The Russian school of geopolitics refers to the unique perspective on geopolitics that has emerged from Russian intellectuals and policymakers over the past century. While rooted in the ideas of classical geopolitical thinkers like Halford Mackinder and Alfred Mahan, the Russian school has developed distinct concepts and frameworks reflecting Russia’s position as a Eurasian power. Key tenets include Russia’s identity as a continental land power, the crucial importance of controlling the Eurasian heartland, and the need to balance against Atlanticist sea powers. This article will provide an overview of the origins and evolution of Russian geopolitical thought, its major thinkers and their theories, core ideas, applications to policy, and significance in understanding modern Russian strategic thinking.
Origins in 19th Century Eurasianism
The foundations for the Russian school of geopolitics were laid in the 19th century as Russian intellectuals grappled with the country’s identity and international role. As a massive, multiethnic empire spanning Eurasia, Russia did not fit neatly into frameworks that divided Europe from Asia. In response, Eurasianist ideas emerged that emphasized Russia’s unique Eurasian culture and called for embracing the country’s dual European and Asian heritage. Thinkers like Nikolai Danilevsky argued that Russia constituted a distinct Eurasian civilization separate from European civilization. These ideas would heavily influence early 20th century Eurasianists and geopoliticians.
Classical Geopolitics – Mackinder and the Heartland Theory
The next major influence came from classical Western geopolitical theorists, who cast Eurasia and specifically Russia as the pivotal geostrategic player in world affairs. The most important of these was British scholar Halford Mackinder, who in 1904 put forth his famous Heartland Theory. It held that control of the Eurasian “heartland” – comprising much of modern Russia and Central Asia – was the key to global power. Mackinder declared: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.” This placed Russia at the center of his geopolitical framework and inspired Russian strategists to focus on dominating Eurasia.
Eurasianism in the Early 20th Century
These ideas came together in the 1920s concept of Eurasianism, perhaps the first coherent theoretical framework of the Russian school. Developed by exiled intellectuals like Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Petr Savitsky, it argued that Russia was a unique Eurasian civilization distinct from both European individualism and Eastern despotism. Russia’s mission and identity lay in integrating the Eurasian heartland into a cohesive, mobilized empire. Savitsky called for authoritarian rule to re-establish a “continent state” spanning Eurasia. These ideas would shape the outlook of later Russian geopoliticians.
Petr Savitsky (1895-1968)
One of the founding Eurasianist thinkers, Savitsky argued Russia was not suited for Western-style government due to its unique Eurasian cultural geography. He claimed Russia was predestined to be an authoritarian empire spanning Europe and Asia in order to withstand Atlanticist sea powers like Britain and, later, the United States. Savitsky’s ideas were influential in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras of Russian geopolitics.
Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938)
A linguist and historian, Trubetzkoy was a prominent Eurasianist who argued Russia drew its strength from the diverse Turkic and Finnic peoples of the Eurasian steppe. He claimed Russia’s Eurasian identity gave it a mission to create a continental empire spanning Europe and Asia. Trubetzkoy contended Russia could only fulfill this mission by rejecting Western political systems and embracing authoritarianism.
Interwar Period – Geopolitics and Bolsheviks
In the interwar period, Eurasianist ideas were adopted by some Bolsheviks like Georgy Chicherin. They came to see Soviet control of the Eurasian heartland as achieving Russian imperial goals through Communist means. However, Eurasianism was suppressed in the USSR during the 1930s as Stalin rejected notions of Russia’s uniqueness and instead promoted proletarian internationalism. Eurasianists like Savitsky and Trubetzkoy continued developing their theories in exile.
Leading Thinkers of the Classical Russian School
The classical period of the Russian school of geopolitics emerged in the post-WWII era, as Soviet thinkers grappled with Mackinder’s arguments to shape Soviet spatial strategy. Among its foremost thinkers were:
Yevgeny Vandam (Beloborodov) (1877-1938)
Vandam revived Mackinder’s Heartland theory in 1943 and argued it defined the USSR’s geopolitical imperatives: controlling Eastern Europe, dominating the Eurasian heartland, and gaining access to oceanic frontiers. His ideas shaped Stalin’s postwar strategic thinking.
Nikolai Kradin (1895-1949)
Kradin asserted Mackinder’s framework highlighted the global strategic significance of the Soviet Union controlling the entire Eurasian heartland. He argued the USSR must counter Atlanticist sea powers by dominating Eurasia and allying with like-minded states on the continent’s periphery.
Vera Shiffer (1898-1977)
Shiffer applied Mackinder’s theory from a Marxist perspective, contending Eurasianism meshed with Soviet ideology and interests. She argued the USSR must mobilize the entire Eurasian heartland’s resources to project power and withstand capitalist containment.
Mikhail Chibinyov (1897-1983)
Chibinyov fully integrated Mackinder into Soviet strategy, stressing Eurasia’s status as the geostrategic pivot of global power. He argued the USSR must establish control over Eurasia, counter Western influence, and balance against sea powers on Eurasia’s periphery.
Post-War Stalinist Geopolitics
These thinkers collectively shaped Stalin’s postwar geopolitical outlook, which embraced Mackinder’s Heartland theory but adapted it to Marxist-Leninist ideology. The USSR sought total control and integration of the Eurasian landmass into a centralized, mobilized hyper-continental state able to dominate the Eurasian rimlands and project global power in an anti-capitalist direction. This Soviet version of classical Eurasianism defined Russian geopolitics into the 1950s.
