Geopolitics — the key to understanding Russia foreign policy

  • Themes: Russia

From Tsar Alexander II to Putin, Russia's leading ideology and relationship to Europe has swung between extremes. One constant, however, has remained throughout history: an overriding concern for the geopolitical.

A political cartoon showing the Russian bear blowing soap bubbles labeled 'Promises' through a meerschaum pipe with a Chinese face, using liquid from a bowl labeled 'Manchurian soft soap'. The 1903 cartoon is one of many examples of the figure of the bear embodying Western preconceptions of Russia.
A political cartoon showing the Russian bear blowing soap bubbles labeled 'Promises' through a meerschaum pipe with a Chinese face, using liquid from a bowl labeled 'Manchurian soft soap'. The 1903 cartoon is one of many examples of the figure of the bear embodying Western preconceptions of Russia. Credit: Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Geopolitical factors in Russian foreign policy and strategy’ in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.

It is most telling that less than ten years ago, with Vladimir Putin already well settled in the saddle, prominent Russian liberals dismissed the legend of ‘the Phoenix rising out of the ashes’ as a possible trajectory of the future. It was misleading, as Dimitri Trenin argued, because of the ‘discontinuities in Russia’s structure and behaviour that militate against the repetition of the familiar cycle, i.e passing from imperial break-up to imperial restoration.’ In other words, there was no longer ‘a fundamental value gap between Russia and much of the rest of the world… borders as barriers are being replaced by borders as frontiers, interfaces, lines of communication.’

The perennial issue concerns the definition of the nature of Russian foreign policy and revolves around the relationship between ideology, realism and national interests. My contention is that the legacy of the past still weighs heavily on the execution of contemporary Russian foreign policy. Any attempt in the West to make projections for the future, therefore, requires an ability to recognise the past and the enduring geopolitical factors of Russian foreign policy.

The concept of geopolitics often relates to the physical realm, and yet it is also inherently mental. Perceptions, preconceived ideas, emotions and individuals remain major factors in the conduct of international relations, though naturally this is rarely conceded by politicians and, strangely enough, tends to be ignored, if not dismissed, by both historians and political scientists. In the 1930s, for instance, vindictiveness and resentment rekindled preconceptions and mutual suspicion, which in turn shaped policies, and were the single most important contributor to the calamitous events leading to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that precipitated the outbreak of the Second World War.

The following subtle minor episode illustrates the power of such convictions. In May 1940, when Britain embarked on crucial negotiations with the Soviet Union in an attempt to sway it away from Nazi Germany, General Hastings Ismay, head of the Cabinet Secretariat and later Winston Churchill’s military adviser, sent his friend, Orme Sargent, the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, ‘The Truce of the Bear’, which was inspired by the 19th-century Anglo-Russian imperial rivalry in Central Asia – the so called ‘Great Game’. In the poem, from which the following verses are selected, an old blind beggar who had been mauled by a bear removes his bandages to reveal his wounds and speaks:

Eyeless, noseless, and lipless – toothless, broken of speech, Seeking a dole at the doorway he mumbles his tale to each
Over and over the story, ending as he began:
‘Make ye no truce with Adam-zad – the Bear that walks like a man.

‘Horrible, hairy, human, with paws like hands in prayer,
Making his supplication rose Adam-zad the Bear!
I looked at the swaying shoulders, at the paunch’s swag and swing, And my heart was touched with pity for the monstrous, pleading thing.

Touched with pity and wonder, I did not fire then…
I have looked no more on women –
I have walked no more with men.
Nearer he tottered and nearer, with paws like hands that pray – From brow to jaw that steel-shod paw, it ripped my face away!

‘When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer, That is the time of peril – the time of the Truce of the Bear!’
Over and over the story, ending as he began:
‘There is no truce with Adam-zad, the Bear that looks like a Man.’

Ever since Russia’s emergence as a major power in the 18th century, the Western world has been reluctant to accept it as an integral part of Europe. This rebuff, embedded in a deep-rooted Russophobic tradition, was heightened by the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1839, the Marquis de Custine, whose entire family had been sent to the guillotine, sought refuge in Russia, the bastion of monarchical rule in Europe. He came back appalled, warning his readers that the Russians were ‘Chinese masquerading as Europeans’. Almost a century later we find the famous British diplomat, author and politician, Harold Nicolson, describing in his diary a lunch at the grand London residency of Ambassador Ivan Maisky, a ‘grim Victorian mansion’ in Nicolson’s words. ‘I was ushered into a room of unexampled horror… we were given corked sherry, during which time the man with a yellow moustache and a moujik’s unappetising daughter carried tableware and bananas into the room beyond,’ he wrote. ‘We then went into luncheon, which was held in a winter-garden, more wintry than gardeny… We began with caviar which was all to the good. We then had a little wet dead trout. We then had what in nursing homes is called “fruit jelly”…During the whole meal, I felt that there was something terribly familiar about it all… And then suddenly I realised it was the East. They were playing at being Europeans…They have gone oriental.’

