Projecting Geopolitical Theories onto the Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine crisis emerged in late 2013 when mass protests erupted over the government’s suspension of plans to implement an association agreement with the European Union. Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine dramatically escalated the conflict. The complex geopolitical struggle over Ukraine’s orientation between Russia and the West has lent itself to analysis through the lens of classical and critical geopolitical theories. This paper surveys perspectives on the Ukraine crisis from key geopolitical schools of thought, examining how their conceptual models illuminate rival motivations and how these frameworks may shape future policies.

Classical Geopolitical Theories

Classical geopolitical theories emphasize competition between sea powers and land powers, control of strategic chokepoints, and the influence of geography on foreign policy. These frameworks highlight Russia’s imperative to maintain dominion over Ukraine as a crucial geostrategic buffer state.

Mackinder’s Heartland Theory

British scholar Halford Mackinder’s famous Heartland theory posited that control over the Eurasian landmass, or “heartland”, was the key to global power.[1] For Mackinder, dominance over Ukraine allowed for consolidation of the heartland under a single power. From this view, Russia seeks primacy in Ukraine as the gateway to European expansion and securing the heartland.[2] Losing Ukraine endangers Russia’s regional influence and access to warm-water ports. Mackinder’s ideas suggest an inevitable battle between land and sea powers over the geopolitical pivot of Ukraine.

Spykman’s Rimland Theory

Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman built on Mackinder’s ideas, identifying a “rimland” of states like Ukraine that rings the heartland.[3] Spykman argued rimland nations can form strategic buffers between rival land and sea powers. The Ukraine crisis reflects competition between Russia and the West to bring Ukraine into their respective spheres and prevent domination by the other.[4] Spykman would see Ukraine’s alignment as crucial for tilting the regional balance of power. Control of the rimland is critical in Spykman’s vision of geopolitics.

Mahan’s Maritime Power Theory

US Navy officer Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory of sea power argued that maritime dominance enabled global power projection.[5] Mahan would view Russia’s naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol as a prized asset enabling force projection into the Black Sea and Mediterranean.[6] Losing Sevastopol diminished Russia’s sea power and motivated actions to reassert maritime access. Mahan would argue Russia’s drive for warm-water ports like Sevastopol necessitated regaining control over the Crimean coastline.

Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard Theory

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in The Grand Chessboard that whoever controlled Eurasia dominated world affairs.[7] Brzezinski would see the battle over Ukraine as part of a broader struggle between regional powers like Russia and global actors like the US over consolidating primacy in Eurasia. US backing for Ukraine is partly aimed at preventing renewed Russian hegemony over the Eurasian landmass.

Critical Geopolitical Theories

Critical geopolitics examines how geographic imaginations and discourses shape political actions. These perspectives illuminate the clashing spatial narratives underpinning the struggle over Ukraine.

Lacoste’s Geopolitical Imaginations

French political geographer Yves Lacoste developed the concept of geographical imaginations as filters shaping threat perceptions and state policies.[8] Divergent imaginations of Ukraine’s spatial identity and geographic orientation relative to Russia and Europe inform the Ukraine crisis. Rival imaginations see Ukraine as belonging to either a European/Western zone or Eurasian/Russian sphere. Material actions follow from these imagined geographies.

Agnew’s Geopolitical Discourses

John Agnew examined how statesmen geographical assumptions become geopolitical discourses justifying policy.[9] US leaders’ discourse of an inevitable Western sphere of influence jars against Moscow’s civilizational discourse positing Ukraine within Russia’s sphere. These discourses produce conflicting policies pulling Ukraine between West and East. Transforming zero-sum imaginations into shared space is critical for Agnew.

Tuathail’s Performative Geopolitics

Gearoid O’Tuathail analyzed how geopolitical reasoning rhetorically manufactures dangers to justify policies.[10] Disputes over Ukraine represent performative geopolitics surrounding identity constructions, with Russia ‘performing’ empire and the West ‘performing’ liberalism. Spatial theatrics make compromises seem like threats. Overcoming performative geopolitics requires embracing Ukraine’s complex in-betweenness.

Dalby’s Critical Geopolitics

Simon Dalby’s critical geopolitics focuses on how contexts and power relations mold geopolitical narratives.[11] Relative US decline induced anxieties spurring efforts to draw Ukraine into the West, while Russia’s resurgence revived spatial imaginations of an ascendant Eurasian power. Critical examination of these fluctuating geopolitical constructions can point to more ethical policies, Dalby would argue.

Tuathail and Agnew’s Geopolitical Orders

Gearoid O’Tuathail and John Agnew’s concept of geopolitical orders examines how normative architectures govern international space.[12] Russia views actions in Ukraine as defending anti-NATO norms and resisting US unilateralism. But the West sees Russia rejecting the post-Cold War order upholding sovereignty and territorial integrity. Divergent spatial norms shape policies.

Grygiel’s Geostrategy

Jakub Grygiel emphasizes geostrategy as leveraging geographic features for political ends.[13] Russia exploits Ukraine’s cultural divisions and maritime location to splinter the country. Meanwhile the West uses the allure of accessing EU markets to pull western Ukraine towards Europe. Geostrategy converts terrain into strategic advantage. Ukraine becomes a geostrategic staging ground for rival power projections.


Classical geopolitics spotlights timeless patterns in power politics illuminated by Ukraine’s position between Europe and Eurasia. Critical perspectives reveal how divergent geographic narratives and discourses propel escalating competition over Ukraine’s strategic space. Synthesizing these frameworks can provide deeper understanding of the complex struggle to determine Ukraine’s orientation. But applying these conceptual lenses should also encourage examining hidden assumptions that may constrain policies. Overcoming reified notions of eternal geographic imperatives and natural spheres of influence is imperative for moving towards constructive solutions to geopolitical conflicts like the Ukraine crisis.


[1] Mackinder, Halford J. “The geographical pivot of history.” The Geographical Journal 170, no. 4 (2004): 298-321. Originally published 1904.

[2] Venier, Pascal. “The geographical pivot of history and early twentieth century geopolitical culture.” Geographical Journal 170, no. 4 (2004): 330-336.

[3] Spykman, Nicholas. The Geography of the Peace. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944.

[4] Pryce, Paul. “Ukraine: Spykman’s rimland theory confirmed.” European Security Journal. March 15, 2014.

[5] Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783. Little Brown and Company, 1890.

[6] Grygiel, Jakub J. Great Powers and Geopolitical Change. JHU Press, 2006.

[7] Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. Basic Books. 1997.

[8] Lacoste, Yves. La Géographie, ça sert d’abord à faire la guerre. La Découverte, 1976.

[9] Agnew, John. Geopolitics: Re-visioning World Politics. Routledge, 2003.

[10] Tuathail, Gearóid Ó. Critical geopolitics: the politics of writing global space. Routledge, 1996.

[11] Dalby, Simon. Creating the Second Cold War: The Discourse of Politics. Guilford Press, 1990.

[12] Agnew, John and Corbridge, Stuart. Mastering Space: Hegemony, Territory and International Political Economy. Routledge, 1995.

[13] Grygiel, Jakub J. Great Powers and Geopolitical Change. JHU Press, 2006.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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