‘Russia so full of different peoples, that it needs Belarus and Ukraine to maintain its Slavic identity.’

Anxiety, geography and Russia’s quest for Ukraine

David Patrikarakos

David Patrikarakos on the motives behind the country’s pervasive desire to expand

01 December 2018 17:01

Not for nothing is Belarus known as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’. Its President, Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. The media is almost totally government controlled and elections are routinely, and brazenly, rigged. The Belarusian state has little shame. Indeed, it appears almost to revel in its moniker. Even Russia thought the acronym ‘KGB’ a tad tainted and renamed its principle intelligence service the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation). Belarus, it seems, just stuck with what worked. 

Earlier this year, I was in the Belarusian capital. Patrikarakos’s third law holds that the freedom of a country can be measured in inverse proportion to the cleanliness of its streets. Minsk was spotless. 

I was there to meet with dissident (near-underground in fact) journalists battling the torrent of Russian disinformation that floods their country’s old and new media. I have long been monitoring this flow across Eastern Europe, as it intensifies year on year, seeking both to divide the EU and to prevent states that Russia considers within its ‘sphere of influence’ from drawing closer to the West. But in two countries it is the most intense. 

As I sat in a glinting bar, decorated in a style best described as ‘vague American Rock’, listening to 80s music, my interlocutor leaned over and drunkenly explained.  ‘What you have to understand,’ he told me, ‘is that Russia so full of different peoples, that it needs Belarus and Ukraine to maintain its Slavic identity. Without these two countries under Moscow influence or – as that bastard [Vladimir Putin] would prefer – attached to it, there is no possibility of uniting the region under the ideology of pan-Slavism. We [Belarus] are small, but without us, Russia is in trouble. And without Ukraine,’ he continued, ‘there is no Russia.’ 

‘Russia so full of different peoples, that it needs Belarus and Ukraine to maintain its Slavic identity.’

Last Sunday, Russian naval forces attacked two Ukrainian gunboats and one tugboat. Russia captured the three ships and 27 Ukrainian sailors; Kyiv called it an act of war. Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) has since voted to introduce martial law for the first time since the conflict with Moscow began in 2014. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting in which US Ambassador Nikki Haley called the incident ‘yet another reckless Russian escalation’ and urged the Kremlin to release the sailors. 

The act may be the most flagrant Russian attack on Ukraine so far. Yet it remains merely the latest in a litany of many, during a conflict between the two nations that has continued for almost half a decade and is a war in everything but name.  

But what lies behind Russia’s unceasing aggression toward Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Eastern European states? Politics is, of course, central. Ukraine’s 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution overthrew the pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych when he decided, at the last minute, to reject Ukraine – European Union Association Agreement that would have brought the country closer to the EU and away from Russia. Under pressure from Moscow, Yanukovych chose instead to join Russia’s customs union and the people revolted, eventually toppling him. For the Kremlin, this was unacceptable. Military action ensued.  

The question is why? Russia openly rejects the idea of a Ukraine in the EU or NATO. But both organisations are already at its borders in the form of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland (not to mention the outright Western-aligned states of Norway and Finland). Certainly, Putin also didn’t like a revolution next-door standing as a possible example to his own people. But many revolutions – most recently in Armenia – have happened in Eastern Europe since the fall of the USSR. What makes Ukraine so different that Russia has invested billions of dollars, thousands of troops, hundreds of lives and tonnes of military hardware in order to destabilize it?

The answer lies in Russian history, which in turn is defined by its geography. Under Putin, geography has returned to the Kremlin with a vengeance. And so, in Ukraine, one finds the story of Russia.  

What lies behind Russia’s unceasing aggression toward Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Eastern European states?

