It’s time that Americans put back maps and encyclopedias 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. Many believe Russian ideology is to blame. We may be able to give credit to Leo Tolstoy’s statement: “Whenever conquerors appear, there are wars. But this doesn’t prove that conquerors cause the wars. It is possible to locate the laws of war through the individual activity of one man .”
The central geographical reality we must consider in order to understand the conflict in Ukraine is called the East European Plain. (Or, if you listen to Russians, Russkaya ravnina or 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 unbroken area of lowlands, with the exception of forests and swamps is not only the largest in Europe but the entire world. It is dotted with a handful of small, but significant, rivers. Because it extends into the Central European Plain one can walk all the way from the Ural Mountains in Russia to the North Sea, Flanders, or the Netherlands, without having to cross any major terrestrial obstacles.
The territory of today’s Ukraine is about 230 thousand square miles, that is around 85 percent of the size of Texas. This area is located on the plain mentioned above and comprises a mixture of uplands, lowlands, and ridges. The country is not home to any major mountains, except for the Crimean Mountains and Carpathians (which Russia has annexed).
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 Konigsberg (known as Kaliningrad since 1946), which is today the most militarized region in Europe. This strip of land was deemed to be Russian territory by geopolitical logic. It can put pressure on Poland and the Baltic States with its port that is ice-free. This is the area where Lithuanians are trying to blockade.
Looking at Russia’s South-West borders, it is hard to overstate the significance of the Black Sea. Snake Island is not a crucial port-city because of a dialogue between its Ukrainian defenders and some Russian warship. Along with the Crimean Peninsula, it is an important strategic location for controlling ship movements and holding geopolitical benefits to its owner. It is not only a crucial crossroads for logistics and trade, but it allows access to the Mediterranean Sea which gives it the ability to expand its control over key regions like the Caucasus or the Middle East.
It is important to consider the perilous times of Russian history that have been ingrained into the Russian soul. This does not mean that Ukraine isn’t prone to tragedies. It is not easy to tell the story of Eastern Europe, especially its past century. Russia has many neighbors who have a deep fear of the “Big Bear” and this is a valid reason. Russia, the most populous country on the planet, is a major nuclear power and has a strong economic system that can support itself. It also has a state-on-state war in Europe, something it has done for decades. Understanding the present events requires a detailed analysis of Russia’s historical experiences.
Modern Russia traces its ancestry back to the Kievan Rus’. This was the first state that united several Slavic tribes and had its capital at Kiev. The Mongol invasion of the 13th century ended this state. It resulted the destruction of most major cities including its capital. Although the “Mongol yoke”, which lasted for a while, the next great invasion came not too far. 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, Bonaparte was inspired by the Poles, although there was another war. 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.
Russia’s paranoia was not helped by the last century. Adolf Hitler, a Nazi dictator and keen observer of geography, correctly noticed that there were no natural boundaries up the Urals for the Soviet Union and so he created the border at the mountain range connecting Asia and the future German Empire. Nazi Germany’s strategic goal was to reach the Ural during the invasion of 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 Mihaly Nanay has argued in an essay for the journal Rubicon. Russia is militarily weak at her Western frontier. Even with all the technological advances, geographic boundaries remain the best way to defend oneself. The war in Afghanistan is a good example of this. Russia will not give up control over the land she regards as vital to her country’s future. She will also never leave the places that can easily be attacked. While this isn’t to say NATO will ever wage war against Russia, it does mean that perceived threats can sometimes be just as valid reasons for quick actions than real ones.
Russia could only be controlled by strong leaders if it had a few natural defence lines. A political view of Russian history might lead you to think that Russia today cannot be identified with the Soviet Union. It can, in fact, serve as a justification for Putin’s ideologies. Many consider Putin to be the symbol 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 that he had the right to create new boundaries in the world as a global statesman. Stalin was clearly upset by the attempts of lesser men, from less powerful states to use this power. […] Stalin, the Border-maker had decided the question against them […] Because there was only limited territory around the globe, Stalin considered the exercise of control over that territory to be competitive. […] had to decide who won and lost in this zero-sum match.
According to Hungarian Russia-expert Attila Demko of MCC, Putin doesn’t care about money or power anymore; he wants to fulfil a historical role. He wants to be the one who resurrects Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was for Russian nationalism not just the fall of communist dictatorship but also the collapse of the Russian Empire. Parts of what they considered Russian territory were lost. It isn’t necessarily all of the former empire. For example, Azerbaijan and Armenia were abandoned. But they do want Crimea and Novorossiya where today’s war takes place, as well as Belarus. […] Putin would like a new Yalta. A new agreement between Russia and the West.” We can see Putin, much like Stalin, bending the map of the globe and drawing new boundaries and lines that would define his country’s past.
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This was what my native Hungary saw when the Soviet Union annexed Transcarpathia. It had not been part of Russia before. 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. It could have been of interest to Stalin.
As two Hungarian authors, Istvan Vida and Bela Zseliczky explained: “Transcarpathia was important to the Soviet Union primarily for military-strategic and security policy reasons. As a border, the Carpathian Mountains were a defense line and natural boundary. It would have been easy to establish a settlement in these mountains if the superpower had a large land area. However, due to the absence of infrastructure and roads, it was logical for the military to construct a bridgehead to connect the Carpathians to their other side. It was considered that the area was located near Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.
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. The simple, propaganda-like explanation of Putin as a “mad man” who is determined to kill all Ukrainians because he’s “critically ill”, misses its point. Russia is convinced that some physical and material realities are still important in the efforts to secure a country’s future, whether it be gold, weaponry, manpower or energy. It is something that many in Europe and America seem to have lost sight of.