The Geopolitics of Russia: Permanent Struggle
Border guard outpost near Khushet, North Caucasus, courtesy of RIA Novosti/Wikimedia Commons
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Border Guard Outpost near Khushet, North Caucasus
Stratfor thinks that Russia is locked into a permanent regional security dilemma. Instability along its borders has led to policies that aim to protect the center from ‘local’ security problems. These policies, however, are now a problem in their own right – they threaten to undermine the very fabric of the Russian state.
Russia's defining characteristic is its indefensibility. Unlike the core of most states that are relatively defensible, core Russia is limited to the region of the medieval Grand Principality of Muscovy. It counts no rivers, oceans, swamps or mountains marking its borders -- it relies solely on the relatively inhospitable climate and its forests for defense. Russian history is a chronicle of the agony of surviving invasion after invasion.
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Muscovy's geographic challenges.
Traditionally these invasions have come from two directions. The first is from the steppes -- wide open grasslands that connect Russia to Central Asia and beyond -- the path that the Mongols used. The second is from the North European Plain, which brought to Russia everything from the Teutonic Knights to the Nazi war machine.
To deal with these vulnerabilities, Russia expanded in three phases. In the first, Russia expanded not toward the invasion corridors to establish buffers but away from them to establish a redoubt. In the late 15th century, under Ivan III, Russia did creep westward somewhat, anchoring itself at the Pripet Marshes, which separated Russia from the Kiev region. But the bulk of Russia's expansion during that period was north to the Arctic and northeast to the Urals. Very little of this territory can be categorized as useful -- most was taiga or actual tundra and only lightly populated -- but for Russia it was the only land easily up for grabs. It also marked a natural organic outgrowth of the original Muscovy -- all cloaked in forest. It was as defensible a territory as Russia had access to and their only hope against the Mongols.
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Russian expansion phases.
The Mongols were horsemen who dominated the grasslands with their fast-moving cavalry forces. Their power, although substantial, diminished when they entered the forests and the value of their horses, their force multipliers, declined. The Mongols had to fight infantry forces in the forests, where the advantage was on the defender's side.
The second phase of expansion was far more aggressive -- and risky. In the mid-16th century, Under Ivan IV, Russia finally moved to seal off the Mongol invasion route. Russia pushed south and east, deep into the steppes, and did not stop until it hit the Urals in the east and the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains in the south. As part of this expansion, Russia captured several strategically critical locations, including Astrakhan on the Caspian, the land of the Tatars -- a longtime horse-mounted foe -- and Grozny, which was soon transformed into a military outpost at the foot of the Caucasus.
Also with this expansion, Ivan IV was transformed from Grand Prince of Moscow to Tsar of All Russia, suggesting the empire to come. Russia had finally achieved a measure of conventional security. Holding the northern slopes of the Caucasus would provide a reasonable defense from Asia Minor and Persia, while the millions of square kilometers of steppes gave birth to another defensive strategy: buffers.
Russia -- modern, medieval or otherwise -- cannot count on natural features to protect it. The Pripet Marshes were small and could in many cases simply be avoided. There is no one who might wish to attack from the Arctic. Forests slowed the Mongol horsemen, but as Muscovy's predecessor -- Kievan Rus -- aptly demonstrated, the operative word was “slowed,” not “stopped.” The Mongols conquered and destroyed Kievan Rus in the 13th century.
That leaves buffers. So long as a country controls territory separating itself from its foes -- even if it is territory that is easy for a hostile military to transit -- it can bleed out any invasion via attrition and attacks on supply lines. Such buffers, however, contain a poison pill. They have populations not necessarily willing to serve as buffers. Maintaining control of such buffers requires not only a sizable standing military for defense but also a huge internal security and intelligence network to enforce central control. And any institution so key to the state's survival must be very tightly controlled as well. Establishing and maintaining buffers not only makes Russia seem aggressive to its neighbors but also forces it to conduct purges and terrors against its own institutions in order to maintain the empire.
