Welcome to an ever more dangerous world. By the way, while you're reading this, if you happen to be at your desk, you might consider diving under it to practice one of those duck-and-cover drills of my childhood (just in case). After all, it wasn't enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send 150,000 or more troops, as well as planes, tanks, artillery, missiles, and god knows what else into the bravely resistant, ever more devastated neighboring country of Ukraine. He also had to declare the Russian nuclear arsenal on "high alert," while personally and all-too-publicly overseeing the testing of a hypersonic ballistic missile. Then he made sure that his military captured first the wrecked Chernobyl nuclear plant a 1986 disaster that spread radiation over significant parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Europe and next the largest active nuclear power plant on that continent, which those troops set partially on fire. Consider that apt indeed on a planet that's already displaying far too much wear without an incipient nuclear crisis added in.
Keep in mind that there are three more nuclear power plants in Ukraine still potentially to be fought over, any one of which could, under the right (i.e., wrong) circumstances, be turned into the next Chernobyl. This is, sadly, the hair-raising world that Vladimir Putin has decided to usher us into and, in the months (not to say years) before it happened, no less sadly, the U.S. and NATO showed no give or urge to bargain at all when it came to Ukraine's future or the possibility, which so disturbs the Russian president, that it could end up in a military alliance against his own land. Face it, it's a tough imperial planet we're living on and who should know better than historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, whose latest book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, focuses on the last 400 years of hair-raising imperial politics in Eurasia and the 50 years to come. Tom
The Geopolitics of the Ukraine War
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in the Struggle over Eurasia
By Alfred McCoy
Just as the relentless grinding of the earth's tectonic plates produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so the endless superpower struggle for dominance over Eurasia is fraught with tensions and armed conflict. Beneath the visible outbreak of war in Ukraine and the U.S.-Chinese naval standoff in the South China Sea, there is now an underlying shift in geopolitical power in process across the vast Eurasian landmass the epicenter of global power on a fast-changing, overheating planet. Take a moment to step back with me to try to understand what's now happening on this increasingly embattled globe of ours.
If geology explains the earth's eruptions, geopolitics is the tool we need to grasp the deeper meaning of the devastating war in Ukraine and the events that led to this crisis. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, geopolitics is essentially a method for the management of empire through the use of geography (air, land, and sea) to maximize military and economic advantage. Unlike conventional nations, whose peoples can be readily mobilized for self-defense, empires are, by dint of their extraterritorial reach and the perils inherent in any foreign military deployment, a surprisingly fragile form of government. To give an empire a fighting chance of survival against formidable odds requires a resilient geopolitical architecture.
For nearly 100 years, the geopolitical theories of an obscure Victorian geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, have had a profound influence on a succession of leaders who sought to build or break empires in Eurasia including Adolf Hitler, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin. In an academic essay published in 1904, when the Trans-Siberian Railway was completing its 5,700-mile crawl from Moscow to Vladivostok, Mackinder argued that future rails would knit Eurasia into a unitary landmass that, along with Africa, he dubbed the tri-continental "world island." When that day came, Russia, in alliance with another land power like Germany and, in our time, we might add China could expand across Eurasia's endless central "heartland," allowing, he predicted, "the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight."
As the Versailles Peace Conference opened in 1919 at the end of World War I, Mackinder turned that seminal essay into a memorable maxim about the relationship between East European regions like Ukraine, the Central Asian heartland, and global power. "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland," he wrote. "Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World."
At the core of recent conflicts at both ends of Eurasia is an entente between China and Russia that the world hasn't seen since the Sino-Soviet alliance at the start of the Cold War. To grasp the import of this development, let's freeze frame two key moments in world history Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong's Moscow meeting with the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin in December 1949 and Vladimir Putin's summit in Beijing with Xi Jinping just last month.
To avoid facile comparisons, the historical context for each of those meetings must be kept in mind. When Mao came to Moscow just weeks after proclaiming the People's Republic in October 1949, China had been ravaged by a nine-year war against Japan that killed 20 million people and a five-year civil war that left seven million more dead.
In contrast, having defeated Hitler, seized an empire in eastern Europe, rebuilt his socialist economy, and tested an atomic bomb, making the Soviet Union a superpower, Stalin was at the peak of his strength. In contrast to China's army of ill-equipped infantry, the Soviet Union had a modern military with the world's best tanks, jet fighters, and missiles. As the globe's top communist, Stalin was "the boss" and Mao came to Moscow as essentially a supplicant.
When Mao Met Stalin
During his two-month trip to Moscow starting in December 1949, Mao sought desperately needed economic aid to rebuild his ravaged land and military support for the liberation of the island of Taiwan. In a seemingly euphoric telegram sent to his comrades in Beijing, Mao wrote:
"Arrived in Moscow on the 16th and met with Stalin for two hours at 10 p.m. His attitude was really sincere. The questions involved included the possibility of peace, the treaty, loan, Taiwan, and the publication of my selected works."
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).