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Have you noticed how some places are constantly at war, on the edge of war, or recovering from a war? Iraq...Afghanistan...the Balkans...Somalia...time after time, they seem to break apart and then come back together: brief periods of peace, then another round of violence. Foreign countries send military aid, impose sanctions, and pay for reconstruction. But the cycle never seems to end.

Around a century ago, geographers began to think the "shattering" of peace in these places, and indeed in entire regions they called "belts," was an innate characteristic. Is there something about the geography of these "shatterbelts" that make them prone to cycles of collapse and rebirth, at times dragging the entire world into war?

Shatterbelt Definition

Political geographers coined this term to evoke fragility.

Shatterbelt: A culturally diverse, conflict-prone region of weak, fragmented states aligned with powerful global rivals, containing globally significant reserves of natural resources and geostrategic locations such as choke points and major transport arteries.

Shatterbelt Theory

Early 20th-century geographers such as Richard Hartshorne didn't miss the fact that the Balkans (southeastern Europe) were a perpetual powderkeg. The most famous example was discontent in Serbia over policies of the aging Austro-Hungarian Empire. This led to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the spark igniting the "Great War," the "War to End all Wars," the bloodiest conflict the world had ever known: World War I.

Political geographers have debated what preconditions are needed for the instability of shatterbelts. Below are the salient points of this theory.

Shatterbelts contain:

  1. Weak and often recently-formed states; governments are ineffective and national unity hasn't been achieved.
  2. Within their borders, states contain ethnic nations or religious groups with long-term mutual animosity (e.g., Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic; Serbs and Croats in Bosnia).
  3. International borders partition groups among more than one country leading to attempts to create new ethnic states and often involving ethnic cleansing.
  4. Global rivals such as the US and Russia state the need to "protect" groups in the region that share their cultural identity or desired form of government.
  5. At least two global rivals have strong diplomatic and even military presences in the region.
  6. Geostrategic locations: these regions straddle globally critical trade routes, meaning if conflict happens, the world economy can be harmed by the choking off flows of goods and people (choke points).
  7. There are globally-significant reserves of natural resources such as oil, diamonds, gold, rare earths, etc.
  8. When conflict breaks out and spreads, it is more intense, with more episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide, than in non-shatterbelt areas.

In essence, shatterbelts are created where local rivalries and global rivalries come together in the same place.

Shatterbelt Yemen StudySmarterFig. 1 - Religious divisions in the Yemen civil war (c. 2014) between Arab factions. Green=Houthis, allied with Iran; pink=allied with West/Saudi Arabia/UAE; white=al Qaeda controlled; dark gray dots in white area: ISIS-controlled

Short-term shatterbelts disappear after either states mature or international rivalries and interests shift. This happened in Central America and Southeast Asia, which were shatterbelts during the Cold War, with multiple civil wars and genocides. After the Cold War, constituent countries such as Cambodia and El Salvador were left with social and political chaos and remain mired in underdevelopment, but war is no longer a factor.

Long-term shatterbelts seem to suffer from such a level of inter-ethnic hostility that even the end of drawn-out conflicts, economic development, and evolution of stable and mature political systems aren't enough to keep these areas from shattering again and again.

Shatterbelt Geography

The buffer areas between major culture regions seem particularly susceptible to the formation and maintenance of shatterbelts that are activated (e.g., collapse into wars) by tectonic shifts in the geopolitical landscape. For example, the Balkans buffered Christian Europe and the Muslim world (Ottoman Empire) for over 500 years. But Christians in the Balkans are bitterly divided between Roman Catholicism (Slovenia and Croatia) and Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Serbian, etc.) and also between ethnic Slavs ("protected" by Russia, such as Serbs) and non-Slavs (Greeks, Albanians, etc.). Significant changes in the "great power" status of Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey, and so forth have been enough to ignite the powder keg.

Shatterbelt Map StudySmarterFig. 2 - Shatterbelts and outside players

We can identify four major independent geopolitical forces in the world interfering in fragile shatterbelt regions:

  • The West. Led by the US at the helm of the NATO alliance;
  • Russia. Currently challenging Western global hegemony. A resurgence of Russian nationalism has led to support for irredentist movements (e.g., the Donbas in Ukraine) and the need to secure critical natural resources and choke points in places such as Syria and the Central African Republic;
  • China. Challenging Western economic and, in some cases, geopolitical hegemony worldwide. Han Chinese-centered, expanding its military rapidly and forming new strategic alliances across the globe;
  • Islamic extremism. Forces associated with global insurgency are major contributors to instability in Africa and Asia; the goal is to install a single state called the "Caliphate" operating under strict Islamic law stretching across the Muslim World.

