold War. The Turkish–Soviet border ran through the Caucasus, with the Soviet side consisting of three separate republics: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, all now independent. The Caucasus also ran north into the Russian Federation itself, including into the Muslim areas of Dagestan and, most important, Chechnya, where a guerrilla war against Russian domination raged after the fall of communism.
From a purely defensive point of view, the precise boundaries of Russian and Turkish influence don’t matter, so long as both are based somewhere in the Caucasus. The rugged terrain makes defense relatively easy. Should the Russians lose their position in the Caucasus altogether and be pushed north into the lowlands, however, Russia’s position would become difficult. With the gap between Ukraine and Kazakhstan only a few hundred miles wide, Russia would be in strategic trouble.
This is the reason the Russians are so unwilling to compromise on Chechnya. The southern part of Chechnya is deep in the northern Caucasus. If that were lost, the entire Russian position would unravel. Given a choice, the Russians would prefer to be anchored farther south, in Georgia. Armenia is already an ally of Russia. If Georgia were Russian, its entire position would be much more stable. Controlling Chechnya is indispensable. Reabsorbing Georgia is desirable. Holding Azerbaijan does not provide a strategic advantage—but the Russians would not mind having it as a buffer with the Iranians. Russia’s position here is not intolerable, but Georgia, not incidentally closely allied with the United States, is a tempting target, as was seen in the August 2008 conflict.
The situation in the Caucasus is not only difficult to understand but also difficult to deal with. The Soviet Union actually managed to solve the complexity by incorporating all these countries after World War I and ruthlessly suppressing their autonomy. It is impossible for Russia to be indifferent to the region now or in the future—unless it is prepared to lose its position in the Caucasus. Therefore, the Russians can be expected to reassert their position, most likely starting with Georgia. And since the United States sees Georgia as a strategic asset, Russia’s reassertion there will lead to confrontation with the United States. Unless the Chechen rebellion completely disappears, the Russians will have to move south, then isolate the rebellion and nail down their position in the mountains.
There are two powers that will not want this to happen. The United States is one, and the other is Turkey. Americans will see Russian domination of Georgia as undermining their position in the region. The Turks will see this as energizing the Armenians and returning the Russian army in force to their borders. The Russians will become more convinced of the need to act because of this resistance. A duel in the Caucasus will be the likely result.
The southern stomping ground
Central Asia is a vast region running between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. It is primarily Muslim and therefore part of the massive destabilization that took place in the Muslim world after the fall of the Soviet Union. By itself it has some economic value, as a region with energy reserves. But it has little strategic importance to the Russians—unless another great power was to dominate it and use it as a base against them. If that were to happen, it would become enormously important. Whoever controls Kazakhstan would be a hundred miles from the Volga, a river highway for Russian agriculture.
During the 1990s, Western energy companies flocked to the region. Russia had no problem with that. It wasn’t in a position to compete, and it wasn’t in a position to control the region militarily. Central Asia was a neutral zone of relative indifference to the Russians. All of that changed on September 11, 2001, which redefined the geopolitics of the region. September 11th made it urgent for the United States to invade Afghanistan. Unable to mount an invasion by itself quickly, the United States asked the Russians for help.
The Russians agreed to an American military presence in the region, thinking they had an understanding with the United States that this was a temporary situation. But as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, the United States stayed; and as it did so, it became more and more influential with the various republics in the region. Russia realized that what had been a benign buffer zone was becoming dominated by the main global power—a power that was pressing Russia in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltics. In addition, as the price of energy rose and Russia adopted its new economic strategy, Central Asia’s energy became even more significant.
Russia did not want American forces a hundred miles from the Volga. Russia simply had to react. It didn’t act directly, but it began manipulating the political situation in the region, reducing American power. It was a move designed to return Central Asia to the Russian sphere of influence. And the Americans, on the other side of the world, isolated by chaotic Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, were in no position to resist. The Russians reasserted their natural position. And tellingly, it was one of the few places U.S. naval power couldn’t reach.