Earlier, during the civil war in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Churchill applied far more unflattering metaphors, comparing the Russians to ‘crocodiles’ and a ‘bubonic plague’. Continuity in the Western perception of Russia was likewise conspicuous in its choice of the ‘Iron Curtain’ metaphor as an opening salvo in the Cold War, a mere para- phrase of the ‘cordon sanitaire’, with which Lord Curzon had hoped to isolate Western civilisation from the Bolshevik ‘epidemic’ following the Russian Revolution.

Nor have the Russians been immune to xenophobia, or clear about their own identity and destiny. From the early 1830s the Russian intelligentsia pursued a fierce debate between the Westerners and the Slavophiles over the road which Russia should follow to surmount its political, social and economic backwardness. It may well be argued that the search by the double-headed eagle for physical and national identity had been the gist of Russian history all along. The debate, in various shapes and forms, has since followed each swivel in the Russian story, culminating in the demonising of the Western bourgeoisie following the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin’s chronic misreading of British intentions and behaviour, for instance, was undoubtedly a major factor in the formulation of Soviet foreign policy.

This diehard tradition accounts very much for Western attempts to impose values as the indispensable common denominator and precondition for any community of interests with Russia – a criterion which is hardly observed by the West in its relations with allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. This adherence to ‘moral’ criteria in forging foreign policy stands in contrast to lessons learnt from the past. There is no way of overcoming lingering mutual suspicion and preconceived ideas without a resort to history and dialogue, if a bridge is to be established. The idea that values are the indispensable common denominator and precondition for any community of interests is not borne out by historical experience. After all, paradoxically, the West forged the most sound alliances with Russia on solidly geopolitical grounds when its regime was much at odds with Western values: be that during the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, or the Grand Alliance with Stalin.

Notions of space and geopolitics, applied to conflicts concerning overlapping interests or regional ethnic issues and manipulated through the instruments of balance of power, were and remain central to the formulation and execution of Russian foreign policy. My extended research into Stalin’s foreign policy, for instance, has shown that he was little affected by ideological predilections or sentiments in that regard. His statesmanship was to a large extent entrenched in the legacy of Tsarist Russia, and responded to challenges which had deep historical roots. This is in no way to question the view that Stalin’s system of government (or for that matter Putin’s as well) was also characterised by idiosyncratic and despotic methods in the pursuit of state goals. Who would dispute the disastrous impact of Stalin’s savage purges of the military, his disastrous meddling in the workings of the high command and the highly professional Soviet foreign ministry?

And yet, on the whole, Stalin’s foreign policy appears to have followed an unscrupulous realpolitik, serving well-defined traditional Russian geopolitical interests. Ironically, Marx’s battle cry for the international proletariat in 1848 – that they had ‘little to lose but their chains’ – evoked far less resonance in Stalin than the famous dictum of the then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, in the same year: ‘We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’

I have devoted the core of my academic career to exploring the interrelations between ideology, realpolitik and geopolitics. My earlier books focused on the formulation of Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. They revealed how the first decade of the Russian Revolution was characterised by a dynamic process of re-evaluation of foreign policy. The Bolsheviks faced a formidable trial in their futile attempts to reconcile two contradictory factors: the axiomatic need to spread the revolution beyond Russia’s borders and the prosaic need to guarantee survival within recognised borders. From its inception, Soviet foreign policy was characterised by a gradual but consistent retreat from unyielding hostility to capitalist regimes, preferring peaceful coexistence based on mutual expediency. Crude, cold calculations had always been and remained the backbone of Stalin’s policies, and they echoed forcefully in the corridors of the Kremlin until the appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev and the sub-sequent demise of the Soviet Union.

When it comes to the Second World War, neither the fanciful idea that throughout 1939–41 Stalin had been meticulously preparing a revolutionary war against Germany but was pre-empted by Hitler’s own invasion of Russia, nor the notion that he expected Germany and Britain to bleed white, paving the way for the communist revolution to be carried into the heart of Europe on the bayonets of the Red Army, is borne out by the archival sources. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Stalin personally warned Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian leader of the Comintern, not to cherish revolutionary dreams. ‘In the First Imperialist War’, Dimitrov was warned, ‘the Bolsheviks overestimated the situation. We all rushed ahead and made mistakes! This can be explained, but not excused, by the conditions prevailing then. Today we must not repeat the mistakes made by the Bolsheviks then.’

