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Christopher Mott: The Role of Geopolitical Factors in the Russia-Ukraine War Cannot Be Ignored

Updated: May 28

Dr. Christopher Mott is currently a fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington DC, and a former researcher and desk officer at the U.S. Department of State. He is an international relations specialist focused on historical geopolitics, grand strategy, and the intersection of defensive realism and conceptions of sovereignty in an era of increasing multi-polarity. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, an MA in International Relations from London Metropolitan University, and a BA in History from Rutgers University. He has published a book, “The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia,” on the rise of indigenous forms of geopolitical strategy on the Eurasian steppe, as well as numerous peer reviewed and general audience articles on foreign policy and historical topics in a variety of places.


Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, two years have allowed us to witness the changing situation, and the U.S. and Russia, as the two sides of the game, are undoubtedly the decision-makers who will determine the way forward for a settlement. Recently, Ukraine's fatigue on the battlefield has made more of its original supporters worry about whether it can win the war. In the current stalemate phase, the future direction of the war remains uncertain, so we interviewed Dr. Christopher Mott for his views.

Glimpse on the Russia-Ukraine War from the Perspective of U.S. Strategy

The United States has not seriously attempted to engage in diplomacy since the start of the Ukraine War. If anything, it and other countries like Britain (especially under Boris Johnson) have taken actions more like one who wishes to sabotage diplomacy. Considering that, starting the conflict with army, Russia obviously is not really in the mood to talk yet either, we have a situation where a war of attrition strongly implies that no one on either side will make a good-faith effort to bring the war to a close until exhaustion takes over one or both sides. Right now, Ukraine’s situation seems more dire, but they have held a consistent morale advantage over the Russians until recently and it wouldn’t be surprised if both sides end up exhausting themselves to some degree even if Russia continues to make gains.


In the recent piece Washington Must Pivot to Break the Deadlock in Ukraine, the primary criticism was based on how Heartland Theory and many of its successors do not work for the United States specifically, not necessarily for other powers. Something akin to Heartland Theory, seen in some Russian forms of Eurasianist thought, makes perfect sense for countries in that geographic space as an aspiration. But the problem with dreams of Eurasian domination from countries such as Russia (or India, etc.) is that the conditions of said domination do not exist. Great powers are jealous of their autonomy and unlikely to subordinate their interests to other great powers in the long term. So, an attempt to dominate Eurasia will lead to counter-balancing alliances. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually.


What this means for the United States when it comes to global geostrategy is that attempting a maximalist position against multiple rivals in Eurasia will drive them together, ironically weakening U.S. diplomatic flexibility. The Ukraine War is a great example of this, as the intensity of the U.S. response has caused Russia to become more reliant on China and committed to working with it in a coordinated fashion. Under more normal conditions, the shared border between these two countries all but guarantees they will have more long-term problems with each other than with the United States, but right now, and partially thanks to U.S. policy, both are going to work together more than ever before and fixate on their rivalry with Washington.


The U.S. would be served well by offshore balancing as it plays to its geographic strengths. It is a distant oceanic power to the Eurasian field of competition. The fact that it poses far less of an immediate threat to smaller countries' autonomy so long as it conducts itself with restraint means that more countries would see the U.S. as a preferable partner were it not for an addiction to sanctions and military operations all around the world. As it is, the U.S. has weakened its own position by treating the Ukraine War (or the Middle East) as an existential and global conflict, rather than a regional European one. Most of the world sees the conflict as remote and its effects as economic disruption. Hardly a battle of ‘freedom’ against ‘autocracy’. Attempting to enforce a sanctions regime against Russia- or any large power- at the global scale has been a failure.


In conclusion, whether offshore balancing failed is debatable. Maybe offshore balancing as a U.S. strategy is actually a good idea, but it has not been tried properly because many in the government are too prone to become invested in every geopolitical flashpoint. Offshore balancing strategy would see no point in the U.S. being so heavily invested in Ukraine. Sure, the Europeans have a case to be invested in the country, due to their proximity, but the U.S. interests are Oceanic and ultimately are concerned with the overall global balance of power. And, from the perspective of the Western Hemisphere, the ultimate fate of Ukraine or the territorial disposition of the Donbass lacks relevance to this calculation. Russia (and obviously Ukraine) has escalation dominance here because the issue is existential to them. The countries of the E.U. are also strongly invested, with the eastern ones more so than those in the west. This is logical. But it shows us that geopolitical importance is relative to location. The U.S., so concerned with being a global force, seems to have forgotten the prioritization of geography and proximity in its calculations. At least compared to any other of the great powers. This means the U.S. is operating at a disadvantage in resource allocation compared to how it could be if it did follow the logic of offshore balancing.


Many NATO countries have come together in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this really just shows that European and American defense should not be joined at the hip. Europe is capable of checking Russian ambitions in most places with minimal assistance from the U.S., but the U.S. is not capable of treating every revisionist power’s action as a global crisis.


How to See Turkey’s Behavior Outside the War

Countries that understand the key role of geography and view their policies as regionally anchored rather than global and values based operate at a distinct advantage. Turkey is such a good example of this because, due to its control over the Straits of Marmara and thus the only outside maritime access to the Black Sea, as well as its defensible rugged borders in Asia, it always holds disproportionate leverage over access to its near abroad. Turkey certainly overreached earlier, in the Syrian Civil War in particular when it made self-harming alliances with jihadists groups operating in that country, but the strategic benefits of its position are basically unbeatable.


Turkey is a country that has a large enough population and economy to not fear domination from global powers. All it needs to do is play these powers off of each other to prevent any of them from achieving total domination in the neighborhood. Turkey has done this vis-à-vis the Ukraine War quite well, never severing its relations with Moscow and allowing circumvention of some of the sanctions against that country while also serving as a defense partner for Ukraine and generally seeking to softly weaken Russian influence in the South Caucasus- especially through its close alliance with Azerbaijan. In many NATO countries, this is seen as duplicitous, but it’s really just a country eschewing abstract principles in order to maximize its own regional interest. It is logical for Turkey to want the costs of Russian revisionism towards its near abroad to be high, but it is also logical for Ankara to desire a counterbalance to U.S. power and thus be able to position itself as a key intermediary between the two powers. As time goes on, other middle powers will start to realize they have similar potential to find regional niches to exploit.


Because of these factors, the odds are high that Turkey will play an important diplomatic role in an eventual ceasefire. This can’t be guaranteed of course. A massive morale collapse in one army or the other could lead to a dictated peace. Or, far more likely, we end up with a Korean style demilitarized zone with a ceasefire along the lines of contact but with no technical end to the conflict. Nevertheless, if an outside party is going to be relied on by both parties to host negotiations or serve as a go-between, Turkey is the most likely choice. Its regional importance has already shown it’s a country both Russia and Ukraine deal with consistently throughout the conflict.



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