The Geographical Significance of Ukraine to Putin
To many, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems an inexplicable war of aggression from a larger country against its neighbour. However, there is more than meets the eye to Putin’s strategy, as a plethora of geographical factors incentivise this invasion: Ukraine’s relation to the North European Plain, the protection of Russian oil and gas and the assurance of the stability of Crimea.
Military security has always been a pressing issue for Russia due to its positioning on the North European Plain. The Plain stretches from southern France, just north of the Pyrenees, to the Ural Mountains in Russia. There is nothing harder to defend than a vast expanse of flat land such as the North European Plain, as there are no natural chokepoints, nor high ground from which to defend. While the plain is fairly narrow at its origin in France, by the time it reaches the Russian border it is almost 2000 miles wide. For an invading army, there is no natural barrier from Germany to Moscow. This is near impossible to defend.
In the past, Russian leaders have dealt with this geographical weakness by creating a buffer of conquered land to the west. In the 18th Century, Peter the Great and Empress Catherine the Great occupied Ukraine, reaching as far the Carpathian Mountains to its southwest, as well as modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. After World War Two, the extent of Russian control was even greater, occupying territory as far west as Poland, Eastern Germany, and Romania, through the Warsaw Pact and alliances with nominally non-Russian Soviet ‘Republics’.
By advancing their control further west, the plain narrows at the Russian border, and opposing armies have to fight through more Russian-controlled territory in order to reach key strategic objectives. While conventional wisdom may say to not invade Russia in the winter, due to the two famous failures of Napoleon and Hitler, when Russia was advanced this far west, it was nearly impossible to invade at any time.
However, since the collapse of the USSR, Russian territory has contracted greatly, as has its sphere of influence. Former Warsaw Pact nations, and even former Soviet Republics, are now NATO members. This has left Russia with a rather feeble buffer zone of allied Armenia and Belarus – Ukraine is notably absent. This is incredibly significant for Putin, as an allied Ukraine would effectively push their defensive line to the Carpathian Mountains in the southwest, narrowing their exposure across the North European Plain to only the eastern border of Poland.
When a revolution in Ukraine replaced their pro-Russian government, led by Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014 with a more pro-Western one, this possibility dwindled. Instead, Ukraine started to follow the trajectory of surrounding countries in forming a more amicable relationship with the West, even to the point of allusions to joining NATO.
This is unacceptable to Russia. If NATO were to incorporate Ukraine into the alliance, Russia’s frontlines would be at their very own borders, across that near 2000-mile expanse of flat, open land. Furthermore, NATO’s potential influence in Ukraine would mean that Belarus, seen by many as no more than a Russian puppet state, would be surrounded by NATO members on three sides, posing additional threats to Russian and Belarusian national security. Therefore, with Ukraine looking more and more likely to join NATO, Putin saw the invasion of Ukraine as necessary to dissuade Ukraine from joining NATO and advance their military frontier, ensuring stability over the North European Plain.
Another geographical factor important to Putin is Ukraine’s control of Russia’s oil and gas, which makes up 60% of Russian exports, as well as 30% of the country’s GDP. More than half of Russian oil and gas exports are to Europe (2.5 million barrels a day). However, this business is dependent on Ukraine, as Russia built many of its pipelines through what would become their territory. As such, when Ukraine gained independence, it demanded tariffs on Russian oil and gas flowing through pipelines on Ukrainian land, such as the Bratsvo pipeline. These tariffs accumulate to billions of dollars each year for Russia,
With this in mind, the occupation of Ukraine would not only provide more stability in Russia’s lucrative oil and gas exports, as they would have direct ownership of larger lengths of the pipelines, as well as avoiding the nightmare scenario of the pipelines falling into NATO territory should Ukraine join. As a secondary benefit, billions of dollars previously lost to tariffs would now be available to fund Russia’s ailing government and economy – although this is more than offset by the cost incurred through sanctions and the cost of the invasion itself.
The last factor of concern to Putin is that of Crimea. Putin used the aforementioned 2014 revolution in Ukraine to justify annexing Crimea: Russia claimed the seizure was necessary to protect the majority ethnic Russian population from the revolutionary violence, a similar refrain to that from the current conflict.
However, Russia’s true motivation in annexing Crimea lies with its position on the Black Sea. While Russia has a small number of cold-water ports, these freeze over in the winter, leaving Russia strategically impotent and unable to trade for half the year. For much of Russia’s history, it has been severely crippled by its lack of a warm-water port, and has constantly sought one.
With the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia finally had a warm-water port, in Sevastopol. The Russian Navy now had the ability to operate throughout the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In the future, if or when sanctions on Russia are lifted, they also hope it can serve as a hub for Russian trade year-round.
Despite Ukraine lacking the firepower to contest this invasion of Crimea, they had resorted to other tactics. Over 85% of Crimea’s freshwater supply comes from the North Crimea canal – which has an upstream source in Ukraine. They exercised their associated power by blocking the canal with cement after the 2014 annexation, leading to Crimea experiencing severe droughts that affect all of its 2 million residents and that have no end in sight.
Russia views the security of Crimea and Sevastapol as absolutely essential. The humanitarian crisis resulting from the drought has the possibility to damage support for Russia and create regional instability, as well as causing a serious humanitarian crisis. While rebellion is not a likely outcome in the immediate future, Russia will do anything to narrow the chances further. Furthermore, if Ukraine were to eventually join NATO, which was looking increasingly likely under Zelensky, then we could see a strengthened, globally supported Ukraine capable of regaining control of Crimea.
Therefore, in order to combat these ever-growing threats posed by Ukraine, as well as their current protests in the form of water wars, Putin may see the invasion and occupation of Ukraine as the only way to ensure the stability of Crimea. In doing so, he would be able to eliminate the drought, as well as ensure that Crimea would not have a hostile neighbour in the form of a potentially NATO-allied Ukraine. These actions would cement Russia’s authority in Crimea and would help them maintain and expand the current benefits they are reaping, as seen through their only warm water port, Sevastopol.
Whilst Putin may try and justify this invasion as the protection of ethnic Russians in Ukraine from Ukraine’s ‘neo-Nazi regime’, geography is the essential motive. A successful incursion would be a boon for Russia’s oil and gas exports and strengthen Russia’s grip on Crimea, as well as their overall geopolitical position. More ominously, we may see the wakening of the symbolic Russian ‘bear’, and the emergence of its dormant thirst for global expansion.
Marshall, T. (2015) Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics. Elliot and Thompson Limited.
Marshall,T. (2015) The Atlantic. Russia and the Curse of Geography, From Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin – The Atlantic
Pleshakov, C. (2017). The Crimean Nexus: Putin’s War and the Clash of Civilizations. Yale University Press.
Plokhy, S. (2015). The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books.