Why does Russia want Ukraine so badly? This is what a geography book tells us

Analysts say Putin wants to create a Russian empire and Ukraine is a crucial part of his plan.

A view of the national flag of Ukraine flying over the capital with the Motherland Monument to the right, in Kiev. AP

One can blame Vladimir Putin’s infamous ambition for Russia’s actions on Ukraine, but the real reason may be far more earthly and compelling: geography.

A 2016 edition of Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography provides a refreshing take on geopolitics. It explains how the rivers, seas, mountains, glaciers, forests and plains dictate the international relations of Russia, China, the US, Western European countries, Africa, the Middle East, Korea and Japan and Latin America.

It also describes how the geography of India and Pakistan – the watery arc of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the Hindukush in the northwest and the Himalayas in the north, the plateau of the Balochistan desert, the North West Frontier mountains, and the Karakoram Mountains that lead back to the Himalayas – form the bloody rink of a tragic conflict.

The general perception (there is some truth to it) among international policy experts is that Putin wants to be the person who, under his care, puts Ukraine back into Russia’s arms. The Russian president has given himself another 14 years to do so.

Analysts say Putin wants to create a Russian empire. Ukraine is a crucial part of his plan. In a 2015 speech, Putin called Ukraine the “crown jewel of Russia”, raising alarms among Western authorities. It came a year after Russia annexed Crimea and then a piece of Ukraine.

In 2021 Putin wrote another passionate piece.

“As the wall that has been built in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, in my opinion is our great common misfortune and our tragedy. These are primarily the consequences of our own mistakes that we have made in different periods. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always tried to undermine our unity,” Putin wrote. “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of ancient Russian, the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were connected by one language (which we now call Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty , and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice of St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Duke of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity. The throne of Kiev had a dominant position in ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The story of bygone years recorded for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev: ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’”

But civilizational nostalgia or imperial design does not fully explain Russia’s need to invade Ukraine. When the USSR collapsed and split into 15 countries due to political overload, horrendous economy and defeat in Afghanistan, part after part fell apart and left it completely exposed geographically.

“Moscow’s dream of open sea routes with warm water has since disappeared and is now perhaps more than 200 years old. This lack of a warm water port with direct access to the oceans has always been Russia’s Achilles heel, which is just as strategically important to Russia as the Northern European Plain. Russia is at a geographical disadvantage only because of its oil and gas rescued from a much weaker power,” writes Tim Marshall in Prisoners of Geography. “Geography had revenge on the ideology of the Soviets.”

He says that as long as there was a pro-Russian government in Kiev, the Russians were confident that the buffer zone would persist and protect the Northern European Plain. Even a neutral Ukraine that steers clear of the European Union or NATO and keeps the line to the warm water port of Sevastopol in Crimea would be good. Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for energy was considered harmless.

“But a pro-Western Ukraine with ambitions to join the two major Western alliances and which questioned Russia’s access to its Black Sea port? A Ukraine that could one day house a NATO naval base? I couldn’t stand that.”

Sevastopol is Russia’s only major warm water port. But access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean is hampered by the 1936 Montreux Convention, which gave NATO member Turkey control of the Bosphorus. In a time of conflict, even that access can end.

Beyond the Bosphorus, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar impede Russia’s movement to the Atlantic Ocean or the route to the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal. The naval presence in Tartus in Syria is strategic but limited.

In the event of a war, the Russian navy cannot go to the Baltic Sea either, because NATO controls the Skagerrak Strait, which connects to the Northern Strait. As Russia gets past the Skagerrak, the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) rift in the North Sea hinders its advance into the Atlantic.

Obviously, geography has not been kind to a great nation and civilization. But will it work its way out of that handicap to help Russia? Only history will tell.

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