Russia is building up military force at the border with Ukraine.
People think there’s about a 30% chance Russia will invade Ukraine by the end of 2022. Will it do it the way it invaded Crimea or parts of Georgia?
Answering this question will also explain why Putin is the type of leader Russia thinks it needs, why the Soviet Union collapsed, why it could never compete with the US during the Cold War, why it’s the biggest country in the world, why despite that it is much poorer than neighboring European countries, why Napoleon and Hitler could never conquer it, why the country is an expert in the scorched earth military strategy, why it keeps Belarus so close to its chest, and why it invaded Afghanistan.
Once we understand all of this, we’ll be in a position to understand not only why Russia behaves the way it does today, but also what it will try to do in the coming decades.
All of it starts here:
It’s so massive it’s hard to comprehend. Which parts matter most?
About 80% of the population is on the European side, west of the Ural Mountains.
The country is so cold that most of these people are concentrated in the south, mostly in Europe, but also some in western Siberia.
So how should we understand Russia? It’s the country created to defend Moscow.
Originally, Russia was just Moscow, the area that appears as “1300” on the map above1. It expanded around the city, but always northwards and eastwards, towards the Urals and then Siberia, which it conquered over the course of about a century.
Why in that direction? Because it was reasonably easy, since there was barely anybody to conquer. Why? Temperature.
All the rivers in Russia flow along the north-south axis. Most of them go from south to north because of the Asian mountain ranges (Tibet, Himalayas, etc). They’re frozen for a large part of the year, and when they’re not, they’re hard to use to transport anything westward to the capital.
The only way to transport anything would be to build an east-west road, but maintaining such a long road for so few goods was not viable. To this day, the only east-west transportation infrastructure is the trans-siberian railway, finished barely a century ago.
Why would Moscow prioritize expanding thousands of miles to the east, into an inhospitable, economically worthless area, before expanding in Europe?
Because the origin of Russia is the Duchy of Muscovy, a vassal state of the Mongols.
And why were the Mongols able to conquer everything all the way to Eastern Europe? Because Eurasia is a highway.
Moscow is in the middle of a freakin’ huge plain that stretches from France to China. There is nothing to defend it for millions of square kilometers.
The Mongols were perfectly suited for that plain given their horse-based military and economy: you can easily move horses through plains. They can graze to eat. And you can move extremely fast in your attacks, and withdraw as fast when you defend.
That’s why they were able to reach Eastern Europe. That’s why the Duchy of Muscovy was founded as a vassal state to the Mongol Empire. And it’s why Russia’s main goal is to conquer everything around Moscow, up to where it hits physical barriers: the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific oceans in the west/north/east, and the mountain ranges and Black Sea / Caspian Sea in the south. With those lands conquered, Russia can use them as buffers against new invasions, or as a place to retreat if an enemy reaches Moscow.
Moscow’s Millennial Military Campaign
Siberia was easy to conquer because there was nothing there worth anything, and nobody to defend it. So Moscow expanded in that direction first. Once that was secured, it was much harder for invaders to surprise Moscow again. They would have to fight for thousands of miles in foreign territory, spreading their supply lines too thin. It also gave Moscow a hinterland to withdraw to if somebody was to conquer the city.
This took Moscow from the 1200s to the 1600s.
Siberia was the easy part. But it still left Moscow completely exposed to southern and western threats. Conquering those lands would prove harder though.
In the 1600s, Europe was living a renaissance. To the northwest, Russia had to face the Kingdom of Sweden. To the west, the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth. To the southwest, it was the Ottoman Empire. And to the south, the remnants of the Mongol Empire, the Khanates.
Imagine you’re in charge of Russia. Your capital, Moscow, doesn’t have any physical protection, but at least it’s now protected by thousands of kilometers of buffer to the east. But there is nothing to protect you elsewhere. So you’ll obsess about conquering everything you can.
The easiest part turned out to be the Khanates: once gunpowder was perfected in the 1500s, the horse advantage disappeared. A well-armed infantry could stop a horse charge. That’s why we don’t hear about the Asian hordes after the Middle Ages, when guns and gunpowder became widespread.
The Ottoman Empire started a long disintegration around that time too. So Russia took advantage of that and expanded in its southwest.
Poland-Lithuania was in the same position as Muscovy: a big country without any physical barrier to defend it in the middle of the Northern European Plain. As Putin himself put it recently:
“At a new stage of historical development, both Lithuanian Rus and Moscow Rus could have become the points of attraction and consolidation of the territories of Ancient Rus. It so happened that Moscow became the center of reunification.”—Vladimir Putin, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians4.
But unlike Muscovy, it didn’t have a hinterland to retreat to. It was sandwiched between the Prussians in the west, the Austro-Hungarians in the south-west, the Ottomans to the south, the Russians to the east, and the Swedish to the north. Moscow took advantage of that and progressed westwards little by little.
