Skip to main content

Buffer zones: Anachronism, power vacuum, or confidence builder?

  • Rajan Menon (a1) and Jack L. Snyder (a2)

Amidst calls for containing an assertive Russia, politicians and pundits have been debating whether Ukraine should serve as a ‘buffer zone’ between the Russian and Western spheres of influence. These debates provide an opportunity to revisit the long and varied history of major powers’ efforts to manage buffer zones. We draw on this history to learn the conditions under which buffer zones succeed or fail to stabilise regions, how buffers are most successfully managed, and when alternative arrangements for borderlands work better.

Corresponding author
* Correspondence to: Rajan Menon, City College, Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, New York, US. Author’s email: rmenon@ccny
** Correspondence to: Jack L. Snyder, Columbia University, 420 W. 118 St, New York, 10027-6902, US. Author’s email:
Hide All

1 George Packer, ‘The quiet German: the astonishing rise of Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world’, The New Yorker (1 December 2014), available at: {}. Merkel reportedly told Barack Obama that Putin ‘appeared to be “in another world”, out of touch with reality’. Noah Barkin, ‘Cold War past shapes complex Merkel-Putin relationship’, Reuters (7 March 2014), available at: {}.

2 Angela Merkel, The 2014 Lowy Lecture (17 November 2014), p. 3, available at: {}.

3 Mearsheimer, John J., ‘Back to the future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War’, International Security, 15:1 (1990), pp. 556 ; Legvold, Robert, Return to Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2016).

4 Mearsheimer, John J., ‘Why the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault: the liberal delusions that provoked Putin’, Foreign Affairs, 93 (2014), pp. 7789 , notes that ‘Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia’ (p. 82); Daniel W. Drezner, ‘Why Ukraine cannot be a Buffer state’, Washington Post (10 February 2015), available at: {}; A. Wess Mitchell, ‘Why Ukraine Can’t Be a “Buffer State”’, Center for European Policy Analysis (20 February 2015), available at: {}; Steven Paulauskas, ‘Ukraine: Once a buffer state, always a buffer state?’, Foreign Policy Journal (31 January 2014), available at: {}; Benjamin Denison, ‘No, Russia doesn’t require buffer states for its security’, National Interest (3 December 2015), available at: {}; Brendan Valeriano, ‘Yes, Ukraine is still in crisis: Would becoming a “buffer state” help?’, Washington Post Monkey Cage (13 July 2015); {}; Tim Marshall, ‘Russia and the curse of geography’, The Atlantic (31 October 2015), available at: {}.

5 Kratochwil, Friedrich, ‘Of systems, boundaries, and territoriality: an inquiry into the formation of the state system’, World Politics, 39:1 (1986), pp. 2752 .

6 Fazal, Tanisha M., State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Chay, John and Ross, Thomas E. (eds), Buffer States in World Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986); Gregson, Harry, Buffer States of the Balkans (London: Hutchinson, 1940).

7 Jervis, Robert, ‘Cooperation under the security dilemma’, World Politics, 30:2 (1978), pp. 167214 .

8 Gerald L. Ingalls, ‘Buffer states: Outlining and expanding existing theory’, in Chay and Ross (eds), Buffer States in World Politics, pp. 231–40. The term buffer zone, common in strategic discourse, is distinct from the broader, more generic term borderlands, which is commonly used in the historical literature on economic, cultural, and ethnic intermingling that spills across the borders of civilisations, empires, or states. We address such transborder interactions only insofar as they may affect the strategic functioning of buffers, as we define them. For insightful work on borderlands, in addition to Kratochwil, see Weitz, Eric D. and Bartov, Omer (eds), Shatterzone of Empires (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013); Baud, Michiel and van Schendel, Willem, ‘Toward a comparative history of borderlands’, Journal of World History, 8:2 (1997), pp. 211242 ; Quataert, Donald, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Michiel and Schendel (p. 226) define a borderland as ‘areas that are bisected by a state border’ but nevertheless engage in varied forms of interaction across it that then shape the identities and economic and social relations of the inhabitants in the transborder zone.

9 Black, Cyril E., Falk, Richard A., Knorr, Klaus, and Young, Oran R., Neutralization and World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

10 Kratochwil, p. 38, quotes Lord Curzon defining spheres of influence where ‘no exterior power but one may reassert itself in the territory so described’. See also pp. 44–5. The spheres of influence of global maritime powers or colonial powers include territories into which they project power even at a distance from the empire’s home state.

11 Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 141144 .

12 Gilpin, War and Change, p. 107; Boulding, Kenneth, Conflict and Defense (New York: Harper, 1962).

13 Galbraith, John S., ‘The “turbulent frontier” as a factor in British expansion’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2 (1960), pp. 150168 .

14 Yapp, Malcolm, Strategies of British India, 1798–1850 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 335 , 341–3.

