Is Tskhinvali the centre of the world?

Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) - Reader in Geography at the University of Oxford, Director of the London School of Economics and long-serving Member of Parliament - is usually credited with being the founder of political geography.

Deeply imbued with very British ideas about the need to maintain the balance of power on land to preserve hegemony at sea, Mackinder famously argued in 1904 that Eurasia was the geographical pivot of world history, and that control over Eastern Europe would lead to control of it and therefore of the whole world.

Mackinder's writings have had enormous influence, which continues to this day: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's former National Security Adviser, owes much to him for his view that America must establish control over Central Asia in order to consolidate its world hegemony.

Less well known is that the height of Mackinder's political career was when he was appointed British High Commissioner to South Russia (the Caucasus) in 1919 by the Foreign Office under the former explorer, Lord Curzon.

Britain had troops in Southern Russia at the time, helping anti-Bolshevik forces under the command of General Denikin.

Mackinder persuaded him to recognise the independence of the Caucasian peoples in the event of a White victory and, once back in London, argued that Britain should create an anti-Bolshevik alliance between an independent Ukraine and the Caucasus states, and maintain control of the railway line between Baku and Batumi to secure oil supplies from the Caspian and to prevent the Bolsheviks from reaching the Black Sea themselves.

At the time, Britain did not adopt the policy, and Lenin's Soviet Union ended up controlling effectively the same territory as the Russian Empire had (although he crucially federalised it). But Mackinder's vision did become reality less than a century later, when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.

It is in the light of this historical and ideological perspective that we need to understand the energetic support given today by American geo-strategists to the accession of the two remaining Black Sea states, Ukraine and Georgia, to NATO.

Like Mackinder, they want to turn the Black Sea into a NATO lake and drive Russia out of her historic territories in Europe.

This serves three goals: to protect energy supplies; to help "democratise" (i.e. Westernise) the "Greater Middle East" from Casablanca to Kabul; and to inflict a decisive geo-strategic defeat on Russia.

These goals explain the West's support for the pro-NATO Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, and for the Georgian government's determination to reassert control over its two breakaway provinces, Abkazia and South Ossetia, where tensions are even now rising dangerously as tens of people have just been killed in fighting near the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Can the West succeed?

To be sure, parts of Mackinder's vision have been implemented: EU and NATO enlargement are now facts, while Western influence has recently scored notable new victories in Serbia.

The project of creating an "anti-missile" shield in Eastern Europe proceeds apace, and it will undoubtedly threaten Russia when it is finally set up.

However, the violence in the Caucasus, if it escalates, will be the first actual fighting around a strategic goal since the invasion of Iraq in 2003: the "independence" of Kosovo, by contrast, was achieved without a shot being fired.

The French economist, Jacques Sapir, has persuasively argued in his recent book, Le nouveau XXIe siecle (The New Twenty-First Century), the project of creating an American world empire has in fact suffered an overall miscarriage since 2003.

Of course the project remains very much alive in the brains of policy wonks in offices in Washington DC.

Of course the American economy and polity remain heavily influenced by the arms industry, which pays for politicians to argue in favour of ever greater military expansion.

And of course there is a sinister tendency in US politics to create new crises to distract attention from old ones.

But the wars of attrition in Iraq and Afghanistan imply that the US cannot, in fact, "democratise" the Middle East or even control it, and that it is therefore difficult to talk of controlling Central Asia as well, let alone the whole world.

The American army is not that big, after all.

It is therefore doubtful whether Washington would in fact send troops to fight pro-Russian forces (or maybe even Russian forces themselves) in Georgia (although the probability of this happening under President John McCain remains fairly high).

While it may not be true that "who controls Tskhinvali controls the world," the outcome of any fighting there will be a litmus test for the balance of power between Russia and America in the years to come.

[Source: By John Laughland is British political scientist, Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris, Russian Information Agency Novosti, 07Aug08]

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