Central Asia is an area where the United States can’t remain under Russian pressure. It is a place where the Chinese could potentially cause problems, but—as we have seen in recent years—that is unlikely to happen. China has economic influence there, but the Russians, in the end, have both military and financial capabilities that can outmatch them. The Russians might offer China access to Central Asia, but the arrangements created in the nineteenth century and maintained by the Soviet Union will reassert themselves. Therefore, if current trends continue, Central Asia will be back in the Russian sphere of influence by early next decade—long before Russia’s major confrontation with Europe.
The European theater is, of course, the area directly west of Russia. In this region, Russia’s western border faces the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the two independent republics of Belarus and Ukraine. All of these were part of the former Soviet Union and of the Russian empire. Beyond these countries lies the belt of former Soviet satellites: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Russians must dominate Belarus and Ukraine for their basic national security. The Baltics are secondary but still important. Eastern Europe is not critical, so long as the Russians are anchored in the Carpathian Mountains in the south and have strong forces on the northern European plain. But of course, all of this can get complicated.
Ukraine and Belarus are everything to the Russians. If they were to fall into an enemy’s hands—for example, if they join NATO—Russia would be in mortal danger. Moscow is only a bit over two hundred miles from the Russian border with Belarus, Ukraine less than two hundred miles from Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. Russia defended against Napoleon and Hitler with depth. Without Belarus and Ukraine, there is no depth, no land to trade for an enemy’s blood. It is, of course, absurd to imagine NATO posing a threat to Russia. But the Russians think in terms of twenty-year cycles, and they know how quickly the absurd becomes possible.
They also know that the United States and NATO have systematically expanded their reach by extending membership in NATO to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. As soon as the United States began trying to recruit Ukraine into NATO, the Russians changed their view both of American intentions and of Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, NATO expanding into Ukraine threatens Russian interests in the same way as if the Warsaw Pact had moved into Mexico. When a pro-Western uprising in 2004—the Orange Revolution—seemed about to sweep Ukraine into NATO, the Russians accused the United States of trying to surround and destroy Russia. What the Americans were thinking is open to debate. That Ukraine in NATO would be potentially devastating to Russian national security is not.
The Russians did not mobilize their army. Rather, they mobilized their intelligence service, whose covert connections in Ukraine were superb. The Russians undermined the Orange Revolution, playing on a split between pro-Russian eastern Ukraine and pro-European western Ukraine. It proved not to be difficult at all, and fairly quickly Ukrainian politics became gridlocked. It is only a matter of time before Russian influence will overwhelm Kiev.
Belarus is an easier issue. As noted earlier, Belarus is the least reformed member of the former Soviet republics. It remains a centralized, authoritarian state. More important, its leadership has repeatedly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union and has proposed union of some sort with Russia. Such a union will, of course, have to be on Russian terms, which has led to tension, but there is no possibility of Belarus joining NATO.
The reabsorption of Belarus and Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence is more or less a given in the next five years. When that happens, Russia will have roughly returned to its borders with Europe between the two world wars. It will be anchored in the Caucasus in the south, with Ukraine protected, and in the north its borders on the northern European plain will abut Poland and the Baltic countries. That will pose the questions of who the most powerful country in the north is and where the precise frontiers will be. The real flashpoint will be the Baltics.
The traditional path to invade Russia is a three-hundred-mile gap between the northern Carpathians and the Baltic Sea. This is flat, easily traversed country with few river barriers. This northern European plain is a smooth ride for invaders. A European invader can move due east to Moscow or to St. Petersburg in the northwest. During the Cold War, the distance from St. Petersburg to NATO’s front line was also more than a thousand miles. Today the distance is about seventy miles. This explains the strategic nightmare Russia faces in the Baltics—and what it will need to do to fix the problem.