In addition, the following regional powers are located in or on the borders of shatterbelts: Turkey, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. Though all but Iran are broadly aligned with the West, they have different ethnic, religious, economic, and strategic concerns and contribute substantially to instability in shatterbelts.

Shatterbelt Regions

Let's briefly look at the following active shatterbelts:

Eastern Europe - Ukraine, Moldova, Balkans

The Balkans are currently quiet, and several countries (e.g., Slovenia, Croatia) have become developed and peaceful since the end of the Balkans wars of the 1990s. However, the seemingly intractable situation of NATO-protected Kosovo and the alignment of Serbia with Russia suggest that the shatterbelt could be activated again, particularly if the Ukraine conflict spreads.

Ukraine is a classic shatterbelt component as it is trapped between the geostrategic interests of major rivals. Shatterbelt components include multiple choke points, irredentism, weak governance, natural resources, and ethnic separatism. Next-door Moldova contains the breakaway region of Transnistria that is "protected" by Russia and also includes pro-Russian Gagauzia, so if the Russia-Ukraine war spreads, Moldova could quickly be engulfed.

Shatterbelt Moldova StudySmarterFig. 3 - Blue=Moldova. Green areas are Gagauzia and Transnistria, both politically close to Russia, and the latter a breakaway republic

Central Asia

Many of the countries in this region were former Soviet republics. They haven't collapsed since Soviet times, though there have been multiple episodes of instability. Afghanistan is the focus of attention here; 2021 saw its re-conquest by the Taliban after the US withdrew, and it is hard to know what this will mean for long-term stability. Across the region, the influences of the West, China, Russia, and Pakistan are felt.

Southwest Asia/North Africa

The geopolitical and economic "center of the world" is riven by religious and ethnic conflicts stretching from Cyprus (Turkish-Greek rivalry), Western Sahara, and Libya to Israel and Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are the major regional powers. Oil is the primary natural resource of global importance; freshwater is the most important local resource. Islamic terrorism associated with al Qaeda and ISIS have been significant factors in regional destabilization. Religion is a huge issue, and the strongest fault lines are between Islam and Judaism, Shia and Sunni Islam, within Sunnism, and (in Lebanon and Syria) between various Christian, Muslim, Yazidi, and Druze factions. Ethnic divisions come into play, with frayed relationships between Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Turkic peoples, Iranians, and even within various Arab clans and ethnic nations.

The region was relatively calm in the early 2020s with the winding down of the bloodiest phases of wars in Syria and Iraq. Still, few expect the situation to become permanently stable.


This towering mountain range dividing Europe and Asia, and the broader region surrounding it, is part of the Russia borderlands shatterbelt system that has been "in play" since the "Great Game" between Russia and the UK in the 1800s. It comprises various Russian republics, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, with around 50 languages. The Caucasus are a buffer zone between Russia and the Muslim World. Post-Cold War episodes of violence included major and minor wars (e.g., Chechnya, Daghestan, South Ossetia); the current central conflict is between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Shatterbelt Caucasus StudySmarterFig. 4 - Ethnic and linguistic diversity in the Caucasus shatterbelt

Sahel and Sahara

The border zone between the Muslim World and Christian/animist sub-Saharan Africa is the environmentally fragile southern side of the Sahara called the Sahel. After the Qaddafi regime of Libya was removed by NATO in 2011, the Sahara and Sahel, already a zone of weak states and inter-ethnic hostilities, collapsed into chaos, with multiple coups d'etat, the Boko Haram terrorist war in northern Nigeria, and the increasing influence of al Qaeda-and ISIS-linked violence in formerly calm countries such as Burkina Faso. France, the US, and Russia are all involved.

Horn of Africa and Yemen

See the example below.

Central Africa

Conflict minerals, such as diamonds and coltan, fuel conflict here, exacerbated by long-standing ethnic hatred between Hutu and Tutsi and discrimination against Pygmies by Bantu groups as well as between herders and farmers and between animists, Christians, and Muslims. Weak states are the rule. The collapse of Zaire (now DRC) in the 1990s and the cycles of genocide in Rwanda and Burundi resulted in "Africa's First World War" with millions dead; most countries in the region are now somewhat stable, though multiple insurgencies are ongoing.

Shatterbelt Countries

Certain countries seem to be at the core of their respective shatterbelts, with particularly intractable ethnoreligious rivalries.


The worldviews and interests of the country's main ethnic groups (Hazara, Pashtun, Uzbek, and Tajik) have not been reconciled in over 50 years. They are continually exacerbated by outside powers seeking strategic advantages and resource access. As an example of how a shatterbelt can ignite global conflict, Afghanistan served as the launchpad for al Qaeda and the September 11, 2001 attacks that began the Global War on Terror.