The third expansion phase dealt with the final invasion route: from the west. In the 18th century, under Peter and Catherine the Great, Russian power pushed westward, conquering Ukraine to the southwest and pushing on to the Carpathian Mountains. It also moved the Russian border to the west, incorporating the Baltic territories and securing a Russian flank on the Baltic Sea. Muscovy and the Tsardom of Russia were now known as the Russian Empire.
Yet aside from the anchor in the Carpathians, Russia did not achieve any truly defensible borders. Expansions to the Baltic and Black Seas did end the external threat from the Cossacks and Balts of ages past, but at the price of turning those external threats into internal ones. Russia also expanded so far and fast that holding the empire together socially and militarily became a monumental and ongoing challenge (today Russia is dealing with the fact that Russians are barely a majority in their own country). All this to achieve some semblance of security by establishing buffer regions.
But that is an issue of empire management. Ultimately the multi-directional threat defined Muscovy's geopolitical problem. There was a constant threat from the steppes, but there was also a constant threat from the west, where the North European Plain allowed for few natural defenses and larger populations could deploy substantial infantry (and could, as the Swedes did, use naval power to land forces against the Muscovites). The forests provided a degree of protection, as did the sheer size of Russia's holdings and its climate, but in the end the Russians faced threats from at least two directions. In managing these threats by establishing buffers, they were caught in a perpetual juggling act: east vs. west, internal vs. external.
The geography of the Russian Empire bequeathed it certain characteristics. Most important, the empire was (and remains) lightly settled. Even today, vast areas of Russia are unpopulated while in the rest of the country the population is widely distributed in small towns and cities and far less concentrated in large urban areas. Russia's European part is the most densely populated, but in its expansion Russia both resettled Russian ethnics and assimilated large minorities along the way. So while Moscow and its surroundings are certainly critical, the predominance of the old Muscovy is not decisively ironclad.
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Russian population densitiy.
The result is a constant, ingrained clash within the Russian Empire no matter the time frame, driven primarily by its size and the challenges of transport. The Russian empire, even excluding Siberia, is an enormous landmass located far to the north. Moscow is at the same latitude as Newfoundland while the Russian and Ukrainian breadbaskets are at the latitude of Maine, resulting in an extremely short growing season. Apart from limiting the size of the crop, the climate limits the efficiency of transport -- getting the crop from farm to distant markets is a difficult matter and so is supporting large urban populations far from the farms. This is the root problem of the Russian economy. Russia can grow enough to feed itself, but it cannot efficiently transport what it grows from the farms to the cities and to the barren reaches of the empire before the food spoils. And even when it can transport it, the costs of transport make the foodstuffs unaffordable.
Population distribution also creates a political problem. One natural result of the transport problem is that the population tends to distribute itself nearer growing areas and in smaller towns so as not to tax the transport system. Yet these populations in Russia's west and south tend to be conquered peoples. So the conquered peoples tend to distribute themselves to reflect economic rationalities, while need for food to be transported to the Russian core goes against such rationalities.
Faced with a choice of accepting urban starvation or the forcing of economic destitution upon the food-producing regions (by ordering the sale of food in urban centers at prices well below market prices), Russian leaders tend to select the latter option. Joseph Stalin certainly did in his efforts to forge and support an urban, industrialized population. Force- feeding such economic hardship to conquered minorities only doubled the need for a tightly controlled security apparatus.
The Russian geography meant that Russia either would have a centralized government -- and economic system -- or it would fly apart, torn by nationalist movements, peasant uprisings and urban starvation. Urbanization, much less industrialization, would have been impossible without a strong center. Indeed, the Russian Empire or Soviet Union would have been impossible. The natural tendency of the empire and Russia itself is to disintegrate. Therefore, to remain united it had to have a centralized bureaucracy responsive to autocratic rule in the capital and a vast security apparatus that compelled the country and empire to remain united. Russia's history is one of controlling the inherently powerful centrifugal forces tearing at the country's fabric.
