A Unipolar World and Ukraine


Extracts from The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives

Zbigniew Brzezinski, New York, Basic Books, 1997

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans started thinking about a unipolar world, a world organized around one pole, themselves.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, diplomat and adviser to presidents Johnson and Carter, explained the place of Ukraine in this new world order.  Below are extracts from his book.


Today, the geopolitical issue is no longer what geographic part of Eurasia is the point of departure for continental domination, nor whether land power is more significant than sea power. Geopolitics has moved from the regional to the global dimension, with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy. The United States, a non-Eurasian power, now enjoys international primacy, with its power directly deployed on three peripheries of the Eurasian continent, from which it exercises a powerful influence on the states occupying the Eurasian hinterland. But it is on the globe’s most important playing field—Eurasia—that a potential rival to America might at some point arise. Thus, focusing on the key players and properly assessing the terrain has to be the point of departure for the formulation of American geostrategy for the long-term management of America’s Eurasian geopolitical interests.



Great Britain is not a geostrategic player. It has fewer major options, it entertains no ambitious vision of Europe’s future, and its relative decline has also reduced its capacity to play the traditional role of the European balancer. Its ambivalence regarding European unification and its attachment to a waning special relationship with America have made Great Britain increasingly irrelevant insofar as the major choices confronting Europe’s future are concerned. London has largely dealt itself out of the European game.


It is America’s key supporter, a very loyal ally, a vital military base, and a close partner in critically important intelligence activities. Its friendship needs to be nourished, but its policies do not call for sustained attention. It is a retired geostrategic player, resting on its splendid laurels, largely disengaged from the great European adventure in which France and Germany are the principal actors.


Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. Russia without Ukraine can still strive for imperial status, but it would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state, more likely to be drawn into debilitating conflicts with aroused Central Asians, who would then be resentful of the loss of their recent independence and would be supported by their fellow Islamic states to the south. China would also be likely to oppose any restoration of Russian domination over Central Asia, given its increasing interest in the newly independent states there. However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as its access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s loss of independence would have immediate consequences for Central Europe, transforming Poland into the geopolitical pivot on the eastern frontier of a united Europe.


Despite its limited size and small population, Azerbaijan, with its vast energy resources, is also geopolitically critical. It is the cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia. The independence of the Central Asian states can be rendered nearly meaningless if Azerbaijan becomes fully subordinated to Moscow’s control. Azerbaijan’s own and very significant oil resources can also be subjected to Russian control, once Azerbaijan’s independence has been nullified. An independent Azerbaijan, linked to Western markets by pipelines that do not pass through Russian-controlled territory, also becomes a major avenue of access from the advanced and energy-consuming economies to the energy rich Central Asian republics. Almost as much as in the case of Ukraine, the future of Azerbaijan and Central Asia is also crucial in defining what Russia might or might not become.


Europe also serves as the springboard for the progressive expansion of democracy deeper into Eurasia. Europe’s expansion eastward would consolidate the democratic victory of the 1990s. It would match on the political and economic plane the essential civilizational scope of Europe—what has been called the Petrine Europe—as defined by Europe’s ancient and common religious heritage, derived from Western-rite Christianity. Such a Europe once existed, long before the age of nationalism and even longer before the recent division of Europe into its American- and Soviet-dominated halves. Such a larger Europe would be able to exercise a magnetic attraction on the states located even farther east, building a network of ties with Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, drawing them into increasingly binding cooperation while proselytizing common democratic principles. Eventually, such a Europe could become one of the vital pillars of an American-sponsored larger Eurasian structure of security and cooperation.


The loss of the Caucasus revived strategic fears of resurgent Turkish influence; the loss of Central Asia generated a sense of deprivation regarding the enormous energy and mineral resources of the region as well as anxiety over a potential Islamic challenge; and Ukraine’s independence challenged the very essence of Russia’s claim to being the divinely endowed standard-bearer of a common pan-Slavic identity. The space occupied for centuries by the Tsarist Empire and for three-quarters of a century by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union was now to be filled by a dozen states, with most (except for Russia) hardly prepared for genuine sovereignty and ranging in size from the relatively large Ukraine with its 52 million people to Armenia with its 3.5 million. Their viability seemed uncertain, while Moscow’s willingness to accommodate permanently to the new reality was similarly unpredictable. The historic shock suffered by the Russians was magnified by the fact that some 20 million Russian-speaking people were now inhabitants of foreign states dominated politically by increasingly nationalistic elites determined to assert their own identities after decades of more or less coercive Russification.


