That war broke out last year in Ukraine, of all places, isn’t surprising, says Hal Brands in Bloomberg: the country has been central to “every great global clash of the modern era”. Both resources and geography make it a valuable “strategic prize”. Within its borders is some of the richest agricultural land in the world, which accounts “for 6% of all calories traded on international food markets”. It is also the “hinge” connecting what the great geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder called the “Eurasian Heartland” with the economically advanced countries of Europe. Any European or Eurasian power looking to expand into the other sphere must pass through Ukraine.
This meant that, in the First World War, conquering Ukraine was central to Germany’s plans “to create a resource-rich Mitteleuropa from the North Sea to the Caucasus”. In the Second World War, Hitler similarly dreamed of the “living space” and food supplies Ukraine could offer, making Germany “impregnable” against the British Empire and America. Later, Ukraine’s decision to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 helped seal the fate of that fragmenting bloc. As one former US national security advisor observed in 1994, Russia could only be an empire when it possessed Ukraine. That’s why Vladimir Putin just couldn’t leave the country alone – and why, even as so much in the world changes, “geography still matters”.