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Why Russia is a prisoner of geography

Haunted by the nightmares of history, Vladimir Putin is the latest Russian leader to use violence and occupation to control the European flatlands to the west.

By Tim Marshall

The question often asked about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is: why? The answer lies in geography, history and personality.

According to many Western intellectuals the end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in an era of peace and prosperity; ­liberalism had beaten tyranny and the shadows thrown by the First and Second World Wars would disappear in the radiant sunlight of liberal democracy. It was a poor reading of history.

Those who argued that war was an anachronism in 21st-century Europe are having to face the limitations of reasonable engagement with an unreasonable violent power. Underpinning Putin’s rationale for his criminal invasion of Ukraine is an appeal to nationalism. He has successfully used his control of the Russian media to manipulate the country’s collective memory and fears about the outside world based on the geography and turbulent history of Russia.

Before Russia’s western border is the North European Plain. This flatland stretches from France all the way to the Ural Mountains. Its narrowest point is between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains – Poland. If an invading army is heading east from Europe, once it gets through Poland the plain widens again all along the Russian border. Conversely, an army heading west can also fan out once it is past Poland.

[See also: What is the Kaliningrad problem?]

This in large part explains Russia’s repeated attempts to occupy Poland over the past few centuries. It represents a relatively narrow corridor into which Russia can drive its armed forces to block an enemy advance towards its own border, which, being wider, is much harder to defend. Over 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 in 1707, the French in 1812, and the Germans in 1914 and then again in 1941.

Russian leaders have long attempted at least to control the flatlands to their west, or even occupy them as part of the Russian empire, most recently in its formation as the USSR. Russia lacks its own warm-water ports with direct access to the oceans. Some of the Arctic ports freeze for several months each winter, and Russian ships must contend with the ice packs to the north of the Arctic coastline. The routes to the ocean lanes for the Baltic and Black Sea fleets are difficult at the best of times, and nigh on impossible in the worst.

These two preoccupations – vulnerability on land and lack of warm-water ports – came together in Ukraine in 2014. As long as a pro-Russian government held sway in Kyiv, Russia could be confident that its most important buffer zone would remain intact and guard the European Plain along with Belarus. Even a neutral Ukraine, which promised not to join the EU or Nato and would uphold the lease Russia had on the warm-water port at Sevastopol in Crimea on the Black Sea, could be tolerated. But when a pro-Western government came to power after the Kyiv uprising in 2014 the Kremlin was horrified.

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[See also: Russia-Ukraine war: an invasion 30 years in the making]

Several neo-fascist groups were involved in the fighting in Kyiv that year and the Kremlin successfully persuaded many Russians that Ukraine was now led by fascists of the very kind Mother Russia had defeated in 1945. The Kremlin believed a free Ukraine would join the EU, an organisation it views as the antechamber for Nato membership. Russia’s buffer zone looked as if it would evaporate and there were only a few decades left on the lease of Sebastopol’s port. Putin had a choice. He could respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the right of its people to choose their own government, or he could use violence. Crimea was occupied and annexed. The Donbas region on the Russian border was partially occupied to act as a mini buffer zone and a conflict Moscow could heat up any time it chose.

The Donbas has significant numbers of ethnic Russians, some of whom support ­Russia. Putin had already passed laws saying that Russia could “legally” come to the aid of ethnic Russians anywhere, and he ­successfully used his tame media to appeal to pan-Slavic nationalism. Most Ukrainians are Slavs, although there are various significant ­minority groups such as ethnic Poles and Bulgarians.

The idea of Russia dates back to the ninth century and a federation of tribes known as Kievan Rus, based in Kyiv and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. After suffering repeated attacks from the Mongols, the fledgling Russia relocated to the Moscow region in the 13th century. There were few defensible positions and so gradually Russians extended their territory east to the Ural Mountains, south to the Caspian Sea, and north towards 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.

The Russians now had a partial buffer zone and a hinterland 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, but they were still exposed to the west. In the 18th century Russia occupied Ukraine and reached the Carpathian Mountains. It also took over most of what we now know as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, giving it positions to defend in case of attack 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 stretch up to the Arctic Circle.

At the end of the Second World War, Russia occupied territory in central and eastern Europe, some of which then became part of the USSR – which Putin has said was Russia “by another name”. All was well. The eastern European countries were vassal states, and dissent could be crushed as happened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

After the sudden collapse of communism and the USSR, Moscow says it was given guarantees that Nato would not move eastwards, and this is plausible although there are no written records of an agreement. Either way, Russia became increasingly alarmed as Nato  advanced closer to its borders. Once it was 1,000 miles from St Petersburg; now it is 100 miles away. Moscow’s invasion of ­Georgia in 2008 was a warning shot to the alliance – back off.

Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary, Poland and Romania were all at one time in the Russian-led Warsaw Pact. All are now in Nato, as is the reunified Germany and the three Baltic states. There is an ongoing debate about the wisdom of enlarging Nato, but there is no argument about the wishes of the people in all the countries upon which Russia had imposed its dictatorship. All have chosen to join the Western alliance such is their fear of the former colonial power.

In 2020 Putin moved to ensure that Belarus would not go the same way as Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenko stole the 2020 election in Belarus to ensure that he remained in power following more than 25 years in office. His police force then beat demonstrators from the streets. Moscow gave him all the support he needed and took the opportunity to strengthen Russia’s grip on the country.

