When it comes to Ukraine let’s not forget the geopolitics before we rush in

A while ago I read a book by British journalist, Tim Marshall, entitled ‘Prisoners of Geography’, where he argues that where you live colours to a great extent your perception of the world around you. That Mr Marshall is an believer, if that’s the right word, in ‘geopolitics’ is very clear. He’s now followed this up with ‘The Power of Geography’, which I have yet to read; but I assume this takes the idea further.

Geopolitics states that politics, especially international relations, is influenced by geography. That certainly makes sense to me and I would argue, for example, that, living on an island as they do, it is perhaps not surprising that so many English voters, many with an atavistic fear of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ and being prepared to believe some of the myths pedalled by Messrs Farage and Johnson etc, voted to leave the EU.

Interestingly, in the furthest extremities of our islands, namely Scotland and Northern Ireland, support for continued EU membership was higher. With the luxury of firm frontiers and never having been occupied by a foreign ‘power’ for a millennium it is clearly very hard for many to empathise with many European citizens whose parents and grandparents have witnessed occupation at first hand. Who can blame them if many still see in closer economic and political cooperation with their neighbours a way of avoiding such disruption in the future?

There are many places where geography, or possibly our interpretation of it, have, since WW2 alone, come back to bite us, for example in Korea, the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Whether it is the arbitrary drawing and redrawing of boundaries, linguistic, cultural or religious boundaries, trying to impose ‘solutions’ based on our own, largely western  perception of what is best is often a recipe for strife and unnecessary bloodshed. I would urge our leaders in the West to be careful not to overreact to what is going on today on the border between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

I have written elsewhere about ‘rubbing Russia’s nose in it’ after the fall of Communism and also quoted Tim Fallon about the redirection of missiles in Eastern Europe. Let’s not forget how JFK reacted when his administration discovered that the Soviet Union was placing missiles on Cuba pointing towards the USA.

So, when it comes to Ukraine it might be worthwhile to try to understand why Putin is behaving the way he does. For me at least, it’s all about spheres of influence as well as his seeking to divert domestic Russian attention away from his regime’s relatively poor economic performance. The fact that troop movements can engender panic in the West will fuel the flames of nationalism which, pardon the pun, Putin and his team reckon is a sure fire way of exciting the psyche of a people who have been systematically exploited by every Russian regime since the Middle Ages.

Let’s not forget that, in terms of fatalities alone, it was the Russian people who did the most heavy lifting in the defeat of fascism between 1939 and 1945. When push comes to shove, the latest generation would seem to be just as resilient.

While in no way wishing to apologise for or defend Putin’s cynical tactics, I do feel that it might be worthwhile our asking ourselves how we might feel if the boot was on the other foot. As I wrote on another thread, we are paying the price for the way we repeated the mistake that we, as ‘victors’, made in the treatment of the ‘losers’ after WW1, in the way we, as ‘winners’, dealt and continue to deal with the ‘losers’ of the Cold War.

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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  • Yeovil Yokel 28th Jan '22 - 2:19pm

    What mistake did the West make in its treatment of Russia at the end of the Cold War, John?

    Mary Dejesky was arguing in a similar vein in the Independent this morning: she wrote that the West should show Russia ‘respect’, without saying what that means. Russia has clearly been the aggressor towards the West under Putin’s rule, and he respects power and deeds, not weakness and words. At what point does showing respect equate to appeasement of a bully? I don’t know the answer, but I think, in dealing with the Russia/Ukraine situation, we need to be mindful of what the Putin regime is like and not how we’d like him to be.

  • The current crisis: US-Ukraine-Russia.

    The Ukraine is close to both Russia, Germany & the EU.
    Then obviously, the Ukraine cannot join NATO unless Russia also joins NATO (As proposed by Yeltsin).

    Lets reform NATO into a world security council, where security is in the open.

  • The current crisis: US-Ukraine-Russia.

    The Ukraine politically and economic are as close to Russia, Germany & the EU,
    such a conflict will be a disaster for all sides.

    We need an agreement then obviously, the Ukraine cannot join NATO unless Russia also joins NATO (As proposed by Yeltsin).

    Lets reform NATO into a world security council, where security is in the open, when all powers can meet, exchange ideas and resolve problems.
    We must also include China as the largest economy.

  • Yes I have wondered for almost 30 years why Russia has not joined, and been a leading and influential NATO country. Was this ever discussed.

  • I strongly disagree with this piece and appeasing tyrants – based on the obvious and legion parallels with the Sudetenland – a place I have been to about 30 or 40 times which still hasn’t recovered now from ethnic cleansing 75 years later. We should support a multi ethnic democracy in Ukraine even if that means fulfilling our obligations under the Budapest Memorandum by supplying lethal defensive arms to Ukraine. Ultimately it is up to Ukrainians if they have the desire to fight but we should at least contribute so that they have the means.

