Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in the Donbas on June 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is erecting a new Iron Curtain in Ukraine, deep in the heart of the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine’s eastern border, 2,000 kilometers from Berlin, was on a longitude just east of Moscow. In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s army shifted it to a few hundred kilometers past the Donbas region.

The conflict in Eastern Europe closely follows a script written a century ago by British geo-strategist Halford John Mackinder. His paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” predicted a battle over the “World-Island,” the Eurasian continent.

The center of the World-Island, said Mackinder, is the Heartland, the region from Eastern Europe to Siberia. Protected from Western naval power, Mackinder called it “the ultimate citadel of land-power.” In his 1919 publication Democratic Ideals and Reality, he wrote: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

Mackinder developed the Heartland Theory when Britain ruled the proverbial waves. Like rival colonial powers Portugal, Holland and France, Britain’s power was based on naval power. But Mackinder concluded that the railroad could change the global battlefield. Naval powers had the advantage of surprise; land-based powers using railroads had the advantage of speed.

The Heartland identified by Mackinder is a sparsely populated area. For centuries the region was controlled by the Huns, Mongols and Turks, and the Manchus. The Mongols conquered most of the Heartland, but never the Rim Lands, the coastal areas of the World-Island.

Similarly, the naval powers never conquered the Heartland. The region has imposing natural defenses – arctic ice in the north, the Gobi and Mongolian desert in the southeast, the Himalayas in the south, and the Zagros and Carpathian mountains in the west.

The only unimpeded route to the Heartland was the northern German plains into Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Mackinder believed that Germany had the potential to dominate the Heartland – but he could not have known that Nazi Germany would try simultaneously to overcome the naval powers in the west and land power Russia in the east.   

Having been invaded from the west three times, the Soviet Union threw up an Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. The ensuing Cold War was punctuated by proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Afghanistan, all countries at the periphery of the World-Island.

From the 1970s, the architect of US foreign policy was Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski, a fervent anti-communist of Ukrainian-Polish descent, persuaded Carter to support Islamic rebels fighting Afghanistan’s communist government.

In 1979, the US Central Intelligence Agency launched Operation Cyclone, the most expensive covert operation it had ever conducted. Funding for the operation started with $695,000 in mid-1979 but reached $630 million in 1987. The CIA initially supplied antique British Lee-Enfield rifles; by 1986, the Afghan resistance received Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

In later years Brzezinski claimed that Operation Cyclone was meant to provoke a Soviet intervention. The Soviets would have their own “Vietnam,” he said. The ploy worked and after an eight-year war, the Soviets retreated.

Brzezinski is the author of The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, a 1997 book on geopolitics that was based on Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. Brzezinski argued that the US could retain global supremacy only if it prevented the emergence of a single power on the World-Island.

The Brzezinski Doctrine remains influential in the US foreign-policy establishment. His protégés, among them Ukrainian émigré Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, are a powerful voice in the US State Department.

In 2014, during the height of the Maidan protests in Kiev, Russian intelligence intercepted a phone call between Nuland and then-US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt discussing the formation of a new Ukrainian government. Showing her disregard for Europe in executing US strategic policy, she is heard telling the ambassador “F*ck the EU.”

In the years after Maidan, the US followed the Afghanistan script by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid into Ukraine, with the desired result: a Russian response. Brzezinski succeeded in Afghanistan, and his protégés succeeded in Ukraine.

Cutting Europe from the Eurasian continent is the most consequential geopolitical event since World War II. It will likely shape the 21st century. Mackinder was partly right. The railroad was a threat to naval powers, not in military terms but in commercial terms. This put China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the crosshairs of US policymakers.

The BRI could have transformed the World-Island, from Shanghai to Rotterdam, into one large economic region. It could only be stopped by fomenting unrest and instability along its route and by challenging the key players. After Ukraine, Taiwan is likely to be the next target of the Brzezinskians.

The West has morally cut itself off from the world’s two most populous countries as well as Russia. This triangle will play a key role in shaping the 21st century. With China in the lead, they will develop a new monetary system parallel to the dollar-euro system as well as alternatives for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other international institutions that enforce the Western-designed “rules-based system.”   

The Ukraine crisis could not have come at a worse time for Russia’s opponents. The US, Japan and the European Union are struggling with never-before-seen debt levels together with record-setting inflation. The latter can’t be tamed with higher interest rates without causing a wave of bankruptcies and even sovereign defaults.

Some economists predict the Ukraine crisis will lead to the end of the dominance of the dollar-euro system, the backbone of Western military power. Asia with its nearly 4 billion people will develop a parallel financial system and lessen its dependence on the West. This scenario was perhaps inevitable, but Mackinder would have been surprised at the way the West has hastened its own decline.

Images courtesy of Strategic Stuff.

Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Leibniz, Einstein, and China (2021).