Most troubling of all was the loss of Ukraine. The appearance of an independent Ukrainian state not only challenged all Russians to rethink the nature of their own political and ethnic identity, but it represented a vital geopolitical setback for the Russian state. The repudiation of more than three hundred years of Russian imperial history meant the loss of a potentially rich industrial and agricultural economy and of 52 million people ethnically and religiously sufficiently close to the Russians to make Russia into a truly large and confident imperial state. Ukraine’s independence also deprived Russia of its dominant position on the Black Sea, where Odessa had served as Russia’s vital gateway to trade with the Mediterranean and the world beyond. 

The loss of Ukraine was geopolitically pivotal, for it drastically limited Russia’s geostrategic options. Even without the Baltic states and Poland, a Russia that retained control over Ukraine could still seek to be the leader of an assertive Eurasian empire, in which Moscow could dominate the non-Slavs in the South and Southeast of the former Soviet Union. But without Ukraine and its 52 million fellow Slavs, any attempt by Moscow to rebuild the Eurasian empire was likely to leave Russia entangled alone in protracted conflicts with the nationally and religiously aroused non-Slavs, the war with Chechnya perhaps simply being the first example. Moreover, given Russia’s declining birthrate and the explosive birthrate among the Central Asians, any new Eurasian entity based purely on Russian power, without Ukraine, would inevitably become less European and more Asiatic with each passing year. 

The loss of Ukraine was not only geopolitically pivotal but also geopolitically catalytic. It was Ukrainian actions—the Ukrainian declaration of independence in December 1991, its insistence in the critical negotiations in Bela Vezha that the Soviet Union should be replaced by a looser Commonwealth of Independent States, and especially the sudden coup-like imposition of Ukrainian command over the Soviet army units stationed on Ukrainian soil—that prevented the CIS from becoming merely a new name for a more con-federal USSR. Ukraine’s political self-determination stunned Moscow and set an example that the other Soviet republics, though initially more timidly, then followed. 

Russia’s loss of its dominant position on the Baltic Sea was replicated on the Black Sea not only because of Ukraine’s independence but also because the newly independent Caucasian states—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—enhanced the opportunities for Turkey to reestablish its once-lost influence in the region. Prior to 1991, the Black Sea was the point of departure for the projection of Russian naval power into the Mediterranean. By the mid-1990s, Russia was left with a small coastal strip on the Black Sea and with an unresolved debate with Ukraine over basing rights in Crimea for the remnants of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, while observing, with evident irritation, joint NATO-Ukrainian naval and shore landing maneuvres and a growing Turkish role in the Black Sea region. Tussia also suspected Turkey of having provided effective aid to the Chechen resistance.


Had America clearly and decisively embraced the idea of widening the alliance, with the stipulation that Russia should somehow be included in the process, perhaps Moscow’s subsequent sense of disappointment with “the mature partnership” as well as the progressive weakening of the political position of the westernizers in the Kremlin might have been averted. The moment to have done so was during the second half of 1993, right after Yeltsin’s public endorsement in August of Poland’s interest in joining the transatlantic alliance as being consistent with “the interests of Russia.” Instead, the Clinton administration, then still pursuing its “Russia first” policy, agonized for two more years, while the Kremlin changed its tune and became increasingly hostile to the emerging but indecisive signals of the American intention to widen NATO. By the time Washington decided, in 1996, to make NATO enlargement a central goal in America’s policy of shaping a larger and more secure Euro-Atlantic community, the Russians had locked themselves into rigid opposition. Hence, the year 1993 might be viewed as the year of a missed historic opportunity.


The democratic “westernizers” simply wanted too much and could deliver too little. They desired an equal partnership—or, rather, a condominium—with America, a relatively free hand within the CIS, and a geopolitical no-man’s-land in Central Europe. Yet their ambivalence about Soviet history, their lack of realism regarding global power, the depth of the economic crisis, and the absence of widespread social support meant that they could not deliver the stable and truly democratic Russia that the concept of equal partnership implied. Russia first had to go through a prolonged process of political reform, an equally long process of democratic stabilization, and an even longer process of socioeconomic modernization and then manage a deeper shift from an imperial to a national mindset regarding the new geopolitical realities not only in Central Europe but especially within the former Russian Empire before a real partnership with America could become a viable geopolitical option.


In September 1995, President Yeltsin issued an official document on Russian policy toward the CIS that codified Russian goals as follows: 

The main objective of Russia’s policy toward the CIS is to create an economically and politically integrated association of states capable of claiming its proper place in the world community . . . to consolidate Russia as the leading force in the formation of a new system of interstate political and economic relations on the territory of the post-Union space. 