  • Sorry!!!! When World War Two broke out, Stalin was Hitler’s pal. In order for the German Army to invade “Russia” (there were a few other places in between) it had to go through Soviet-occupied Poland (at least partially).
    My advice to Mr Marriot (and I consider myself a relatively polite poster, so this is the most extreme that I have gone) is to read a history book.

  • And to compound my politeness, after my initial outrage, I agree with John Marriot that the West messed up the post-Communist demise, by treating the Russians as “losers” rather than as “victims” of a totalitarian state.
    Had we treated the Russians (and others from the USSR) the way that we treated the Japanese (and the Austrians?) … who knows? I don’t do Science Fiction.

  • John Marriott 28th Jan '22 - 10:04pm

    Of course I know on which side Stalin started the war. Let’s not also forget that, when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, Poland also joined in. Poland, like many Eastern European states was far from being a democracy. In fact, it could be argued that that only really democratic state in that region at the time had been Czechoslovakia, that ‘far away country of which we know little’, whose independence we sacrificed to appease Germany. At least it bought us a year to prepare for a far more deadly conflict that was probably inevitable.

    If you really want to argue the toss about history instead of responding to the points about geopolitics I have made, you might be aware that Hitler was told by his General Staff in 1939 that Germany would really not be ready to take on the world until around 1943. The reason he gave to fire the first shot four years earlier was that he was starting to be concerned about his longevity. The late German historian, Joachim Fest, quoted him as saying at the time (and I translate); “Who knows how long I may live. Let’s have the conflict now”.

    So, how’s your ‘outrage’ now?

  • Zachary Adam Barker 28th Jan '22 - 10:15pm

    I have read both of Tim Marshall’s book but he makes the mistake of not making clear that geopolitics influences political reality, but does not determine it.

    Our position and Putin’s are not comparable. Taking a sympathetic approach to his views is a non-starter since it is based on myths and outright lies. He even recently published an essay outlining how he believes Ukraine shouldn’t exist as a country. It isn’t a great recipe for friendly relations is it?

    We didn’t force Eastern Europe countries to join NATO. They asked of their own free will. And given Russia and the Soviet Union’s history, can you blame them? Why should Russia’s calls for security override theirs?

    We should be supporting a threatened country that is struggling to be free. Not appeasing the country that is threatening them.

    This article reads like a shameless call for appeasement, and I will see that a rebuttal is written.

    It seems Ukraine is the new Czechoslovakia, but it need not be.

  • Ernest

    ‘The Ukraine is close to both Russia, Germany & the EU.
    Then obviously, the Ukraine cannot join NATO unless Russia also joins NATO’

    So Estonia,Latvia, Finland & Poland are also all next to Russia, so ‘obviously’ they should be expelled from NATO.

    Since when was it OK for the leader of a country to decide which organisations a democratic independent country joins?

  • A few points.
    There was a time that Russia wanted to apply to join NATO.
    The second point. I suppose I see the world differently than many others. I see the world as individual people. It is people who have invented the theories about communism, capitalism or whatever. People define the words. The concepts do not have lives of their own. We can change them.
    For a good example see the behaviour of our our present government. Huge amounts of money are being more or less openly being given to friends of people in high places. All of this is publicised, but the obvious conclusions are not drawn.
    I find this fascinating.
    I do not know the answers though. It is obvious though that a starting point is to put effort in to designing systems which recognise the reality that we only have individual people. We also need as a priority to find ways of getting accurate information about what is really happening in the world.

  • John Marriott 29th Jan '22 - 8:23am

    I am no fan of Putin but I do in a way have an understanding of why things are kicking off in Eastern Europe. It is, after all, EASTERN Europe and this is influenced by geography, which is where Mr Marshall stands.

    When I taught in Alberta, Canada, in the early 1970s I became friends with many Canadians whose grandparents had emigrated from ‘the Ukraine’ in Tsarist times. Indeed, so many Ukrainians settled in the province that Ukrainian was an option as a foreign language in our High School program. It was clear that, culturally and linguistically, Russia and Ukraine had much in common. Many families still celebrated Christmas according to the Julian calendar in January. Ukraine was acknowledged as part of the Russian Empire for centuries. We fought a war with Russia in the Crimea, didn’t we?

    In Eastern Europe Russian interest has historically also been strong, which could lead to difficulties for ordinary citizens. One of my Canadian friends, whose family had been ethnic Germans living before WW1 in what is now Poland; but then part of Russia, told me that they used to speak German at home, Polish when out shopping and, at school, their children were taught in Russian.