Traditionally in Russia's sphere, Ukraine has moved politically and culturally westward as membership in the NATO alliance has moved eastward from Western Europe, threatening Russia's sphere of influence. Russia sees control over Ukraine as essential to its survival for economic and cultural reasons.


These three tiny countries are the geopolitical tinderbox of the Balkans. They are the least economically developed countries in Europe, and ethnoreligious hatred between Serbs and Muslims has not diminished, particularly in Kosovo.

Shatterbelt Example - Horn of Africa/Yemen

This geostrategic region includes Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia and has not been at peace for any meaningful period in modern history. It sits at a nexus of world trade and contains hundreds of Christian, Muslim, and animist ethnic groups. Religious violence and extremism are components of most conflicts. Other rivalries are based on using the Nile River (Ethiopia and Sudan) and between pastoralists and farmers.

The Horn/Yemen has seen the worst famines in modern times, multiple episodes of genocide, Islamic terrorism (Somalia), state terrorism (e.g., the Derg in 1970s Ethiopia), international wars that have killed millions, and ethnic separatism. It appears to be on the verge of collapse due to multiple civil wars ongoing in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia. Somalia is only a country on paper now because it has several self-governing components that do not recognize the government in the capital of Mogadishu.

Every great power in the last century has been heavily involved here and has funded and armed one or more regional actors. The country/port of Djibouti currently hosts military bases from rival countries such as the US and China.

Shatterbelt - Key takeaways

  • Shatterbelts are regions of cultural diversity and political instability with weak states, local rivalries, geostrategic importance, vital natural resources, and international interference.
  • Examples of shatterbelts include the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa
  • Shatterbelt countries include Bosnia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Somalia

Frequently Asked Questions about Shatterbelt

A shatterbelt is a geographic region comprised of: culturally-diverse weak states with intra-group animosities; geostrategic importance due to vital resources and transportation corridors; diplomatic and military presence of global rivals.

A "shatterbelt region" can either be defined as identical to a shatterbelt, or could also refer to a chain of shatterbelts such as the Balkans-Ukraine-Caucasus-Central Asia area that is within Russia's sphere of influence.

Shatterbelts are created by a combination of local and global rivalries occurring in the same geographic region whereby weak states are not able to prevent their governments from collapsing and war from breaking out.

The Balkans region of southeastern Europe is a shatterbelt where Slavic ethnicities clash with non-Slavic ethnicities, Roman Catholics with Eastern Orthodox, and Muslims with Christians.

Eastern Europe is a shatterbelt because it contains numerous impoverished, underdeveloped, and weak  states sandwiched between the powerful global rivals of Russia and the West (western Europe and the US). It is also a zone where various religions and ethnicities mix. In addition, Eastern Europe straddles major transport routes for energy and other vital necessities for western Europe.

Final Shatterbelt Quiz


What clues does this map give you to the existence of a shatterbelt?

Show answer


-Multiple ethnic groups are present in each country

-It is a border area of Russia

-It is a border area between Turkey and Iran, both of which are regional powers

-Some ethnic groups are found in two countries (Georgians in Russia and Georgia)

-Russians (R) are found widely within areas of other ethnic groups inside and outside Russia

-Kurds are found in at least four countries

-The area is located between two large water bodies. Thus there are likely to be important trade routes between the two; it is also between Russia (Europe) and Iraq (western Asia), so trade routes may connect the two areas and cross other trade routes.

Can you find other clues?

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What geographic patterns related to shatterbelts can you see on this map?

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-Shatterbelts are absent from Latin America, southern Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

-NATO countries border three shatterbelts.

-Russia borders three shatterbelts

-The Balkans are partly classified as a shatterbelt, but the bulk of their area is now within NATO

-The map scale used does not permit an accurate visual assessment of relative land areas of each shatterbelt or outside players

Show question


How are choke points and shatterbelts related?

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Choke points are geostrategic locations that are often found within shatterbelts

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(True or False) States with a lot of cultural diversity are weak and prone to shattering

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False. Many culturally diverse states are strong; they tend to be those that are well-governed, regardless of their level of socioeconomic development.

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(True or False) Central America and Southeast Asia are active shatterbelts.

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False. They were active during the Cold War, but are now inactive.

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The following are the four major global geopolitical forces that actively interfere in shatterbelts:

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China, Russia, US, Islamic extremism

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The following are regional powers that are actively involved in shatterbelts

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Iran, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia

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What two parts of Moldova are pro-Russian?

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Gagauzia and Transnistria

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What country in the Horn of Africa hosts several military bases of global rivals?

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Show question


Why are shatterbelt countries referred to as "powder kegs"?

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Because with some sort of spark, they could explode, in reference to an event such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that sparked World War I.

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