So despite all odds, at the eve of World War I, Moscow had conquered nearly everything it needed to be safe. To the south, it had reached the mountains and seas (Black and Caspian). To the north, it had conquered what’s now Finland. And to the west, it had made it into today’s Baltic countries, Ukraine, Poland and even Romania.
And yet, it still wasn’t safe.
Moscow’s Fear of the West
Remember that the Eurasian plain reaches all the way to the Atlantic in France. Anybody could invade from there. This is not just a theory. In 1812, Napoleon did conquer Moscow. The Nazis made it to 30km from the capital.
Why do you think France and Germany have had so many wars? Why wouldn’t Napoleon stop (until the coming winter and the Russian scorched Earth strategy forced him to)? Why did Hitler make the same “obvious mistake”5? Because the North European Plain is a highway. There are no physical obstacles to stop invaders. The only way to protect yourself is to conquer as much land as possible and use that as a buffer6. That’s as true for Russia as it is for Germany and France.
Russia’s strategy in the east was to have thousands of kms of buffer to Moscow. That turned out to be the only feasible option for the west too: as much buffer space as possible, so when your enemies attack, you let them in, and as they progress they stretch their supply lines while getting attacked by locals—and the winter—as they try to advance in hostile country. This is also why Russia’s preferred defense strategy was historically the scorched earth.
This is the strategy that defeated the Nazis. After World War II, the Soviet Union finally achieved all the defense priorities that Russia had ever wanted: it made it as far west as it could ever dream.
With its buffer states in Eastern Europe, Russia controlled nearly all of the Eurasian plain, with mountain defenses now in the Balkans and the Carpathians. They reached the Northern European Plain at its narrowest, in Germany, which was then the only point where they were vulnerable to attack. Moscow was finally safe.
This is when a completely different set of problems became obvious.
The Eurasian plain forces Russia to extend itself so far that it must control people who aren’t ethnically Russian.
Russians make up most of the population around Moscow and the Don and Volga rivers. As the country expanded eastwards, Russians settled southern Siberia—especially after the Trans Siberian Railroad was completed. Northern Siberia is sparsely populated.
Russian-majority areas are the easiest to control. The rest is much more problematic.
Central Asia is settled by Turkic peoples. The Caucasus—as is typical of mountain areas—is settled by many different ethnicities, including Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Dagestanis, Chechens… Europe west of Moscow is settled by Baltic peoples. And south of that, Belorussians and Ukrainians are also slavic, but identify less as Russians than those in Moscow.
And that was in the USSR. Its buffer states in the Eastern Bloc were populated by cultures that had nothing to do with Russia, such as Prussians in East Germany, Polish in Poland, or Austro-Hungarians in the Pannonian Basin.
When Russia was just Muscovy, it was easy to keep it together. As it expanded over the centuries, it worked on assimilating other peoples. More importantly, Russia developed an extremely authoritarian state, which was necessary to control all these ethnicities. Whether it’s Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, or 21st century “democratic” Russia, they must be authoritarian, for the moment they stop, the centrifugal forces of such a massive country break it apart.
It’s no coincidence that the main revolts against the Soviets were in the Eastern Bloc, where there are no Russians, but strong alternative national sentiments. This is why the moment Gorbachev opened up the Soviet Union politically, Eastern European countries broke free, starting with the farthest from Moscow, Germany. Central Asian countries followed.
So to summarize, to defend Muscovy, Russia needs to expand geographically.
To keep that geographic extent united, it needs an authoritarian state.
But to maintain an authoritarian state, it needs money to fund the military and the secret services and the propaganda machine. And that’s never easy, because Russia’s land is huge but poor.
We’ve talked about this above: the south and west of the Eurasian plain are reasonably fertile, so they can support a sizable population, but it’s not massive. Russia’s population is a tenth of China’s. It’s half of Indonesia’s. It’s smaller than Nigeria’s. It’s smaller than Bangladesh’s, a country over 100 times smaller.
And, as we discussed, none of the goods can be easily transported, because rivers are frozen and move northwards. The one Trans Siberian Railway helps, and Siberia boomed after it was opened, but is not enough.
Compare that land with its rival during the Cold War, the United States.
It is superbly protected, so it doesn’t need to obsess about its integrity, from either external or internal threats.
And it has the single best piece of real estate in the world, the Mississippi Plain, with access to the world’s oceans:
The US is naturally defended and has the most fertile, best connected land in the world. Russia is overstretched and poor. Because it’s overstretched and wants to keep the country together, it’s interventionist, which is less productive than capitalism. The competition between the US and Russia was never fair7.
While the Soviet Union was measuring itself against the US, the only way it could maintain the level of spend needed was with other sources of income.