Like the ancient gods, geography both blesses and curses. The United States is a vast landmass – protected by an ocean on each side – that lies between only the sparsely populated and peace-loving Canada to its north, and the far weaker Mexico to its south. It is blessed. For Russia, the story is somewhat different. Russia is the world’s largest country – it borders both Europe and Asia. It has eleven time zones and the distance from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok is over 6,000 miles – or a quarter of the earth’s circumference. Size matters, for it has given Russia strength, making it a historically imperialist power – and therein lies Moscow’s problem. 

Russia is the ultimate land power. It has no clear access to the sea, with ice blocking the Arctic Ocean to its north for most of the year, while Vladivostok’s port on the Pacific is deep in Asia and more within Tokyo’s sphere of influence. Critically, it also lacks (or did lack) a warm-water port.  

But worse is the steppe. To its west and east, it rolls on interminably. Stretching from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, and all the way to Manchuria, this endless, flat expanse melds with endless, flat horizon. This geographical curse has meant that, throughout its history, Russia suffered repeated invasions. From the European Plain in the West came both Napoleon and Hitler, to name but two. But the most formative for the Russian psyche was in the thirteenth century when Kievan Rus fell prey to the Golden Horde of the Mongols flooding in on horseback from the east. Kievan Rus, a loose conglomerate of Slavic tribes based in what is now Ukraine, is where the very idea of Russia first emerged. For many, like Putin and those who surround him, deep in their consciousness is the belief that the country is incomplete without Ukraine. 

 The Mongol conquest was brutal. Consequently, as noted by Robert Kaplan in The Revenge of Geography: What The Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts And The Battle Against Fate (2012), Russia ‘became perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory, or at least dominating its contiguous shadow zones….For Russians, mindful of the devastation wrought by the Golden Horde of the Mongols, geography means simply that without expansion there is the danger of being overrun.’  

Like the ancient gods, geography both blesses and curses.

Throughout its history, Russia has expanded only to be forced back again. First came Kievan Rus’s expansion in the ninth century, before its fall to the Mongols in the middle of the thirteenth, which forced Russia to relocate to the virtually indefensible medieval Muscovy. Muscovy lacked the natural defences of large waters or, crucially, the most conservative and protective force: mountains. In the sixteenth century, this, in turn, forced Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first great conqueror, to hack his way outwards in all directions to find warm water and the topography necessary for security. And here is Russia’s perennial paradox: in its eyes, only by expansion can it defend itself.  

It expanded and was forced back again twice under the Romanov dynasty, that ruled from 1613-1917, before finally, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, being reduced a final time after previous expansion. From the founding of the USSR in 1922, Moscow gobbled up the CIS republics, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, the Baltic States and, of course, Ukraine. When it fell, Russia was reduced to a smaller size than at any point in the previous two centuries.   

After a decade of Wild West politics, in which Russia imploded into market economics, Putin emerged to restore some form of order to the chaotic gangster state that was early post-Soviet Russia. He turned tumultuous gangsterism into (reasonably) orderly kleptocracy on the back of high energy prices, which kept the money flowing in. He offered the people a tacit deal: increased wealth and the benefits of a consumerist lifestyle in exchange for more authoritarian government. They accepted.  

Autocratic hyper-capitalism gave people flat screen TVs, but not much in the way of intellectual content. Nonetheless, they accepted it, as long as their lifestyles continued to improve. But a drop in the price of crude oil from around 2014 caused a loss of confidence in the Russian economy and sparked a rapid drop in the valuation of the ruble, causing Russia to go into recession. It did rebound, but the halcyon days of the early 2000s were over. Moscow was stuck. It needed to placate its people and do something to rectify its post-Soviet geographical weakness. Put simply, it needed to do what it had always done when weak:  expand. Only this time, Russia needed to expand in the post-World War II international order, where expansion – or more accurately colonialism and invasion – was politically unthinkable in Europe. At least, theoretically. 

Putin turned tumultuous gangsterism into (reasonably) orderly kleptocracy on the back of high energy prices.

