|A solider precides over the annual Victory Day parade on Red Square, Moscow. (EPA/Sergei Chirikov)|
On April 23, Ukrainian security forces resumed operations against separatists in the regions of Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and other cities in the regions of Luhandsk and Donetsk. The response is largely due to the occupation of pro-Russian activists who have occupied key administration buildings in over a dozen Ukrainian cities. Once more, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Kiev is not doing enough to disarm illegal groups in Eastern Ukraine. While the illegal armed activity in Eastern Ukraine indicates to Moscow-leaning, the pushes made by Lavrov indicate that Moscow is not entirely sympathetic.
For Russia, Ukraine is a strategic necessity. It has been a necessary entity of Russian foreign policy as far back as the 17th century, when the Russian Empire aimed to integrate Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, Central Asia and Siberia. Under the Tsardom of Russia, the core principality of Muscovy possessed little resources -- it was through pursuing eastward, the conquest of Siberia, for the conquest of fur that it became the overarching Eurasia giant that it is today.
The St.Petersburg-Moscow axis was the core of this growing empire. With it, Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia occupied the centre of mass of the empire, possessing important agricultural settlements and crucially a buffer to foreign entities on the road to Moscow.
The vast geographical territory that Russia occupies on a glance of an Atlas is intimidating. Once more, it has done so without having been the prosperous nation. The Russian empire was powerful – but it wasn’t prosperous. The Soviet Union was powerful, but it wasn’t prosperous either; whilst military and economic constitute power, Russia has never exceeded its opponents in either. Yet, Russia remains undefeated in the face of invasion – Napoleon and Hitler tried and failed, partly due to failure on the invaders end and partly due to the defender’s strategy.
In order to explore this, it is important to examine the crucial factor as to why Russia is not as prosperous. Firstly, the regions occupying Ukraine and Russia enjoy some of the finest agricultural land in Europe. The Russian Empire made it a priority to economically integrate the farmlands of Ukraine into the Russian economy and reap the harvest that the lands produced. Moreover, it wished to supply the rest of the empire from the Ukrainian source of harvest. However, this came with a caveat.
The caveat lies predominately in Russia’s geography. From the North European Plain, it is navigable. However, from the more southern-eastern regions of Russia, upon the borderlands of the empire, the geography is difficult and establishing infrastructure was troublesome. The struggle to redistribute agricultural goods across the economy lies in the fact that transportation was difficult.
For other regions such as the United States and Germany, these nations benefited profusely by having an interconnected river network that allowed fast, cheap redistribution of goods and trade across the region. Economic integration relied primarily on the investment and construction of railways during the 18th and 19th centuries in order to economically integrate the vast territory.
Adapting to geographical constraints
The inherent weakness of economic integration led principally to the underdevelopment of the Empire and the Soviet Union, there relative weaknesses and constraints meant they were unable to compete with Western Europe. More so, the emphasis on lower-development between regions was the source of economic motivation to integrate with one another. This was achieved concurrently with the main aim of Russia to maintain and incorporate the greater regions into the core of Moscow. Whilst economics may have been one main reason for amalgamation of various nationalities, regions and provinces under one empire and union, another main reason is security and Moscow’s institutions.
Geopolitics has the inherent trait of being ubiquitous throughout history, wielding the ability to constrain and empower nations. Geography cannot be moulded – a state must mould and adapt to geographical constraints and advantages it has bequeathed. In 2005, Vladimir Putin stated that the greatest “geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What Putin is referring to are the institutions and practices that allowed the Soviet Union to remain unified. Namely, this was the security apparatus that provided the arc for which Moscow was able to craft policy and suppress internal power struggles, both in the capital and in the greater regions.
This was not unique to the Soviet Union – Russian Empire possessed a vast counterintelligence network anchored to suppress political dissidents and opposition to the Tsar rule. For over two centuries, the Russian intelligence network remained the most efficient, actionable and modern institution. The claim by Moscow for it to be the core of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union consistently had an underbelly of opposition. Whether it is through religious, ethnic or national grounds, there was a rationale to challenge the core. Moscow had created and maintained a state inherently artificial in retrospect to its Western European counterparts.
An overarching ideology has been a defining feature of the empire and the union. In the Russian Empire, the Russian Orthodox Church provided the framework and supplemented the security apparatus which provided the justification for the structure. Together, the Russian Orthodox Church and the security apparatus sought to identify political and religious dissidents, which they did to great success.
The transformation from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union concurrently transformed the ideological narrative for which enhanced the security apparatus. Marxist-Leninism, theoretically, was more efficient for the Soviet Union. Firstly, it was hostile to all religions – where the Russian Orthodox Church may create rift between competition religious factions, Marxist-Leninism was hostile to them all. Secondly, it was indifferent to many various ethnicities and nations that populated the state.
The security apparatus was and is instrumental for systematically maintaining power in Moscow. A persistent threat for Moscow has always been internal and external. Internally, it does not enjoy the fruits of nation-state building. It consistently must monitor and react to separatist movements which wish to break away from the control of Moscow. Externally, it is geographically indefensible. Russia possesses no geographical natural barriers to preclude it from invasion. The road to Moscow is the North European Plain, a favourable invasion highway of fertile and relatively flat land that can aid standing armies and battalions at brisk pace upon the march to the capital.
