Just as the relentless grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so the endless superpower struggle for dominance over Eurasia is fraught with tensions and armed conflict. Beneath the visible outbreak of war in Ukraine and the U.S.-Chinese naval standoff in the South China Sea, there is now an underlying shift in geopolitical power in process across the vast Eurasian landmass — the epicenter of global power on a fast-changing, overheating planet. Take a moment to step back with me to try to understand what’s now happening on this increasingly embattled globe of ours.
If geology explains the earth’s eruptions, geopolitics is the tool we need to grasp the deeper meaning of the devastating war in Ukraine and the events that led to this crisis. My recent book explains this. To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic ChangeGeopolitics is the art of managing empires through the use geography (air, land and sea) in order to maximize military and economic advantages. Empires, unlike other nations, are not able to mobilize their peoples for self defense. They are fragile because of their extraterritorial reach, and the dangers inherent in any foreign military deployment. To give an empire a fighting chance against formidable odds, it is essential to have a resilient geopolitical infrastructure.
For nearly 100 years, the geopolitical theories of an obscure Victorian geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, have had a profound influence on a succession of leaders who sought to build or break empires in Eurasia — including Adolf Hitler, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin. Mackinder published an academic essay in 1904, as the Trans-Siberian Railway was finishing its 5,700-mile trek from Moscow to Vladivostok. argued that future rails would knit Eurasia into a unitary landmass that, along with Africa, he dubbed the tri-continental “world island.” When that day came, Russia, in alliance with another land power like Germany — and, in our time, we might add China — could expand across Eurasia’s endless central “heartland,” allowing, he predicted, “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”
Mackinder opened the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 at the close of World War I. turnedThis seminal essay became a memorable maxim about East European regions such as Ukraine and the Central Asian heartland. “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,” he wrote. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”
At the core of recent conflicts at both ends of Eurasia is an entente between China and Russia that the world hasn’t seen since the Sino-Soviet alliance at the start of the Cold War. To grasp the import of this development, let’s freeze frame two key moments in world history — Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s Moscow meeting with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in December 1949 and Vladimir Putin’s summit in Beijing with Xi Jinping just last month.
To avoid making simplistic comparisons, you must remember the historical context in which each of those meetings took place. When Mao came to Moscow just weeks after proclaiming the People’s Republic in October 1949, China had been ravaged by a nine-year war against Japan that killed 20 millionPeople and a five year civil war that left seven million more dead.
Stalin, on the other hand, defeated Hitler and seized an empire in Eastern Europe. He rebuilt Stalin’s socialist economy and tested an Atom Bomb. The Soviet Union was a superpower. In contrast to China’s army of ill-equipped infantry, the Soviet Union had a modern military with the world’s best tanks, jet fighters, and missiles. As the globe’s top communist, Stalin was “the boss” and Mao came to Moscow as essentially a supplicant.
Stalin Met Mao
Mao was on a two-month journey to Moscow, beginning in December 1949. He sought urgent economic aid to rebuild his land and military support to liberate Taiwan. Mao sent a seemingly happy telegram to his Beijing comrades. wrote:
“Arrived in Moscow on the 16th and met with Stalin for two hours at 10 p.m. His attitude was really sincere. The questions involved included the possibility of peace, the treaty, loan, Taiwan, and the publication of my selected works.”
But Stalin surprised Mao by refusing to give up the territorial concessions in northern China that Moscow had won at the 1945 Yalta conference, saying the issue couldn’t even be discussed until their subsequent meeting. Mao literally cooled off over the next 17 days waiting during a freezing Moscow winter inside a drafty dacha where, as he later recalled, “I got so angry that I once pounded the table.”
Finally, Mao officially launched Mao on January 2, 1950. cabledThe communist leadership in Beijing
“Our work here has achieved an important breakthrough in the past two days. Comrade Stalin has finally agreed to… sign a new Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.”
Their leaders signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance on February 1950 after Russia relinquished its territorial claims in return to assurances about demilitarizing their long border. It, in turn, sparked a sudden flow of Soviet aid to China whose new constitution hailed its “indestructible friendship” with the Soviet Union.
Stalin had planted the seeds of the Sino-Soviet Split to Come, embittering Mao who would later said Russians “have never had faith in the Chinese people and Stalin was among the worst.”
The China alliance was a major Cold War asset at first. It had an Asian surrogate that could drag the U.S. into a costly war in Korea without any Soviet casualties. In October 1950, Chinese troops crossed Yalu River into a Korean maelstrom. This would last three years and cost China 208,000 troops as well as 40% its budget.
Following Stalin’s death in May 1953 and the Korean armistice two months later, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to repair relations by presiding over a massive, yet distinctly inequitable program of economic aid to China. He also refused to assist that country in building an atomic bomb. It would be a “huge waste,” he said, since China was safe under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. He also demanded the development of uranium mining facilities in China that Soviet scientists had discovered in the southwest.
Over the next four decades, these initial nuclear tensions turned into an open Sino-Soviet divide. Khrushchev visited Beijing in September 1959 for a seven-hour meeting with Mao. In 1962, Mao finally ended diplomatic relations entirely, blaming Moscow for failing to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. during that year’s Cuban missile crisis.
