The recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal, an ex-Russian spy living in Salisbury, England, and his daughter and the consequences of this action – the deterioration of relations between Russia and the UK and other Western nations – remind us about the general geopolitical tension between East and West.
The UK government’s allegations that Russia was responsible for the poisoning, and the subsequent expulsions of Russian diplomats from the UK, the US and dozens of other countries, bring to our attention the turbulent relations between Russia and the West.
It is not the aim of this article to adjudicate which side is wrong and which is right on such a complex issue, but rather to focus on the deeper origins of the rivalry.
The tension in the relations between Russia and the West is deeply geopolitical, lying on the one hand in the timeless nature of the interstate relations between the UK and Russia and on the other hand in the confrontation between the West and Russia as it was shaped over the last 200 years.
Everyone can recall the anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine in February 2014 that led to the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych, the clashes between pro-government forces and pro-Russian separatists, the Russian intervention and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia in early 2014.
The history of tension between Russia and West
What does the historical record prove about the geopolitical antagonism between the UK and Russia? Do you remember the Crimean War?
It was a keen desire of Russia from the epoch of the czars to expand Russian influence southward by capturing and controlling the Dardanelles. The Ottoman Empire was viewed by Russian officials as the “sick man of Europe” and therefore Moscow coveted its territory. However, Russian ambitions were met with fierce opposition by the British, who viewed Turkish territorial integrity as a bastion against Russian expansion.
Russian actions were conceived as a threat to the British lines of communication with India. Further conflicting ambitions of the great powers in Near East led to the Crimean War of 1854 between Russia and the allied forces of Turkey, Britain and France. The war ended with the victory of the allies over Russia.
As mentioned above, over time geopolitics shaped the relations between Russia and the West. But what can the theory of international politics teach us about this?
Geopolitics and international politics
Great-power antagonism is inherent in the nature of international relations as major powers fear one another and do not trust one another’s intentions. The victory of the Allies – by now including Soviet Russia – over Nazi Germany led to the Cold War. Not surprisingly, interests changed after the war and therefore former allies became enemies.
Turning our attention to current events, we must again underline that geopolitics shape the relations between Russia and the West. The crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia reflect this geopolitical reality.
In Russia’s view, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s enlargement eastward, including many countries of Eastern Europe, and the plans to integrate Ukraine in the alliance, was a major threat to its national security. The whole situation triggered the famous dictum of international politics, the so-called security dilemma: Great powers are sensitive to potential threats near their borders. Ukraine was a geopolitical bastion within the Russian sphere of influence, and Russia could not tolerate the West’s actions.
The scenario of establishing a Western base hostile to Russian interests in the Crimean Peninsula was a nightmare scenario that in its view should be avoided at all costs. The ensuing events are well known.
Αs is also well known, the UK and the US share many of the same values. However, during the Suez Crisis of 1956, US president Dwight Eisenhower disagreed with British actions and punished London for not consulting Washington by exerting economic and political influence on Britain. In the end, British prime minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign.
Despite that, after Suez British leaders understood that the UK was not a superpower any more and thus could not exert its influence on a worldwide scale. London was forced to adjust to the new geopolitical realities, namely US geopolitical supremacy. The so-called “special relationship” started to develop then.
From a geopolitical angle both countries acted as offshore balancers, since they shared the common interest of intercepting any local hegemon in Europe that could threaten American interests in the Western Hemisphere and British interests beyond the English Channel. The two World Wars fall into the aforementioned paradigm. The same logic applied during the Cold War when Russia and the US were trapped in a fierce power competition at various levels.
Cold War history left its scars on both camps. The Skripal case and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 are closely associated with the Cold War legacy. Putting it differently, they are a by-product, not to say a reflection, of this.