Russia and the Curse of Geography
Want to understand why Putin does what he does? Look at a map.
Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: “Why didn’t you put mountains in eastern Ukraine?”Read the whole thing for embedded links, lots of maps, and more. It really explains a lot. I'm not arguing that what Russia is doing is right or wrong. I am saying that when you look at the maps and the history, it is understandable. Russia has it's reasons, in the past and the present. Anyone who really wants to understand what is happening and why, needs to look at the larger picture and take these very real concerns into consideration.
If God had built mountains in eastern Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the European Plain would not have been such inviting territory for the invaders who have attacked Russia from there repeatedly through history. As things stand, Putin, like Russian leaders before him, likely feels he has no choice but to at least try to control the flatlands to Russia’s west. So it is with landscapes around the world—their physical features imprison political leaders, constraining their choices and room for maneuver. These rules of geography are especially clear in Russia, where power is hard to defend, and where for centuries leaders have compensated by pushing outward.
Western leaders seem to have difficulty deciphering Putin’s motives, especially when it comes to his actions in Ukraine and Syria; Russia’s current leader has been described in terms that evoke Winston Churchill’s famous 1939 observation that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.” But it’s helpful to look at Putin’s military interventions abroad in the context of Russian leaders’ longstanding attempts to deal with geography. What if Putin’s motives aren’t so mysterious after all? What if you can read them clearly on a map?
Just as strategically important—and just as significant to the calculations of Russia’s leaders throughout history—has been the country’s historical lack of its own warm-water port with direct access to the oceans. Many of the country’s ports on the Arctic freeze for several months each year. Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is enclosed by the Sea of Japan, which is dominated by the Japanese. This does not just halt the flow of trade into and out of Russia; it prevents the Russian fleet from operating as a global power, as it does not have year-round access to the world’s most important sea-lanes.
Two of Russia’s chief preoccupations—its vulnerability on land and its lack of access to warm-water ports—came together in Ukraine in 2014. As long as a pro-Russian government held sway in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Russia could be confident that its buffer zone would remain intact and guard the European Plain. Even a neutral Ukraine, which would promise not to join the European Union or NATO and would uphold the lease Russia had on the warm-water port at Sevastopol in Crimea, would be acceptable. But when protests in Ukraine brought down the pro-Russia government of Viktor Yanukovych and a new, more pro-Western government came to power, Putin had a choice. He could have respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or he could have done what Russian leaders have done for centuries with the bad geographic cards they were dealt. He chose his own kind of attack as defense, annexing Crimea to ensure Russia’s access to its only proper warm-water port, and moving to prevent NATO from creeping even closer to Russia’s border.
The same geographic preoccupations are visible now in Russia’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. The Russians have a naval base in the port city of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. If Assad falls, Syria’s new rulers may kick them out. Putin clearly believes the risk of confronting NATO members in another geographic sphere is worth it.
Russia has not finished with Ukraine yet, nor Syria. From the Grand Principality of Moscow, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. [...]