One should note the emphasis placed on the political dimension of the effort, on the reference to a single entity claiming “its” place in the world system, and on Russia’s dominant role within that new entity. In keeping with this emphasis, Moscow insisted that political and military ties between Russia and the newly constituted CIS also be reinforced: that a common military command be created; that the armed forces of the CIS states be linked by a formal treaty; that the “external” borders of the CIS be subject to centralized (meaning Moscow’s) control; that Russian forces play the decisive role in any peacekeeping actions within the CIS; and that a common foreign policy be shaped within the CIS, whose main institutions have come to be located in Moscow (and not in Minsk, as originally agreed in l991), with the Russian president presiding at the CIS summit meetings. 

And that was not all. The September 1995 document also declared that 

Russian television and radio broadcasting in the near abroad should be guaranteed, the dissemination of Russian press in the region should be supported, and Russia should train national cadres for CIS states.

Special attention should be given to restoring Russia’s position as the main educational center on the territory of the post-Soviet space, bearing in mind the need to educate the young generation in CIS states in a spirit of friendly relations with Russia. 

Reflecting this mood, in early 1996 the Russian Duma went so far as to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union to be invalid.


Opposition to Moscow’s notions of “integration” was particularly strong in Ukraine. Its leaders quickly recognized that such “integration,” especially in light of Russian reservations regarding the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence, would eventually lead to the loss of national sovereignty. Moreover, the heavy-handed Russian treatment of the new Ukrainian state—its unwillingness to grant recognition of Ukraine’s borders, its questioning of Ukraine’s right to Crimea, its insistence on exclusive extraterritorial control over the port of Sevastopol—gave the aroused Ukrainian nationalism a distinctively anti-Russian edge. The self-definition of Ukrainian nationhood, during the critical formative stage in the history of the new state, was thus diverted from its traditional anti-Polish or anti-Romanian orientation and became focused instead on opposition to any Russian proposals for a more integrated CIS, for a special Slavic community (with Russia and Belarus), or for a Eurasian Union, deciphering them as Russian imperial tactics. 

Ukraine’s determination to preserve its independence was encouraged by external support. Although initially the West, especially the United States, had been tardy in recognizing the geopolitical importance of a separate Ukrainian state, by the mid-l990s both America and Germany had become strong backers of Kiev’s separate identity. In July 1996, the U.S. secretary of defense declared, “I cannot overestimate the importance of Ukraine as an independent country to the security and stability of all of Europe,” while in September, the German chancellor—notwithstanding his strong support for President Yeltsin—went even further in declaring that “Ukraine’s firm place in Europe can no longer be challenged by anyone . . . No one will be able any more to dispute Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.” American policy makers also came to describe the American-Ukrainian relationship as “a strategic partnership,” deliberately invoking the same phrase used to describe the American-Russian relationship. 

Without Ukraine, as already noted, an imperial restoration based either on the CIS or on Eurasianism was not a viable option. An empire without Ukraine would eventually mean a Russia that would become more “Asianized” and more remote from Europe. Moreover, Eurasianism was also not especially appealing to the newly independent Central Asians, few of whom were eager for a new union with Moscow. Uzbekistan became particularly assertive in supporting Ukraine’s objections to any elevation of the CIS into a supranational entity and in opposing the Russian initiatives designed to enhance the CIS.


In effect, by the mid-l990s a bloc, quietly led by Ukraine and comprising Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and sometimes also Kazakstan, Georgia, and Moldova, had informally emerged to obstruct Russian efforts to use the CIS as the tool for political integration. 

Ukrainian insistence on only limited and largely economic integration had the further effect of depriving the notion of a “Slavic Union” of any practical meaning. Propagated by some Slavophiles and given prominence by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s support, this idea automatically became geopolitically meaningless once it was repudiated by Ukraine. It left Belarus alone with Russia; and it also implied a possible partition of Kazakstan, with its Russian-populated northern regions potentially part of such a union. Such an option was understandably not reassuring to the new rulers of Kazakstan and merely intensified the anti-Russian thrust of their nationalism. In Belarus, a Slavic Union without Ukraine meant nothing less than incorporation into Russia, thereby also igniting more volatile feelings of nationalist resentment.