Russia, then, has two core geopolitical problems. The first is holding the empire together. But the creation of that empire poses the second problem, maintaining internal security. It must hold together the empire and defend it at the same time, and the achievement of one goal tends to undermine efforts to achieve the other.
To secure the Russian core of Muscovy, Russia must:
· Expand north and east to secure a redoubt in climatically hostile territory that is protected in part by the Urals. This way, even in the worst-case scenario (i.e., Moscow falls), there is still a “Russia” from which to potentially resurge.
· Expand south to the Caucasus and southeast into the steppes in order to hamper invasions of Asian origin. As circumstances allow, push as deeply into Central Asia and Siberia as possible to deepen this bulwark.
· Expand as far west as possible. Do not stop in the southwest until the Carpathians are reached. On the North European Plain do not stop ever. Deeper penetration increases security not just in terms of buffers; the North European Plain narrows the further west one travels making its defense easier.
· Manage the empire with terror. Since the vast majority of Russian territory is not actually Russian, a very firm hand is required to prevent myriad minorities from asserting regional control or aligning with hostile forces.
· Expand to warm water ports that have open-ocean access so that the empire can begin to counter the economic problems that a purely land empire suffers.
Given the geography of the Russian heartland, we can see why the Russians would attempt to expand as they did. Vulnerable to attack on the North European Plain and from the Central Asian and European steppes simultaneously, Russia could not withstand an attack from one direction -- much less two. Apart from the military problem, the ability of the state to retain control of the country under such pressure was dubious, as was the ability to feed the country under normal circumstances -- much less during war. Securing the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia was the first -- and easiest -- part of dealing with this geographic imbroglio.
The western expansion was not nearly so "simple." No matter how far west the Russians moved on the European plain, there was no point at which they could effectively anchor themselves. Ultimately, the last effective line of defense is the 400 mile gap (aka Poland) between the Baltic Sea and Carpathian Mountains. Beyond that the plains widen to such a degree that a conventional defense is impossible as there is simply too much open territory to defend. So the Soviet Union pressed on all the way to the Elbe.
At its height, the Soviet Union achieved all but its final imperative of securing ocean access. The USSR was anchored on the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Urals, all of which protected its southern and southwestern flanks. Siberia protected its eastern frontier with vast emptiness. Further to the south, Russia was anchored deeply in Central Asia. The Russians had defensible frontiers everywhere except the North European Plain, ergo the need to occupy Germany and Poland.
Strategy of the Russian Empire
The modern Russian empire faces three separate border regions: Asian Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus (now mostly independent states), and Western Europe.
First, Siberia. There is only one rail line connecting Siberia to the rest of the empire, and positioning a military force there is difficult if not impossible. In fact, risk in Russia's far east is illusory. The Trans-Siberian Railroad (TSR) runs east-west, with the Baikal Amur Mainline forming a loop. The TSR is Russia's main lifeline to Siberia and is, to some extent, vulnerable. But an attack against Siberia is difficult -- there is not much to attack but the weather, while the terrain and sheer size of the region make holding it not only difficult but of questionable relevance. Besides, an attack beyond it is impossible because of the Urals.
East of Kazakhstan, the Russian frontier is mountainous to hilly, and there are almost no north-south roads running deep into Russia; those that do exist can be easily defended, and even then they dead-end in lightly populated regions. The period without mud or snow lasts less than three months out of the year. After that time, overland resupply of an army is impossible. It is impossible for an Asian power to attack Siberia. That is the prime reason the Japanese chose to attack the United States rather than the Soviet Union in 1941. The only way to attack Russia in this region is by sea, as the Japanese did in 1905. It might then be possible to achieve a lodgment in the maritime provinces (such as Primorsky Krai or Vladivostok). But exploiting the resources of deep Siberia, given the requisite infrastructure costs, is prohibitive to the point of being virtually impossible.
We begin with Siberia in order to dispose of it as a major strategic concern. The defense of the Russian Empire involves a different set of issues.
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