Russia and the Curse of Geography

Want to understand why Putin does what he does? Look at a map.

Reuters / Presidential Press Service

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?”

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?

For Russia, the world’s largest country by landmass, which bestrides Europe and Asia and encompasses forests, lakes, rivers, frozen steppes, and mountains, the problems come by land as well as by sea. In the past 500 years, Russia has been invaded several times from the west. The Poles came across the European Plain in 1605, followed by the Swedes under Charles XII in 1707, the French under Napoleon in 1812, and the Germans—twice, in both world wars, in 1914 and 1941. In Poland, the plain is only 300 miles wide—from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south—but after that point it stretches to a width of about 2,000 miles near the Russian border, and from there, it offers a flat route straight to Moscow. Thus Russia’s repeated attempts to occupy Poland throughout history; the country represents a relatively narrow corridor into which Russia could drive its armed forces to block an enemy advance toward its own border, which, being wider, is much harder to defend.

The European Plain
The European Plain, shaded in dark gray. Light gray indicates the shallow sea floor that surrounds the plain. (Jeroen / Wikimedia)

On the other hand, Russia’s vastness has also protected it; by the time an army approaches Moscow, it already has unsustainably long supply lines, which become increasingly difficult to protect as they extend across Russian territory. Napoleon made this mistake in 1812, and Hitler repeated it in 1941.

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.

* * *

Russia as a concept dates back to the ninth century and a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus, which was based in Kiev and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. The Mongols, expanding their empire, continually attacked the region from the south and east, eventually overrunning it in the 13th century. The fledgling Russia then relocated northeast in and around the city of Moscow. This early Russia, known as the Grand Principality of Moscow, was indefensible. There were no mountains, no deserts, and few rivers.

Enter Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar. He put into practice the concept of attack as defense—consolidating one’s position at home and then moving outward. Russia had begun a moderate expansion under Ivan’s grandfather, but Ivan accelerated it after he came to power in the 16th century. He extended his territory east to the Ural Mountains, south to the Caspian Sea, and north toward the Arctic Circle. Russia gained access to the Caspian, and later the Black Sea, thus taking advantage of the Caucasus Mountains as a partial barrier between itself and the Mongols. Ivan built a military base in Chechnya to deter any would-be attacker, be they the Mongol Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, or the Persians.

Now the Russians had a partial buffer zone and a hinterland—somewhere to fall back to in the case of invasion. No one was going to attack them in force from the Arctic Sea, nor fight their way over the Urals to get to them. Their land was becoming what’s now known as Russia, and to invade it from the south or southeast you would have to have a huge army and a very long supply line, and you would have to fight your way past defensive positions.

In the 18th century, Russia, under Peter the Great—who founded the Russian Empire in 1721—and then Empress Catherine the Great, expanded the empire westward, occupying Ukraine and reaching the Carpathian Mountains. It took over most of what we now know as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—from which it could defend against attacks from the Baltic Sea. Now there was a huge ring around Moscow; starting at the Arctic, it came down through the Baltic region, across Ukraine, to the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, swinging back around to the Urals, which stretched up to the Arctic Circle.

At the end of World War II in 1945, the Russians occupied territory conquered from Germany in Central and Eastern Europe, some of which then became part of the U.S.S.R., as it began to resemble the old Russian Empire writ large. This time, though, it wasn’t the Mongols at the gates; after 1949, it was NATO. The fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 caused Russian territory to shrink again, with its European borders ending at Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, even while NATO crept steadily closer as it incorporated more countries in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s Changing Borders

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 Ukraine Buffer

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. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, communist, or crony capitalist—the ports still freeze, and the European Plain is still flat.

This article has been adapted from Tim Marshall's new book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World.