Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program reviews the history of Heartland power in her third blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Events over the past thirty years have shaped the current geopolitical environment of Eurasia’s Heartland. From the collapse of the former Soviet Union to struggles for influence, power assertion, or empowerment following the Cold War, these events signal high stakes for Russia, the U.S., and China. They inform possibilities for a world-power pivot.
The collapse of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 ended the Cold War and left Russia trying to expand her influence throughout a fragmented Heartland. As some post-Soviet Eastern European countries pursued new visions of independence, Russia looked back to the former Soviet Empire’s past glory. From the early 1990’s, she organized or joined bilateral regional organizations to promote the security, economic, and or political interests of Eurasian member states. In 2008 and in later years, she supported separatist regions in other Heartland countries to ensure their dependence on her for their economic and political development. In 2014, she annexed Crimea from Ukraine, strengthening Russia’s military influence through uninterrupted access to the Black Sea. Over time, Russia expanded her influence throughout the Heartland, though at the cost of leaving it fragmented.
Winning the Cold War propelled the U.S. forward with momentum to chase an elusive goal of fully asserting her power to leverage the Heartland’s fragmentation. She waged a war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001 after the devastating 9/11 attacks on the U.S. She invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein when he continued to defy U.S. containment strategies intended to stop his ruthless dictatorship. She provided security and economic assistance to Central Asian countries in exchange for access to their military bases and air space. Yet, despite the interventions, containment strategies, and attempts to establish a long-term U.S. military presence in the region, the U.S. fell short of her goal. Unable to leverage the Heartland’s fragmentation for a full power assertion, the U.S. lost much of her influence in the Middle East and in Central Asia.
China’s Cold War pivot away from the former USSR and towards the U.S. empowered China to extend her reach into the Heartland. Aligning her economic interests with the U.S. gave rise to China’s growth from foreign investment and trade. Undeterred by the global financial crisis of 2008, she looked to new possibilities for trading Chinese goods across Afro-Eurasia along a New Silk Road. Through increased investments in foreign infrastructure development, China began improving trade routes. Later, she announced plans for a One Belt One Road international market system or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, revealing a competing interest in the Heartland. The 2015 announcement of her “Made in China 2025” strategic plan further revealed her ambitions for economic growth through technological capabilities. A high-speed rail system, for example, would support the BRI and an empowered China’s extended reach into the Heartland.
Post 20th-Century Cold War, the U.S. faces a high-stakes change in geopolitical power rivalry for the Heartland. Having lost her influence in Central Asia and in the Middle East, the U.S. seemingly has conceded vying for Heartland control. Instead, her focus is on containing Russia and China as these two civilizational states increasingly shape Heartland power. For Russia, it’s a matter of uniting Afro-Eurasia in Eurasian solidarity. For China, it’s a matter of integrating Central Asia and parts of the Middle East into her sphere of influence. Could these and other stakeholders influence a world-power pivot to the Heartland? Any number of possible futures could unfold.
Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the key features of Heartland phenomenon in her second blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Eurasia’s Heartland is a living organism of complex interconnected systems, which shapes the geopolitical environment by which it is itself shaped. It is characterized to some degree by the interaction of demographic, socio-cultural, political, economic, and technological changes that impact the Heartland as a whole. To another degree, it also is characterized by the impact it has on its geopolitical environment.
Demographically, the Heartland includes populations in Russia, twelve other Slavic East European countries, three other Caucasus countries, five Central Asian countries, Mongolia, and parts of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Over 500 million people strong, the Heartland spans the spectrum of contrasting demographic trends. Low fertility rates, aging populations and workforces, and year-to-year improvements in education are matters of reality in some countries. By contrast, the realities of other countries exist as higher fertility rates, high mortality rates, and a decline in educational achievements. These and other demographic trends impact socio-cultural changes in the Heartland.
Socio-culturally, the Heartland is a system of complex diversity. Its spoken languages include Slavic Indo-European dialects, Mongolic, Turkic, Arabic, and native Himalayan dialects. Its religions, those professed and or practiced, are Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Folk Religion, and atheism. Its historical transitions, from social migration patterns to the rise and fall of political empires, have fueled competing cultural preferences for Turkish clannism, Mongolic pastoralism, or Russian nationalism. There are efforts toward increased gender equality in Eastern Europe, and struggles between radicalization and social inclusion among youth in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran. Such complex socio-cultural diversity could be the environmental force that brings together nations to co-create a desirable future, yet impedes the political transformation to a unified Heartland.
Politically, the Heartland is shaped by the opposing tug of differing ideologies. On one side is Russia, geographically situated on the continents of Europe and Asia. Neither identifying as belonging solely to one or the other, it culturally identifies with both. Adamantly against Westernization, Russia has pushed for Eurasianism. It’s an ideology premised on extending Russia’s influence and power, while driving world dominance from the West to the East. On the other side are Eastern European countries that support Westernization and opportunities for knowledge sharing, trade, economic growth, etc. Between these ideologies is Turkey, strategically positioned between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Turkey aligns its political or military agenda with Russia when cooperation works to its advantage, yet it also is a bridge to connecting the West and the Middle East. Some Heartland governments are authoritarian and others democratic. From one side to the other and in-between, political ideologies in the Heartland have shaped the competing economic systems of communism and capitalism, with influences of socialism from China.
Economically, the Heartland has systems that thrive and others that merely survive. Deposits of hydrocarbon, minerals, coal, oil and natural gas reserves have supported the thriving economies of Russia, Poland, Kazakhstan, and others. These countries alone had GDP values worth over five percent of the world’s economy in 2018. The agrarian economies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan reflect lower GDP values. Not only have they incurred rising amounts of external debt for survival, they also depend on income earned by citizens who work abroad and send money home. In the past, proximity to the old Silk Road trade routes boosted the economies of some Heartland countries. Today, China’s New Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and other technological advancements, could help many more nations across the Afro-Eurasian World Island to thrive.
Technological change in the Heartland’s geopolitical environment is spurring multiple pathways of change. In addition to the BRI, developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, advanced-tech agriculture, and green infrastructure could open up new possibilities. Such possibilities could include new job creation, more international cooperatives, improved trade relations, or increased drug-trafficking. Undoubtedly, these changes will influence a geopolitical environment in a future increasingly characterized by competition among world powers for power, control, or dominance.
The Heartland is a living system. It is characterized by the interaction of changes to and the impact it has on its geopolitical environment. These demographic, socio-cultural, political, economic, and technological changes influence increasingly complex system impacts. Likewise, they will impact the Heartland’s future, starting with its past.