Recent developments in Ukraine make it obvious the Russian territorial cycle is actively reshaping and testing new realities. Russia has effectively regained Crimea, but lost control of Ukrainian politics, at least for now. But even though there are military troops involved, these territorial confrontations, such as Ukraine and with all the other countries along the western borderlands of Russia, are not a replay of the Cold War. There are new technical forces at play and the realities are very different than they were in 1945. Too often geopolitical thinkers gain insight by replaying an analysis of the last war and thereby missing what is new, and what is likely to shape a different outcome.
First a quick look at the analog connectivity of Russia a hundred years ago and in comparison a look at the digital connectivity of Russia recently. Here is a map of global telegraph cables in 1901. The red lines on the map are telegraph lines, many of them are undersea copper cables.
In 1901 Western Europe was the center of global, analog connectivity. All lines lead to Western Europe. There were telegraph lines running through Russia, but the connectivity was sparse. Now take a look at global, fiber-optic, cable connectivity in 2007 – that’s digital connectivity. Again Western Europe looks well connected and the cables to the North American East Coast are noteworthy. But what is even more noteworthy is the lack of connectivity in Russia. In fact in both the telegraph map and the fiber-optic map Russia’s lack of connectivity to global communication networks is striking. If network connectivity is the foundation of future economic growth then Russia’s territorial struggles are really about getting hooked up.
In 2005 a map of Russia’s internal fiber-optic connectivity looked like this.
The connections were constructed with fiber-optic cables laid down by a partnership between Hutchison Global Communications of Hong Kong and TransTeleCom of Russia. The strategy was to leverage the shortest intra-continental routes to connect Asia and Europe. In other words they constructed an overland cable rather than submarine cables. Looking at it more critically, these cables represent an alternative to the North American and Western European cable networks. The Russians could potentially shut them off if they wanted to. In fact, when Russia sent military to Crimea recently, one of their first activities was to manipulate the fiber-optic cable connections.
Russia looks better once you see these internal cable lines, but the reality is that Russia is tagging on to a larger global network that more or less surrounds her. Now let’s consider the borderlands along Russia’s western frontier. These former Soviet satellites are now struggling to establish their place in the world. Each country is different and each is pulled to a greater or lesser extent towards Russia or Western Europe. Before digital technology this struggle was always a matter of military alignment, but today that is not the only force on the playing field. Although each country has its unique qualities they all share a common struggle to find economic stability. Most of these countries have attempted to relinquish central government control in order to foster a market economy. Each has a different experience in that process, but they are all struggling.
Russia’s Economic Future
Russia also has attempted to decentralize but found the process unruly and inequitable. The Putin government has reestablished central control of politics and control over parts of the economy. Things got out of control in the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century. Finding a way forward now means guiding the economy towards a free-market while avoiding the worst abuses of oligarch opportunism. There is no real plan on the table, so events dictate the flow of power and how Russia’s government reacts to outside events.
In classical geopolitical analysis the Eastern European countries located between Russia and Western Europe are a buffer region that separate Russia’s westward demographic growth from Germany’s eastward demographic growth. But, with Russia attempting to find her way towards a market economy, geopolitical forces and military forces are not the sole consideration driving decisions. Economic growth opportunity is also in the mix. To expand her territory, Russia has to consider the opportunities for economic growth in all her Western borderland neighbors. And, once you consider economic growth opportunity, you have to offer digital connectivity that can foster small business growth. Once you consider digital connectivity and economic growth opportunities rather than military force and geopolitical strategy, you realize success with borderland territories is a matter of attraction. Russia will have to consider how attractive her economic support will be to her neighbors, all of whom are repelled by Russia’s military reaction to events. That economic support is measured in loans, but more importantly, in available technological capacity. Russia needs to offer connectivity to be attractive.
Russia is in a dilemma that requires she diversify her economy. Currently Russia is substantially a mono-economy founded on oil and gas reserves. In the short-term that can be a successful economic foundation, but time is working against that success if Russia isn’t actively pursuing economic diversity. In the past, Russia’s territorial cycle was one of imperial expansion and contraction, but today Russia’s territorial cycle is more involved with alignment of economic realities. Communications connectivity and technology platforms are important pieces of the new territorial cycle.
For example, consider Estonia for a moment. In 2003 two Danish men released a voice over internet protocol (voip) platform called Skype. The backend technology was actually developed in Estonia by coders. By 2010 Skype had close to 700 million registered users and in 2011 Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion. Today, Microsoft’s Skype division is headquartered in Luxembourg, but 44 percent of the development team is still located in Estonia. The borderland territory of Russia and Western Europe in the Baltic region is well connected to the submarine cable systems of the West. Russia has to compete with this communication connectivity to be attractive. This is a significant part of the new territorial realities for Russia. The clock is ticking, to turn away from this technology would only isolate Russia as a more backward country than she can afford to be. Russia can’t control communication connectivity she has to negotiate her place in the digital world and that includes how she handles her borderlands.