A while back, I wrote about Aleksandr Dugin’s Last War of the World Island: The Geopolitics of Contemporary Russia. Dugin’s worldview, I pointed out, was overly simplistic, relying on arbitrary definitions of “Civilisations of Land/Sea”. Dugin argues that as the paragon of “Civilisation of Land”, Russia is the only possible counter-balance to the US as a global superpower. Problems with this classification aside, it provides an interesting Russian lens by which to interpret the Cold War.
A few quick definitions first. “Civilisations of Land” are basically land-based powers, with their politico-economic centres of gravity far inland. Russia is a great example. “Civilisations of Sea” rely instead on sea power and depend on it to sustain their politico-economic centres. The US and UK are examples. “Rim” civilisations are in between – they are countries that border the sea on one side, and land on another. India and Vietnam are examples. Dugin also attached ideological values to each side, which I’ll ignore.
The visuals below will represent Land in red, Sea in blue, and Rim with transparent blocks. Labels are included for convenience.
This is the world at the beginning of the Cold War. The USSR and the USA respectively dominate Land and Sea, and clash and compete for influence over the Rim. “Sea” is basically NATO, “Land” is the Warsaw Pact, and “Rim” includes India, China, and most of the Non-Aligned countries. As we can see, this is a “balanced” world, with stability guaranteed by one land-based (tellurocratic) and one sea-based (thalassocratic) pole. This is Dugin’s ideal world, and by implication, it is what a stable world order would look like.
As the superpowers compete, the Rim becomes a new battleground. The USA grows more powerful and directly invades Vietnam to try and establish its influence there, but that is ultimately unsuccessful as the USSR aids North Vietnam.
Despite its loss in Vietnam, the US only continues to grow in power. More and more “Rim” countries begin to align themselves with its economic model while the USSR is unable to effectively mount a response. In Afghanistan, it insists on supporting Communist rebels while the US is more pragmatic. The Sino-Soviet split also allows for increased US influence on traditionally land-based powers.
The USSR collapses and the US/Sea influence pervades the entire rim and penetrates deep into Land. Russia is a mere shadow of its former self, but China is increasingly assertive and begins to extend its influence back into the Rim.
As should be clear from these visuals, Russia sees itself as backed into a corner, stripped of its rightful influence and threatened by the US’s presence in areas that it sees as critical to its national security. The collapse of the USSR is, to paraphrase Dugin, the destruction of a centuries-old equillibrium between Land and Sea. Agree or disagree, this should help make more sense of why Russia does what it does – with a worldview like this, curtailing US influence is worth paying high domestic political prices for.