    Some may question the relevance of what I have written above. They may have a point. However, before we march to defend ‘democracy’ let’s not forget where we live and why it may be less straightforward than some would have us believe.

  • David Goble 29th Jan '22 - 9:36am

    I can’t help feeling that President Putin is seeking to distract the Russian peoples’ attention from domestic problems by using the classic model of being a major international player. I also wonder if the recent change of Chancellor in Germany, the USA being perceived as having a weak President and the leadership of the UK being seen to be distracted by domestic matters instead of concentrating on the international situation might be encouraging his what might be seen as adventurism.

    As to Russian joining NATO; I feel that this is unlikely, to put it mildly. Leadership of NATO is vested in the USA and President Putin is not, I feel, one who would share any kind of leadership.

  • Matt Wardman 29th Jan '22 - 10:11am

    Geopolitics. Yes this is important.

    Whilst we have not had a successful invasion for a long time, the French alone have planned one more than a dozen times. However, within living memory 3 million UK homes were destroyed or damaged in a war, and 380k military and 70k civilians were killed.

    Let’s look at the Geopolitics.

    In strong support of the Ukraine / facing down Russia that I know of are all the countries near to Russia, or who have been invaded by Russia or the USSR, and others. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, UK.

    In support of appeasing Russia: Germany.

    And France imo playing politics to promote France. Comme d’habitude.

    Yet here we are with Germany seeking to deny an emerging democracy the means to defend itself, in the face of an aggressor.

    I do not think the “we must keep all weapons out” figleaf works when Germany they have been one of the two key European facilitators (with France) of the build up of the armed forced of the aggressor.

    That they have chosen to tie their power supply to Putin’s apron strings in the teeth of opposition from the EuCo, with no Plan B in place is … bizarre.

    I’m no fan of EU politics, but I’ll give them a smidgeon of sympathy on this one given the hole they have been landed in.

    I’m with listening to the countries most affected by this threat from Russia. Their view is clear.

  • Rif Winfield 29th Jan '22 - 10:26am

    Two points to make here. The first is that we remain unclear about what Putin’s aims would be in the event of military conflict. He is not stupid, and he knows that to try and occupy a country of 40m Ukrainians would create a situation which he (and even the entire Russian Army) could not control – certainly not in more than the shortest period of time. So any territorial aims he might have in his unfathomable mind would be limited, and possibly achievable as bargaining chips. This needs careful study.
    My second task, John, is to take you to task over your remark that we are “never having been occupied by a foreign ‘power’ for a millennium”. That remains a most Anglocentric viewpoint which contributes towards the alienation felt in many parts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and pushes the separatist desires. All three Celtic nations were conquered by English troops, usually in vicious murderous operations which make Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait pale in comparison. Of course that was centuries ago, and the scars have healed and been largely forgiven. By and large, the nations of the UK can and do live in harmony, and hopefully will continue to do so. But the English habit of failing to distinguish between England and the UK in their speech and writing still jars sometimes!

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Jan '22 - 10:28am

    @Matt Wardman
    “And France imo playing politics to promote France. Comme d’habitude.”

    Hardly surprising with a presidential election ongoing is it?

  • Matt Wardman 29th Jan '22 - 10:45am

    @Noncomformist 🙂 .

    Digging a little, it is surprising what they are willing to put on the block.

    At the moment there is quite an internecine argument going on with Germany over who will predominate in the defence cooperation on FCAS (6th Gen Fighter) and the Joint European Tank (whatever it is called).

    I thought the deal with Germany established during the financial crisis when France needed German money / stability was that France kowtowed in private if Germany didn’t talk about it in public.

    Kremlinologising, I wonder whether Germany having tied themselves to Putin for energy, plus German problems with not having ordered their interim fighter 6-8 years ago, plus France being fine for energy with their nuclear and exporting it in all directions, means that France thinks it has more leverage at present.

  • John Marriott 29th Jan '22 - 11:21am

    @Rif Winfield
    You could, of course, add the two attempts I believe that revolutionary France made to land troops in Ireland and possibly Wales. They didn’t stay long. Come to think about it, perhaps we should also include Bonnie Prince Charlie, who, in the same century, got as far as Derby before chickening out. After all, he was basically Italio/ French despite the Stuart blood in his veins, unless, of course, his father really had been smuggled into his grandmother’s birth chamber in a warming pan!

    The question you should be considering is whether geography actually plays any part in influencing how nations and peoples behave, which is actually behind the question I was posing in my piece.

