THIS isn’t meant as an endorsement of Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine but as an attempt to understand the historical factors that led to this conflict. Given the limitations, this will focus only on the peculiar dilemma — the strategic paranoia — that has plagued Russia from the time of the first czar. Such an endeavour must of course be rooted in a dispassionate viewing of Russia’s history and geography because, in many important ways, the latter dictates the former.
Let’s examine the central irony of this situation: the world’s largest country lacks strategic depth. Russia’s story, in many ways, begins with Kyiv. Sometime in the 9th century the Viking ruler of Novgorod seized the cities of Smolensk and Kyiv and the loose federation of Slavic tribes that inhabited these towns became known as the Kyivan Rus. When the Mongols invaded in the 13th century, the Principality of Kyiv was destroyed but the name of the Rus survived, eventually becoming known as the Russians.
This is also when the previously small and insignificant town of Moscow begins to gain importance even as it quickly came under the Mongol yoke. When the Mongol empire fragmented, Moscow was strengthened by the Golden Horde — a successor khanate — as a bulwark against the growing power of the duchy of Lithuania.
This strengthened Moscow. In time, it became the spearhead that drove back the Mongols, resulting in the expansion of this proto-Russia, known then as the Grand Principality of Moscow.
The world’s largest country lacks strategic depth.
Quickly, a strategic dilemma became clear: this fledgling state was effectively indefensible; there were no mountains or significant rivers or geographical barriers of any kind that could deter future invaders. And so, under Czar Ivan (known in the West as Ivan the Terrible) began the process of attacking to defend, the policy of expansion for survival.
Given that the immediate threat then was from the south and east, this is the main direction in which Ivan expanded, eventually reaching the natural barrier of the Urals in the east and the Caucasus in the south, establishing a military base in what is now Chechnya.
But the west remained a problem, and this became painfully evident when Poland, sometimes in alliance with Lithuania, mounted a series of invasions from 1605 AD to 1618 in which several Russian cities were captured and Moscow was briefly occupied.
A century later came the Swedes under Charles XII, who followed much the same route as the Poles had and reached as far as Belarus. Here we see the Russians adopt the policy that would stymie future invaders: scorched earth, continuous retreat and ambushes.
That’s exactly what Napoleon faced in 1812 when he took his Grande Armée — a confederation of armies from French-occupied Europe and its vassals — into Russia. Again, Moscow was occupied but far from ending the conflict this only resulted in an exhausted and broken Napoleonic army staggering back in defeat, plagued by raids and the unforgiving Russian winter.
Then, as if according to some doom-laden timetable, came the Germans in the next century: first in World War I under the Kaiser and then in World War II under Hitler. And we all know how that ended.
Why is it so easy to invade Russia from the west? Quite simply this is because the Great European Plain, which stretches from France to the Urals, offers no resistance or natural barriers; it is flat land which invites — and then usually swallows up — invaders, albeit at great cost to Russia. Take a look at Soviet casualties in World War II alone and you’ll get a glimpse of the cost borne in repelling these attacks.
And so, from Peter the Great onwards, just about all Russian leaders have embraced a policy of expansion for defence; a policy of creating a buffer, and then a buffer for the buffer. This reached its apex after World War II when Moscow’s network of buffers — the Warsaw Pact — stretched all the way to Central Europe.
But then the USSR fell apart and in 1991 Russia found itself shorn of its defences and reduced to its pre-war borders. At the mercy of the victorious West, Gorbachev tried to negotiate a bargain with then US secretary of state James Baker that Nato would not expand further eastwards. Reports show that he did receive some vague assurances but those didn’t exactly turn out to be binding. Yeltsin, for all his faults, also tried to win a similar bargain but to no avail. Instead, Nato expanded to reach Russia’s borders, triggering the historical paranoia of Russia’s rulers.
Even then, had Ukraine remained in the Russian orbit it may have been acceptable to Moscow. But the 2014 Maidan protests put an end to that and it is no coincidence that this is when Russia annexes Crimea and then applies the ‘Georgia formula’ to the rest of Ukraine. What if this country too joined Nato? Putin thus calculated that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action and that sanctions in the short-term are acceptable for long-term survival.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2022