Russia – A Prisoner of Geography?
When we interpret geopolitics through personalities, we can create false narratives. Of course, there have been leaders throughout the ages who have changed the course of history, but most have been co-opted or succumbed to larger political forces.
Patrice Lumumba was dissolved in a barrel of acid; Walter Rodney exploded with a walkie-talkie; Che Guevara assassinated in a Bolivian school; a beleaguered Allende committed suicide; Cheddi Jagan was removed “for being too direct”. In the end, they were simply on the wrong side of the Cold War. Only Fidel was smart enough not to accept fake cigars.
Also, history doesn’t really repeat itself, so it’s not always informative enough to rely on as a guide or forecaster of events. Stumbling in World War III is not the same as sleepwalking in World War I. Context is everything, and our very human impulse to look for patterns to explain our world can lead us astray.
One way to understand international relations is to focus on how countries behave and interact with each other based on their relative geographic advantages and vulnerabilities. In this respect, “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Politics of Place)” by Tim Marshall is a fascinating and useful book whose first chapter is very prescient in the context of the conclusion – but not the excuse – why Russia had few options in its course of action towards its neighbour, Ukraine.
But first America, a nation truly blessed with geography. Bounded to the north by the Canadian tundra and to the south by the Mexican desert, these buffer zones make it nearly impenetrable to land invasion while taking advantage of some 95,000 miles of coastal land, including on the Pacific and Atlantic, facilitating thus trade and naval domination. It was no coincidence that America prevailed in both theaters of World War II. Its construction and continued de facto control of the Panama Canal remains as much a matter of naval power as it is a trade advantage.
Its 14,650 miles of well-connected inland waterways are more than the entire world combined, allowing plentiful, cheap freshwater transportation of wheat and other crops from its vast arable heartland to the Gulf of Mexico – made possible by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 for the bargain price of US$15 million. All of these geographic advantages generated the wealth needed to make America the economic and military superpower it is today and why predictions of its imminent demise are unrealistic.
It may also be difficult for people living on an island to appreciate the tensions and insecurities that often accompany a hostile “terrestrial neighbor”. Britain has not been invaded since 1066, with the sea providing a reliable and inexpensive form of defence. By contrast, it has taken China centuries to secure its borders, including the 2,900 miles with Mongolia whose inhospitable and largely roadless Gobi Desert serves as a natural defence. On the other hand, a porous border with Vietnam signified centuries of Chinese dominance over its smaller neighbor and why it saw the Vietnam War as as big of a threat as America could have been.
Fortunately, China’s border with India is the militarily impenetrable Himalayas which has ensured mostly peaceful relations between the world’s two largest countries despite several territorial disputes. Control of Tibet is also considered vital for China as it is the source of its three major rivers, the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Mekong, and thus secures access to water. Likewise, he would never abandon the northwestern province of Xinjiang, even with its restless population, given that it borders eight predominantly Muslim countries. It was part of the ancient Silk Road and now trains loaded with consumer goods leave the province for Europe, cutting freight times in half compared to shipping.
As Marshall notes, “all great powers spend peacetime preparing for the day war breaks out” and China’s current push to control the South China Sea is in response to perceived threats to its access to the Pacific presented by Japan and other nations friendly to America. Further, the construction of deep water ports for trade can be seen as preparation for military conflict. Control the ports and you control the seas.
So we return to Russia, a country twice the size of the United States that stretches from Europe to neighboring Alaska. Geography has given it natural defenses to the north with the freezing Arctic sea and to the east and south with the Urals, the inhospitable Siberian region and the Caucasus mountains.
However, its age-old vulnerability has always been the northern European plain to the west. Marshall describes it as a slice of pizza with the thin end of the wedge going through Poland and stretching across Ukraine along a wide flat land to Moscow, making it impossible to defend even for a great army. Marshall points out that from Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 to Hitler’s disastrous Operation Barbarossa in 1945 (including Britain’s misadventure in the Crimean War), the Russians fought on this plain on average once every 33 years. . That is why, as we speak, Ukraine’s membership in the European Union, not to mention NATO, has always been seen as a red line. Additionally, the 2014 Maidan Revolution that toppled a pro-Moscow regime in Kviv cast doubt on the location of Russia’s only hot water port in Sevastopol. Putin, says Marshall, would not be the man who lost Crimea or worse allowed it to host a NATO naval base.
Many newspapers have been devoted to psychoanalyzing Putin and denouncing the war in moral terms. It is indeed a human tragedy, like all wars, and a violation of international law. But as Marshall notes, “when great powers face an existential threat, they will use force.” For Russia, it is not a question of reviving the tsarist or Soviet empire, but of fortifying what they call their “near abroad”. That is why Western sanctions and other non-military measures will have little effect. Russia will insist on Ukrainian neutrality as a minimum and is ready to spend a lot of blood and money to achieve this goal.
And the West will pay the maximum price.