History, Russia, and Vladimir Putin

(I published this diary here wayyyy back in January 2019, but it seems relevant to republish it again now…)

The history of Russia clearly demonstrates the truth in the adage, “Governments come and go, but national interests remain the same.”

At the end of the 8th century, a new scourge swept across Europe—raiders from Scandinavia, known to history as “Vikings”. Armed with a new type of sailing vessel called the “longship” which was fast, capable of long distances and able to penetrate the shallow waters of rivers, the Vikings looted and pillaged from one end of Europe to the other.

But in addition to being raiders, the Vikings were also traders and settlers. Over time, Scandinavians settled in cities from Dublin to Paris, and reached as far as North America. In the east, groups of Vikings sailed up the many rivers that drained into the Black Sea.

One of these was the Dnieper, and around 860 CE a group of Vikings from Sweden, known as the Varangians, settled on the banks of the river and founded the city of Kiev. Assimilating with the local Slavic people, they ruled a small area that became known as “Rus”. Over time, Rus became “Russia”.

But Russia had a problem. The land around it was flat and open with no defensible natural boundaries, an easy invitation for invaders and raiders, and Russia was surrounded by powerful enemies. Over the next few centuries, Russia was threatened or invaded by the Byzantine Empire to the south, the Mongols to the east, Sweden to the north, and Poland and Lithuania from the west. The Mongols did the most damage, invading in 1223, destroying Kiev, and ruling Russia for the next 60 years.

By 1283, however, Mongol power was declining, and the Russians were able to defeat the Asian armies and win independence again. Further, they were determined to never be ruled by a foreign power again. The Russian leader Ivan III, known as “Ivan the Great”, moved the Russian capitol to Moscow and forcibly united all of the various Russian principalities under his rule. Then, under the theory that “the best defense is a good offense”, Ivan systematically conquered his neighbors until by 1500, Russia had more than tripled in size.

When Ivan IV assumed the leadership in 1547, he continued the policy of “defense by attack”, conquering new territories to provide a buffer zone that insulated Russia from the foreign powers that surrounded it. Although Ivan IV was not a very nice person (he earned the nickname “Ivan the Terrible”), he expanded the Russian Empire from the Baltic to Siberia, and set the stage for Russia’s rise as a world power. But even after Ivan the Terrible’s conquests, Russia remained vulnerable, and lost large portions of territory through invasions by Poland and Sweden. By the 18th century, the Tsars Peter the Great and Catherine the Great turned the Russian Empire into a colossus, the largest country in the world and a major European power. But still Russia was vulnerable.

The problem was geography. The annexation of Siberia ended any serious threat to Russia from China or Mongolia, as any invasion from that direction would have to cross thousands of miles of vast frozen tundra and then crawl over the Ural Mountains to finally reach Russia’s heartland. But towards the west, the situation was different: a corridor of flat plains ran directly from central Europe right to the gates of Moscow. For centuries, one invader after another would follow this pathway, including the Swedes under King Charles XII in 1707, the French under Napoleon in 1812, the Germans under Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, and Germany again under the Nazis in 1941. All of these invasions ultimately failed, beaten by Russia’s vast expanses and brutal winters. But the devastation and loss of life was massive.

Another issue was economic. As Russia modernized and industrialized in the 19th century, its leaders realized that the real strength of any nation lay in its economic power, and that depended largely on trade. Spain, England, and France had all become global superpowers because they had trade networks that stretched around the world, defended by powerful navies that could project military power anywhere it was needed. But although Russia had the longest coastline in the world, it was mostly useless for global trade. Her primary ports were frozen solid and unusable for much of the year, and all of Russia’s trade routes ran next to potential hostile powers that could close them off in time of conflict.  In the Pacific, Russian sea power was constrained by the Strait of Tsushima, which can be sealed off by either Japan or China. In the Black Sea, naval traffic was straitjacketed by the Bosporus and Dardanelles, which can be closed off by Turkey or Greece, and any Russian ships that make it through these straits must exit the Mediterranean at either Gibraltar (controlled by European naval powers) or (today) the easily-blockable Suez Canal. Russian access to the Persian Gulf, on the other hand, was blocked off by Iran and Afghanistan. And northern sea routes from Russia to Europe or North America must go through the Baltic Sea and then the gaps around England and Iceland—controlled by the Royal Navy. In every direction, Russia’s ability to project naval power was stifled by potential enemies.