In brief, the ultimate geopolitical inadequacy of the “near abroad” priority was that Russia was not strong enough politically to impose its will and not attractive enough economically to be able to seduce the new states. Russian pressure merely made them seek more external ties, first and foremost with the West but in some cases also with China and the key Islamic countries to the south. When Russia threatened to form its own military bloc in response to NATO’s expansion, it begged the question “With whom?” And it begged the even more painful answer: at the most, maybe with Belarus and Tajikistan.


Russia consequently faces the dilemma that the choice in favor of Europe and America, in order for it to yield tangible benefits, requires, first of all, a clear-cut abjuration of the imperial past and, second, no tergiversation regarding the enlarging Europe’s political and security links with America. The first requirement means accommodation to the geopolitical pluralism that has come to prevail in the space of the former Soviet Union. Such accommodation does not exclude economic cooperation, rather on the model of the old European Free Trade Area, but it cannot include limits on the political sovereignty of the new states—for the simple reason that they do not wish it. Most important in that respect is the need for clear and unambiguous acceptance by Russia of Ukraine’s separate existence, of its borders, and of its distinctive national identity. The second requirement may be even more difficult to swallow. A truly cooperative relationship with the transatlantic community cannot be based on the notion that those democratic states of Europe that wish to be part of it can be excluded because of a Russian say-so. The expansion of that community need not be rushed, and it certainly should not be promoted on an anti-Russian theme. But neither can it, nor should it, be halted by a political fiat that itself reflects an antiquated notion of European security relations. An expanding and democratic Europe has to be an open-ended historical process, not subject to politically arbitrary geographic limits.


At the same time, it is equally important for the West, especially for America, to pursue policies that perpetuate the dilemma of the one alternative for Russia. The political and economic stabilization of the new post-Soviet states is a major factor in necessitating Russia’s historical self-redefinition. Hence, support for the new post-Soviet states—for geopolitical pluralism in the space of the former Soviet empire—has to be an integral part of a policy designed to induce Russia to exercise unambiguously its European option. Among these states, three are geopolitically especially important: Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.


Most important, however, is Ukraine. As the EU and NATO expand, Ukraine will eventually be in the position to choose whether it wishes to be part of either organization. It is likely that, in order to reinforce its separate status, Ukraine will wish to join both, once they border upon it and once its own internal transformation begins to qualify it for membership. Although that will take time, it is not too early for the West—while further enhancing its economic and security ties with Kiev—to begin pointing to the decade 2005–2015 as a reasonable time frame for the initiation of Ukraine’s progressive inclusion, thereby reducing the risk that the Ukrainians may fear that Europe’s expansion will halt on the Polish-Ukrainian border. 

Russia, despite its protestations, is likely to acquiesce in the expansion of NATO in 1999 to include several Central European countries, because the cultural and social gap between Russia and Central Europe has widened so much since the fall of communism. By contrast, Russia will find it incomparably harder to acquiesce in Ukraine’s accession to NATO, for to do so would be to acknowledge that Ukraine’s destiny is no longer organically linked to Russia’s. Yet if Ukraine is to survive as an independent state, it will have to become part of Central Europe rather than Eurasia, and if it is to be part of Central Europe, then it will have to partake fully of Central Europe’s links to NATO and the European Union. Russia’s acceptance of these links would then define Russia’s own decision to be also truly a part of Europe. Russia’s refusal would be tantamount to the rejection of Europe in favor of a solitary “Eurasian” identity and existence. 

The key point to bear in mind is that Russia cannot be in Europe without Ukraine also being in Europe, whereas Ukraine can be in Europe without Russia being in Europe. Assuming that Russia decides to cast its lot with Europe, it follows that ultimately it is in Russia’s own interest that Ukraine be included in the expanding European structures. Indeed, Ukraine’s relationship to Europe could be the turning point for Russia itself. But that also means that the defining moment for Russia’s relationship to Europe is still some time off—“defining” in the sense that Ukraine’s choice in favor of Europe will bring to a head Russia’s decision regarding the next phase of its history: either to be a part of Europe as well or to become a Eurasian outcast, neither truly of Europe nor Asia and mired in its “near abroad” conflicts. 

It is to be hoped that a cooperative relationship between an enlarging Europe and Russia can move from formal bilateral links to more organic and binding economic, political, and security ties. In that manner, in the course of the first two decades of the next century, Russia could increasingly become an integral part of a Europe that embraces not only Ukraine but reaches to the Urals and even beyond. An association or even some form of membership for Russia in the European and transatlantic structures would in turn open the doors to the inclusion of the three Caucasian countries – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – that so desperately aspire to a European connection.

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