With the end of the bipolar order, classical geopolitical theories as the main basis of the foreign policy of the powers during the Cold War seem to have declined in importance. The Ukraine crisis showed that these theories are still a suitable tool for analyzing the competition of great powers in different regions of the world, especially the reason why the West supports the war in Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s motivations and roadmap in Eurasia to push NATO back and create strategic balance.
One of these classic geopolitical theories that is still in use is Sir Halford Mackinder’s “heartland” theory. In 1904, he explained the heartland theory in ” the geographical pivot of history “. The basis of Mackinder’s idea is the existence of a global continent, which he calls a global island. He considered the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa to be a global island that includes the majority of the world’s population. According to Mackinder, the key to the global island is the “pivot area” or heartland. This central region, which includes the territory of the Tsarist Russian Empire, has a strategic location that is rich in natural resources. Mackinder considered the Heartland to be a vast area that extended from the Arctic Ocean to near the shores of this region. This area is bounded by the Volga River from the west, Western Siberia from the east, the Arctic Ocean from the north, and the Himalayan highlands, the Iranian highlands, and the Mongolian highlands from the south, and they are not threatened by any maritime power. The pivot area included areas that were not accessible to naval powers and was surrounded by two crescent zones in two geographical semicircles. The inner or peripheral crescent includes the lands that back onto the Eurasian landmass and have a coastal position by the water, and are accessible to naval powers. The outer crescent consists of islands that include Britain, Japan, and Australia.
Revising his theory in 1919, Mackinder called Central Asia an example of the “heartland” in a new definition of the pivot area. In the new theory, the extent of the heartland was greater than the extent of the central region. This revision was due to the fear of German domination of the heartland. Mackinder’s heartland was a region that was then ruled by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union. Of course, the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is located in the easternmost part of Russia near the Aleutian Islands and the Kuril Islands, was not included in this region.
According to Mackinder, whoever controls Eastern Europe rules the “heart of the earth”. The one who rules the “Heart of the Earth” will rule over the “World Island of Eurasia” and the one who rules over the “World Island of Eurasia” will be the ruler of the world. While emphasizing the growing role of land power, Mackinder did not deny the role of sea power. Because he realized that the Soviet Union and Germany, two powerful countries on land, also have the ability to achieve naval power. He predicted that the first half of the 20th century would see Germany and Russia fighting for dominance over the “heart of the earth” and Eurasia.
After the Second World War, Mackinder revised his famous theory or principle again and considered a counterweight in the form of the North Atlantic Community necessary against the accumulation of power in Eurasia. In his opinion, although the Soviet Union came out of this war as the “greatest land power in the world” and the holder of the best defensive position, the countries of the North Atlantic region can be a balancing force. The result of this theory was the realization of the “North Atlantic Treaty” in 1949. He believed that France, America, and Britain can play a dual role. On the one hand, prevent the resurgence of militant Germany and on the other hand, be a counterweight against the Soviet Union. Therefore, one of the goals of Western politicians has always been to prevent others from dominating the Eurasian region. This issue became the reason for America’s participation in security treaties with Western Europe and Japan, and it also accepted security obligations in other regions of the borderlands of Eurasia, including the Middle East.
The United States’ policy, especially during Kissinger’s time, was to strengthen its relationship with China in order to prevent a compromise between China and Russia which had great land power. The United States and its allies’ military interventions in Afghanistan and Central Asia were also based on the principle of “ruling Eurasia equals ruling the world” which was neglected by the recent governments of the United States and culminated in Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As a result, Russia focused its strategy on the West. For Kremlin, Eurasia, Ukraine, and its connection with the Mediterranean and the Baltic have always been of utmost importance. In 2014, by annexing Crimea, Moscow firmly took the first step to restore its control over this region. On March 2, 2022, less than 10 days after the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces captured the strategic southern city of Kherson. Despite the fact that all eyes were on Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russian forces were able to stabilize their land lines of communication on the Dnieper River, which connects the city of Kherson to the lands in the east of Kherson province. Currently, Russia’s extensive defensive lines have made it almost impossible to “recapture” Kherson.
Putin has even prepared the arrangements for holding a referendum in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The capture of Mariupol was another important event in the great Russian puzzle. After capturing the port city of Mariupol (May 21), Russia established its complete superiority over the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in eastern Crimea. The Kerch Strait plays a strategic role in Russian politics, as this strategic strait ensures maritime transit from the Black Sea to Moscow and St. Petersburg. This waterway connects the Black Sea through the Sea of Azov to the main waterways of Russia, including the Volga and the Don. The Volga River also connects the Caspian Sea to the Baltic Sea and the North Sea through the Volga-Baltic waterway.
Thus, Russia has gained control of an integrated system of waterways that connects the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to the Baltic and the Northern Sea Route and has a 4,800-kilometer shipping lane that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and crosses Russian coasts, Siberia, and the Far East. The capture of Odesa and the annexation of Transnistria is the next goal of Russia’s domination of the heartland, which completely cuts off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and practically encircles Kyiv.
The Transnistrian Independent Republic, which shares a 405 km border with Ukraine and is part of the Dniester Valley, separated from the Moldovan government in 1990 and has an independent government, parliament, army, police, postal and monetary system. After the 1991 conflict, Russian peacekeeping forces entered Transnistria, and since 1992, when a cease-fire was agreed upon, the Russian military has maintained peace in the region in cooperation with Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities. Of course, even before that, there have been bloody battles between Romanian and Transnistrian soldiers over the centuries to control the eastern bank of the Dniester River and the desire of the Transnistrians to maintain loyalty to Moscow, which shows the deep historical tendency of its people towards Russia.
Russia’s advances in Ukraine have made Transnistria’s government more determined to rejoin Russia, especially since Moldova has expressed its desire to join the European Union. Vitaly Ignatieff, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Transnistria, has officially stated that the region will maintain its path of independence by finally joining Russia. Ignatieff said that “the direction of Transnistria’s foreign policy remains unchanged. The region’s independence and joining the Russian Federation was approved by 98 percent of the participants in the 2006 referendum.”
For Transnistria, getting out of the geopolitical bottleneck and gaining maritime economic benefits is more important than all these things. Transnistria does not have direct access to the Black Sea, the southern part of Odesa province of Ukraine is a barrier between them, and only by joining Russia can it eliminate this strategic bottleneck. Russia has 1,500 soldiers in this region, which are too few to attack Ukraine, and it is not possible to support them on the ground. But with the annexation through Odesa, the center of Ukraine is practically surrounded, and at the same time, it does not open a new front and makes conquest without bloodshed possible.
In fact, Putin is seeking to strengthen its position through the west’s weak spot and control of Eurasia. The annexation of Transnistria after the capture of the port city of Odessa is a necessary and complementary step to stabilize Russia’s position in the “Heartland”. Only before that, he must conquer Odessa to open the land route to Transnistria. Considering the geographical location and the Russian-speaking population of Transnistria and their historical hatred of Moldova and Romania, the stage for easy annexation of this region is accessible to Moscow.