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Warm Water Russians

In response to:

Will Geography Decide Our Destiny? from the February 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography [NYR, February 21] Malise Ruthven quotes the book on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan:

This, of course, was the dream of the Soviet Union, to advance to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean through the invasion of Afghanistan and the attempted destabilization of Pakistan in the 1980s, and thus combine sea power and land power.

Ruthven should have pointed out that Kaplan’s interpretation is a fantasy based on Halford Mackinder’s specious geographic determinism. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is one of the best-documented episodes of the cold war. It arose not from a primordial drive to the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf but Moscow’s near panic at the prospect of losing control of Afghanistan to Islamic rebels or a government that might ally itself with the United States.

John L. Harper
Professor of American Foreign Policy
The Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University
Bologna, Italy

Malise Ruthven replies:

In questioning my endorsement of Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical approach to Eurasian history, as explained by Robert Kaplan in The Revenge of Geography, Professor Harper not only mistakes my gender (an easy, though careless, error); but much more seriously, he omits to mention that Russia’s engagement with Afghanistan long preceded the 1979 Soviet invasion. From early in the nineteenth century, British anxieties about Russian advances in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, are well documented, as are Russian concerns about British designs on Kabul. Indeed it was fear of Russian involvement with the Afghan leader Dost Mohammed and the possible threat this posed to the British Raj that led to the disastrous first Afghan War (1839–1842) when the British lost an army of 4,500, along with some 12,000 camp followers, to the Ghilzai forebears of the Taliban. When in 1884 Tsar Alexander III annexed Merv (now in Turkmenistan, and only four hundred kilometers from the Afghan city of Herat), British “hawks” were warning that “Cossacks would soon be watering their horses on the banks of the Indus.”

While these fears may have been exaggerated given the formidable difficulties of the terrain, Russia’s perennial drive through Inner Asia toward the Indian Ocean “rimland” amply explains the geopolitical logic underpinning Brezhnev’s disastrous invasion in 1979. For two centuries Afghanistan was part of a tsarist-cum-Soviet push toward the Indian Ocean. The moves and countermoves involved in this process were famously encapsulated in the “Great Game” that features in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (a game that continues today, with a diversity of players that include India and Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia with its Inner Asian surrogates).

As for Professor Harper’s airy dismissal of Mackinder’s “specious geographic determinism,” it is worth recalling that a principal theme of Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (1919) is that human agency can overcome the dictates of geography once these have been taken into account.

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