Note: I read this book in 2016, the year after it was published. Given current events, I decided to reread Chapter 1: Russia.
Russia is vast, writes Marshall.
It is the vastest. Immense. It is six-million-square-miles vast, eleven time zones vast; it is the largest country in the world...
To the west of the Ural Mountains is European Russia. To their east is Siberia, stretching all the way to the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Even in the twenty-first century, to cross it by train takes six days.
You might think no one is going to invade Russia but that isn’t how the Russians think, writes Marshall, beginning with Ivan the Terrible in 1533 on down to Vladimir Putin today. There is a lot of history to back that belief, including but not limited to the Mongols, Napoleon and both World Wars. When the USSR fell apart in 1989, it took only 15 years for all the former Warsaw Pact nations to join NATO and/or the EU, which made Russia all the more nervous. Geography is Russia’s biggest asset and its biggest liability, from the immense and immensely flat North European Plain providing easy access to enemy tanks, to mountain ranges in all the wrong places. If only the Urals ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The want of a warm water port, too, also drives much of their long term strategic thinking and has since Peter the Great.
Sevastopol is Russia’s only true major warm-water port. However, access out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean is restricted by the Montreux Convention of 1936, which gave Turkey–now a NATO member–control of the Bosporus. Russian naval ships do transit the strait, but in limited numbers, and this would not be permitted in the event of conflict. Even after crossing the Bosporus the Russians need to navigate the Aegean Sea before accessing the Mediterranean, and would still have either to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to gain access to the Atlantic Ocean, or be allowed down the Suez Canal to reach the Indian Ocean.
Imagine if the US Navy had to navigate a labyrinth like that to access the Pacific Ocean.
Historically, every tsar from Ivan to Stalin has deliberately seeded their border regions with Russian citizens, which is why it was so easy for Putin to take Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 and for the West to ignore his incursions.
Approximately 60 percent of Crimea’s population is “ethnically Russian,” so the Kremlin was pushing against an open door. Putin helped the anti-Kiev demonstrations and stirred up so much trouble that eventually he “had” to send his troops out of the confines of the naval base and onto the streets to protect people.
It is evidently also why he thought Ukrainians would welcome him with open arms in 2022.
I could keep typing excerpts but go find the book and read it for yourself. It explains how we got here, and, unfortunately, where we’re going if Putin isn’t stopped.
Moldova presents a different problem for all sides. An attack on the country by Russia would necessitate crossing through Ukraine…Although it might not trigger war with NATO (Moldova is not a member), it would provoke sanctions against Moscow at a level hitherto unseen [remember, this book was published seven years ago], and confirm what this writer believes to already be the case; that the cooling relationship between Russia and the West is already the New Cold War.
From the Grand Principality of Muscovy, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist or crony capitalist–the ports still freeze, and the North European Plain is still flat.
Realpolitik through geography. Highly recommended.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.