15 Kratochwil, ‘Systems, boundaries, and territoriality’, p. 40.

16 MacDonald, Paul K. and Parent, Joseph M., ‘Graceful decline? The surprising success of great power retrenchment’, International Security, 35:4 (2011), pp. 744 .

17 Copeland, Dale C., The Origins of Major War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

18 Black et al., Neutralization and World Politics, pp. 123–4.

19 de Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, Morrow, James D., Siverson, Randolph M., and Smith, Alastair, ‘An institutional explanation for the democratic peace’, American Political Science Review, 93:4 (1999), pp. 791807 .

20 Halbrook, Stephen P., The Swiss and the Alps: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2006); Halbrook, Stephen P., Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1998); Kreis, Georg (ed.), Switzerland and the Second World War (London: Frank Cass, 2000); Church, Clive H. and Head, Randolph C., A Concise History of Switzerland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), ch. 7 .

21 Barton, Frank, ‘Siam: Buffer state or gradual piecemeal consumption?’, Journal of Geography, 63:7 (October 1964), pp. 302313 ; Jones, David Martin and Schulze, Kirsten E., ‘Nation-building, ethnicity, and politics’, in Patrick Heenan and Monique Lamontagne (eds), The Southeast Asia Handbook (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001), p. 170 ; Baker, Chris and Phongpaichit, Pasuk, A History of Thailand (3rd edn, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2014), chs 3 and 5; Terweil, B. J., Thailand’s Political History: From the 13th Century to Recent Times (Bangkok: River Books, 2011), chs 710 ; Wyatt, David, Thailand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 211217 . Other cases omitted here that receive some treatment in literature on buffer zones include Uruguay between Argentina and Brazil, as well as Lebanon between Israel and Syria. Chay and Ross (eds), Buffer States, chs 10–11; Partem, Michael, ‘The buffer system in international relations’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 27:1 (1983), pp. 326 (pp. 23–4).

22 Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia, p. 312, to Buchanan in 1897. Kratochwil, ‘Systems, boundaries, and territoriality’, p. 41, concurs.

23 Kazemzadeh, Firuz, Russia and Britain in Persia, 1864–1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 378379 .

24 Barfield, Thomas J., Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp. 139140 ; McLachlin, Keith, ‘Afghanistan: Geopolitics of a buffer state’, Geopolitics and International Boundaries, 2:1 (1997), pp. 8296 .

25 Kovic, Milos, Disraeli and the Eastern Question (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 5758 .

26 Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia, pp. 222, 241, quoting Henry Drummond Wolff in 1889.

27 Ibid., p. 225, to Morier in 1889.

28 Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, p. 166; Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia, pp. 633–5; Abrahamian, E., Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 57111 .

29 John Chay, ‘Korea: a buffer state’, in Chay and Ross (eds), Buffer States in World Politics, pp. 191–212.

30 Spykman, Nicholas J. and Rollins, Abbie A., ‘Geographical objectives in foreign policy’, American Political Science Review, 33:3 (1939), pp. 407408 .

31 Hegre, Håvard, ‘Gravitating toward war: Preponderance may pacify, but power kills’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52:4 (2008), pp. 566589 ; Blainey, Geoffrey, Causes of War (3rd edn, New York: Free Press, 1988).

32 Spykman and Rollins, ‘Geographical objectives in foreign policy’, p. 404; Lauren, Paul Gordon, Craig, Gordon A., and George, Alexander L., Force and Statecraft (4th edn, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 26 , 33, 42, 83, 160.

33 Larson, Deborah Welch, ‘Crisis prevention and the Austrian State Treaty’, International Organization, 41:1 (1987), pp. 2760 . The State Department’s description of the Treaty notes that its achievements included ‘creating a buffer zone between the East and the West’. US Department of State, ‘Austrian State Treaty’, n.d., available at: {}.

34 Mearsheimer, John J., Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 5358 , on the problem of faits accomplis.

35 Grigoryan, Arman, ‘Third party intervention and the escalation of state-minority conflicts’, International Studies Quarterly, 54:4 (2010), pp. 11431174 .

36 Fazal, State Death, p. 117.

37 This parallels the logic of the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1890s, following the waning of British naval hegemony, which underpinned its indirect rule there.

38 For details on the territories lost by Poland during the partitions and illustrative maps, see ‘Partitions of Poland’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at: {}. For a full account, see Lukowski, Jerzy, The Partitions of Poland: 1772, 1793, 1795 (Boston: Addison Wesley, 1999).

39 Fazal, State Death, p. 117, emphasis in original.

40 David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War, 1904–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), pp. 348–9, 352–6; Ronald Park Bobroff, Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), p. 94; Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 2011), pp. 25, 58–9, 95–7.

41 Anderson, Eastern Question, p. 131.

42 Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper, 2012), pp. 274276 ; Jelavich, Barbara, Russia’s Balkan Entanglements, 1806–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Helmreich, E. C., The Diplomacy of the Balkan Wars, 1912–1913 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1938).