  • Matt Wardman 29th Jan ’22 – 10:11am………I do not think the “we must keep all weapons out” figleaf works when Germany they have been one of the two key European facilitators (with France) of the build up of the armed forced of the aggressor…….

    OMG! Strange how France and Germany can forget and forgive but the UK mustn’t..Germany, who until 1990 was divided by Russian, seems able to work with Russia whilst the UK only seems able to launder dodgy Russian money..

    The ongoing instability of Ukraine is largely due to the West (especially the US) who would not accept a Ukrainian leader sympathetic to either the EU or Russia (read the transcript of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s 2014, “*** the EU”, phone call..

    BTW, I have posted before that I don’t believe Putin will invade; he gains far more by keeping an unstable Ukraine as a buffer state..
    As for Ukraine in Nato; why? We have already seen the US break it’s agreements on eastward expansion of Nato and, as an aside, we know how the US views foreign weapons within 100 miles let alone on it’s border..’Sauce for the Goose, etc.’

  • ‘Matt Wardman

    Kremlinologising, I wonder whether Germany having tied themselves to Putin for energy’

    This is the most staggering part, Angela Merkel deciding to outsource 50% of Germany’s energy requirements to Russia & naively believing Russia would not use this as leverage at some point.

  • Christopher Haigh 29th Jan '22 - 12:26pm

    Too true John. Russia is an outlying vast place that can’t quite work out if it belongs to the east or the west Putin might be wanting to reunite Russian minority populations in former satellite states back into the motherland. Or he might be afraid of a western unprovoked attack which would be ridiculous of him. Oh that Russia could become a normal modern European type country and join the EU and NATO.

  • Phillip Bennion 29th Jan '22 - 1:02pm

    I will be chairing an event at Spring Conference entitled “Containing Russian Revanchism; What Must We Do?”. Nathalie Loiseau MEP (France) and Petras Austrevicius MEP (Lithuania) have accepted my invitations to speak. We are clearly underprepared to deal with Russia from a military perspective and the German dependence on Russian gas has been pointed out in the posts above. There is no immediate prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, so Putin has manufactured the crisis for his own ends.

    Back in 2009 I was a member of a delegation of sister parties which met the FDP when they joined the new coalition government in Berlin. I warned them about the danger of signing a bilateral gas agreement with Russia, as the Russian leadership would use it to divide Europe.

    For the moment we may need to buy time, but we need an effective strategy to deal with Putin and convince Russians that it is in their own interests to tilt westward.

  • I was in Moscow 3 years ago having accepted an invitation to speak to students at Moscow University about my experiences of living in West Berlin and ‘being liberal ‘.
    From many conversations I realised how deeply Russians fear invasion from the West. Also, how much Putin is defined by his desire to restore a Russian National Empire.
    Balanced against this, I remember conversations with those who lived in fear and oppression under Soviet inspired oppression across Eastern Europe.
    Putin will never negotiate in good faith. Russians do not want any war to rebuild an Empire but remain distrustful of Nato’s seeming desire to move Eastwards. The peoples of Eastern Europe have the right to live in free, democratic countries.
    We have the legal duty to supply and support Ukraine. Putin must be made to realise that any invasion will plunge Europe and Russia into another devastating war. Deterrents only work when your opposition knows you will respond.
    Only then can we try to secure a safe, buffer zone to address Russia’s justified fear of Western invasion and deliver Eastern European countries right to live independently in freedom and democracy.

  • Chris Moore 29th Jan '22 - 7:15pm

    Very interesting article and comments.

    A thought experiment: if Ukraine hadn’t given up its nuclear weapons in 1994, would it now be less vulnerable to Russian threats and potential military action?

    (There is a technical issue that can be ignored. It would have been difficult to re-target Ukraine’s missiles to hit western Russia: they were too long range. Vladivostok would have been in range.)

  • Peter Hirst 30th Jan '22 - 3:20pm

    I think Putin has a strong sense of history. He knows he will have to temper his desires with realism concerning what he can achieve. He has already achieved plenty and it is conceivable that we wake up one morning to discover he has removed his forces from the front line.

  • Phillip Bennion 2nd Feb '22 - 10:10am

    I hope that the conversation with Macron had the desired effects on Putin’s thinking. It seems that he holds little regard for the possibility of win-win scenarios and is hidebound in a zero sum mentality. The longer that the stand-off persists, the less likely an invasion, so the diplomatic effort is necessary. Closer economic ties with Europe and the US would benefit Russia too. The carrot of positive opportunity must be balanced with the threat of negative consequences, but in any event, future diplomatic efforts have to be backed up with the capability to defend EU and NATO member territory.

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