By Pranav Jain
As the Russian Federation continues the resurge following its drastic diminution from the days of the Cold War, Russia’s hard-handed political approach continues to raise questions about the motivation for such a belligerent foreign policy. The raison d’être for such a policy, however, makes sense as soon as one catches a glance of a map of the modern Russian state and takes into account the history of the Russians in the past century.
Role of geographical borders
From a security viewpoint, one of the best assets a nation can have is a geographical barrier that doubles as a boundary for the country. Such an arrangement has ensured the security of numerous superpowers in the past and continues to do so in the present. The United States is insulated by two oceans, a frigid and friendly northern neighbour, and another ally to the south with an arid desert border to hamper any potential aggression from Central America.
The British Empire had the advantage of being able to control access to its home islands through the English Channel, which could easily be protected by an adequate nation like Britain. It posed an obstacle so insurmountable that no major army, ranging from Napoleon’s Grand Armée to Hitler’s dreaded Wehrmacht, could overcome this barrier. The Qing Empire was able to flourish for two centuries as an unchallenged Asian power due to the Himalayas and the tropical forests along its southern border, the mountain ranges to its north-west, and the then insurmountable waters of the Indian Ocean and China Sea acting as impediments to any foreign force.
The Russian disadvantage
The Russian state, however, has historically lacked such natural boundaries, especially with nations that tended to be its main political rivals. Traditionally Russia has concerned itself as a European power, and has, therefore, had its politics tied to those of the nations to its west. However, the only geographic feature worth noting between historical Russia and Europe has been the Great European Plain, a relatively flat swath of land stretching from Northern France all the way to the Ural mountains. Such a geographic feature enables aggressive movement, and its remarkable width across the entirety of non-NATO Europe only works in favour of an aggressor in the region.
This arrangement has worked against Russia on numerous occasions. They have had to counter invasions from Poland in 1605, Sweden in 1707, Napoleon in 1812, the British in the Crimean War of the 1850s, and from primarily German forces in both the World Wars. In half of these incidents, Moscow itself was occupied by the invading force. Worse still, the Soviet state was only able to survive the onslaught of the Axis in the Second World War because of the sheer number of citizens tossed into battle, and in part due to the Soviet scorched earth strategy. These strategies led to the death of an estimated 26,600,000 people on the Soviet side and impacted about 60 per cent of the industrial production capacity of the Soviet Union.
Challenges faced by Russia
Such historical events have affected the Russian strategic viewpoint regarding its western frontier, and have led to the adoption of a traditional policy of maintaining a buffer zone to its west. Such a buffer is viewed as a valuable real estate that could be sacrificed to an invading force so that the nation might be able to prepare for a counter-offensive. Hence the Russian state looks towards friendly countries on its border to act as such buffers. As a result, one sees constant attempts by Russia to extend its influence to nations on its Western front, ranging from the friendly Belarus to the Baltic NATO constituents it shares its borders with.
In addition to this security element, another curse of Russian geography is the comparative lack of control that Russia has over its trade routes. Given Russia’s location at such high latitudes, it has historically had very few warm water port cities that can handle naval traffic, such as St Petersburg and Volgograd. However, the Russian state lacks control over the security of the trade routes that lead to these cities. For example, all maritime trade through St Petersburg must flow through one of the three Danish Straits, which vary from widths between 2 to 18 kilometres at their narrowest, and which are jointly owned by Germany, Denmark and Sweden, putting the majority of these channels under direct NATO oversight. A similar problem is encountered with the port city of Vladivostok, as all naval traffic to this port must go through either the Korean Straits between Japan and North Korea or the disputed waters between Japan and Russia. The latter consist of a 20 kilometre wide straight between the Japanese home islands and the disputed South Kuril Islands. Even future trade to the developing port cities on the Crimean Sea will need to go through the Bosporus Straits, which is under Turkish control and is narrower than a kilometre at places. As a result, one can see how such a lack of security with regards to maritime trade has historically been a hindrance for Russian economic growth and has also put the Russian economy sometimes at the mercy of its rivals.
Present scenario and the future
However, a potential counter has arisen with regards to trade insecurity in recent times, as an unexpected consequence of global warming. Receding ice levels in the Arctic Sea have resulted in increased viability of commercial shipping via the Arctic. As a result, the Russian government has started to prepare for the launch of the Northern Sea Route, which would see a trade route through Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and which would actually be shorter than a path via the Suez Canal for any shipping between Europe and East Asia. This arrangement allows for a Russian tanker to commute from Norway to South Korea in a record-breaking 22 days via this trade route without any accompanying icebreakers in August earlier this year, compared to the usual 32-day journey via the Suez Canal.
While this may act as a way to alleviate concerns about Russian trade routes and their security, the perceived security threat at its Western borders continues to increase. The recent decision by NATO to recognise three aspiring members: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Macedonia will only serve to increase tensions between the two blocks, and will be seen by Russia as aggressive reaction from the West to some of its recent activities. This comes at a time when Russia is dealing with the ramifications of the war in the Donbass in its former client state of Ukraine, and with renewed interest in NATO from various Nordic nations, such developments will allow for Vladimir Putin to continue painting his actions as merely defensive to his countrymen.
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