Lacking any good warm-water ports and facing an easy invasion route from the west, Russia was therefore doomed to remain at best a regional European power. While able to field a huge army within the landmass of Europe, it was still vulnerable itself to destructive invasions, and, surrounded by potential enemies who could cut off its access to the rest of the world, Russia was unable to either develop its naval clout or to engage in significant global trade.

It was a crucial strategic problem that Russia still faces today. In 1853, Tsar Nicholas I attempted to solve part of his difficulties by occupying Crimea and the port of Sebastopol, and either intimidating or invading Turkey to gain control over access to and from the Black Sea. His effort was unsuccessful after the European naval powers intervened. In 1945, under the Communist regime, Joseph Stalin also sought to solve Russia’s age-old strategic problem, by seizing a new buffer zone in Eastern Europe that helped block the traditional invasion path that the Nazis had just taken, and followed that with efforts to expand into southern Asia towards the Persian Gulf and to the north towards the Baltic Sea. Stalin and his successors also hoped to use the Cold War geopolitical chessboard to gain control of ports, for either military or commercial use, in Vietnam, China, Africa and the Middle East.

When Vladimir Putin took control of Russia in 2000, it was feared by many in the West that, with his expanded military programs and newly-aggressive foreign policy, he was attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union. But that misses the mark. Yes, Russia under Putin remains a dictatorship just as had been the USSR (though Putin at least tries to put a democratic face on his regime). But the reality is much more simple: Putin inherited all of the same economic and strategic issues that had faced Russia since the days of Ivan the Terrible. Governments come and go, after all, but national interests remain the same. Vladimir Putin is above all a Russian nationalist, and Russia’s national interests remain unchanged: defend against the traditional invasion route, and gain unrestricted access to warm-water seas.

But Putin found himself in even worse strategic shape than the Soviet Union had been before its collapse. While the USSR had carefully maintained its East European buffer zone against what it feared would be a NATO invasion (which would of course follow the very same pathway that invaders had always taken), the post-Cold War Russia lost all of this. One by one, former Warsaw Pact allies left the Russian orbit and joined the EU and/or NATO. NATO military forces (which, to today’s Russia, means “American and British”) were now positioned within easy striking distance of Moscow itself. Even worse, ethnic and national separatism were threatening to retract Russia’s borders even further as former portions of the USSR broke away and became independent—leaving actual or potential hostile nations right next door (what Putin calls his “near-abroad”).

It was, to Russia, a clear threat to its very national survival, and Putin has responded to it just as any Russian nationalist from Peter the Great to Stalin would have done. And it is no accident that all of these efforts have been concentrated in the three directions that Russia has always focused on: a move through southern Asia towards the Persian Gulf, a drive through the Black Sea towards the Mediterranean, and the establishment of a buffer zone to block the traditional invasion route in northern Europe. Taking advantage of the West’s global war on Muslims, Russia has crushed secessionist movements in Chechnya and other areas of “the stans” in southern Asia, and intervened in Syria (where Russia has a small naval base on the Mediterranean). Using the excuse of “defending ethnic Russians”, Putin has established a buffer zone in Crimea, parts of the Ukraine, and Georgia, and has drawn what is in essence a line in the sand, which NATO can attempt to cross (militarily or politically) only at the risk of all-out war. And using the power politics of energy (Russia is the world’s largest producer of natural gas), he has both bribed and threatened other nations into tolerating his nationalist aims.

It is a strategy that Ivan the Terrible in 1547 would have recognized and approved.

2 thoughts on “History, Russia, and Vladimir Putin”

  1. We live in interesting times. The situation with Russia is impossible to predict. From what I hear, Russia today is such a spectacularly unpleasant place to live for the bulk of Russians, that everyone is desperate to leave. The population is shrinking and there is a massive brain drain. This may well lead to eventual collapse, but I guess that remains to be seen.

    Putin may or may not be bluffing with his current aggressive moves on the Ukrainian border; my impression is that he is testing the West’s resolve, and trying to work out whether he can risk an invasion. We’ll see what he decides.

    It doesn’t look like Biden has any appetite for another war, and I’m not sure the U.S. can really afford it any longer anyway – it has spent two decades wasting prodigious amounts of money (and public support) on pointless wars. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Putin can now do whatever he likes either…

    1. Russia is essentially a third-world nation with a first-world military (at least as long as they are able to keep paying for it). But they’re nowhere near as powerful as they THINK they are. And if Putin invades and then gets his ass kicked, well, recent Russian history is full of regimes that collapsed after unsuccessful military adventures. Vladimir may well join them.

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