In many ways, modern geopolitics still revolve around the competition between land and sea powers. A critical geographic area where this plays out is the Eurasian landmass. The Trans-Atlantic order is pitted against the Eurasian system, where Russia, China and others attempt to build a new vision of bilateral relations and ultimately change the present.
The sea powers are nevertheless more resilient. They possess a critical advantage – they can lose a war without bringing down their entire geopolitical power. For example, the US was unable to attain total victory in Afghanistan, nor was it able to do so in Iraq or during the Cold War in Vietnam. All these campaigns ended ignominiously for Washington, though America was always substantially stronger than its opponents. The US withdrew (in a way, lost), but it was hardly defeated in the long-term. The Cold War was won, and the US still possesses a wide range of tools which safeguard its primacy in the economic and military areas.
The same logic applies to other sea states. Great Britain was able to withdraw from Europe in 1940, and in 1810 when it faced Napoleon. But the country did not lose the war because it could withdraw and reconstitute its powers – physical distance served as its single most important advantage.
In contrast, land powers do not have the luxury of withdrawal. They mostly wage campaigns in the neighboring territories, and defeat there could easily evolve into existential problem for the big country. Russia’s defeat with Japan in 1904-05, with Germany in World War I or in Afghanistan in the 1980s, spelled disaster for the respective Russian governments. There was not enough physical distance to make those defeats less traumatic.
This brings us back to Russia’s war on Ukraine and the fact that, so far, Moscow has not been able achieve decisive victory. Ukraine has not only successfully resisted, but also mounted effective counter-attacks which led to the return of significant portion of the initially lost Ukrainian territory. Powerful enough can at times turn out not so capable of carrying out successful military campaigns. Due to geography, a stalemate or military defeat in Ukraine could undermine the very foundation of the present Russian state. No wonder that politicians in Moscow see the war in existential terms. The stakes are high, and defeat is fraught with likely upheaval.
Once we factor in the role of geography in the ongoing war in Ukraine, it becomes clear why Russia has failed to achieve its major goals – Ukraine’s vast geography prevented a quick military victory. Iraq’s distance from the US, as well as the country’s unstable neighborhood and porous borders with Iran, Turkey, and Syria further complicated America’s chances for victory. Geographic constraints complicate China’s ambition of taking over Taiwan and even if Beijing decides to do so the success of the military operation will be far from guaranteed.
Ultimately, geography is not a recipe for victory. So to understand the true balance of power, one needs to look beyond the country’s geography and assess economic and military capabilities as well as the way of thinking of political elites and what we need to consider when analyzing the present and forecasting the future.
In this battle between the sea and the land powers, the latter are more constrained geographically and do not have the luxury of defeat. The long list of wars shows that sea powers are more stable and secure, even though are they could be defeated in battles and indeed in entire wars. What matters is the long-term perspective, and the sea powers turn out to be far more resilient. They only fear internal unrest caused by poor governance and economy. Land powers also fear potential threats from neighbors, deploy armies to protect borders and often have their budgets wreaked.
One misconception about sea powers is the argument that the Britain in 19th century or the US in the more recent past often failed to gain a foothold in the heart of Eurasia. The reality is that they did not really need to do this. A permanent presence in the heart of Eurasia with limited or no sea access would be self-defeating. What sea powers have aimed at is rather a limited military presence on the outskirts of the continent which would allow them to prevent the creation of military coalitions capable of deploying powerful military fleets at sea. The US and Britain have done this in both world wars and during the Cold War, and Washington continues to do it nowadays when it comes to China and partially Russia.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.