Should we actually be surprised that Russia under President Putin invaded Ukraine? It seems to have come as a surprise to some, but I think, arguably, it shouldn’t have been. What might history tell us?
Putin, I think, views the world purely through what is in the Russian interest and that interest is as much about geography as how it views Ukraine as a political and cultural entity, although both are important. (I’ve written before as to how history is very much about geography when looking at international trade, shipping, and China).
Winston Churchill in 1939 described Russia as a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma… but perhaps there is a key. That key is the Russian national interest.’ I think the Russian national interest very much looks at its geographic position and sees itself vulnerable. The western end of modern day Russia is a vast, largely flat plain, hard to defend (although also hard for an army to attack Moscow without exposing your supply lines as Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 discovered). Russia has been attacked at other times through its history including by Charles XII of Sweden (1708), by Imperial Germany in 1914 and in the Crimea in 1853 by the British. From a Russian perspective, invasion from the west has been more an issue than from the east; Siberia being a vast, hostile, and remote part of the world with the Ural mountains between Siberia and Moscow forming a further natural defensive barrier.
Kviv is an older city that Moscow with a long Russian Orthodox Christian heritage. The first Russians who settled around Moscow in 13th century CE found it indefensible, with few defensive positions; flat and swampy. Ironically, these first ‘Russians’ were sort of refugees from east Slavic tribes known as the Kievan Rus based in Kiev and along the Dnieper River in what is now modern Ukraine. Harassed by the Mongols they settled the Moscow area instead to eventually form the Grand Principality of Moscovy. It was Ivan the Terrible who began the expansion moving outwards with gains increased and consolidated by later Tsars. Here was a concept of attack being defence, which could well be part of Putin’s thinking now. No-one will attack Russia from the Arctic or from the Urals, therefore it has always wanted a buffer zone, and a hinterland to fall back on in case of invasion from the west. But over the centuries Russia has also needed a warm water port for its navy, which the Crimea also provides. More geography, and also important in Russian eyes that a pro-Moscow government ruled in Kviv to help protect the buffer zone.
It’s also of note that Russia (the USSR) did not retreat to its pre-1939 borders after the Second World War but continued to occupy eastern Germany and ensured a network of allied states under the Warsaw Pact up to 1989, invading and occupying where necessary (Hungary, 1956 and Czechoslovakia, 1968) where there was a perceived threat to its influence and control. Putin however is a product of the Soviet Union (b.1952) and it is reported some family members were victims of Nazi military action during the Second World War. His official biography records him in East Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. So it’s not impossible to envisage a mindset in Putin since 1989, with the end of the Soviet Union and former Soviet states becoming independent including Ukraine, that saw threats and encroachment towards western Russia. The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania closest to his home city of St Petersburg (Leningrad) gained independence, then joined the European Union and NATO. Other Warsaw Pact countries also joined the EU; and American troops or other NATO military assets are now stationed on Russian borders. From their ‘geographic’ mindset that sees proximity as threat, you can see why Putin wants to re-establish spheres of influence between Mother Russia and the West. Belarus is already in Moscow’s orbit (for now) but Ukraine is such a large buffer given its size and its bordering of several EU countries, or proximity to potential EU candidate countries like Moldova and Georgia and the Black Sea.
But with an increasingly pro-Western government in Kviv threatening the buffer zone, Putin had to act to annex Crimea in 2014 to protect that warm water port (Sevastopol), and access to the Black Sea. Whilst most of the current war in 2022, through media eyes, has focussed on Kviv in the north of Ukraine, I think it interesting that some of the most severe fighting has been in the south. Here geography comes into play again with Russian military action between the Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (taken over in part by pro-Russian separatists in 2014). Was the actual objective to link up these provinces with Crimea as part of the historical buffer zone combined with a friendly government in Kviv? I reckon so, although Ukrainian resistance may appear to be defeating these objectives.
So I think Putin feared encirclement to some degree. Ukraine was being armed by the West; American sources of natural gas from fracking were coming on stream that might diminish, over time, Europe’s demand for Russian oil and gas, and therefore the influx of hard currency like dollars and euros. China’s influence in the east is rising. Russia’s population is in decline, and its potential to put an army in the field, with life expectancy only 65 years; and the map Ivan the Terrible faced is the same as the one Putin faces: the seas still freeze and plain from Moscow heading west to Europe is still flat.
None of this excuses naked Russian aggression of course, and its brutal attack on Ukrainian cities and civilians, but the Russians have historical form and we can very much understand the 2022 war through the lens of Russia’s geographical/historical perspective. Churchill would have understood the Russian national interest in these circumstances.
I also think there are some the more interesting questions over how premeditated, perhaps over decades, Putin’s aggressive plans may have been. Here I am delving into speculation rather than historical evidence, but in the coming years, if Putin or his henchmen ever talk, the future historian might want research some of the following:
- the possible infiltration of Russian money, spies, businessmen and oligarchs into Western politics to undermine unity and organisations like NATO.
- was there Russian influence in the election of Trump and Brexit dividing two of the West main nuclear and significant military powers away from allies in the rest of the EU and NATO alliance?
- how much has the build up and dependence of Russian resources like oil and gas, and other big corporations buying Western assets, been used as a leverage to deter and divide European nations from taking economic action against Russian military aggression in eastern Ukraine in 2014?
- did the Covid-19 pandemic lead to a pause in Putin’s aggression – might he had moved further and faster had Covid not got in the way? Or indeed has the Covid-19 pandemic in Russia been worse than we have led to believe that the attack on Ukraine has been a distraction from domestic problems?
A much longer game has been possibly played here, and the West has been caught sleeping or distracted by other things.