Surprisingly, Stalin’s mind was not set on war, but rather on the agenda for a peace conference which he expected to convene by 1942. He hoped the conference, attended by a debilitated British Empire, would topple the Treaty of Versailles, and acknowledge the new Soviet security arrangements in Central and Northern Europe. However, far more striking is that, embracing the traditional Russian geopolitical outlook, Stalin saw in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact an opportunity to redress the grievances which he felt had been inflicted on Russia throughout the 19th century, during the struggle for mastery in Europe – and specifically in the Paris and Berlin Peace conferences following the Crimean War of 1856 and the Russo-Turkish wars in 1877–78. The forgotten story of the scramble for the Balkans in 1939–41, and indeed the reopening of the 19th-century ‘Eastern Question’, best illustrate the geopolitical continuum in Stalin’s approach to foreign policy. The annexation of Bessarabia in June 1940 has been commonly perceived by historians as yet another example of pure Bolshevik expansionism. But the move was motivated by the need to improve the strategic position of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis both Britain and Germany by securing the littoral of the Black Sea and control of the mouth of the Danube. His conduct is almost a replica of Alexander II’s conduct during the 1877–78 war with Turkey, which ended with the Treaty of San Stefano, establishing a Russian presence at the opening of the Bosphorus strait.

The common vivid presentation of Molotov’s negotiations with Hitler in Berlin in November 1940 as proof that Stalin had conspired with Hitler to divide the world, is contested by the directive for the talks, dictated to Molotov in Stalin’s dacha and in his long hand, which I unearthed, and which is confined to the intrinsic Soviet interests in the Balkans and the Turkish Straits, determined by considerations of security. Stalin later explained to Dimitrov, who became the first communist leader of Bulgaria, that the approach to Hitler was induced by the threats posed to Russia in the Black Sea. ‘Historically the danger has always come from there,’ Stalin noted, revealing his frame of mind, ‘The Crimean War – the capture of Sebastopol – the intervention of Wrangel [the commanding general of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in southern Russia] in 1919 etc.’

Stalin’s stance over the Balkans reflected similar arrangements obtained by force from Finland after the conclusion of the Winter War in March 1940, and which protected the maritime approaches to Leningrad. The triangular ‘urge to the Sea’ (at the Pacific, the Baltic and the North Seas, and the Black Sea) had been, and remains, as brilliantly suggested a long time ago by Max Kerner, a cardinal principle in Russian geopolitically-oriented foreign policy. It was Stalin’s a priori premise, when war broke out, that Russia was ‘content being confined to its own small lebensraum’. Accused at one point by the Western press of conducting in southeast Europe a ‘platonic relationship with the Slavonic people’, Stalin responded: ‘I have read Plato carefully but I do not really see the relevance. We simply pursue a realistic policy rather than sentimental. We save our sentiments for small children and little animals, but in practice we do not conduct a sentimental policy in relation to any country, be that Slav or not, be that small or big.’ In a tête-à-tête conversation with Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary for most of the Second World War, Maisky, the veteran Soviet ambassador to London, complained that British statesmen and politicians had always been divided into two groups. One embodied primarily the state interests of Great Britain and the second embodied primarily the ‘class feelings and prejudices of the ruling top circles’. When Eden suggested that the same could be said of Russia, Maisky interjected: ‘But the difference is that the S[oviet] G[overnment] has never pursued and does not pursue Gefülspolitik. The S[oviet] G[overnment] is utterly realistic in its foreign policy. When state interests and ideas collide, state interests always emerge with the upper hand.’

It may come as a surprise to learn that Churchill, the cross-bearer in the crusade against communism in the Russian civil war and the 1920s, and the architect of the Iron Curtain, held similar views. Churchill’s witty quip, describing Russia as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, has often been evoked by historians and politicians alike to demonstrate the sinister nature of Stalin’s foreign policy. However, few historians have actually bothered to study the radio speech delivered by Churchill in October 1939 (merely three months after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), seeking reconciliation and rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Churchill actually went on to solve the mystery: ‘But perhaps, there is a key. The key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant herself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that she should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south-eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.

In conclusion, my argument is that to attribute Russian imperial policy, Stalin’s conduct of foreign affairs or indeed Putin’s actions in contemporary world affairs to the whims of tyranny, or to an ideological drive towards relentless expansionism, is entirely misleading and ahistorical. It overlooks Russia’s tenacious adherence to imperatives deeply rooted within its history and national mentality.

Geopolitics, in the Russian/Soviet process of nation building, has been a major factor in the interrelationship of Soviet domestic and foreign policy. It leaves one wondering whether, in the sphere of foreign policy, universal ideologies have not been at best instrumental in manipulating and moulding public opinion, or in sustaining legitimacy in the age of democracy and the masses.

In order to understand the 20th century, as well as today’s Russia, it might be necessary to resort to the icons of Halford MackinderMachiavelliRichelieu and Bismarck, rather than Woodrow WilsonMarxLenin or Milton Friedman.


Gabriel Gorodetsky