The Inexorable Crowbar of Geography
It is time for Americans to put maps and encyclopedias back on their tables.
In May 1844, the New York Times printed a witty but very true observation: “Foremost among the countless blessings of war is its power of teaching geography.” But as the exotic-sounding names of Ukrainian villages and cities are thrown around daily in the international media, only a few Americans are actually aware of the geographical realities of the region (and President Joe Biden certainly is not among the better informed ones).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian critique of the Gulag system, spoke in 1978 of the “inexorable crowbar of events.” Perhaps we can now speak of the “inexorable crowbar of geography” casting doubts about what we thought was a more or less secure status quo in Eastern Europe. Some believe that Russian ideology is at fault. But we may give more credit to Leo Tolstoy’s assertion: “Every time conquerors appear there have been wars, but this does not prove that the conquerors caused the wars and that it is possible to find the laws of a war in the personal activity of a single man.”
The central geographic reality that we need to consider to understand the war in Ukraine is the East European Plain (or if we listen to the Russians, then Russkaya ravnina, the Russian Plain). It is extends east of the Central European Plain (mostly over Poland, Denmark, Germany and the Low Countries) that spans approximately 2 million square miles—twice the size of the American Great Plains—and averages about only 560 feet in elevation. The highest point of the East European Plain is somewhere between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and reaches only 1,100 feet.
This vast, and save for forests and swamps, uninterrupted area of lowlands is the largest of its kind not only in Europe, but also in the world. Only a few, albeit sizeable, rivers dot its surface, and through its extension into the Central European Plain, one could in fact walk from the Ural Mountains to the North Sea in Flanders or the Netherlands without encountering a single major terrestrial hurdle.
The territory of today's Ukraine is about 230 thousand square miles, that is around 85 percent of the size of Texas. Placed on the above-mentioned plain, most of this area consists of lowlands, uplands and ridges. Except for the Carpathians and the Crimean Mountains (the latter today annexed by Russia), no major mountainous region can be found in the country.
The Western borders of today’s Russia extend from Estonia to Southern Ukraine across 2,500 miles. It was no mistake on Russia’s part to lay claim to Königsberg (known as Kaliningrad since 1946), which is today the most militarized region in Europe. The Russian geopolitical logic dictated the ownership of this strip of land. With its ice-free port it can exert pressure on the Baltic states and Poland. It is this crucial area that the Lithuanians want to impose a blockade upon nowadays.
Looking at the South-Western borders of Russia, the importance of the Black Sea cannot be overemphasized. Snake Island is not a crucial port-city because of a dialogue between its Ukrainian defenders and some Russian warship. It is a vital strategic location—along with the Crimean Peninsula—for controlling the ship movements on the sea and holding key geopolitical advantages for its owner. Not only it is a vital crossroads for trade and logistics, it also grants access to the Mediterranean Sea and allows to extend its power over important regions such as the Caucasus and the Middle East.
In addition to the above geographic facts, to better situate the Ukraine conflict, it is worth taking into account the many perilous periods of Russian history ingrained in the soul of the Russian people. This is not to say that Ukraine has not had its fair share of tragedies in the past. The story of Eastern Europe—especially its past century—is not a merry one. Many of Russia’s neighbors harbor an ingrained fear toward the “Big Bear,” and for a good reason. However, Russia is the largest country in the world, a leading nuclear power, with a self-sufficient and independent economic system, which has now, after so many decades, reintroduced state-on-state warfare in Europe. Analysis of the Russian historical experience is therefore extremely important for understanding the current events.
Modern Russia traces back its ancestry to the Kievan Rus’, the first state uniting various Slavic tribes, which had its capital in Kiev. This state was ended with the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century, which resulted in the loss of almost all major cities, including the capital. The “Mongol yoke” lasted until the late fifteenth century, but the next major invasion was not so far away. The Polish–Russian War of 1609-1618 even saw Moscow fall into Polish hand, a feat still remembered today in the Polish national anthem: “We'll cross the Vistula, we'll cross the Warta, / […] Bonaparte has given us the example.”
In reality, the Poles set the example for Bonaparte, but there was still another major war between the two nations. During the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which was started by Russia, the Swedish army got as far as Central Ukraine before being defeated in 1709. Let us fast forward hundred years: From September 14 to October 19, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Moscow, then exited as the Russian winter and Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov’s relentless assault decimated his forces.
