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Russia’s obsession or geographic trap

The offensive Russian foreign policy approach towards Europe is based on Russia’s sense of geographic insecurity.

April 9, 2019 - Shahzada Rahim - Articles and Commentary

The Tsar's Box at the Yusupov Palace Theatre. St. Petersburg Photo: Dennis Jarvis (cc) flickr.com

“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 saying his prayers, asking God: “Why didn’t you put some mountains in Ukraine?”” These are the famous words of Tim Marshall in his book Prisoners of Geography. Throughout history, Russia feared its flat geography. Harsh weather assuaged those fears; Napoleon and Hitler both met their utter fate because of rigid Russian weather. Marshall claims, “The land on which we live has always shaped us, it has shaped the wars, politics, and social development of the people that now nearly inhabits every part of the earth.”

Throughout the tides of history, Russia was threatened by invasions, and it is Russia’s western borders, lacking mountains, which always remained vulnerable because of the lack of natural defenses. In a broader context, Russia lacks access to warm waters. Unlike its European neighbors, it lacks maritime trade routes, making its geography a huge burden. Under the reign of Catherine the Great Russia dominated European politics because of its earlier expansions into eastern and northern Europe after having defeated the Ottoman Empire, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden. Since then, Russian geography sprawled over a huge land mass from the Baltic and Northern Sea in the north, and the Black Sea in the south.

After the First World War and in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks also attempted to secure the legacy of Catharine the Great by maintaining Russian power in the frontward and backyard by controlling key strategic echelons in the Black and Caspian Sea. In the nineteenth century, both France and Great Britain attempted to contain Russian expansion in the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia. The famous Great Game was fought against Russia to block Russian access to the Indian ocean. With this geographic impasse, Russia has always maintained an offensive approach by dominating key strategic locations in the heartland – the area between the Black and the Caspian Seas, engulfing Caucasus and Central Asia. Famous British geographer and geopolitical scientist Harford Mackinder concluded Russian strategy in the following dictum – “Who controls Eastern Europe commands the heartland, who controls the heartland commands the world island, who controls the world island commands the world.”

Basically, this was a firsthand warning to Great Britain to contain Russia before it become a threat to British rule in the sub-continent by controlling the geographical pivot of the world. In contrast, Russia’s geography is the question of its existence split between the European and Eurasian landmasses. With this existential deadlock, the view in the Kremlin is that each era brings a new existential threat to Russia and whether being overt or covert, political or strategic and conventional or unconventional, Russian must secure its realm. In this regard, it seems a vivid fact that Russia’s embrace of autocratic rule and a centralised political system is because of the Russia’s obsession with its internal and external security.

This obsession flared during the Cold War, when the Russian leader raised suspicion over the US encirclement of Russia through NATO’s expansion in Europe. Stalin, who was allied with France, Great Britain and the US during the Second World War, became especially skeptical about the western plans to isolate Russia geographically after it. Though, according to Roosevelt’s plan there would be a new world order encompassing four policemen, which was supposed to give an upper hand to Russia in Eastern Europe following the end of the war, that reality did not emerge, and Russia again encountered a geographic trap. This new fear dominated both Russia’s internal and external policy throughout the Cold War.

After the end of the Cold War and with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia entered a new phase of geographic delusion as it lost major parts of its geography – foreign nations which it has imperiously controlled. The new-born Russian Federation was suffering from a leadership crisis, internal political chaos and separatism within its remaining administrative parts, mainly Chechnya, which became a severe headache for Russia. When Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, he reiterated the legacy of the Soviet Union and suppressed internal uprisings by centralising the political structure of Russia. His military adventures in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have clearly projected his offensive foreign policy worldview, that Russia will not compromise its geography. To be more precise, his military interventions in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine reflects his geopolitical vision to revive the old Soviet legacy, an effort to re-establish Russian influence over the key elements of the Soviet Empire in order to break the geographic trap. Geopolitically, his new carved grand strategy aims at protecting the Russian Empire against future Napoleons and Hitlers, as he ludicrously sees inevitable.

In a nutshell, it is the eternal fear of invasion that drives Russian foreign policy and Russia’s obsession with its geography is a kind of neurotic disorder that renders Russia’s sense of insecurity. Thus, Russia’s obsession stems from this geographic trap which in turn shapes Russia’s offensive and belligerent policy towards Europe.  

Shahzada Rahim is a postgraduate student with a keen interest in writing on history, geopolitics, current affairs, and international political economy. He is a freelancer and a independent writer.

You can read more on geopolitics in New Eastern Europe’s latest issue
2/2019: Postmodern Geopolitics

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