Russia’s latest standoff with the West is already popularly seen as the beginning of another Cold War. In fact, the conflict’s origins go back much further. Geography and culture conspire to pit landpower Russia against the maritime civilizations of the West. The crisis in Ukraine has less to do with alleged promises about NATO expansion and a Russian government that needs to shore up its legitimacy; there is a certain inevitability about tension between the two sides that is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Land powers like Russia are by definition insecure. The absence of oceans or waterways to clearly demarcate their territories makes them vulnerable in a real, physical sense, which inspires a siege mentality in their people. Russia doesn’t even have many other natural barriers, like mountain ranges, to provide rational borders. Between the Carpathian Mountains in the west, the Caucasus in the south and the Pacific Ocean in the east, there are no features that suggest where “Russia” should logically end. This absence of natural defenses has compelled Russia to extend itself halfway around the world.
Russia’s sense of insecurity is aggravated by the hardness of its land. It has a barren tundra to the north that is utterly inhospitable to human settlement. Just south of it lies the taiga, the world’s largest coniferous forest, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific coast. Parts of it are covered in permafrost, making this area, too, largely unsuitable for cultivation. Rivers flow from south to north, preventing them from facilitating trade and the movement of people across the continent. Historian Philip Longworth argued in Russia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to Putin (2005) that these conditions developed in Russians “a capacity for suffering, a certain communalism, even a willingness to sacrifice the individual for the common good.”
America’s is a mirror of Russia’s story. It has oceans on either side that make the country a coherent geographical entity. Unlike Russia’s myriad waterways, America’s Mississippi River basin is perfectly situated to transport agricultural products from the Midwest to the rest of the world. It has a harmless neighbor to the north to trade with. The relative ease with which Americans were able to establish control over their territory and the lack of any serious challenges to it in over two centuries has informed a mentality that is the very opposite of Russia’s: individualistic, carefree, bordering on the careless.
Yet there are similarities as well. The destinies of both nations have been shaped by what happened to the south of them.
Longworth identified the generally flat topography of the vast steppe south of the taiga — and specifically the repeated expansion and collapse of empires across it — as the principal feature of Russian history. Russia scholar W. Bruce Lincoln called it “the great grass road” because it was here that Inner Asian nomads roamed and from here that they launched their invasions east and west.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongols invaded Kievan Rus’ this way and established their Golden Horde which locked Russia out of the European Renaissance, engendering a sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis the West that persists up to this day. Not until two centuries later, during the reign of Ivan III (1462-1505), did Moscow emerge as the most powerful Russian principality that could cast off the “Tatar yoke”.
Moscow’s very location represents the Russian experience. The nation’s center is situated on the crossroad between the taiga and the steppe — and defenseless. There is little standing in the way between Moscow and an invading army, whichever way it comes from. The prudent policy has been to push back Russia’s borders to put enough space between its heartland and its frontiers to be able to absorb an invasion.
Expansion started under Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) a, through fits and starts, culminated in the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Up until 1960, Russia even enjoyed an alliance with China, creating a communist empire that dominated Eurasia. No single political entity had ever been so paramount on the continent and none ever would.
This preponderance was unsustainable. Russia needed to keep expanding to secure its European core but the farther it expanded, the less stable it became. Unlike America, it hadn’t the economy to finance an empire nor an individualistic culture that allowed peoples of different ethnicities and religions to peacefully coexist. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s accelerated the Soviet empire’s disintegration but its collapse is better seen as a retreat that inevitably follows overextension — and one that is just as predictably succeeded by another period of expansion, which is what Vladimir Putin is presiding over today.
Russia’s geopolitical imperatives haven’t changed. History suggests it will try to reclaim what it lost — if not by conquest, then through the economic and political subordination of its frontier states.
“Russia had no choice but to become a revisionist power,” argues Robert D. Kaplan in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012), “intent on regaining — in some subtle or not so subtle form — its near-abroad in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus and Central Asia, where 26 million ethnic Russians still lived.”
