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Russia Will Not Collapse

An interview with Robert Kaplan, one of the most recognised geopolitical analysts in the world and writer for the global intelligence agency Stratfor.

November 12, 2012 - Ziemowit Szczerek - Articles and Commentary

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Ziemowit Szczerek: Is the perspective that you present in your newest book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate your new way of looking at the world?

Robert Kaplan: To answer your question let’s take Russia as an example. When we take a look at the map, we understand that Vladimir Putin is simply implementing Russian geopolitical goals. Putin, who in the United States is seen as some sort of a demon, is simply looking at the world from a Russian perspective. In its history, Russia has experienced the attacks of the Mongols, the Lithuanians, the Poles, the French and the Germans. And the thing that has always helped it survive was its large space. That is why, Russia needs to have as much space as it can. And that’s why it is now creating one.

But in Europe this is old news…

True. In the United States, however, not many people understand it that well, including the intellectual elite. Russia simply needs its buffer zones and has been creating them in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. The aim of my book is to make Putin’s moves understood worldwide. I do not justify his actions, I am just trying to help people understand his way of thinking.

And do you think that Russia will be able to achieve its geopolitical goals?

It might be difficult, I agree. But let’s take the example of the Baltic states which are now members of NATO and the European Union. Putin has also been trying to get this region into his sphere of influence, although it hasn’t been so easy for him as he is not able to compete economically with the Germans, nor win the case of the Russian minority there. But he’s been trying and will continue to do so. He’s also not able to compete with the Chinese in Central Asia, but again he will try. I am actually under the impression that Putin is, to a large extent, aware of his weaknesses.

Does he have a plan B?

I don’t think so. Such a plan B, which I discuss in the book, would be the opening up of the Russian economy.

But how could he create these buffer zones? He could probably – for the sake of creating them in the Caucasus – invade Georgia, although it’s clear that it would be hard for him to keep it, as there would probably be a second Chechnya…

Of course. I think that the problem with Georgia was that President George W. Bush promised too much. He promised that the West would support Georgia and that Georgia would, one day, become a member of NATO. Mikheil Saakashvili, on the other hand, was too loud.

And if Georgia had been a member of NATO?

Then it probably wouldn’t have been attacked. The important thing is that it wasn’t a NATO member at that time. It didn’t deserve to be a NATO member. It was too poor and too backward and too corrupt. And most importantly, its geographic location is not in Europe.

What can you say about Georgia’s new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili? Who is he?

He made his fortune in Russia, and Russia allowed him to do so. I believe that Ivanishvili will play the role of a pro-Western democrat, but in reality won’t do anything that would be unfavourable towards Russia.

Which is an ideal solution for the Russians…

Yes. Russia will have a guaranteed Georgian flank reserve without the need to initiate any military intervention. There will be no second Chechnya. To illustrate my point further, just look at the situation in the Caucasus.

George Friedman, your boss and the head of Stratfor, wrote in his book The Next 100 Years and repeated in The Next Decade that Poland has a chance to become a leader in Central Europe. But the Central European countries have now been looking at Poland more as a threat than a potential leader. I have the feeling that the countries of Europe, between Russia and the West, will remain divided. How could it join the game as one unit?

First of all, Poland is a big country with a large economy and population which is quite homogeneous. It does not have ethnic minorities like the former Yugoslavia does. It is placed in a critical location. It has been increasing its defence budget at a time when other European countries have been doing the opposite. And an increase in military budget means that the Pentagon will be treating Poland with much greater respect, as a serious ally.

But for the moment the Pentagon has been reducing its presence in Central Europe.

Yes and no. NATO is still the only player in the region. Had there been no NATO, the Baltic states would not have been independent today. But to go back for a moment, it wasn’t only George Friedman who talked about Poland’s role, but also Zbigniew Brzeziński. The point in question is Poland’s central location in Central Europe. In my opinion, the two most important countries in Europe today are Germany and Poland. France has been losing its importance. Economically it is a basket case. It has some influence in Africa, it has a good, but underinvested army. The British Army, too, is perfectly trained, has top-class leadership but is also underinvested. Spain and Italy are also economical basket cases. Belgium is also a basket case, and in addition, is too small. The Netherlands are also small. So who’s left? Poland and Germany. To reiterate, Poland is important because of its strategic location, the size of its population and its homogenous society. And for these reasons it takes the issue of security more seriously than the other European countries do.

And what is Poland’s role in Europe’s East? In Ukraine and Belarus?

I don’t think that Poland has any special role in Ukraine or Belarus. This seems to be beyond Poland’s capabilities.

But what I have in mind here is Poland’s role in the East as the EU and NATO member.

Poland can support Ukraine’s integration with the EU, but will not get too far here for one simple reason: the EU is currently not interested in this issue. Poland borders Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and Russia in East Prussia. I like to call this region like this. Poland has also a role to play in the Baltic states. Maybe also in Belarus because Lukashenka won’t govern for ever. And whoever replaces him may have completely different foreign policy views. Or will at least try to.

Can Belarus have a different foreign policy? And can Ukraine get out of its geopolitical situation?

Belarus could be less of a Russia’s slave than it is now. In a way, Belarus is now a part of Russia. Ukraine is trying to get out of its geopolitical situation, but with a weak Europe it will be quite hard. Officially, it will probably remain independent but it will continue to depend on Russia. I think that Russians will continue to put pressure on Ukraine. And this is where Poland can play a role. I realise that people I’m meeting here in Krakow (at the Conrad Festival – editor’s note) are not Russophobes, but Poland, because of geopolitics, is in a way anti-Russian.

George Friedman foresaw Russia’s implosion. A collapse?

I would not say so. George and I have different opinions. That’s the reason he hired me. He likes to argue. And Russia? This country is not in a good situation. Its social situation is unhealthy and its population has been shrinking. Russia cannot continue to put pressure on its neighbours only using gas. It might be able to keep control over North Caucasus and Chechnya; but let me repeat: Russia may not have the most amazing perspectives, but it won’t collapse.

How would you comment on Friedman who in The Next 100 Years wrote that the US was not interested in stabilising the Balkans. It may sound like a conspiracy theory but indeed when you look at the region today, you quickly notice that not many people are happy with the current borders. It’s hard to talk about stabilisation…

I don’t agree with this opinion. Americans have always thought that the Balkans were Europe’s problem. They still think this way, even after the intervention in Kosovo. The only problem was that Europe was not capable of solving it. And still isn’t. The Balkans, I think, will remain the area of competing interests between Europe, Turkey and Russia.

And what about the European Union? Will it one day resemble the United Nations? Meaning an organisation that exists but doesn’t work.

No. I think that the EU will stop enlarging, get weaker, but survive. The euro will survive too. Maybe a few countries will leave the eurozone but the EU will survive.

This interview first appeared in Polish on the web portal Interia.pl

Ziemowit Szczerek is a journalist who works for Interia.pl. He is completing his PhD at the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences, and covers Central and Eastern European issues.

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