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)?

A New “Russian” Internationalism: a (very) early hypothesis

Last week Z Geography examined the interim Ukrainian government’s and Russian government’s narratives of the ongoing conflict over eastern Ukraine (here). In that post, I recounted Russia’s stated objective of protecting the interests of “Russian-speakers” in Ukraine. In this post, I hypothesize that Russia may be adjusting its definition of Russian to include eastern Slavic languages – including Ukrainian.

This presupposes though that Russian is all that different from Ukrainian. It is apparently not, sifting through the sources in the all-popular Wikipedia, we find three academic sources (see note classification 8 on the Ukrainian language page). The first states that among the Slavonic languages (to include Russian and Ukrainian)  “[The] distinction between dialect and language being blurred, there can be no unanimity on this issue in all instances…” And the distinction is very blurry, consider the second definition of dialect from the Random House dictionary: “a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, especially when considered as substandard.” Language, as some sociologists might argue, may be socially, culturally, and politically appointed. Take the dominance of French in France – as captured nicely in The Discovery of France (Graham Robb). We often take French as the principal language of that political construct called France, but it wasn’t until long after the French Revolution (and the patois are making a comeback).

But I digress. Ukrainian and Russian “have very high rates of mutual intelligibility…The separation of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian as distinct languages is relatively recent…Many Ukrainians in fact speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, finding it difficult to keep the two languages apart…”, according to a source in 1981. As the Wikipedia article notes of a Ukrainian-language source comparing lexicons, Ukrainian is closest to Belarusian (84%), Polish (70%), Serbo-Croatian (68%), Slovak (66%), and Russian (62%). In 1977, a peer-reviewed study asserted that “In terms of immediate mutual intelligibility, the East Slavic zone is a single language.”

Percent of Ukrainian speakers (Purple) and Russian speakers (Blue) in 1989 (lighter) and 2001 (darker) by province

This mutual intelligibility, however, was not sufficient to prevent Russian elites within the Soviet Union from suppressing the language, because it could have become a rallying point for Ukrainian nationalism. A renewed Ukrainian national identity would have been a significant divergence from, and a threat to, the Soviet Union’s internationalist communist/Stalinist identity.

So here’s the hypothesis, could Putin’s (Russia’s) expansionism be fit under the rubric of a more inclusive, internationalist “Russian” (Slavic) identity. The test for this hypothesis will be the remaining years (decades) of President Putin’s rein – will Russia content itself with Crimea and a limited “Russian-speakers only” vision, or will it seek to unite other Eastern Slavic speakers under an enlarging “Russia”? To the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, this identity shift (to pan-“Russian”) would imply that not only could Ukraine’s east be absorbed, but the entire country. If this hypothesis is true, the conflict may resemble the wars of unification in the 1860s (Germany) and 1880s (Italy).

The German case is particularly instructive. Prussia in establishing the Second Reich ignored the German-speaking (at least the elites) of Austria in order to maintain Prussian supremacy in the German empire. Today this curious quirk of political geography is linguistically explained by the existence of “varieties of German.” Consider the map below, how nice that German-German and Austrian-German end at a political boundary! In the current Ukraine-Russia crisis, Russia could leave the west of Ukraine as a rump state.

“Varieties” of German (via Wikipedia)

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.

Geopolitical Cartoons: Monroe and Roosevelt (1900s)

Resurrecting a previous Z Geography series, this week we’ll take a look at the geographic significance of cartoons related to the Monroe Doctrine, specifically the Roosevelt Corollary. As the wikipedia article summarizes, the President James Monroe’s doctrine (articulated in the 1820s) sought to limit European influence in the emerging revolutions in Central and South America. Since the U.S. lacked a “credible” military response at the time, the policy was mostly enforced by the British Empire – who would benefit from new markets for their free trade schemes. At the same time that the U.S. sought to limit European interference in the New World, the U.S. also pledged to respect the internal sovereignty of European countries, to include what colonies remained in the New World.

Of course, perceptions of the doctrine changed with the times. The cartoon below (dated after the U.S. Civil War) depicts a “crippled” American Eagle conversing with an amused British lion and French cock. The context is evident, in the aftermath of the destructive war between the states – the U.S. was in no shape to uphold and enforce the Monroe Doctrine. But by Roosevelt’s presidency, the U.S. had regained its military strength.

a “crippled” American Eagle, unable to uphold the Monroe Doctrine? (post-U.S. Civil War)

President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (from 1904) moved the doctrine from non-interventionism to hardly-disguised imperialism. The corollary was couched in the language and intent of the earlier doctrine in that the U.S. would intervene in conflicts between European countries and Latin American countries in order to press the “legitimate” claims of the Europeans, rather than have the Europeans attempt to enforce their claims directly. More succinctly, the Roosevelt Corollary promoted the United States as the “hemispheric policeman.”

The two geopolitical cartoons below communicate these points. In the first, we see a President Roosevelt aboard one of the “Great White Fleet” ships resting defiantly on a naval gun pointed at a European monarch. The monarch carries “claims” and reaches to across the Atlantic to a sobbing representation of the Republic of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republican). The naval gun is marked the “Monroe Doctrine”. In the distance, Roosevelt is backed by the power of the U.S. Navy (represented by ironclads). The cartoon effectively illustrates the growing strength of the United States. Where before the U.S. required British support to uphold an American doctrine, by Roosevelt’s presidency the U.S. has become a hemispheric (or regional) power in its own right.

Monroe Doctrine as Roosevelt’s “Big Gun” (unknown date)

The second geopolitical cartoon, from 1904, evokes slightly different imagery to explain the Roosevelt Corollary. In it a larger-than-life Roosevelt patrols the Caribbean Sea, which is framed by countries that border it (Santo Domingo/Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, and so on), pulling along the U.S. Navy’s ironclads which are labelled “debt collectors.” In his right hand Roosevelt carries his now-famous big stick, which was his favorite proverb (“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”).

Roosevelt and his Big Stick, patrolling the Caribbean with the U.S. Navy (probably 1904)

The Monroe Doctrine was “reinstated” as it were by World War II, as seen in the geopolitical cartoon below. The cartoon depicts an Uncle Sam with a wet paint brush posting a sign in the Caribbean with ink from a “restatement of the Monroe Doctrine” bucket. The sign reads “Positively no hunting.” Glaring closely at the sign is Hitler’s Germany who sports a smoking gun and the corpses of France, Holland, and Denmark – symbolized as adult ducks. The sign is meant to ward off German and Italian (Mussolini is just behind Hitler) poaching of the remaining possessions of those countries, the ducklings, in the Western Hemisphere.

A renewed Monroe Doctrine, warding off Hitler and Mussolini? (World War II)

These cartoons illustrate historical and geopolitical points. Historically, the Roosevelt Corollary illustrated the United States abandoning of the non-interventionism of the Monroe Doctrine for the active asserting of a regional (and soon to be global) power. This couldn’t have happened without a much stronger U.S. Navy. From a geopolitical perspective, the Roosevelt Corollary represented an assertion of American dominance in the Western hemisphere; rather than a European one. The last cartoon, a renewed emphasis of an 1820s doctrine during World War II, chronicles the ascendancy of American power through a defiant Uncle Sam determined to resist Nazi and fascist aggression.