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)?

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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)

Competing Narratives in Ukraine

The conflict narratives prevailing in eastern Ukraine obscure the likely “ground truth” at the center of the conflict. Russia’s and Ukraine’s press releases and official commentary are political statements; statements that contain elements of truth bent towards justifying (or legitimizing) certain political actions. Geographically, these narratives center on eastern Ukraine and its people. With the start of Ukrainian military action in the east, the critical factor is which identity the eastern Ukrainians emphasize – are they primarily cultural Ukrainians? Or Russian speakers? The answer to this question will have repercussions for the rest of Ukraine.

note: this post draws on information from a useful BBC report (here).

For Russia the conflict is about protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, specifically eastern Ukraine at the moment. As the BBC observes, most of these Russian-speakers are “ethnic Ukrainians”. This unhelpful phrase is probably meant to convey that these communities of individuals are “culturally Ukrainian”. Ethnic groups, like nations, are an imagined community; a community often based on: 1) culture, 2) language, 3) religion, et cetera. This seemingly minor details carries important weight – first, a person’s identity has multiple faces. An individual living in Donetsk is probably, at once a Russian-speaker who consider herself Ukrainian. Perhaps next door neighbor, similar in all respects, considers themselves Russian. In the Russian narrative, Putin aims to protect both groups, Russian-speaking cultural Russians and Russian-speaking cultural Ukrainians from Ukrainian-speaking government oppressing this group from Kiev.

For Ukraine the conflict is about maintaining territorial cohesion and its cultural identity. The government argues that Russia sparked the unrest in the east, insinuating that these problems occurred at foreign behest; moreover, it has labelled the pro-Russia groups as “terrorists.” Kiev’s argument is that Ukraine is a country for cultural Ukrainians, whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian. Unsurprisingly given this position, it has wholly dismissed the demands of the pro-Russia group, marking them as illegitimate.

Taken together, the conflict is about two competing nation/state narratives – a Russia seeking to assert itself abroad as the protector of Russian-speakers worldwide and a Ukraine seeking to maintain its identity as the abode of cultural Ukrainians. The problem, of course, is what the Ukrainian-passport holders (i.e. the official Ukrainian public) consider themselves. As the BBC article notes, many people in the east are angry with a government in Kiev that see is dominated by politicians from the central and western oblasts. Further, they believe that the interim government has simply appointed oligarchs as governors, similarly corrupt individuals from Yanukovich’s tenure. Besides the international community, the Ukrainian and Russian governments are also attempting to influence these locals – labeling pro-Russia groups as “terrorists” and advocating the defense of “Russian speakers.”

With the Ukrainian military undertaking an “anti-terrorism” operation in the country’s east – the government risks pushing the resident cultural Ukrainians, who have a legitimate gripe with the government – poor representation and corruption, into the waiting arms of Russia. This risk would grow even more likely, and dangerous, should the operation negatively impact local residents. By prompting local Ukrainians to switch allegiance, Kiev would ultimately be challenging its own identity – is Ukraine for cultural Ukrainians, regardless of language or is the vision much more limited a state only for Ukrainian-speaking cultural Ukrainians in the west and central oblasts? If the latter is the case, what happens to the Hungarians, Poles, and Romanian speakers?

Appendix:

The CIA’s World Factbook also illustrates the religious aspect of Ukrainian identity, although it the data is only provided a the countrywide-level.

Of 44.2 million estimated Ukrainian citizens:

  • 67% speak Ukrainian
  • 24% speak Russian
  • 9% speak other languages (including Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian)
  • 50% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate)
  • 26% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate)
  • 8% practice Ukrainian Greek Catholic
  • 7% practice Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox

According to its Wikipedia page, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is primarily located in eastern Ukraine. The other two Ukrainian Orthodox churches are mostly located in the west and center.

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.

02-2014-ukraine-russian-2001

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.

EDIT:

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.