The Neo-Eurasianist Revival – Alexander Dugin
With the Soviet collapse, Eurasianism underwent a neo-Eurasianist revival led by right-wing theorist Alexander Dugin, who updated classical ideas for the post-Communist era. Dugin argued for an authoritarian, traditionalist Eurasian Empire led by Russia to counter Atlanticist liberalism and American unipolarity. His ideas of dividing the world into Eurasianist and Atlanticist blocs vying for control over the Rimland continents gained increasing prominence.
Alexander Dugin (b. 1962)
Dugin is the preeminent neo-Eurasianist strategist, updating classical Eurasianism for post-Soviet Russia. His ideas have influenced the policies of Vladimir Putin. Dugin calls for creating a Eurasian sphere of influence to counter the US and Atlanticism, dominating former Soviet states politically, economically, and culturally to keep Russia the preeminent Eurasian power.
Eurasia vs. Atlanticism
Dugin frames geopolitics as a global struggle between the Eurasian heartland, led by Russia, and the Atlanticist world, led by the US and Britain. Eurasianism represents multi-polarity, traditionalism, and contingency while Atlanticism represents unipolarity, liberalism, and progressive determinism. Dugin seeks a Russian-dominated Eurasianist bloc to balance the Atlanticist world.
Neo-Mackinderism in Russia
Dugin’s ideas have sparked renewed interest in adapting Mackinder’s Heartland theory to define modern Russia’s strategic imperatives. Neo-Mackinderites argue Russia must consolidate control over the former Soviet states, dominate Central Asia, control Eastern Europe as a buffer zone, and integrate Eurasia to withstand Atlanticism.
Eurasian Economic Union
A core part of neo-Eurasianist grand strategy is economic integration and political alignment of the former Soviet states via institutions like Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. This is intended to anchor them in Russia’s Eurasianist sphere and out of Atlanticist blocs like the EU.
The 2014 Ukraine conflict exemplified Duginist Eurasianism in action, with Russia violently preventing Ukraine’s alignment with the EU in order to keep it within its Eurasian sphere. Eurasianists depict it as a pivotal struggle between rival blocs.
Critics argue the Russian school relies on deterministic, essentialist notions of a monolithic Eurasian culture that ignore Eastern Europe’s nationalist aspirations. They contend it rationalizes Russian imperialism via spurious geographic theories while sidelining small states’ agency.
Influence on Putin’s Policies
While not an official policy doctrine, Eurasianism has strongly influenced Putin’s outlook and strategic priorities. This includes reintegrating former Soviet states economically and culturally, creating Eurasian institutions to rival Atlanticist ones, asserting Russian primacy in Eurasia, and balancing against perceived US/NATO encroachment.
Core Tenets of the Russian School
Drawing on the above overview, some core tenets and priorities of the Russian school of geopolitics include:
- Russia’s identity as a Eurasian continental power distinct from Atlanticist maritime powers
- The imperative to control the Eurasian heartland and Mackinder’s pivot area
- Establishing buffer zones in Eastern Europe as a defensive barrier
- Projecting power to Eurasia’s maritime rimlands and fronts
- Forging a Eurasian bloc around Russia to counter Atlanticist alliances
- Authoritarian political order domestically and integration/alignment of neighbors
- A zero-sum global struggle between Eurasianist and Atlanticist worldviews and power blocs
Influence on Russian Strategic Culture
The Russian school has deeply shaped modern Russian strategic culture and assumptions. Core ideas include:
- A sense of Russia’s great power role as defender of the Eurasian heartland
- Suspicion of Atlanticist powers’ intentions to weaken Russia and divide Eurasia
- The belief Russia is destined to lead a distinct Eurasian civilization
- Assuming Russia’s neighbors naturally belong in its Eurasian sphere of influence
- Assuming competition with Atlanticist powers like the US for influence in Eurasia
Applications to Policy Under Putin
Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian school’s core concepts have profoundly shaped policy:
Consolidating Control over Former Soviet States
Russia has sought to politically, economically, and culturally reintegrate former Soviet states using Eurasianist institutions like the EEU, while preventing their alignment with NATO/EU.
Russia has established military bases in Syria and Central Asia to project power to the south and east Eurasian frontiers.
Putin has promoted Orthodox Christianity, social conservatism, and Eurasian culture as an ideological counter to Western liberal Atlanticism.
Countering Color Revolutions
Russia has violently resisted pro-Western “color revolutions” in countries like Ukraine and Belarus, seen as NATO/EU encroaching into Russia’s Eurasian sphere.
Russia uses gas pipelines, business ties, and political relationships to divide Western European states from the US/NATO and anchor Central/Eastern Europe in its Eurasian sphere.
Pushing a Multipolar Order
Russia has formed alternate economic and security institutions like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to counter the US/NATO’s unipolar dominance and build a multipolar order more favorable to its interests.
Significance and Influence
The Russian school of geopolitics has profoundly shaped Moscow’s worldview and grand strategy over the past century. Its ideas remain influential today in shaping how Russia’s leadership understands global affairs and defines Russian interests. It provides crucial perspective in comprehending Russian actions on the world stage. However, as a deterministic philosophy rooted in essentialist notions of culture and geography, it also has shortcomings in accounting for ideology, agency of small powers, and grassroots societal dynamics in Eurasia and the wider world. Understanding the Russian school provides invaluable insight, but Room remains for developing less rigid, dogmatic approaches to geopolitics.
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