Why Isn’t Ukraine a Global Superpower?
Why isn’t Ukraine a country of two hundred million people?
Why didn’t it conquer Russia, Germany, or Constantinople?
The question sounds preposterous until you understand the unbelievable luck Ukraine has—all ultimately wasted by one single but crucial detail.
Why was Ukraine so lucky? What ruined it?
What are the three forces that have shaped it throughout history?
What does this tell us about Ukraine’s challenges today?
Look at this:
Ukraine is in the middle of the flat Northern European Plain:
This is great, because as we know, flat lands are much easier to work, plant, irrigate, harvest… Agricultural yields of flat lands are much higher.
But also, Ukraine has lots of great rivers, including the Dniester and the mighty Dnieper:
Of course, such large rivers facilitate irrigation, and they transport silt, making their banks hyperfertile.
They also work as cheap transportation lines, allowing trade and wealth to grow. Indeed, 2,000 km of the Dnieper are navigable, all the way to Dorogobuzh—in Russia. Among others, the Vikings used it to invade the region and trade with the Mediterranean.
With such fertile lands and easy trade, the result is that many of the city names you hear in the news are located on the Dnieper: Kiev, Zaporizhia, Kherson… Because they’re the richest and biggest.
And because rivers form natural barriers in war.
Ukraine also has the most fertile land on Earth.
This map shows the distribution of chernozem—black soil, the most fertile soil—around the world. Notice, in red, how Ukraine has so much of it. This means it’s very easy to grow crops.
With so many assets for agricultural fertility, no wonder this is Ukraine’s flag:
If you had to devise an ideal country, it would have:
Plenty of flat lands, ideal for agriculture and irrigation.
Big rivers crossing it (like the Dnieper, Donets, and Dnister), providing water for irrigation and fertilizing silt that would further increase agricultural yields, and thus population.
Black soil to further increase agricultural production.
Access to the sea, to foster trade with the rest of the world.
In other words, Ukraine has the potential to produce lots of food and trade. It sounds like an idyllic place for a superpower to emerge. Indeed, many other places with flatlands traversed by big, navigable rivers with access to the sea have become global powers.
Ukraine has all the assets needed to become a global power, yet was a weak country even before Russia invaded it. It has only 43M people—fewer than Spain or South Korea, much smaller countries full of mountains. It is also among the poorest countries in Europe1.
We can get a hint by looking at its history.
Ukraine’s History Reveals Its Achilles Heel
Did you know that one of the oldest cities ever discovered, and the oldest one in Europe, is in Ukraine?
We don’t realize how ancient and important Ukraine was in near prehistory. We talk about Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, the Indus Valley culture… But we should be talking about Ukraine, too.
Well before any of the civilizations I named before, the Trypillia Culture formed thousands of cities, some of which had thousands of dwellings and tens of thousands of people. It covered the area between Bulgaria and the Dnieper River today.
This culture that arose around 5,000 BCE may have had up to a million inhabitants! Its megacities appeared earlier than the cities of Mesopotamia! This tells us how hospitable and conducive to civilization this land is.
This civilization lasted 800 years, but eventually disappeared2.
Around 2,000 BCE, inhabitants of this region first domesticated horses and then invented the first war chariot:
That the horse was domesticated and the chariot invented here tells you a lot about the local inhabitants around that time: probably nomadic warriors. Compare that with the Trypillian megacities we just saw. Unsurprisingly, a nomadic warrior people called Scythians emerged in the region over the centuries.
They came from the steppes to the East.
A few centuries later, while the Scythians still controlled the steppes, the Greeks started colonizing the coast.
They created many cities around the Black Sea, including the Ukrainian coast.
Ukraine was already a breadbasket for Ancient Greece. Crimea and the coast around the Azov Sea would later become a breadbasket for Rome.
But the region was never quite controlled by the Roman Empire, nor by Constantinople after it.
Why? If both Rome and Constantinople were big naval powers that controlled a large chunk of the shores of the Mediterranean, why couldn’t they control Ukraine? Why couldn’t they project their power beyond the shores?
If we focus on the Ukrainian interior, we see a succession of nomadic people inhabiting the area. Famously, the Huns.
The Huns traveled through this area, and at their height, conquered everything from Ukraine to France.
The Huns might have moved west pressured by other people who were pressuring them—maybe Turks, maybe Goths.
Another tribe pressured the Khazars to establish themselves on the northern shores of the Black Sea.
The Khazars were another nomadic people, splintered out of Turkic nomadic tribes to the east.
Slavs would come from the north.
And would take control of the western part of what today is Ukraine.
At the end of the 1st millennium, Vikings would start using rivers to reach the Mediterranean.
If you want to know more about the Vikings, read this deep dive on them.
To protect their trade routes against the Khazars to the east, a Varangian (Viking) prince eventually conquered the trade route from Novgorod to Kiev, and formed what we call Kievan Rus.
By that time, local Varangians and Slavs had assimilated3. This kingdom, which lasted approximately from 900 AD to 1250 AD, can be considered one of the first precursors to present-day Ukraine. It’s called Kievan because Kiev quickly became its capital.