43 Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia; Curzon, George N., Persia and the Persian Question (New York: Frank Cass, 1892), p. 600 ; Shuster, W. Morgan, The Strangling of Persia (New York: Century, 1912); Anderson, M. S., The Eastern Question, 1774–1923 (London: Macmillan, 1966), p. 92 ; Spykman and Rollins, ‘Geographical objectives in foreign policy’, p. 407.

44 MacDonald, Paul K., Networks of Domination: The Social Foundations of Peripheral Conquest in International Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 5666 ; Mousseau, Michael, ‘The social market roots of the democratic peace’, International Security, 33:4 (spring 2009), pp. 5286 ; Mousseau, , ‘Market civilization and its clash with terror’, International Security, 27:3 (2002/3), pp. 529 .

45 Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia, p. 676.

46 Ibid., p. 417.

47 Dixit, Avinash K., Lawlessness and Economics: Alternative Modes of Governance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Thompson, Graeme, Frances, Jennifer, Levacic, Rosalind, and Mitchell, Jeremy (eds), Markets, Hierarchies and Networks (London: Sage, 1991); Clapham, Christopher (ed), Private Patronage and Public Power: Political Clientelism in the Modern State (London: Frances Pinter, 1982); Shleifer, Andrei and Vishny, Robert W., The Grabbing Hand (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Berger, Suzanne and Dore, Ronald, National Diversity and Global Capitalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).

48 Djilas, Milovan, Conversations with Stalin (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962), p. 114 .

49 Craig, Gordon A., Europe, 1815–1914 (3rd edn, Hinsdale, IL: Dryden, 1972), pp. 2830 ; Helmreich, J. E., Belgium and Europe: A Study of Small Power Diplomacy (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), p. 24 .

50 Crowe, Eyre, ‘Memorandum on the present state of British relations with France and Germany’, 1 January 1907, in G. P. Gooch and H. Temperley (eds), British Documents on the Origins of the War: 1898–1914, Volume III (London: HM Stationery Office, 1928), Appendix to document 445, pp. 397–420.

51 Ikenberry, G. John, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

52 Spykman and Rollins, ‘Geographical objectives in foreign policy’, p. 408.

53 Sarotte, Mary E., 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

54 On the importance of analysing the motivations of international guarantors of a peace settlement, see Walter, Barbara F., Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 161168 .

55 Schroeder, Paul W., ‘The lost intermediaries: the impact of 1870 on the European System’, International History Review, 6:1 (February 1984), pp. 127 ; Schroeder, , The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848 (New York: Clarendon, Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 3335 , 671.

56 Kratochwil, ‘Systems, boundaries, and territoriality’, p. 39.

57 On the latter, see Hassner, Ron E., War on Sacred Grounds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

58 Bobroff, Ronald, Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

59 Cooley, Alexander and Spruyt, Hendrik, Contracting States: Sovereign Transfers in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 8687 .

60 See McAllister, James, No Exit: America and the German Problem, 1943–1954 (Ithaca: Cornell, 2002), pp. 21, 74–120, on US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes’s preference for dividing occupied Germany into four separate administrative zones, and ultimately two states, rather than trying to coordinate management of it with the Soviet Union. For examples of joint administration, see Kratochwil, ‘Systems, boundaries, and territoriality’, p. 38.

61 Acharya, Amitav, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 121122 , 135–6, 175–84; Christensen, Thomas J., The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: Norton, 2015), pp. 259266 .

62 Gaddis, John Lewis, Strategies of Containment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 2553 .

63 Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, speech before the New York Council on Foreign Relations (12 January 1954), Foreign Relations of the United States 1952–1954, Volume II, Part I, National Security Affairs, Document 107.

64 Hirschman, Albert, National Power and the Structure of International Trade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

65 On Ukraine’s relationship with Russia since 1991, see Plokhy, Serhii, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 323354 ; Wilson, Andrew, The Ukrainians: A Unexpected Nation (3rd edn, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), chs 813 ; Solchanyk, Roman, Ukraine and Russia: The Post-Soviet Transition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001); Yekelchyk, Serhy, The Conflict in Ukraine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Yekelchyk, Serhy, Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), ch. 11 ; Charap, Samuel and Colton, Timothy J., Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2017).

66 Khrushchev, Nikita, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Volume III (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007), p. 301 .

67 Joshua Keating, ‘Divorce, Ukrainian style’, Slate (27 February 2014), available at: {}; Alexander J. Motyl, ‘Why reintegrating the Donbas is suicidal for Ukraine’, World Affairs Journal (25 February 2016), available at: {}.

68 This section draws on Thomas Graham, Rajan Menon, and Jack Snyder, ‘Ukraine between Russia and the West: Buffer or flashpoint’, World Policy Journal, 34:1 (April 2017), 107–18.

69 Posen, Barry, Restraint (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed