Z-Alternative: Russia and the U.S. as Strategic Allies

Let me begin by saying that, as we all know (or could figure out), it takes a lot more than similar geopolitical situations to create a permissive diplomatic and political environment for the creation of an alliance. Similar political and economic systems, histories, ethnic/tribal/sectarian/linguistic political elites, and perception of global threats and interests (and more) play a part in the calculus for a government to commit to the establishment or continuation of a “special relationship”. To borrow the term pundits and publics use to describe the U.S.-UK alliance.

But in this post I will argue that geopolitically, Russia and the U.S. have more common interests than the U.S. and the rest of Europe. While I’ll limit myself to a discussion of the physical geography of this argument, an exploration of the human side is necessary.  The genesis for this post was a great Foreign Affairs article (Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin). One key point in the article is the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO presenting a core threat to Russian security (a very realist, rather than liberal view). It is this point that brought me to today’s post.

Overall, Russia and the United States share a similar geopolitical position. Both are, essentially, protected by their sheer land area. Russia, of course, is in the more tenuous position because of its land borders. Russian strategists and historians are keenly aware of this fact. No less military geniuses than Chinggis Khan (13th century), Napoleon Bounaparte (19th century), and Adolf Hitler (20th century) have invaded. President Putin, and other Russian nationalists and realists, probably view the expansion of NATO and the EU into Ukraine as a prelude to a 21st century invasion.

While the United States has experienced conflict along its two long land borders, these have been resolved since the 19th century and Canada is an ally besides. The main area of concern are the oceans. The water surrounding the U.S. is the guarantor of U.S. security and commerce. Alfred Thayer Mahan understood this in the 19th century, when the British Empire successfully blockaded Napoleon’s continental empire and prevented a French invasion.

The U.S. ability to control the seas has permitted it to consider the entire Western Hemisphere its strategic backyard, much like Russia’s bordering states (the near-abroad). American readers will no doubt recall the Monroe Doctrine of President Monroe (r. 1817-1825), which locked Europe from interfering (and creating new colonies) in North and South America, and President Roosevelt’s Corollary (r. 1901-1909), which saw the U.S. insert itself into bilateral disputes between European and other American states.

There is, as you probably guessed, a realist update to the Monroe Doctrine. The National Interest, an American-conservative foreign policy magazine argued, prophetically, back in 2009 (during President Obama’s historic “reset” with Russia) that:

It would be wise for [President Obama’s] administration to abandon its ill-advised campaign to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, which Moscow justifiably regards as a provocative intrusion into Russia’s security sphere. (The National Interest, A New Monroe Doctrine)

The article acknowledges Russian “violations” of activity in the U.S. strategic backyard.

More worrisome is a hawkish Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal authored by the American conservative think-tank Foreign Policy Institute (A Monroe Doctrine for NATO). FPI argues that “NATO today should apply something like the Monroe Doctrine to European states that geographic misfortune has placed outside the Alliance but whose sovereignty is essential to a Continent “whole, free and at peace.'” A recipe for just the opposite – a lasting conflict with Russia.

An alternative view, offered by Z Geography is to let the Russia have its strategic backyard, perhaps a neutral Ukraine neither fully in, nor fully out of NATO. Would it be enough to leave Ukraine, and Russia, within the Partnership for Peace? After all the point of that organization is trust-building, which is currently in short supply.

Z Geography argues, over the long-term, this strategic trust-building between the U.S. and Russia could lead to a more meaning partnership and guaranteeing of mutual security. The problem, as it so often is, is Russia’s lack of political and press freedoms. But then again, if we tacitly support President al-Sisi (former general, came to power in a coup) in Egypt, Prime Minister Prayuth (former general, came to power in a coup) in Thailand and various Kings in the Middle East (some of whom are particularly brutal to their people), why not the Russians? Aren’t both governments concerned about a stable Afghanistan? Sunni Islamist terrorism? A rising People’s Republic of China?

After all, aren’t we already pursuing the same strategic interests as Syrian President Asad (who is an Alawite) and Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini (a Shi’a) in fighting the Islamic State (Sunnis)?

Organic State: New Nexus, encroaching state?

Elsewhere, Z Geography has argued that the lack of the state’s presence has facilitated the rise of (often violent) alternatives to the state. If I haven’t then now I have! The corollary, of course, is that once the state expands into an area then, presumably, the environment is less conducive to a violent insurgency (file all of this under: The Organic State).

This is my hypothesis for the latest Indian state of Telangana, which became the 29th official state in that country’s union (see BBC). As we can see from the two maps below (a little bit of map analysis) the state of Telangana is inheriting a bit of a problem with the naxalite/Maoist insurgency. Back in 2010, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called naxalism (named for the West Bengal town that birthed the movement, Naxalbari) the “biggest internal security challenge” facing India. Much of the Telangana (if not all of it) were declared severely Maoist/naxalite-affected by a government study in 2007.

However, the creation of Telangana could be a potential solution for the insurgency, at least in those districts. Like all insurgencies, the naxals thrive in areas inaccessible to state power, in May the Times of India noted a landmine blast in a forest in eastern Maharashtra killed 7 security officers. The other side of the equation, of course, is local support of which Indian tribes provide some support to the movement, not necessarily ideological. Another article from an independent news site suggests two reasons (basically unanticipated policy effects) for tribal support to the Maoists (here).