In October 1964, China’s successful test of a 22-kiloton nuclear bomb marked its arrival as a major player on the world stage. The bomb made China an independent world power and transformed the Sino-Soviet war from a war of words to a major military confrontation. By 1968, the Soviet Union was equipped with 16 divisions, 1,200 aircraft and 120 medium-range rockets along the Sino-Soviet border. China was preparing for a Soviet attack. building a nuclear-hardened “underground city” that spread for 30 square miles beneath Beijing.
Washington’s Cold War Strategy
The Sino-Soviet alliance was more significant than any other historic event since World War II. It changed the course of history and transformed the Cold War into a volatile global conflict. Not only was China the world’s largest nation with 550 million people, or 20% of all humanity, but its new communist government was determined to reverse a half-century of imperialist exploitation and internal chaos that had crippled its international influence.
Washington was forced to change its strategy for the Cold War by the rise of China, and the conflict in Korea. Instead of focusing solely on Europe and NATO to contain the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Washington forged bilateral defense pacts between Japan and Australia to protect the Pacific littoral. For the past 70 years, that fortified island rim has been the fulcrum of Washington’s global power, allowing it to defend one continent (North America) while dominating another (Eurasia).
To tie those two axial ends of Eurasia into a strategic perimeter, Cold War Washington ringed the Eurasian continent’s southern rim with chains of steel -– including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and a string of mutual-defense pacts stretching from NATO in Europe to ANZUS in the South Pacific. It took a decade for Washington to accept that the Sino–Soviet split was real. In the meanwhile, Beijing began to form an alliance with Washington that would leave the Soviet Union even more isolated. This led to its implosion and the ending of the Cold War in 1991.
That left the U.S. as the world’s dominant power. Nonetheless, even without a near-peer rival on the planet, Washington refused to cash in its “peace dividend.” Instead, it maintained its chains of steel ringing Eurasia — including those three naval fleets and hundreds of military basesWhile making numerous military forays into Middle East (some of them disastrous), and even forming a new organization, Quadrilateral allianceAustralia, India, Japan and the Indian Ocean. For 15 years following Beijing’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001, a de facto economic alliance with China also allowed the U.S. sustained economic growth.
When Putin Met Xi
It was a remarkable reversal of the Stalin/Mao moment 70 year ago, when Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping last month in Beijing. While Russia’s post-Soviet economy remains smaller than Canada’s and overly dependent on petroleum exports, China has become the planet’s industrial powerhouse with the world’s largest economy (as measured in purchasing power) and 10 times the population of Russia. Moscow’s heavy-metal military still relies on Soviet-style tanks and its nuclear arsenal. China, on the other hand, has built the world’s largest navy, its most secure global system of satellites and its most agile missile armada, with cutting-edge technology. hypersonic missilesHis speed of 4,000 mph can defeat any defense.
This time, therefore, it was the Russian leader who came to China’s capital as the supplicant. With Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders and U.S. economic sanctions looming, Putin desperately needed Beijing’s diplomatic backing. Putin was now making a lot of political cash after years of cultivating China through the offer of shared petroleum and natural gas pipelines and joint military maneuvers across the Pacific.
Xi and Putin drew upon 37 previous encounters for their February 4th meeting. proclaimNothing less than an ad-hoc alliance to shake the world. As the foundation for their new “global governance system,” they promised to “enhance transport infrastructure connectivity to keep logistics on the Eurasian continent smooth and… make steady progress on major oil and gas cooperation projects.” These words gained weight with the announcementRussia would spend an additional $118 billion to build new oil and natural gas pipelines to China. (Four-hundred million dollars had already been invested.nvested2014 was the year Russia faced European sanctions after it took Crimea from Ukraine. The result is an integrated Sino-Russian oil and gas infrastructure, running from the North Sea to South China Sea.
In a landmark 5,300-word statement, Xi and Putin proclaimed the “world is going through momentous changes,” creating a “redistribution of power” and “a growing demand for… leadership” (which Beijing and Moscow clearly intended to provide). After denouncing Washington’s ill-concealed “attempts at hegemony,” the two sides agreed to “oppose the… interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”
To build an alternative system for global economic growth in Eurasia, the leaders planned to merge Putin’s projected “Eurasian Economic Union” with Xi’s already ongoing trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to promote “greater interconnectedness between the Asia Pacific and Eurasian regions.” Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” an oblique reference to the tense Mao-Stalin relationship, the two leaders asserted that their entente has “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” On strategic issues, the two parties were adamantly opposed to the expansion of NATO, any move toward independence for Taiwan, and “color revolutions” such as the one that had ousted Moscow’s Ukrainian client in 2014.
Putin received what he needed, despite the Ukraine invasion three weeks later. In exchange for feeding China’s voracious appetite for energy (on a planet already in a climate crisis of the first order), Putin got a condemnation of U.S. interference in “his” sphere. In addition, he won Beijing’s diplomatic support — however hesitant China’s leadership might actually be about events in Ukraine — once the invasion started. Although China has been Ukraine’s main trading partner since 2019, Beijing set aside those ties and its own advocacy of inviolable sovereignty to avoid calling Putin’s intervention an “invasion.”
