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The Russia-Ukraine War is a Revenge of Geography

Most of the commentators have been looking at the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict in the context of contemporary geopolitics where Russia and NATO seem to be at loggerheads with each other in a power play and Ukraine is being projected to have become a pawn. But the reality could be a little more complex than that.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, an expert on Russian culture wrote in ‘The Icon and the Axe’ that geography and not history has dominated Russian thinking.  “Harsh seasonal cycles, a few, distant rivers, and sparse patterns of rainfall and soil fertility controlled the lives of the ordinary peasant; and the ebb and flow of nomadic conquerors often seemed little more than the senseless movement of surface objects on an unchanging and unfriendly sea. In other words, the very flatness of Russia, extending from Europe to the Far East, with few natural borders anywhere and the tendency for scattered settlements as opposed to urban concentrations, has for long periods made for a landscape of anarchy, in which every group was permanently insecure.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in ‘The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives’ that in the 1990s Russians began to resurrect the nineteenth-century doctrine of Eurasianism as an alternative to communism, in order to lure back the non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union.  Eurasianism fits nicely with Russia’s historical and geographical personality. Sprawling from Europe to the Far East, and yet anchored in neither, Russia, in the way of no other country, epitomises Eurasia. Moreover, a closed geography featuring a crisis of room in the twenty-first century—one that erodes the divisions of Cold War era specialists— makes more palpable the very idea of Eurasia as a continental, organic whole.

In 2012 Robert D. Kaplan had done a very interesting and thought-provoking analysis of the relationships between Russia and Ukraine and Russia and the Western world in his seminal work “The Revenge of Geography: What the Maps tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate”. Almost a decade later, his analysis seems to be turning out as a prophecy. Kaplan had analysed, “Putin has not altogether given up on the European dimension of Russian geography. To the contrary, his concentration on Ukraine as part of a larger effort to re-create a sphere of influence in the near-abroad is proof of his desire to anchor Russia in Europe, albeit on nondemocratic terms. Ukraine 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. With Greek and Roman Catholics in the western part of Ukraine and Eastern Orthodox in the east, western Ukraine is a breeding ground for Ukrainian nationalism while the east favours closer relations with Russia. In other words, Ukraine’s own religious geography illustrates the country’s role as a borderland between Central and Eastern Europe. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that without Ukraine, Russia can still be an empire, but a “predominantly Asian” one, drawn further into conflicts with Caucasian and Central Asian states. But with Ukraine back under Russian domination, Russia adds 46 million people to its own Western-oriented demography, and suddenly challenges Europe, even as it is integrated into it.”

Also Read: War in Ukraine: Pax Americana Was Never Absolute, Now It Will Exist Even Less

Russia is a more peculiar country than anyone of its European and Asian counterparts. Because unlike major European powers like Britain, France, Germany, Russian nationalism isn’t that clearly defined. The relationship between Russia’s geographical expanse and its nationalism also doesn’t follow the historical pattern and hence Russia as a country has become quite unpredictable. To define present-day Russia as an imperialist nation and its president Vladimir Putin as an imperialist who, as a former KGB operative, wants to restore the glory of the erstwhile Soviet Union is an oversimplification. This would help in neither understanding the present situation nor in resolving it.

Also Read: War in Ukraine: For India, It Will No Longer be Business as Usual with Russia or US

Serhii Plokhy explains this complexity in ‘The Lost Kingdom: A history of Russian nationalism…,’ which says, “Russia faces a major issue that most formal imperial powers, especially the maritime empires, did not encounter- the definition of the Russian nation per se. In the words of the British historian Geoffrey Hosking- Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire- and perhaps still is. The traditional view holds that Russia’s problem with self-identification derives from the fact that it acquired an empire before it acquired a nation. This is probably true for a number of empires, including the British, the Spanish and the Portuguese, but what makes the Russian situation unique is that none of those empires shared common historical roots and myths of origin with their foreign subjects, as had been the case with Russia throughout a good part of its imperialist history.”

Arkady Ostrovsky, a Russia born British journalist and a bitter critic of the present-day Russian regime had reported for a decade from Russia for various western publications before he put together a first-hand account of his experiences with the Russian regime in ‘The invention of Russia: The journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s war’. The book was published in 2015 and Ostrovsky had aptly put forward the complexity of the Russian situation which seems even more relevant now, “There was no one event after the collapse of the Soviet Union that made Russia’s state today inevitable, and while it may be tempting to blame the state of Russia on Putin, that would be missing the point. While he bears enormous responsibility for it, he is as much a consequence as he is a cause of Russia’s ills.”

Arun Anand is an author and columnist who has written several books. His latest book is ‘Taliban: War and Religion in Afghanistan’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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