Telangana could be a solution in that it brings the state, India, closer to the insurgency. It brings a, theoretically, representative government to a smaller number of people in a smaller geographic area. Eventually, the people of Telangana will not have to compete with the local interests of voters in other areas of Andhra Pradesh. This sounds good on paper, the new state government will have to contend with official corruption (always an effective recruitment tool for an insurgency) and a much smaller budget.

On this last point Maharashtra, a state to the west (capital: Mumbai), is reportedly developing infrastructure in naxalite-affected districts to promote tourism (as reported by Times of India). This may be an effective short-term solution, tourism may provide additional employment for locals while also investing them in a wider economy, not to mention that the state security vehicles and tourist buses can use the same roads. Longer-term slaving the local economy to tourism is almost begging for violent disruption (see The Telegraph: Egypt).

Over the next decade, Telangana will slowly come into its own as a state. By then, Z Geography thinks that the naxalite insurgency will disappear from the state or, at least, be driven into obscurity like Spain’s ETA.

India’s New State: Telangana (via BBC)

Maoist Presence within India (2007, via Wikipedia)

Unintended Consequences: Migration in Sri Lanka

I came across an interest-piquing article on Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) based on the preliminary (at the time) results of that country’s 2012 Census.

According to the article, the Sinhala (presumably Buddhist) population of Colombo comprises 24% of the city (a notable decrease from 50% of the population in 1971). The Tamil population (presumably Hindu) makes up around 33% of the population, an increase from 24.5% in 1971. The surprising statistic is the population of Muslims (alternatively Sri Lankan Moors or Indian Muslims, probably both), whose ratio increased from 19% in 1971 to over 40% in 2012. In terms of absolutes, the population numbers are: over 79 thousand Sinhala, over 106 thousand Tamils, and 126 thousand Muslims.

While the numbers themselves are interesting, Colombo now contains more Muslims than Tamil Hindus or Sinhala Buddhists, they should be understood within current and historical contexts. For instance, the Diplomat reported in September 2013 on the growing violence in Sri Lanka of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists targeting Muslims. As that source points out, Buddhists comprise 70% of the island’s 20 million people. The irony shouldn’t be lost on a world which has (abominably) associated sectarian violence with Islam. For their part, “Buddhists” are often assumed to be one of the more “peaceful” religions. In Sri Lanka, the right-leaning authorities (led by a long-serving President) have turned a “blind eye” to violence unleashed by monks, who are serving as agent provocateurs. In addition to attacking places of worship and business, Sinhala-Buddhist “extremists” (if you would) are calling for a boycott of halal-certified meat.

While sectarian on the surface, the Diplomat also notes an economic undercurrent within the violence. Protesters against halal-certification note that the principle body of Islamic scholars charges a fee to certify meat – and that this fee is passed on to the public. The geographic choices of targets reveals much of a movement’s basis. Places of worship are usually thought of first when considering visible evidence of a minority community and a focal point for anger, they are (after all) focal points for the community. Places of business may often be the real focal points and businesses are often just as visible.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon has witnessed this sectarian-economic violence before. Anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, himself a Sri Lankan, in his book Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist conflicts and collective violence in South Asia provides a discussion of Buddhist riots targeting the growing Tamil-Muslim community in Sri Lanka in the early 1900s. As it was then, so it is now. Economics, as well as sectarian differences, provided the impetus for violence against a minority religious community.

Considering the apparent Buddhist-nationalism gripping Sri Lanka and an equally apparent list of economic grievances against Muslims, further violence against this community is (unfortunately) likely. The violence is also a reminder of the problem of politicizing one particular aspect of a person’s identity and highlights the junction between violence, geography, and political identity.

Geographic and Demographic Cleavages: Ukraine

Lately, Ukraine has been in the smoldering in the European news sections of (credible) news organizations such as the BBC and France24. The growing conflict there pits President Yanukovych, who abandoned a treaty bringing closer to the European Union, against an opposition movement seeking to topple a (what they perceive to be) totalitarian government. Over the last few days the conflict has grown increasingly violent with 26 deaths reported (including police and protesters). The BBC has dedicated a live updates page to the crisis.


Proportion of Russian speakers (2001)

Above and below are two maps you’ll need to understand the underlying social dynamics of the crisis. While it is always dangerous to attribute a complex phenomenon, like violent conflict, to a single factor – the anecdotal analysis here is compelling. Above, we see the percent of Russian speakers who self-identified in the last census (2001). Of the 48 million people counted in that census, 32.5 million (67.5%) identified themselves as Ukrainian speakers. 14.2 million (29.5%) identified themselves as Russian speakers. 

As any Geographer will tell you, these populations are unlikely to be distributed evenly across the landscape. we see that the Russian-speaking population is heavily concentrated in the east. In some regions over 50% of the population identified themselves as Russian-speakers. In the city-region of Sevastopol (on the Black Sea) 340,000 of 377,000 people identified as Russian speakers. However, in the west, there are very few Russian speakers.

Now consider the map below of the results for the Presidential election in February 2010. President Yanukovych’s best showing was in areas where large numbers of Russian-speakers lived (the darkest blues). These maps notwithstanding, Ukrainian voters would consider more than the native language of a candidate (Yanukovych grew up speaking Russian) when deciding their ballot.

Results of Februrary 2010 Presidential Election (via Wikipedia)

While Z Geography plans to, eventually, map other demographic and economic variables against these election results – the Russian/non-Russian language divide is notable. The divide highlights one of the important cleavages in Ukrainian political identities – language.


For other great perspectives on Ukrainian geopolitics, I urge you to read Geographic Travels original 2010 post and a more recent January 2014 post highlighting another facet of the conflict.