To navigate the internal and external security discrepancies, power in Russia has traditionally been autocratic. The security of Russia is inherently fragile; autocracy, repression and control are of paramount importance to sustain Russian national security. The political agility that an autocracy provides stems Russia’s historical acquisition of this style of governance. It is rooted in the Russian psychological fear of insecurity whereby the weaknesses are recognized and only manageable – they are inherently unfixable.
The Soviet Union managed the internal and external challenges with success. It achieved great territorial gains in the Second World War and its reach expanded westward to Central Europe, installing a government moulded by the Kremlin’s vision in East Germany. The creation of the Warsaw Pact is arguably the first instance where Russia’s strategic necessity had been fully successful. Where the Russian Empire could not fully control and project power over Eastern Europe, Napoleon sought to invade and conquer. Once more, Operation Barbarossa aimed to exploit the geographical weaknesses of the road to Moscow to conquer the Soviet Union. Both invasions ran into difficulty by the elaborate use of buffer zones that were instrumental in Moscow’s defence.
By 1945, the Soviet Union had achieved total defence of its frontiers with the creation of interlaying buffer zones matched with an offensive posture on Western Europe. While there were plans, to invade the Soviet Union would have been tremendously difficult and categorically pyrrhic if such an invasion was to occur by any angle.
Therefore, it is easy to understand why the fall of the Soviet Union was seen as a geopolitical disaster for Russia. It had lost its former borders which solidified and provided security for the core of Russia. Once more, the security apparatus which held the regions together ultimately imploded. The fall of the Soviet Union damaged and questioned the traditional institutions that preceded Russia for centuries.
It was then when political commentators such as Francis Fukuyama envisaged an “End of History” scenario in which the wars of ideology were a thing of the past and that liberal democracy would preserve without resistance. In hindsight, we see that the Russian system, whether Marxist-Leninist or monarchic, the ideology perpetrated was subservient to geopolitical interest.
After 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation under Yeltsin travelled into what was known as “The chaos”. From 1991-2000, the Russian Federation underwent a period of great difficulty. It had lost its former frontiers in Ukraine and Central Asia, it had engulfed itself into a failing counterinsurgency in Chechnya in 1995, oligarchs began to monopolize the energy and services sectors of the economy, it had been humiliated in Kosovo by having its opposition to the war ignored and poverty increased coupled with economic inequality and unemployment rose to dangerous levels.
It is clear that the liberal experiment under Yeltsin has failed. In 2000, Vladimir Putin came into office with a clear objective of resuming the working institutions that allowed the weaknesses of Russia’s geopolitical position to be managed. During the 00s, Putin systematically restored power back to the core of Moscow through judicial and executive reform, revitalizing the security apparatus. Furthermore, using the aforementioned security apparatus, he was able to pull the oligarchs under the Kremlin’s control and has taken steps to bolster Russia’s power in the international stage, both to regional neighbours and greater rivals.
However, a great challenge to Putin in the 21st century is internal legitimacy. Nationalist drives may win the support in the regions surrounding Moscow but Russia inhabits an incredibly diverse spectrum of ethnicities, driven by different historical traditions and contrasting political destinies. Internal legitimacy comes from the promise of security and prosperity. The latter more contentious but this promise is fuelled by the premise of a strong Russia that is able to project power in Eurasia. To do this, Putin has adopted a framework of using Russia as an industrial power – an exporter of raw materials, namely natural gas, to systematically entrench influence and dependence with Central and Eastern Europe.
Ukraine, an artificial nation, is polarized. For Russia to be able to project power in Eurasia and for it to be a regional power, let alone a global one, it must have Ukraine. Ukraine has been the traditional hub and centre of mass for the preceding Russian empire and union. It is also the transport hub for Russia’s exportation of natural gas into Central Europe. Once more, Ukraine possesses a heavily integrated economic industrial base which Russia benefits, particularly in Eastern Ukraine.
Therefore, a challenge to Ukraine is a challenge to Russian national security. In 2004, the Orange Revolution, in the eyes of Moscow, represented a challenge to Russia’s national security. It was seen that the United States was intending to segment the Russian Federation through the use of nongovernmental organizations to promote pro-Western governments with the objective of joining the EU and NATO.
For Putin, this was unacceptable and it challenged his internal legitimacy. Therefore, Putin had to show regions such as Ukraine that Russia was a major regional power while exposing the United States’ lack of commitment to integrating Eastern Europe into the United States’ umbrella. Georgia, a client-state of the United States, was invaded in 2008. The Russo-Georgian was executed at a time where the United States had engaged its state and military forces and services in the Middle East – Eastern Europe was not part of its periphery.
The 2014 Ukrainian uprisings have represented similar challenges to Putin’s leadership. However, Putin has responded forcefully, on the tail of a defensive strategy to consolidate Ukraine. The invasion of Crimea and annexation is a testament to Russia’s commitment to maintaining its frontiers by applying pressure on Kiev. In some ways, it’s undermined itself by taking a vast portion of pro-Russian voters in Crimea out of the Kiev central government electoral pool, weakening a pro-Russian opposition. However, inaction is more costly for Putin. Inaction leaves a vacuum of speculation and room to challenge Putin’s neo-Czarist rule – where the Kremlin is in continuous battle with internal strife, any challenges to the core of Russia is extremely detrimental. Putin must utilize the tools of his autocratic predecessors in order to navigate Russia’s geopolitical struggle and execute its strategic imperatives.