George F. Will surveyed events in Ukraine the other day and observed, “So, this is perhaps the final episode of the Cold War." It’s difficult to recall a statement from this conservative columnist as fatuous as this throughout his forty years on the job. The Cold War? Is he kidding?
The Cold War began when Soviet leader Josef Stalin, powerfully positioned after World War II, gobbled up Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland—turning them all into involuntary client states (and adding them to the Baltic countries that he already had brought under the Soviet yoke in 1940). Then he planted 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops on the frontier of free Europe, facing west. He promptly set about to spread his tentacles into Greece and Turkey, seeking to turn those strategically located nations into puppets as well.
It was a near thing, but war-ravaged Europe, with a great deal of American support, stared down the Soviet dictator and forced him to the conclusion that the European prize carried too high a price. So he shifted to a new strategy of undermining Western interests wherever possible throughout the world—in the Middle East, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, Central America. He and his successors played havoc with American interests in many of these places and forced the country into two hot wars—Korea and Vietnam—that sapped its strength and tested its resolve. The Soviets also spared no expense in developing weapons systems designed to keep America on the defensive, including massive numbers of nuclear warheads atop sophisticated delivery missiles.
Perhaps even more ominously, the Soviet Union held nearly total sway over what the great British geographer and founder of modern geopolitics, Halford Mackinder, called the “geographical pivot of history," the Eurasian Heartland. It was from this geographical location that, for centuries, most of the threats emerged to Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India, China and the northern reaches of the Arab Middle East. Nicholas J. Spykman, the noted Dutch American strategist of the early World War II era, expanded upon Mackinder’s "Eurasia pivot theory" by positing the idea that control of the Eurasian Heartland positioned any power to take all or parts of the surrounding “Rimland" (Europe, the Middle East, India and China). And control of both Heartland and Rimland positioned any power to go after what Mackinder called the “World-Island’’ of Eurasia and Africa. At this point, world domination would be clearly within reach.
Looking at the Cold War in these terms, it is easy to see just what an epic global struggle it was. The Soviet Union was positioned, as few countries ever had been in world history, to vie for something approaching global hegemony. Only the United States stood in its path. As Henry Kissinger put it in 1957, “Limited war represents the only means for preventing the Soviet bloc, at an acceptable cost, from overrunning the peripheral areas of Eurasia."
Now consider just what the Soviet Union represented in ideological terms. Its totalitarian zeal, employed initially in behalf of a silly Marxist idealism, quickly became the artificial underpinning for total societal control and the domination of a new managerial class of privileged commissars. Not content to declare a monopoly merely over political activity, as many authoritarian regimes do today (including, more or less, Putin’s Russia), the Soviet dictators declared a monopoly over just about all aspects of human endeavor. Pushed by these robot-like ideologues, Bolshevism became a kind of culture-destroying monster, bent on suppressing nearly all cultural sensibilities (religion, nationalism, ethnic affinities) wherever it held sway and forcing upon the populace a kind of ideological rectitude. Most of those who didn’t knuckle under were shot or sent to labor camps.
Particularly oppressed was religion, the core of cultural identity. The Russian Orthodox Church was nearly obliterated, with many clergymen killed or imprisoned and theological schools outlawed. By 1939, the 50,000 Orthodox churches that had existed at the time of the Russian Revolution had dwindled to just 500. St. Petersburg, named after a Christian saint hallowed to most Russians, was rechristened Leningrad, reflecting the self-worship that accompanied the accumulation of absolute power.
With the West’s Cold War victory, this pernicious ideology was buried for good. Cultural sensibilities reemerged as if nothing had happened. The Russian Orthodox Church blossomed as of old, and St. Petersburg got its old name back. The horrid night of ideological oppression was over.
More important, Mackinder’s Heartland no longer posed a threat because Russia no longer dominated it sufficiently to do so. That is the crucial point. The Cold War is over. Europe was saved, Greece and Turkey preserved. The Russians now have little sway over Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the countries of Old Yugoslavia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland or the Baltic states.
But it does have sway over Ukraine, which has been situated within the Russian sphere of influence for more than 350 years. Nearly half its population speak Russian, belong to the Orthodox Church, are in fact ethnic Russians. If they are allowed to pursue their cultural sensibilities (now that Bolshevism is dead), they will take their cue from Russia, as many Ukrainians in Crimea have demonstrated since the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych from the Ukrainian presidency. The other half, it is true, are more oriented toward the West, look to the Vatican for religious guidance, view themselves as products of Western culture more than of the Orthodox culture.
Hence, George Will is only half correct when he writes, “Now comes turbulent Ukraine, incandescent with nationalism and eager to preserve its sovereignty by a closer relationship with the European Union." Half-correct is not a very good performance for a columnist.
Far from being the final episode of the Cold War, the events in Ukraine reflect fundamental geopolitical realities that stretch far back in history, long before World War I and the Russian Revolution. Ukraine was fated by geography and history—perhaps tragically—to be at the epicenter of any tensions between Russia and the West. It is a split country facing both ways.
And for centuries before the tragic events there of recent weeks, Russian leaders understood that if their nation wished to be a player in the West, it simply had to hold sway over Ukraine. As former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has written, without Ukraine, Russia can still be an empire, but a “predominately Asian one, focused on the Caucasus and Central Asia.”
That’s why no Russian leader today can yield to the maneuverings of a U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs furiously working behind the scenes to yank Ukraine away from Russian influence. That’s why the American preoccupation with democracy in Ukraine (even to the point of heralding the fall of a duly elected Ukrainian leader) is irrelevant to the geopolitical realities of the region. George Will and President Obama and Victoria Nuland may think they are dealing with a simple moral question of democracy over autocracy and that Yanukovych’s ouster represents a big step forward for the good guys in a kind of mini-Cold War drama. But that’s not what it’s about, and the geopolitical imperatives involved, far greater for Russia than for the West, ultimately will drive events in Ukraine.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.