The duel on the Eurasian chessboard: this is why Ukraine is so geostrategically important

These lines are a quarter of a century old, but they read as they are from today. “Ukraine’s independence deprived Russia of its dominant position on the Black Sea, as Odessa was the indispensable gateway to trade with the Mediterranean and the outside world.” – “Without Ukraine, Russia is no longer a Eurasian empire.” – “Within geopolitics from this perspective, the secession of Ukraine represents a major loss, which has significantly reduced Russia’s geostrategic options.”

The rulings were written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to US President Jimmy Carter. Belonging to the Polish gentry, the Brzezinski family belonged to what is now Ukraine, the city of Brzezinski, hence the name.

He was himself one of the most prominent foreign and security politicians in the United States. In 1997 he published the book “The Single World Power – America’s Strategy for Supremacy” (“The Great Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Necessities”, German edition appeared with an introduction by Hans-Dietrich Genscher in 2001 in S. Fischer Verlag ).

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Reading enlightens in light of the current crisis for two reasons. It first reveals the view of an influential American political scientist on the geopolitical role of the United States after the collapse of communism.


Second, it gives insight into the Russian perspective, because Brzezinski’s book has been interpreted in Moscow as evidence of the United States’ quest for world domination. NATO’s eastern expansion and western Ukraine’s policy confirm this interpretation.

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Guided by a vision of a better world

The aim of his book, as Brzezinski writes in the preface, is “to design a comprehensive and independent geographic strategy with respect to Eurasia.” The main actor is the United States, which is the “sole global superpower” in the fields of military, economy, technology and culture. As such, they will need to secure their dominance on the Eurasia “Grand Chessboard” to enable a new world order in the long term, guided by a vision of a better world.

According to Brzezinsky, Eurasia stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok. “Eurasia is the largest continent on Earth and geopolitically pivotal. The power that dominates Eurasia will extend over two of the three most economically developed and productive regions. (…) Nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lives in Eurasia, and its land and business contain over most of the material growth of the world. (…) Altogether, the power potential of this continent greatly dwarfs that of the United States.”

Brzezinski sees American sovereignty in Eurasia threatened if the countries of the former Soviet Union unite together and repel the West. Therefore, the emergence of a “dominant opposing force” must be prevented at all costs.

“Pan-Slavic common identity banners holders”

The main way to do this is NATO’s eastward expansion. If that fails, “the American leadership will lose credibility, the plan to expand Europe will be shattered, Central European morale is demoralized, and Russia’s dormant or lost geopolitical appetite may be re-ignited in Central Europe.”

The focal point is the development of Ukraine. It is the “critical point”. Only with Ukraine can Russia become a Eurasian empire and maintain its dominant position on the Black Sea. Without Ukraine, Brzezinski writes, Russians are forced to rethink their political and ethnic identity. Ukraine’s independence challenged the substance of Russia’s claim to be the God-chosen carrier of a common pan-Slavic identity.

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Moreover, Russia’s clumsy handling of the new Ukrainian state – its unwillingness to recognize its borders, its denial of Ukraine’s right to Crimea, and its insistence on exclusive extraterritorial control of the port of Sevastopol – impeded a newly awakened Ukrainian nationalism. It gave an unequivocally anti-Russian advantage.” What matters now is that Russia recognizes and respects Ukraine’s independence, borders and independent citizenship “without any condition or reservations.”

Contacts with defectors from East Germany

Never a loyal partisan, Brzezinski was sometimes close to the Democrats in the United States, sometimes to the Republicans. He advocated a policy of détente after the Cuban missile crisis, maintained contacts with East German dissidents, supported the Catholic Church against communist rule in Poland, emphasized human rights in relation to the Soviet Union, and ordered greater coverage of the Radio Free Europe programme.

Concerned that Russia would regain strength after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Brzezinski advocated an eastward expansion of NATO, which originally included Ukraine. “As the European Union and NATO expand eastward, Ukraine will eventually have the option of becoming part of either organization,” he wrote in his book. “It may be assumed that in order to strengthen its independence, it desires to join both as soon as the catchment area lies on the boundary of its territory and has carried out the internal reforms necessary for membership.”

Brzezinski sympathized with Moscow’s objections. “It must be admitted that not all Russian concerns about NATO expansion were groundless or malicious.” But in the end, a “sense of cultural inferiority” left Moscow with NATO expansion as the culmination of a longstanding Western policy to isolate Russia emerge. “Not even in Russia’s democratic circles is the deep-rooted Central European half-century resentment of Moscow’s dominance and their desire to be part of a larger Euro-Atlantic order.”

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“Gangster Tactics” by Vladimir Putin

In February 2014, just before the height of the Euromaidan Revolution, Brzezinski said that without Ukraine, Russia could never become a great power again. Only in this context does Russia’s bitter political struggle over Ukraine become understandable. Shortly thereafter, in early March 2014, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Brzezinski compared Vladimir Putin’s “gangster tactics” to “barely disguised” the “invasion of Crimea” with Adolf Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938. On the other hand, He warned the West to assure Russia that it did not want to drag Ukraine into NATO or put it against Russia.

Russia occupied Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine for eight years. No one who reads “The Only Global Power” can hope that the situation will calm down for the foreseeable future. Because it is clear that it is about more than Ukraine.

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