Abstract: The Russian Federation of the New Millennium is, as well-defined by the well-known scholar John H. Mackinder, the "Heartland" of the planet we all inhabit. It is a "multi-national" state always at the center of the world, which has been governed by opposing systems (czarism, socialism, "Yeltsinian" liberalism). In power for more than twenty years, President Putin has tried to take something from all these experiences, both in domestic and foreign policy. In domestic policy, he is trying to create an "all-encompassing glue of identity" and in foreign policy opposing the US-led unipolarity, promoting at the same time a multipolar world.
Bottom-line-up-front: Russia, Heartland, Identity and Geopolitics are fundamental keywords to be properly deciphered and analyzed to understand the Russian Federation of the New Millennium and the world we live in.
Problem statement: How to understand the Russian Federation and its role in the world to avoid plunging our planet into chaos and destruction?
So What?: There must be continuous dialogue at the highest level between the Russian Federation's governing bodies and their regional and global counterparts. Pragmatism is needed, without rips and "leaps forward" that put our planet at real risk.
Russia of the 21st century is a unique territory, inhabited by a diverse population. From the residents of the great Siberian steppe that reaches as far as Vladivostok to the descendants of the fearsome Mongol fighters’ heirs of Genghis Khan, from the Caucasians who live in the Chechen environments to the Europeans of St. Petersburg: many peculiarities characterize these varied populations.
In addition, Moscow is the metropolis that concentrates all: A capital that hosts almost 15% of the Russian population, coming from the four corners of this vast country (and other nations, in particular, the “-stan’s” of central Asia). It would be too much to reflect on this immense territory’s and its varied populations’ history in much detail. However, one of the most significant issues that must be emphasized has "always" been the risk of "disintegration of the country" after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when some regions wanted independence from Moscow (Chechnya with a strong commitment). These issues were “solved” by President Yeltsin with the promotion of the "Treaty of the Federation" in 1992 among all the entities that made up the Russian Federation. However, this treaty was only signed by 86 of the 88 entities of the Russian Federation as Tatarstan and Chechnya imposed their refusal.
One of the most significant issues that must be emphasized has "always" been the risk of "disintegration of the country" after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when some regions wanted independence from Moscow.
Whereas Tatarstan withdrew from its refusal shortly after that, Chechnya did not. Boris Yeltsin decided to fully restore the country with Capital Grozny under Moscow with two bloody anti-independence wars between 1994 and 2009.
The “Treaty of the Federation”
This Treaty consisted of eight articles covering the following salient points: “Commitment to give the Russian Federation a new Constitution and a list of matters under the "exclusive competence" of the central authorities; list of subjects and topics on which the authorities of the Russian Federation and those of the various Republics should have discussed, jointly managing the various issues; enunciation of principles on the autonomous management of certain issues by the Republics of the Federation, always in compliance with the Constitution and with a dialogue with the central authorities; full compliance with the laws throughout the Federation, both by the central government and by those of the autonomous republics”.
This treaty aimed to guarantee "state continuity" also in future years: because the disintegration of the country could have made a major military power essentially irrelevant, leaving the "Heartland," as the great scholar John H. Mackinder defined this part of the world more than a century ago, reduced to a "rich hunting ground" for other regional and world powers.
President Putin’s Lines of Effort
The main lines of domestic and foreign policy that President Putin has tried to pursue in these long years of his presidency are:
1. After the last ten years of the 20th century (characterized by wild privatizations and socio-economic collapse), economic revival and population improvement of living conditions were two key points. In this "reconstruction", a crucial role is played by "economic intelligence", the true decisive force for any power that wants to remain (or become) such.
2. Strong commitment against any separatist ambitions within the Russian Federation.
Putin's decision to wipe out separatist forces during the second Chechen war, which officially lasted from 1999 to 2009, clearly demonstrates this – as well as his words a few years later: "I was convinced that if we did not stop the guerrillas immediately, we would end up becoming a second Yugoslavia".
3. Commitment to the construction of a renewed all-encompassing Russian identity in which the entire population could recognize itself, everything to create social harmony and unity among the Russian Federation’s people, based on the following goals:
Pride for the Empire as an experience of Russian grandeur and uniqueness;
Defense and promotion of the Russian language to ensure the unity of the people and greater understanding, even beyond the borders of the Russian Federation;
Pride for the "Great Patriotic War" as it was fought by the whole "Russian world" (Russkij Mir). It brought victory and greatness to the homeland;
Support for all those "ideologies" based on "Russian centrality" and the importance of its values. This helps to make the population feel as though it is part of something bigger and more important;
Defense of Eurasianism and Pan – Slavism;
Full support for the Orthodox Church (majority in Russia), in a "unitary" function for the population and positive collaboration between state and religious institutions.
4. Strengthening of Moscow's role in the “Near Abroad” by:
Strong focus on Ukraine after the events of 2014; the latter considered by the Kremlin as an unacceptable interference of the liberal West on the Russian border. More specifically, the Russian Federation holds its "Near Abroad" in very high regard for fear of having "hostile" neighbors. It should be emphasized that following the enlargement of NATO in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine and Belarus are the last two “non-Western nations left (even though Ukraine, unlike Belarus, has requested entry into NATO and the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest recognizes it as a nation that will join the Atlantic Alliance, alongside Georgia, in the future). In a sense, Russia uses similar reasoning to that of the United States of America in their “backyard” during the Cuba missile crisis of 1962.