Which meant Putin needed to justify Russian aggression. He seemingly settled – in part openly – on the theory of Eurasianism, an ideology long promulgated by the Russian fascist philosopher and political theorist, Aleksandr Dugin. He believes in a greater Russia built along cultural lines as wide as the expanded borders of the USSR, which would thus fulfill Russia’s purported manifest destiny of becoming a ‘civilization’ rather than remaining a country. 

Much has been made of Dugin’s influence on Putin, most of it likely exaggerated. What we do know is that, in 2011, Putin first openly outlined his views on a proposed Eurasian Economic Union, which called for ‘an even higher integration level in the Eurasian Union.’  

According to journalist and think tank researcher, Nicholas Trickett, from its inception, the EAEU was designed to create an alternative to the EU and to ‘prevent Ukraine from permanently drifting into a pro-western orbit.’ But it was Russia’s very desire to expand that made this impossible. 

Much has been made of Dugin’s influence on Putin, most of it likely exaggerated.

The series of events that began in 2014 has taught us many things. But above all, that in modern day Russia, twenty-first-century political doctrine is not based on who controls the means of production, but who controls the ports and the cities. Geography, or perhaps more correctly, geopolitics, once again reigns supreme.  Even before Ukraine, Russia had gone to open war with Georgia, another former Soviet state, supporting pro-Russia separatists in the South Ossetia region as it sought to dominate the states around it.  

In the Kremlin’s eyes, following the fall of the USSR – which Putin considers to be ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’ – Russia is drastically geographically exposed. This means it must regain, or at least be able to control, its former states – all filled with sizable shares of ethnic Russians – in the Caucasus, and Central Asia, as well as Belarus and above all, Ukraine. 

After the EuroMaidan Revolution, Russia wasted no time. In late February 2014, soldiers without any insignia marched into Crimea and seized the municipal buildings there. There were colloquially known as the ‘little green men’, dressed as they were in green camouflage and arriving unannounced and unidentifiable, as if from Mars. Soon they hoisted the Russian flag over the peninsula. Russia had a warm water port once again for the first time since 1991. 

Then came the de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine, as Russia sent troops and hardware streaming across the border to bolster the separatist movement it had, if not entirely created, certainly enabled. It was clear that Eurasianism, if never openly articulated, was at the centre of Putin’s thinking on events. More importantly, he was publicly using it to justify his aggressive actions. In this version of reality, Crimea was Russian (it had been historically) and Moscow was merely acting to protect ethnic Russians under threat from Kyiv. ‘The Russian and Ukrainian peoples,’ Putin publicly declared, ‘are practically one single people.’ Strikingly, he referred to the Russia-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine as ‘the militia of Novorossiya’, a Czarist term used to denote parts of south and east Ukraine when they were annexed to Russia under the Romanovs. 

Since then, Moscow has not let up. In the Kremlin’s eyes, it cannot afford to; the threat of Ukraine becoming westernized is existential. As Kaplan notes: ‘Ukraine in particular [of all the above states] is the pivot state that in and of itself transforms Russia. Abutting the Black Sea in the south and former Eastern European satellites to the west, Ukraine’s very independence keeps Russia to a large extent out of Europe – and its influence limited.’ 

The signal lesson that Russian history has taught its rulers is that there is no such thing as enough territory. Their continued existence depends on its acquisition. Under the USSR, Moscow needed its array of puppet states surrounding it from Europe to Asia. Now they are gone, it uses other methods: proxy militias, energy pipelines, military assistance, economic aid and of course, even invasion. But in each case, the aim is the identical: to gain back its borderlands, and no state is more of a borderland to Russia (indeed its very name means ‘borderland’) than Ukraine. 

It is this desire, more than anything Ukraine has done or ever will, that drives Russia to fight Kyiv. It is a desire borne not from strength, but from a deep-seated anxiety that that has formed, and malformed, Russia for over a thousand years, and will continue to do so while the world stands by and lets Putin do what he will.  

‘Russia so full of different peoples, that it needs Belarus and Ukraine to maintain its Slavic identity.’