Sometimes fantasy maps come true. Photographer: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Sometimes fantasy maps come true. Photographer: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Now that geopolitics is officially back, it's worth dredging up predictions by practitioners from a period in which they were temporarily relegated to the status astrologers and taromancers. They may have been right about a few things after all.

Foreign Policy recently republished some fantasy maps created in 2012, from the Russian gutter tabloid Express Gazeta. On these maps, Russia has expanded to take in southern and eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. Foreign Policy presents them as "a cartographic illustration of Russian wish fulfillment."

The magazine might as well have recalled a facetious 2010 video from the Economist, in which countries were moved around on a map of Europe: The U.K. shifted closer to Southern Europe (it was having Spanish-style economic troubles back then); Poland became an island next to Ireland (it deserved a break from the Russian threat); and Western Ukraine broke off from its eastern part to move to Central Europe. Russia, meanwhile, got a new set of buffer states such as Borduria and Vulgaria. Why not consider that an early prediction of all the dozens of maps of a split Ukraine, drawn now by Russian nationalists, and of the emergence of circus statelets such as the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics?

Geopolitical fantasies do sometimes come to life. For examples, look no further than the Global Trends reports commissioned by the National Intelligence Council in the U.S. Global Trends 2015 came out in late 2000, before 9/11, when Bill Clinton was still in the White House and Vladimir Putin was only just getting settled in the Kremlin. Here's what it said about Russia and Ukraine:

Russia will focus its foreign policy goals on reestablishing lost influence in the former Soviet republics to the south, fostering ties to Europe and Asia, and presenting itself as a significant player vis-a-vis the United States. Its energy resources will be an important lever for these endeavors. However, its domestic ills will frustrate its efforts to reclaim its great power status. Russia will maintain the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world as the last vestige of its old status. The net outcome of these trends will be a Russia that remains internally weak and institutionally linked to the international system primarily through its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Ukraine's path to the West will be constrained by widespread corruption, the power of criminal organizations, and lingering questions over its commitment to the rule of law. Kiev will remain vulnerable to Russian pressures, primarily because of its continued energy dependence, but Ukrainians of all political stripes are likely to opt for independence rather than reintegration into Russia's sphere of influence.

The report also correctly assessed Russia's future direction, despite Putin's comparative liberalism in the early months of his first term in power:

The general drift... is toward authoritarianism, although not to the extreme extent of the Soviet period. The factors favoring this course are President Putin's own bent toward hierarchical rule from Moscow; the population's general support of this course as an antidote to the messiness and societal disruption of the post-Soviet transition; the ability of the ruling elite to hold on to power because of the lack of effective national opposition, thus making that elite accountable only to itself; and the ongoing shift of tax resources from the regions to the center.

The predictions were surprisingly accurate on other subjects, too -- for example, an asymmetric threat to emerge from networked terrorists, drug traffickers, arms dealers and organized crime -- although the report was somewhat overoptimistic about economic growth in the Western world. The forecasters naturally equivocated a lot, yet they did a good job of cutting through all the political noise of 2000 to look forward to our day.

Subsequent reports have been more daring in terms of fantastical detail. The 2020 one, produced in 2004, contained a scenario entitled "A New Caliphate," in which a fictional grandson of Osama bin Laden describes the consequences of a militant supranational Arab organization emerging in the Middle East, and a fake text message exchange between two arms dealers in a world where terrorists have access to weapons of mass destruction. This report is particularly inaccurate, perhaps reflecting the post-9/11 confusion and the false premises of the 2003 Iraq invasion.

The 2025 one, from 2008, however, is eerily prescient. Its authors concocted a letter from the Russian head of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the secretary general of NATO, portraying a world in which Western hostility pushes Russia and China into each other's embrace:

How stable is our relationship? Don’t quote me, but this is not a new Cold War. Sure, we talk a great game about state capitalism and authoritarianism, but it is no ideology like Communism. And it is in our mutual interests that democracy not break out in Central Asia as China and Russia would be the targets of any such uprisings. I can’t say that we Russians and Chinese really like each other much more than before. In fact, both of us have to worry about our respective nationalisms getting in the way of mutual interests. Let’s put it this way: the Russian and Chinese peoples are not enamored with one another. Russians want to be respected as Europeans, not Eurasians, and China’s elites are still in their hearts geared toward the West. But temporary expedients have been known to grow into permanence, you know?

The most recent Global Trends report, for 2030, was compiled in late 2012, about the time Express Gazeta drew up its fantasy maps. The four scenarios include one that spells: protracted economic stagnation; a new "Great Game" in Asia; rich countries trying to isolate poorer ones where a global pandemic has broken out; and the U.S. turning inward. On the other pole is a scenario predicting a return to sustained growth and the American dream for the whole world.

Peddling the future is easy -- everyone forgets your predictions by the time it comes, unless they turn out to be accurate. In 2009, George Friedman of Stratfor wrote a bestselling book called "The Next 100 Years", describing, among other things, the rise of Poland as a dominant European power and a third world war between Turkey and Japan on one side and Poland, the U.S., India and China on the other. It also predicted a Russian military buildup in the 2010s and Moscow's attempts to extend its sphere of influence into Central and Eastern Europe (after which Russia would break up in the 2020s). Whether or not any of these outcomes materialize, Friedman obviously had fun writing the tome and we can enjoy reading it, picking out grains of resemblance to the world as we know it.

That, after all, is the beauty of palmistry, the reading of tea leaves – and geopolitical forecasts.

To contact the author of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.