Russia only had to wait another hundred years before the German Imperial Army stopped just 85 miles from the Russian capital of Petrograd. The Bolshevik revolution ended the First World War for Russia, but the nascent Second Polish Republic, together with its Ukrainian nationalist allies, captured Kiev (then a major Soviet city) in May 1920 and advanced as far as Minsk (today capital of Belorussia) a few months later.
The last century did not help Russia’s paranoia either. A keen watcher of geography, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler correctly observed that the Soviet Union had no natural borders up the Urals and he drew the boundary precisely at this mountain range between Asia and the future German Empire. Reaching the Ural was a strategic objective of Nazi Germany during its invasion against the Soviet Union. In December 1941, the German Army units reached Krasnaya Polyana, 15 miles from Moscow and encircled Leningrad (previously called Petrograd).
Some basic geographical and historical facts about the region imply a few logical conclusions, as the Hungarian historian Mihály Nánay has argued in an essay for the journal Rubicon. Russia feels militarily vulnerable on her Western border. In spite of all technological innovations, geographical boundaries are still the best method of defending oneself; the war in Afghanistan has proven this quite well. Russia will never cede the control of the lands she considers vital for the country’s future; she will never abandon the areas from where the country can be easily attacked. This is not to suggest NATO would ever actually wage a war of aggression against Russia; alas, perceived threats are sometimes just as good causes for hasty actions as real ones.
With a few natural defense lines, a huge country such as Russia could be held throughout history only by strong rulers. An overly political understanding of Russian history would lead us to believe that today’s Russia cannot identify with the Soviet Union. Quite the contrary, its expanse can serve to justify Putin’s ideology. Putin is seen by many as the representative of Russia’s greatness. Stalin was, in the words of historian David Wolff, quite a “micromanager,” at least “in the areas he considered important”—“Security and foreign affairs were at the top of Stalin’s list.”
Recent historiography on Stalin has been voluminous, but the territorial aspects have attracted little attention, despite their effects on millions and their role in bringing on the Cold War in both Europe and Asia. […] Stalin was jealous of his right as a world statesman to carve new lines in the earth. He was visibly upset when lesser men from lesser states tried to exercise this power. [...] It was Stalin the Border-maker who had already decided this question against them [...] And as there was limited territory on the spherical globe, Stalin conceived the exercise of power over territory as competitive in nature. Winners and losers […] were engaged in a zero-sum game.
According to Hungarian Russia-expert Attila Demkó of MCC, Putin doesn’t care about money or power anymore; he wants to fulfil a historical role. “He wants to be the one to resurrect Russia from the fall of the Soviet Union. For Russian nationalism, this was not only the fall of the communist dictatorship, but also of the Russian empire. They lost parts that they felt were Russian territory. This is not necessarily the territory of the entire former empire: for example, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Baltic states were forsaken, but certainly, they want Crimea and Novorossiya, where the war is taking place today, and of course Belarus. […] Putin wants a new Yalta, a new agreement between the West and Russia.” Much like Stalin, we can imagine Putin bending over the world map, drawing new lines and boundaries that would shape his country’s history.
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My native Hungary experienced this, when, after the Second World War, the Soviet Union annexed Transcarpathia, which had never previously belonged to Russia. Today it is a Ukrainian oblast bordering Hungary, separated from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian Mountains, which can reach as high as 6700 feet. It is a poor region with the population of a mid-sized Russian city, covering 5000 square miles, a size amounting to less than 0.07 percent of the territory of today’s Russia. What interest could it have held for Stalin?
As two Hungarian authors, István Vida and Béla Zseliczky explained: “Transcarpathia was important to the Soviet Union primarily for military-strategic and security policy reasons. The Carpathian mountains represented a natural border and a line of defense. As a superpower with a huge land area, it would generally have been sufficient to settle in the mountains, but due to the lack of roads and infrastructure, it seemed logical from a military point of view to build a bridgehead on the other side of the Carpathians. In addition, it was taken into account that the geographical location of the region was also favorable, bordering Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Ukraine.” Stalin tried to push the boundaries of the Soviet Union as far out as possible, realizing that strategic distance was the only thing keeping his enemies at bay.
None of the above offers a moral justification for Russia’s actions, neither for the 2014 annexation of Crimea nor for the current war or its atrocities and mass killings. But the simple propaganda-like explanation that Putin is a “madman” who wants to “kill all Ukrainians” because he is “critically ill” also misses the point. One thing is certain: Russia believes that certain physical and material realities still play an important role in the effort of securing the future of a country, be it gold, weapons, manpower, energy, or the ownership of key geographical areas. This is a lesson that much of Europe and the United States seems to have forgotten.