Whenever I find myself in a situation where I need to understand a place–be it a small barangay or a giant continent– I find myself looking for a map. The first question that I always ask is: How has geography played a role in the development of this place and its people?
Think of geography as the unchanging chessboard of politics. It does not determine how the pieces on the board will move. But like how the pawn structure affects the flow of a chess game, geography affects the contours and constraints of international politics. As leaders come and go, the pieces may change and ideologies shift; but the chessboard always remains.
So, when Russia began its controversial war on Ukraine– first by recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, and then by launching a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine– the first thing I did was to look at a map. Why Ukraine?
To the west of the landmass known as the Russian Federation, there is a portion of land known as the European Plain- the eastern portion of which includes the states of Belarus and Ukraine. The European plain is a large expanse of flat land with a maritime climate, which makes it suitable for agriculture to this day. However, the absence of mountains also makes it a suitable entry point for invasion– particularly into Russia.
In fact, this fear of invasion from the west was the primary story of Russia in its early days. As explained by Tim Marshall, in his article “Russia and the Curse of Geography”, Russia was once only a small group of tribes known as the Kievan Rus, which was based in the city of Kiev. Over the years, invasions by Mongol warriors overpowered the Kievan Rus and forced them to move to Moscow.
Starting with Ivan the Terrible, generations of Tsars began to expand Russia’s territory outwards, making its land so large as to be impossible to invade. This includes an expansion towards the Carpathian Mountains to the west, conquering Ukraine, Lithuania, Lativia and Estonia. Many foreign powers attempted to enter Russia to through its weak point, the European plains; but they would always be defeated by the long supply lines required as well as the cold Russian winters.
By the end of World War II, the influence of Russia- under the Soviet Union- would eventually reached as far as East Germany, Poland and Romania, turning into a superpower to rival the United States. This, of course, includes Ukraine.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, several states became independent republics. Many of these states share a border with modern Russia. According to Emad Kaddorah, in his article “Flashpoint Ukraine”, these states serve as a de facto “buffer zone” which contains the spread of Russian influence to the West: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. The United States and Europe exercise their influence on these countries through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union (EU).
But why did Russia act so violently towards the possibility of Ukraine falling under Western influence? We will need to visit this story in part 2.