Apart from this, firm support for the system of power in Belarus after the protests following the 2020 presidential elections, considering the sudden change of the political-economic elite in Minsk is too risky even for the Russian Federation. Indeed, Lukashenka is Moscow's last "iron ally" in Eastern Europe, an ally too precious to risk losing him and his country as happened with Kyiv. The latest Putin - Lukashenka summit in St. Petersburg in 2021 demonstrated the strategic nature of this relationship.
Finally, activism in Central Asia as not been seen since the USSR, as described in the last “Russian Foreign Policy Concept”: “Russian Federation considers important to [...] strengthen mutual trust and partnership in Central Asia”.
Indeed, this area is strategic for the Kremlin, both economically and politically. Russia shares nearly 7000 kilometers of border with Kazakhstan, there is a significant Russian military presence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and there is a truly significant agreement with Turkmenistan for the supply of natural gas. Issues of primary importance, also in the light of the “US strategic plans 2019 – 2025” based on strengthening strategic partnerships in Central Asia and 91 billion of dollars in investment.
5. Renewed commitment in the Arctic, first with better equipment of the Armed Forces stationed in this territory. That is because of Arctic is becoming one of the most important "strategic fields" of confrontation between the Great Powers, primarily due to climate change:
Arctic report to the US Congress in 2019: “The Arctic is anchored in the US national defense strategy […]. There is a strong focus especially on the competition with China and Russia”.
China’s White Paper on Arctic 2018: “[…] China is a major player in Arctic affairs. […] China has shared interests with the Arctic states and a shared future with the rest of the world in the Arctic. […]”.
6. Decisive rapprochement that has reached the rank of "strategic partnership" with the People's Republic of China. As well described by the scholar Dmitri Trenin: “(the relationship Russia – China) based on following words: Never one against the other, not always with each other”. Indeed, if until 2014 the good relations with the West, forged during the last decade of the 20th century, were still in existence after the "Ukraine Affaire" the situation has changed radically. Far away now are the days of the "Spirit of Sea Practice" (birth of the NATO-Russia Council, 2002). As regards the Russia - China relationship, it is useful to report the following considerations:
Professor Glenn Diesen in 2021: “Their common opposition (Russia – China) to the US has indeed intensified the partnership, and historical distrust and power asymmetries between Russia and China must be managed. However, Beijing will not replace Washington as the nemesis of Moscow – instead Greater Eurasia is being organized as a multipolar region capable of accommodating Russia. Russia’s vision of a multipolar order is not possible without a strong China. After the Western support for the 2014 Maidan coup in Ukraine, Russia ended its three-centuries-long Western-centric foreign policy and the post-Cold War ambition to integrate with the West. Russia replaced its ambition for Greater Europe with the Greater Eurasia Initiative that advanced economic integration on the supercontinent. At the centre of the Greater Eurasia Initiative is a strategic partnership with China”.
Russia and China have a deep collaboration even within the mammoth Chinese project called “Belt and Road Initiative” (Project strongly desired by Beijing for the creation of a global network, primarily economic, to counter the overwhelming power of Washington).
One of the most significant projects about it is “the "Meridian" infrastructure project, based on a highway that will have to connect Shanghai to Hamburg (via the Russian Federation) from 2024. 2,000 kilometers of asphalt [...] (which will also help) the development of "depressed" areas in Russia”.
In essence, Russia and China have a common strategic goal: to counter the US-led unipolar world that arose from the ashes of the USSR. They seek to build a multipolar world, characterized by various political - economic - military - cultural poles, each one with its values and its government organization, as well as its own "development systems" decided based on its own beliefs.
A Multipolar World with Russia at the Center
A multipolar world, therefore, where Russia and its territory play a leading role, as well explained by the well-known scholar Sir Halford John Mackinder at the beginning of the 20th century with these significant words: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: who rules the World-Island commands the World”.
In his theory, Mackinder views political history as an ongoing struggle between land and marine powers. The Heartland is the “beating heart” of the earth and includes the territory so delimited: to the west the Volga river, to the east the Blue river, to the north the Arctic and to the south the westernmost peaks of the Himalayas. According to this theory, Heartland is the “center” of the real continental power represented by the “island – world” which consists of Eurafrasia (Eurasia + Africa, comprising seven-eighths of the total world population and two-thirds of the total area of the world).
The Heartland is the “beating heart” of the earth and includes the territory so delimited: to the west the Volga river, to the east the Blue river, to the north the Arctic and to the south the westernmost peaks of the Himalayas.
In conclusion, then, it is possible to say that Russia of the 21st century is profoundly different from all previous "Russias", but from each has drawn to become what it is today. A Russia that is struggling to find its "place in the world", between the defense of unipolarity by the US and the strong rise of China.
Alessandro Fanetti (Italy, 1988) is a scholar of Geopolitics and International Relations member of the "Associazione Italiana Analisti di Intelligence e Geopolitica (AIAIG)". Graduated in International Sciences with honors, he writes for Institutes, Associations and Journals such as "L'Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliarie (IsAG)" and "Opinio Juris - Law and Politics Review". His latest writings include "Russia: in search of the Lost Power" (Eiffel Editions, 2021). The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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