A Planet Mackinder Would be Hardly Recognize
Russia and China had been planning to increase the pressure on Eurasia even before the invasion by Ukraine. They hoped that the steel chains of the United States that surrounded the vast continent would soon snap. It is a strategy that pushes-pushes-punch.
Putin has responded to NATO over the past 15 years in exactly this way. First, Moscow tried to keep client countries in its orbit by using surveillance and economic leverage. This is something Putin has learned from his experience. four years as a KGB agent working with East Germany’s Stasi secret police in the late 1980s. If a favored autocrat is attacked by pro-democracy protesters or a regional rival, a few thousands of Russian special forces are sent to stabilize the situation. Should a client state try to escape Moscow’s orbit, however, Putin promptly moves to massive military intervention and the expropriation of buffer enclaves, as he did first in Georgia and now in Ukraine. This strategy may allow him to reclaim significant areas of the Soviet sphere of influence in East Europe and Central Asia as well as the Middle East.
Putin is located south of Moscow, in the volatile Caucasus Mountains. crushed NATO’s brief flirtation with Georgia in 2008, thanks to a massive invasion and the expropriation of the provinces of North Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia recently emerged from decades of fighting between the former Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. sent in thousands of “peace-keeping” forces to resolve the conflict in favor of the loyal, pro-Moscow regime in Azerbaijan. Further east, when democratic protesters challenged Moscow’s local ally in Kazakhstan in January, thousands of Russian troops — under the rubric of Moscow’s version of NATO — flew intoAlmaty was the former capital. There they helped crush protests and killed dozens of people.
In the Middle East where Washington backed the ill-fated Arab spring rebels who tried to topple Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, Moscow operates a massive air base at Latakia in that country’s northwest from which it has bombed rebel cities like Aleppo to rubble, while serving as a strategic counterweight to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf.
But Moscow’s main push has been in Eastern Europe. Putin was a strong supporter of Eastern Europe. backed Belarus’s strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, in crushing the democratic opposition after he had rigged the 2020 elections, and so making Minsk a virtual client state. Meanwhile, he’s been pressing relentlessly against Ukraine since his loyal client there was ousted in the 2014 Maidan “color revolution.” First, he seized Crimea in 2014 and then he armed separatist rebels in that country’s eastern region adjacent to Russia. Last month, after proclaiming that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia,” Putin recognized the “independence” of those two separatist enclaves, much as he had done years before in Georgia.
The Russian president was elected on February 24th. sent nearly 200,000 troops across the Ukraine’s borders to seize much of the country and its capital, Kyiv, as well as replace its feisty president with a pliable puppet. As international sanctions increased and Europe became more isolated, the Ukrainian army pushed across its borders. consideredPutin has ominously placed his nuclear forces on Ukraine by providing it with jet fighters high alertto make it clear that he will not tolerate any interference with his invasion.
China has followed a similar push-push strategy at the eastern end Eurasia. However, it is subtler and less direct. The punch is yet coming. Beijing began digging a half-dozen military base from South China Sea atolls in 2014. They gradually increased their role from fishing ports, to full-fledged military bases, which now challenge any U.S. naval patrol. Next came swarming fighter units over the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea and East China Sea. Then, last October, a joint Chinese-Russian fleet comprising 10 ships was launched. steamedIn waters that were previously unchallenged by the United States, Japan has been acting provocatively.
If Xi follows Putin’s playbook, then all that push/push could indeed lead to a punch — possibly an invasion of Taiwan to reclaim lands Beijing sees as an integral part of China, much as Putin seesUkraine was a former Russian imperial region that should never been lost.
Should Beijing attack Taiwan, Washington might find itself hamstrung to do anything militarily except express admiration for the island’s heroic yet futile resistance. Should Washington send its aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits, they would be sunk within hours by China’s formidable DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles or its unstoppable hypersonic ones. And once Taiwan was gone, Washington’s position on the Pacific littoral could be effectively broken and a retreat to the mid-Pacific preordained.
All of this sounds plausible on paper. However, in the grim reality of actual invasions and military clashes, amid the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and on a planet that’s seen better daysThe very nature of geopolitics could be at stake. Yes, it’s possible that, if Washington is whipsawed between the eastern and western edges of Eurasia with periodic eruptions of armed combat from the Xi-Putin entente, its chains of steel could strain and finally snap, effectively evicting it from that strategic land mass.
It is a fact that a Sino-Russian Alliance so heavily based upon trade in reality has the opposite effect. fossil fuels, even if Vladimir Putin doesn’t himself go downDue to his potentially disastrous invasion in Ukraine, both Beijing & Moscow may be whipsawed by a troubled energy transition or climate change in the years ahead. The ghost of Sir Halford Mackinder might then point out to us not just that U.S. power will fade with the loss of Eurasia, but that so much other power may fade as well on an ever hotter, ever more endangered planet he couldn’t in his lifetime have truly imagined.