This is one of the key reasons why the Soviets wanted to develop their industry. A strong industrial country can unshackle itself from the serfdom of the land. Unfortunately, the Communist system was not conducive to efficient industrialization.
Another financial supplement is oil and gas. They account for about 15-20% of Russian GDP and between 30% and 50% of the government’s budget. That was very convenient in the 1970s when oil prices exploded.
The Fall of the Soviet Union
You are Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union. It’s 1979. You look down on Moscow from your office.
You ponder how far the city has come, from a Mongol vassal in the 1200s to one of the two most powerful cities in the world, controlling everything from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific.
You know the country has many problems, but it has cash from its industrialization and sky-high oil prices. It’s been 10 years since the last serious revolt in the Eastern Bloc. A few years back, you supported communist Vietnam, helping it to win its war against US-backed, capitalist southern Vietnam. You’ve been successful.
Now, a much worse Vietnam is emerging. Afghanistan, just to its south, had become a communist republic the previous year, nudged by Moscow. But now, a Muslim coalition was fighting back. At the same time, the Moscow-backed communist leader had been killed and replaced by a new leader who wanted to realign with the US, the way Egypt had gone a decade earlier. If the now communist-hating Muslims won, or if the new leader flipped to the US, Russia would have an enemy just to its southern border, at the beginning of the Eurasian highway. The USSR had no mountain defense there.
You decide to invade Afghanistan. It will probably be like in Czechoslovakia or Hungary a few years ago: a show of tanks and everybody will fall back in line.
Ten years later, the USSR is bogged down in the Afghani quagmire, its military leaders are weak. Oil prices have collapsed by 80%, just as the new leader, Gorbachev, is reducing the grip of the state on civilian life. With no money, no authority, and no reputation, Russia’s security apparatus can’t keep the country together. The USSR breaks apart, and Russia goes back to its boundaries from centuries earlier.
Nearly overnight, the threats that Moscow had been fighting for centuries were present again: Moscow was at the mercy of any European or Central Asian power that wanted to invade it.
What Does Russia Want?
Russia wants to protect the Russian heartland, centered around Moscow, but Moscow is in the middle of a massive plain that has no protection. Over the centuries, Russia has learned that the only way to protect itself is by conquering as much buffer land as possible, so that’s what it wants to do.
So this is Russia’s dilemma: the tension between expansion for buffer land and contraction from a poor core that can’t finance an authoritarian state that can control different ethnicities that don’t tolerate the expansion8.
Going back to the questions at the beginning:
This is why the Soviet Union collapsed: it was overstretched and couldn’t finance the authoritarian apparatus it needed.
This is why Russia could never compete with the US: it’s overstretched, poorly defended, and has a poor core.
This is why Russia is the world’s biggest country: it needs as much buffer state as possible for Moscow.
This is why Putin is the leader that Russia thinks it needs: how can you keep such a large country united without an authoritarian state?
This is why Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia—because the North European Plain exposed their countries to foreigners, all the way to Russia.
This is why both of them failed: Russia’s buffer strategy works.
This is why Russia is an expert in the scorched earth military strategy: it’s the only geographic defense it can rely on.
This is why Russia keeps Belarus so close to its chest: it’s by far the closest country to Moscow, less than 500km away (less than the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles) with nothing but plain in between.
This is why the USSR invaded Afghanistan: it was scared of having an enemy at its southern, undefended border.
This is why Russia covertly invaded eastern Ukraine and Crimea: to further its grip in easily-controlled (because they’re majority Russian) and valuable parts of the Eurasian Plain.
And this is why Russia might invade Ukraine.
But those are not all the reasons why Russia might invade Ukraine. Other reasons also help explain why Russia is so obsessed with Baltic countries, and why it invaded Georgia.
What are these reasons? What is going through Putin’s mind? What will Russia try to do in the coming decades? How will that change with technology? And how likely is Russia to invade Ukraine as a result?
We’ll cover these questions in the premium article this week, The Future of Russia.
Which means it was founded around that time.
Neutral at best, costly at worst.
With the current temperatures. It’s a different thing with a warming weather.
Note how he calls them Moscow Rus and Lithuanian Rus. We’ll talk more about it in the premium article this week, along with the Putin and his ideas.
Hitler’s declared intent was one to secure room for Germans, Lebensraum. Russia was perfect for that as a massive plain. But that obscures the strategic aspect of the invasion: leaving the border with the USSR in Poland meant nearly 1000km of indefensible border.
That’s why buffer states exist in that plain, most obviously Belgium, a country that is really two countries, whose function is as a buffer between France and Germany. It’s no coincidence that the capital of the European Union is there, in Brussels.
This geography is one of the main reasons why today Russia’s GDP is between those of Italy and Spain, with a population three times that of Spain’s.