BRISBANE – Nothing is easier than to denounce an evildoer, and nothing more difficult than to understand him. But as Russian ships shadow NATO in the Black Sea, and as Putin threatens to “knock the teeth out of foreign aggressors”, there seems to be little room for understanding. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost centuries of territorial expansionism. Critically exposed and at risk of further disintegration, Russia spent the turn of the millennium licking its wounds. Now, a familiar disquiet has descended upon the post-Soviet states. Uneasy eyes look to Moscow; likewise, uneasy eyes look back – for when one faces a cornered bear, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.
Securing the World Island
Stretching from west to east, Russia is a goliath on the world stage. The country shares 20,000 kilometres in border with 16 states – 12 of which were formerly part of its contiguous territory during the Soviet era. Having such an extensive land border presents security liabilities, deeply so.
The reasons for this are historical. With the advent of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 15th century, the fledgeling state faced an immediate geopolitical calamity. Surrounded by hostile powers, Moscow’s anxiety could only be dampened by expanding to geographic barriers, be it rivers, lakes, mountains, or seas. Consequently, in the first centuries of its existence, Russia expanded at a rate of one Belgium per year. By the turn of the 18th Century, Russia had grown to the extent of its modern borders.
Even today, Russia’s geography grants it substantial advantages. The frozen, amorphous crown of Artic ice that adorns the Russian landmass deters any notion of a land-based invasion from the north. A naval approach to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk is unpalatable, even to the most experienced admirals. Doing so would require traversing two major chokepoints – the GIUK Gap and the Bear Gap; the first referring to the open ocean between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, and the second being the gap between Svalbard Island and Northern Norway. These chokepoints are easily defensible through the use of submarines, of which Russia has plenty.
In the east, the rugged shorelines of Siberia fall away to the Bering Strait, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan. The short distance between Alaska and Russia may seem traversable, but the Arctic climate, the strong tidal movement, and the presence of heavy firepower at either side restrict the movement of military forces across the strait. Comparably, through the control of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Islands, Russia can restrict hostile actions in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan. Meanwhile, the Stanovoy Range and the Sayan Mountains cement Russia’s foothold in the Far East. Even when movement is possible, the rough climate restricts navigation further still.
Much of Russia’s eastern frontiers offer its military the upper hand in any engagement. However, things are more troubling in Eastern Europe. Running from St. Petersburg to Kazan to Volgograd is the Russian heartland. About 80 per cent of the Russian public resides in this area, and nearly every decision the Kremlin makes is based on the needs and interests of its heartland. However, the Russian heartland shares the periphery with six other former Soviet republics: Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.
The collective space they share is one of the most problematic regions in the world. To start, there are two anomalies: the Crimean Peninsula and the Kaliningrad exclave. Both function as strategic military bases that deny the entry of hostile forces into the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. Both regions are packed with heavy armaments and area denial weapons. Foreign powers tend to think twice when nearing Crimea and Kaliningrad. Should a hostile power control these assets, movement in the Russian heartland would be immediately exposed to disruptions.
In between, from north to south, is the European Plain. This permissive terrain extends like a triangle from the Netherlands to the Ural Mountains. It forms a conduit, widening as it stretches eastwards. By the time the European Plain reaches the borders of the Russian Federation, its width jumps to well over 2,000 kilometres – making it the largest exposed landscape in the world. The terrain here is flat, open, and indefensible. Main battle tanks offer some protection in these types of terrain, which is why Russia has about 13,000 of them, accounting for almost one-fifth of the global fleet. Even so, no amount of weaponry can fully defend 2,000 kilometres of flat terrain.
Moreover, east of the border with Ukraine, the rolling landscape continues uninterrupted for 750 kilometres to the city of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. Known as the Volgograd Gap, perhaps no region is more fundamental to the existence of the Russian state. Should a hostile force close this gap, it would effectively dissolve Russia’s control over the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. In both World Wars, the German military attempted to close the Volgograd Gap – and in both attempts, Russia’s survival hung on a knife’s edge until long after the invasion was repelled.
On the northern rim of the European border sit the Baltic nations. Historically lacking the strength to pose a threat to Russia alone, the Baltic states have often acted as conduits for great powers. From the Swedish invasion of Russia in the 18th century to the German offensives in the 20th century, plenty have tried entering the Russian heartland through the Baltics. The collapse of the Soviet Union placed the Baltics in the hands of NATO, which has granted the three republics the confidence to negotiate with Russia on equal footing – a stance that is nigh on impossible for the other post-Soviet states.
The loss of its East European holdings cost Moscow dearly, both politically and financially. Russia has been forced to maintain a massive border with some of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. It has been an extremely costly status quo.
Thus, to minimise its exposure, Russia needs to anchor itself by the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains in Western Ukraine. The Carpathians are not impenetrable, but they offer a premium advantage to the occupying force in an otherwise flat space. Meanwhile, control over the Baltics would allow the Russians to push their frontier all the way to Kaliningrad. Hence, by restoring the Soviet borders, Moscow would reduce its exposed flank by the European Plain to 600 kilometres, a significant drop from the current 2,000 kilometres.
