One can accuse Vladimir Putin’s infamous ambition of Russia’s moves on Ukraine yesterday, but the real reason may be a lot more earthy and compelling: geography. In 2016, Tim Marshall in his bestselling book, Prisoners of Geography took a refreshing view of geopolitics. He explained how the rivers, seas, mountains, glaciers, forests, and plains dictate international relations of Russia, China, the US, western European nations, Africa, the Middle East, Korea, Japan, and Latin America.
He also describes how the geography of India and Pakistan – the watery arc of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal, the Hindukush to the northwest and the Himalayas to the north, the plateau of the Balochistan desert, North West Frontier mountains, and the Karakoram range which leads back to the Himalayas – forms the bloodied rink of a tragic conflict.
The common perception (there is a fair bit of truth in it) among international policy experts is that Putin wants to be the person who, on his watch, puts Ukraine back into Russia’s arms. The Russian President has given himself 14 more years of power to do so.
Analysts say Putin wants to create a Russian empire. Ukraine is a crucial part of his plan. In a 2015 speech, Putin called Ukraine the “crown jewel of Russia”, triggering alarm among western agencies. It came a year after Russia annexed Crimea, then a slice of Ukraine.
In 2021, Putin wrote another impassioned piece.
“As the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity,” wrote Putin. “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today. The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’”
But civilizational nostalgia or imperial design does not fully explain Russia’s need to invade Ukraine. When the USSR collapsed and split into 15 countries because of political overstretch, terrible economics, and a defeat in Afghanistan, part after part disintegrated and left it totally geographically exposed.
“Moscow’s dream of warm water open sea lanes has seeped away ever since and is perhaps further now than it has been for 200 years. This lack of a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans has always been Russia’s Achilles heel, as strategically important to it as the North European Plain. Russia is at a geographical disadvantage, saved from being a much weaker power only because of its oil and gas,” write Tim Marshall in Prisoners of Geography. “Geography had its revenge on the ideology of the Soviets.”
He says as long as there was a pro-Russian government in Kiev, the Russians were confident that the buffer zone would remain and protect the North European Plain. Even a neutral Ukraine which keeps away from the European Union or NATO and keeps the leash on the warm-water port at Sevastopol in Crimea would be fine. Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for energy was seen as harmless.
“But a pro-western Ukraine with ambitions to join the two great western alliances and which threw into doubt Russia’s access to its Black Seaport? A Ukraine that one day might even host a NATO naval base? That could not stand,”
Sevastopol is Russia’s only major warm-water port. But access out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean is clamped by the Montreux Convention of 1936, which gave NATO member Turkey control of the Bosporus. In a time of conflict, even that access could end.
Beyond Bosporus, the Aegean Sea, Mediterranean, and the Gibraltar Straits impede Russia’s movement to the Atlantic Ocean or its route to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal. Its naval presence in Syria’s Tartus is strategic but limited.
In the event of a war, the Russian navy cannot get out to the Baltic Sea either because NATO controls the Skagerrak Strait, which connects to the North Strait. If Russia gets past the Skagerrak, the GIUK Gap (Greenland, Iceland, UK) in the North Sea stymies its advance to the Atlantic.
Clearly, Geography has not been kind to a great nation and civilization. But will browbeat its way out of that handicap going to help Russia? Only history will tell.