We may live in an age of globalization and openness that transcends borders, one where the concepts of “invasion,” “annexation,” and “buffer zones” have faded, but perhaps not in Ukraine. Obsessed with the need to secure “the eastern gateway”, through which historically “invaders” have forced their way into Europe, the West has done much to secure this region and extend its influence, asserting control, and containing those who rule it. Russia, on the other hand, haunted by fear of Western “invasion,” seems driven to extend the full sway of its influence to vital regions beyond its borders. The various changes in the international order since the 19th century have not changed the polarized thinking of Russia and the West, nor have they constrained efforts on both their parts to extend influence over contested areas of Eastern Europe (including Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula). The centrality and importance of this region has given rise to occupations of its lands, impinging on the fates of its peoples with the creation of new states and the altering of borders. Historians and geopoliticians have sought sociological, political, and geographical explanations for such developments, and geopolitics as a field of enquiry has been a prominent fruit of these efforts. In these, perhaps most prominent have been those taking up the centrality of geography and its impact on the strategies of the West and Russia in the 20th century and up to our present time, in which we are witnessing acute international tensions around events in Ukraine.
Ukraine currently stands at the heart of a new global crisis, pitting Russia against the West. The United States and European view is that “a strong, independent Ukraine is an important part of building a Europe whole, free, and at peace”. The rapid expansion of the NATO alliance and the EU, particularly since the 1990s, aims to secure Europe and curtail Russia’s influence over European territory and environs. Recent efforts to incorporate Ukraine under the umbrella of a Western economic and security partnership has tilted the balance, with the extension of Western influence into Russia’s own backyard, in order to bring the eastern gateway firmly under Western control. Russia, if weak in the past, seems now resurgent as it works to regain the initiative in its own areas of influence. Russia will not allow the West to expand any further east to achieve its objectives. Russia’s recent recourse to “invasion,” annexation, or support for the breakaway of parts of Ukraine — and Georgia before that — reflect a long-standing geopolitical dynamic.
The Pivotal Role of Geography in Command of the West’s Gateway to the East
Throughout history, geography has been the stage on which nations and empires have collided. Geography is the most fundamental factor in international politics because it is the most permanent. For that reason, geography also conditions the perspectives of a state’s leaders and, thereby, affects their decision-making in matters of foreign policy. Geographers, particularly those who were pioneers in the field of geopolitics, have devoted themselves to offering “a reliable guide of the global landscape using geographical descriptions and metaphors”. Geopolitics is most closely related to strategic geography, which is concerned with the control of, or access to, spatial areas that have an impact on the security and prosperity of nations.
In the struggle between the West and Russia over influence in the “buffer zones”, geography has shaped and continues to shape their respective strategies – regardless of the historical period or the circumstances. These so-called “buffer zones” generally refer to Eastern and Central European states, even if for the most part these states have now joined NATO and/or the EU, leaving just two contested states – Ukraine and Belarus – to constitute the last barrier separating the West and its allies from Russia. Together they extend along the greater part of this “gateway”, the open land corridor stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea (see the map below).
The following analysis will examine the centrality of these regions to the West and to Russia, before focusing on the current Ukraine crisis and its implications for their respective strategies.
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This Research Paper was originally published in the Ninth Edition of Siyasat Arabia (July, 2014), and was translated into English by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on August 14, 2014, please click here.
 Steven Woehrel, “Ukraine: Current Issues and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, May 8, 2014, p. 1, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=753372.
 Francis P. Sempa, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002), p. 5.
 Klaus Dodds, Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 4.
 Mackubin Thomas Owens, “In Defense of Classical Geopolitics,” Naval War College Review, vol. LII, no. 4 (Autumn 1999), p. 60, http://goo.gl/H00A3m.