When Russia subdued the steppe, it could afford pan-Eurasian pretensions. Similarly, once the United States had taken Cuba and Florida from Spain and acquired the Panama Canal in 1904, putting the whole “American Mediterranean” under its sway, it had “power to spare for activities outside the New World,” the famous geostrategist Nicholas J. Spykman observed in America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1942).
World War II was the trigger for a global expansion. The same conflict that reminded Russians just how vulnerable they were and led to their de facto annexation of Central Europe saw Americans taking over the declining British Empire’s naval stations in the Caribbean, establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, turning Japan into a protectorate and allying with faraway Australia and New Zealand, extending their hegemony into the South Pacific by 1951.
With America supreme on the world’s oceans, the danger was that the powers of Eurasia would combine to challenge its position on the fringes of the Old World. Between the North European Plain (which America’s NATO allies control), the Eurasian steppe (Russia) and the Yellow River basin (China), the supercontinent has even more arable land than North America. But the three centers are not connected, either by waterways, interests or ideology (with the exception of the brief Sino-Soviet friendship, which naturally collapsed). Keeping these regions divided had to be America’s overriding strategic goal.
During the Cold War, the United States borrowed from Spykman’s thesis that it was more important to control the edges of Eurasia than the continent itself. He had warned that contact with the outside world would allow a Eurasian power to predominate. In the “Rimland,” the immovable object of American naval power met the unstoppable force of Russian expansion. (Or, as the Russians would have it, American expansion infringed on their natural borders — which, as we’ve seen, are far from permanent.)
It is not surprising then that Russia is pressuring America across the Rimland today. In Europe, it is testing NATO’s unity and trying to divide the European Union by bribing weak member states such as Cyprus, Greece and Hungary with cheap natural gas. Europe’s dependence on the United States for its security, a high degree of economic and financial interdependence across the Atlantic as well as cultural and ideological affinities make it highly improbable that Russia will succeed. But it is not impossible. Historically, both France and Germany have sought an alliance with Russia in order to balance against the other. If it is to maintain its position in Europe, America must make the Russia-option redundant and be that balancer, preventing either France or Germany from overshadowing the other. American cooperation with France in North Africa is a reassuring sign in this sense, given German dominance in Europe and the hiccup in American-French relations that occurred under the George W. Bush Administration.
In the Middle East, Russia is shielding Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to maintain influence, improving ties with Turkey (again, by holding out the prospect of cheap gas) and selling sophisticated weapons to Iran. There is less of a need for American reengagement here, because it is already so involved in the region’s affairs. Moreover, its Arab allies are drawing closer together in response. But that also means there is a risk that the Middle East will end up as the Second Cold War’s “Europe,” split into pro-American and pro-Russian blocs. Much hinges on how the nuclear deal with Iran will play out. If it succeeds, America may be able to bring Iran in from the cold and contain Russian power in this region on the cheap.
In the Far East, a Sino-Russian condominium seems far-fetched, if only because Russia would reduce itself to the junior partner in such an arrangement. China’s assertiveness is anyway seeing the rest of the region ally against it, creating a natural balance of power. As in Europe, America plays an important role, discouraging zero-sum competition between China, Japan and South Korea. But it seems highly unlikely that one of those powers would initiative the sort of relationship with Russia it needs to gain a foothold there.
To break the cycle of confrontation, Russia would have to change. It would need to bury its imperial ambitions and recognize that the West has no designs on it. NATO is not a threat to Russia. The European Union may be a threat to the Russian regime in the sense that it advocates and spreads economic and political freedoms Russians lack. But it seems anti-Western sentiment can always outbid any Russian desire to Westernize, something events of the last year have shown. Invading neighboring countries and annexing their territory is anyway a wholly disproportionate response to European “soft power.”
Which goes to show just how insecure Russia feels and why change is unlikely. In that case, the Atlantic alliance has little choice but to fall back on containment. Russia will see this as encirclement, confirming its worst suspicions about Western intentions. But if history is any guide, an unbound Russia wouldn’t know where to stop.