It was important for Kievan Rus’ to control all the territory between the Baltic and Black Seas, because all its money came from river trade with Constantinople. The benefit of this was that they captured the main source of income from the Khazars, who disappeared. The downside was that they had to control a very extended piece of land. This was hard.
Eventually, Kievan Rus’ broke down into principalities, until it was overwhelmed by another nomadic warrior people, the Mongols.
The Mongols took the region by storm around 1250.
Over the centuries, the Golden Horde disintegrated little by little, with its last remnant, the Crimean Khanate, lasting until the late 1700s.
Let’s pause for a second here. What is happening? Is there a pattern emerging from this history so far?
On one side, we have wave after wave of nomadic warrior tribes, usually from the eastern steppes, invading and settling in Ukraine: Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Mongols… They could do that because they all belong to the Eurasian Plain.
There’s hardly any barrier between France and Mongolia. I go into a lot of depth on this topic in the article about Russia.
A lot of that region is flat grasslands, easy for horse-mounted civilizations to move around and conquer. They financed themselves by controlling the east-west trade routes.
Then, we have peoples coming down from the Baltic area, usually following the rivers: Dniester, Dnieper, Don, Volga… This includes the Slavs, and in a more organized way, the Kievan Rus’.
For both of these groups, a key to trade with the West was the Black Sea. But the nomads were not seafaring people, and the riverine ones from the north could never be as powerful as sea-based civilizations like the Greek, the Roman, and Constantinople. As a result, the coast of Ukraine was always controlled by southern naval powers—either directly or through trade.
These are the three forces that have shaped Ukraine in history:
An east-west axis, used by horse-mounted nomadic warrior peoples who could easily move around and trade between the east and the west.
A north-south axis, used by Eastern European peoples, usually trading between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
The Black Sea coast, dependent on the Mediterranean power du jour for trade with both of the previous axes.
Does this pattern continue over time? Let’s see. This is Poland-Lithuania at its greatest extent, in 1620:
How did this country come to be? Poland emerged around 1,000 AD and Lithuania around 1,200 AD, and both grew little by little. Poland was pressured from the west by kingdoms in present day Germany4 and had to expand east and south. Lithuania expanded south and east, until they both reached the Black Sea.
They merged in the mid-1500s and remained powerful until the mid-1600s, when they started shrinking, pressured on all sides by emerging kingdoms and empires:
Prussia to the west
Austria to the west and south
Russia to the north and east
The Ottoman Empire to the south
Does this all seem familiar? If you squint a lot, it might remind you of Kievan Rus’.
To the south, we have the Ottoman Empire:
If you squint just a little, it will remind you of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The Ottomans also controlled the Ukrainian coast.
In the 1600 and 1700s, Russia expanded until it took over most of Ukraine.
Moscow only lost its grip on Ukraine in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Republic.
It’s time to answer our questions.
Why Is Ukraine Not a Global Superpower?
Ukraine is lucky enough to have some of the best land in the world:
It’s fertile, with flat plains, sufficient rain, rivers for agriculture and silt, and chernozem, the most fertile soil in the world.
It’s perfect for trade, with rivers for north-south exchange, flat steppes for east-west trade, and access to the sea for trade with the Mediterranean and the rest of the world.
But alas, it’s too good. Bad luck for Ukraine: Everybody wants it.
It can’t defend itself easily. Covetous neighbors can attack it because it doesn’t have enough natural defenses:
Horseback-riding nomads have been roaming Ukraine (and fighting for it) unimpeded since time immemorial: Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Mongols, Golden Horde, Khanates, Cossacks6…
Peoples from the north have been moving down on Ukraine since time immemorial: Slavs, Varangians, Kievan Rus’, Poland-Lithuania, Russia…
The coast has been controlled since time immemorial by Mediterranean powers: Greece, Rome, Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire…
Each one of these powers took over the region, but it was nearly impossible to keep it. Because there are no natural defenses.
Ukraine was always exposed to different threats from steppes, rivers, and the sea. It’s impossible to specialize defenses to all three, so Ukraine could never mount a serious defense against any of them.
Sometimes, it’s bad to have too much potential. That’s why, to this day, Ukraine is a poor country invaded yet again by a neighbor.
But what if Ukraine had been better protected?
What if it became more stable?
How does that all inform Ukraine’s military and geopolitical position today?
Why has Ukraine suffered so much more than Germany or Russia?
Why is it covered in steppe to begin with?
This is what we’re going to explore in this week’s premium article.
Poorer than Belarus or Moldova!
For reasons unknown so far.
This is super polemic and I don’t want to go into that, since it’s not really relevant for what we’re trying to understand here. The broader point is that all these peoples were coming from all over the place and into Ukraine. The very fact that Kievan Rus’ could come from Varangians or Slavs or something else and we’re not sure is very much the point I’m trying to make.
The Holy Roman Empire and Prussia, mainly.
Who at some point rebelled against Poland-Lithuania, which accelerated the conquests of Ukraine by Austria and Russia.