In the run up to the 24 February invasion of Ukraine, Russia had positioned thousands of troops inside Belarus. Most are now near Kyiv, but others will go to Belarus and a permanent Russian military presence looks likely. This pushes Russian troops up to the Polish border. It also brings the “gap and the gate” into focus. The Suwalki Gap and Smolensk Gate are key strategic areas in both Nato and Russian thinking.

[See also: I saw Russia’s way of war in Syria. Will its devastation come to Kyiv?]

For the Nato powers, the Suwalki Gap is the more important. It’s a narrow, 60 mile-long land bridge that connects Poland and Lithuania and is the only way Nato can reinforce the three lightly armed Baltic states by land. On one side lies the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg in east Prussia), home to 15,000 Russian troops; on the other lies Belarus.

A Russian military presence in Belarus could easily close the gap and cut off the Baltic states. It would also unnerve Poland. Nato knows it lacks the firepower to hold the gap but has positioned enough forces there to act as a tripwire. They include a small British contingent. This is Nato signalling that to cut the corridor requires killing Nato troops, and therefore Nato would be fighting within hours of any advance.

Russia’s presence in Belarus provides direct access to Poland across a wide front. Its forces in the region usually sit inside Russia at the Smolensk Gate – a 50 mile-wide territory between the Dzwina and Dnieper river systems that for centuries has had armies channelled through it, in both directions. It lies just 300 miles from Moscow. The army group guarding it has more offensive equipment than Nato members Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states combined, and frequently conducts simulated invasions of Poland.

The above is a partial answer to the question “why” but understanding Putin’s rationale is different from supporting it. The numbers of his useful idiots in the West are dwindling in the face of his brutal war of choice and face contempt as their opposition to eastern Europeans being allowed to determine their own futures is laid bare.

Putin is thought to be advised, and to believe, that the Western democracies are decadent and in decline. President Xi Jinping of China agrees and has been watching the response to Putin’s recklessness like a hawk as he mulls the Taiwan question.

China is another example of how geography and history partially determine policy. As did Russia, China ­expanded into its surrounding ­regions and conquered their peoples to ­create buffer zones, in this case to protect the Han heartland. Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet were all then subjected to millions of Han settlers.

China, however, still feels vulnerable from one direction: the sea. China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western colonial powers began on its coastline and is fresh in the memory. This century it has poured money into shore to ship missiles for its coastal defences to keep foreign navies at a distance.

When China looks out towards the Pacific it sees in front of it a wall that could block its access to the ocean. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and others are all allied with the US and intend to stay that way as they look nervously at their giant neighbour. Their navies – along with the British, Indian and Australian, as well as the American carrier groups – could easily blockade China causing the country to implode. Great powers look at what might be, not just what is.

The key to breaking the wall is Taiwan. If you remove the biggest brick, the rest of the wall is useless. But Xi knows an attack on Taiwan might be opposed militarily by an alliance of countries, and would certainly be opposed with the sort of economic sanctions that have been imposed on Russia.

Beijing watches as the Kremlin discovers that the law of unintended consequences is seldom more applicable than during war. Putin had expected Nato and the EU to split between hawks and doves. Instead, Nato has rediscovered its purpose and the EU has halted its slow-motion fragmentation.

Perhaps the most consequential shift is that of Germany’s foreign policy. For 75 years Germany, by its own choice, has been a third-rate military power. After the First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust, the burden of history, and fear of themselves, made West Germany tantamount to a pacifist nation. At the end of the Cold War the reunified Germany continued to underfund its military and sought to engage Russia with its policy of wandel durch handel – change through trade.

This entailed consistently taking a soft line with the Kremlin. Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to power last December showing no intention to change these policies. Then, however, Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. On 26 February Scholz stunned his country, and indeed Europe, by announcing that 1,000 German anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles would be sent to the Ukrainian army. Scholz also suspended the certification of the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project. The Bundestag later convened and changed decades of policy overnight. Amid much soul searching within the political class over its dealing with Russia, Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister and leader of the Greens in the coalition government, told the Bundestag: “If our world is different, then our politics must be different as well.” As she was speaking a crowd of more than 100,000 people had gathered in central Berlin in support of the Ukrainian struggle.

Scholz announced that Germany would commit to spending 2 per cent of its GDP on defence. His finance minister, Christian Lindner, said Germany intended to create “one of the most capable, powerful and best equipped armed forces on the continent”. Such a statement would have been unthinkable previously. Germany joined other countries in banning most Russian banks from Swift, the global financial messaging system. It would begin a dramatic German programme of diversifying energy supply needs by making plans to build liquefied natural gas terminals on its coast and accelerating renewable energy technology.

We can now expect to see more German troops and hardware in eastern Europe. Despite the ghosts of history still roaming the continent this will be welcomed. In 2011 the then Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

This is far from what Putin expected when he launched his invasion but does not mean he gives up and brings the soldiers home. He still wants a buffer zone, he still wants the wheat fields and precious metals Ukraine has in abundance, and he wants the port of Odessa, on the Black Sea, which is used for 75 per cent of Ukraine’s trade by sea. As he gazes at the map and dreams of Mother Russia as great power, feared by the world, Putin is prepared to kill tens of thousands of men, women and children to achieve his fascistic dream and Ukraine’s nightmare.

Tim Marshall is the author of the bestselling book “Prisoners of Geography” and, most recently, “The Power of Geography” (both Elliott & Thompson)

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global