Ideally, the Russians would want to push west as much as they can, preferably into Poland. This then explains Russia’s stalemate with the Western bloc. Think of the European Plain as a grand chessboard where one must maximise the position of pawns by strategically placing them. The further NATO pushes east into the European Plain, the more flexible its strategic planning becomes, the more room for error it gains. The Russians, meanwhile, would be left still more exposed and compelled into even more military spending. Likewise, the more Russia pushes westward, the fewer options NATO has, and the greater the margin for error on the Russian side becomes. Not to mention, Russia wouldn’t have to spend so much on defence.
Yes, retaking the former Soviet territories is the ultimate objective. By supporting separatist forces, Moscow aims to place its neighbours in frozen conflicts, from which the only reprieve is the re-entry into Russia’s sphere of influence. It’s a policy that hasn’t always worked out as planned. More often than not, it has backfired dramatically.
The Caucasus speedbump
The Caucasus speedbump Things are slightly different to the southeast. The Caucasus presents a roadblock to geopolitical ambitions. It’s the place where great powers have historically converged. Even today, Turkish, Iranian, and American influences are proliferating. Should the Russians let their guard down, the Caucasus would swiftly turn against them.
The Greater Caucasus range, stretching from Sochi by the Black Sea to Baku on the Caspian, grants Russia a layer of defence over its fertile plains and transportation networks to the north. However, the North Caucasus, which is part of the Russian Federation, is a hotbed for extremist movements. Russia retains control over the region by turning the local actors against one another. Still, to gain longlasting authority, it needs to anchor by the Lesser Caucasus mountains and the Aras River, which runs alongside the southern perimeters of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These nations make up the South Caucasus, and control over them would provide the Russians with additional layers of protection in the North Caucasus. It would also mark a firm line separating Russia from Iran and Turkey.
This is why the Soviet Union extended its borders over the entirety of the Caucasus, and Russia wants to restore those holdings. Policymakers in Moscow exercise influence over the region by exploiting the communal, ethnic conflicts. The trouble is that the local actors with their localised issues, be it Chechen separatists or Georgia’s NATO aspirations, are well aware of the geopolitical weight they carry, and they tend to pull in rival players in the strive for influence and power. This is what makes the South Caucasus a focal point in regional politics.
A new Great Game
A new Great Game Further east is Central Asia. Stripped of its Soviet borders, Russia is severely exposed at this flank. East of the Altai Mountains, the peaks fall away to rolling grasslands and windswept prairies. The Kazak and Ponto-Caspian steppes stretch across the wider Russian border. The nearest geographic speedbump is the Ural, which leaves a flat gap as wide as 650 kilometres from the Ural Mountains to the Caspian Sea. This terrain is indefensible, and history proves it.
For centuries, Turkic warlords used the steppes as a highway to push into Europe. In the 13th century, the conquest was so thorough that it paralysed Russian statehood for centuries. Only in the 19th century, when Russia gained control over the Central Asian hinterlands, did it fully secure its southern flank.
The Altai Mountains, with its summits at 4 kilometres, and the Tian Shan Range and the Pamir Mountains, with elevations at 7 kilometres, act are physical walls separating the Russian and Chinese spheres of influence. Simultaneously, the barren Karakum Desert in the south separates Central Asia from Iranian influence. The centralised Soviet machinery controlled all these geographic elements, which in turn made Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan a collective buffer against any power arising from Asia.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union overturned the regional power dynamic. Today there exists a new rivalry in Central Asia. From the natural gas veins of the Caspian Sea, to the agricultural wealth of the Fergana Valley – foreign powers are descending on the carcass of the Soviet Union. It’s an unspoken duel, but one that is very much alive.
Of particular importance is China’s entry. Through its Belt and Road initiative, China provides the Central Asian states an alternative partner in meeting their economic and security concerns. Slowly but assuredly, Beijing is overcoming the geographic barriers by the use of modern technologies and massive investments in infrastructure. China is playing the long game. It is not going to play second fiddle to Russia indefinitely. As its venture capital investments continue, Russia risks being reduced to a second-tier power in Central Asia, which would then turn the region into a liability.
Thus, to nullify any threat from Asia, Russia needs to restore the Soviet borders in Central Asia. The most cost-effective way to retain its hegemony is by using asymmetric tools of statecraft, such as ethnic minorities, conflict mediation, weapon deals, ownership of strategic enterprises, and even the formation of supranational organisations like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. The fact that the Central Asian states are landlocked makes Moscow’s power projection all the more inescapable. All these soft power components strengthen Russia’s veneer of legitimacy, and in geopolitics, legitimacy is sometimes more valuable than any arsenal.
Out of hibernation
Taken together, it’s clear that the Soviets had shaped their borders with great diligence, both in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, as well as Central Asia. The loss of those territories has exposed modern Russia to a multitude of hazards. This is why Putin describes the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.
Without its Soviet borders acting as a shell, Russia feels intimidated by the EU’s and NATO’s eastward advance, while regional powers, including China, proactively contest its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Russians have their backs against the wall, and from their understanding, there is only one thing to do: turn around and fight to restore the Soviet geography, because to know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy.
Alexander Purton & Shirvan Neftchi
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