The three Baltic countries were once part of the Soviet Union. Each became independent after it collapsed. And then, in that narrow window, each became part of NATO. As we have seen, the Europeans are most likely too far into their decadent cycle to have the energy to take advantage of the situation. The Russians are not going to risk their national security on that assumption, however. They saw Germany go from being a cripple in 1932 to being at the gates of Moscow in 1941. The inclusion of the Baltic countries along with Poland in NATO has moved NATO’s frontier extraordinarily close to the Russian heartland. For a country that was invaded three times in the last two hundred years, the comfortable assumption that NATO and its members are no threat is not something it can risk.
From the Russian point of view, the major invasion route into their country is not only wide open but also in the hands of countries with a pronounced hostility toward Russia. The Baltic countries have never forgiven the Russians for their occupation. The Poles are equally bitter and deeply distrustful of Russian intentions. Now that they are part of NATO, these countries form the front line. Behind them is Germany, a country as distrusted by Russia as Russia is by the Poles and Balts. The Russians are certainly paranoid—but that doesn’t mean they don’t have enemies or that they are crazy.
This would be the point of any confrontation. The Russians can live with a neutral Baltic region. Living with a Baltic region that is part of NATO and close to the Americans, however, is a much more difficult pill to swallow. On the other hand, the Americans, having backed down in Central Asia, and being cautious in the Caucasus, can’t retreat from the Baltics. Any compromise over the three NATO members would send Eastern Europe into a panic. Eastern Europe’s behavior would become unpredictable, and the possibility of Russian influence spreading westward would increase. Russia has the greater interest, but the Americans could bring substantial power to bear if they chose.
Russia’s next move, therefore, likely will be an agreement with Belarus for an integrated defense system. Belarus and Russia have been linked for a very long time, so this will be a natural reversion. And that will bring the Russian army to the Baltic frontier. It will also bring the army to the Polish frontier—and that will start the confrontation in its full intensity.
The Poles fear the Russians and the Germans. Trapped between the two, without natural defenses, they fear whichever is stronger at any time. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, which at least has the barrier of the Carpathians between them and the Russians—and shares a border with Ukraine, not Russia—the Poles are on the dangerous northern European plain. When the Russians return to their border in force in the process of confronting the Baltic states, the Poles will react. Poland has almost forty million people. It is not a small country, and since it will be backed by the United States, not a trivial one.
Polish support will naturally be thrown behind the Balts. The Russians will pull the Ukrainians into their alliance with Belarus and will have Russian forces all along the Polish border, and as far south as the Black Sea. At this point the Russians will begin the process of trying to neutralize the Balts. All this will take place by the middle of the next decade.
The Russians will have three tools at their disposal to exert their influence over the Baltic states. The first is covert operations. In the same way the United States has financed and energized non-governmental organizations around the world, the Russians will finance and energize Russian minorities in these countries, as well as whatever pro-Russian elements exist, or can be bought. When the Balts suppress these movements, it will give the Russians a pretext for using their second tool, economic sanctions, particularly by cutting the flow of natural gas. Finally, the Russians will bring military pressure to bear through the presence of substantial forces near these borders. Not surprisingly, the Poles and Balts both remember the unpredictability of the Russians. The psychological pressure will be enormous.
There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about the weakness of the Russian army, talk that in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union was accurate. But here is the new reality—that weakness started to reverse itself in 2000, and by the middle of the next decade it will be a thing of the past. The coming confrontation in northeastern Europe will not take place suddenly, but will be an extended confrontation. Russian military strength will have time to develop.
By the end of the next decade, this confrontation will be the dominant global issue—and everyone will think of it as a permanent problem. It will not be as comprehensive as the first cold war. The Russians will lack the power to seize all of Eurasia, and they will not be a true global threat. They will, however, be a regional threat, and that is the context in which the United States will need to respond.
George Friedman is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, military organizations, government agencies, and individuals worldwide who are focused on foreign affairs. This article is adapted from his new book, The Next Hundred Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (Doubleday, 2009)