I tried, I tried and I tried. Believe me, my best efforts were exerted in attempting to write an article on Russian geopolitics without mentioning the World Cup yet it is seemingly impossible. Every once in a while, an event of vast global and political relevance occurs that warrants a discussion in the West about our relationship with the great medved (bear) from the annexation of Crimea to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal to the World Cup. In this, my second attempt at understanding the inner workings of a BRICS nation, I ask whether these provocations between Russia and the West have anything to do with geography or can the reasoning be laid solely at the door of national chauvinism.
In order to understand Russia’s foreign policy, particularly in the Putin era post-2008, one must begin to think of Russia as a breathing body politik, a vast corporation, respiring as any human being does. In freezing weather, the first reaction of any human being is to surround their vital organs with as much thick clothing as possible. Now you have Russia’s foreign policy regarding its immediate neighbors. Through the doctrine of surrounding Moscow with as much Russian land as possible, the Great Bear has been able to thwart the invasions of both Hitler and Napoleon, men who know at least a little about conquering Europe.
This is an issue that will never be fixed as long as Russia and the USA are still considered as the two diametrically opposed global powers. After all, it’s NATO, an organisation set up in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War’s beginning, that continues to provoke these knee-jerk reactions from Moscow. One might argue that simply annexing a part of land as small as Crimea or stationing Russian troops in Georgia is hardly a large land grab in Russia’s quest for wool to wrap around Moscow. Nevertheless, it has severe implications for anyone in the Russian sphere of influence. After the break-up of the USSR and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Russia has had to find new ways to keep its heart beating in the cold.
Russia relies on Ukraine to maintain the geographical wedge in the North European Plain, the same wedge which thwarted the supply lines of Hitler and Napoleon. Ukraine’s allegiance to Moscow means that there is an added buffer zone against a rapidly expanding European Union into which Montenegro and Serbia close to acceding in 2020 and Albania and Macedonia are not far off. EU membership is very much viewed as a precursor for NATO membership and this will not stand in Moscow. This is why Putin forced Yanukovych’s hand in 2014 and why he decided to move into the peninsula in the immediate aftermath whilst chaos subsumed Kiev.
As is so often the case in geopolitics, the sea plays a huge role in determining Russia’s actions abroad. Putin loosely argued, while annexing Crimea, that Russia had a constitutional obligation to defend ethnic Russians in the peninsula, a group of people that manifested there after years of purges and forced migrations during the Stalin era. However, Crimea also has access to one thing; the Black Sea. And what does the Black Sea have? Warm water. Russia has major ports in the form of Vladivostok to the East and Murmansk to the North but these are incredibly impractical because they both freeze over during the winter.
A country the size of Russia, if it is to survive economically and militarily, cannot afford to lose out on trade and easy naval access during a large proportion of the year. This is why Sevastopol, a port in- you guessed it- Crimea, is so important to Vladimir Putin and a part of the reason why the relationship between himself and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasbecome so warm. He needs to get into the Black Sea and a fully paid up member of NATO in the form Ukraine would most likely deny him this access, rather than roll over like the faithful gun dog it has become for post-Soviet Russia. Tim Marshall, the author of Prisoners of Geography, argues that warm water has played an historic part in Russia’s foreign policy, including the Soviet Union’s very own Vietnam, its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He quotes the ultra-nationalist Soviet politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky who believed that the Russian army had a dream of being able to ‘wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean’.
While he is playing ‘attack as defence’ by either invading in the West or merely interfering in it, Vladimir Putin simply attacks to the South. You need only look at footage of bottled water being poured into the eyes of chemically assaulted Syrian children in a desperate attempt to clean them out or the numerous aeroplanes that have been shot down or the close relationship being formed with another ethno-centric warmonger in the form of Iran. The question we now ask, particularly as many of the former Warsaw Pact nations such as Poland and Hungary slip back into autocracy, is whether a peaceful Russian democracy is a failed experiment or whether it is still finding its feet in the post-Soviet era. I would suggest that, while geography is constant, the history that it has created is now repeating itself with worrying speed and consequences.