Russia's Geography Problem

Wendover Productions
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    “What if Russia Never Existed” by AlternateHistoryHub:
    “What if the Soviet Union Reunited” by RealLifeLore:

    This video was based on a chapter of the book “Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall. It’s the best book I’ve read so far in 2017 so I highly encourage you to give it a read.

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    Research by William Mayne, Sam Moran, Ollie Orton, Jakob S.

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    This is a Wendover Productions video made possible by Backblaze and in collaboration with Alternate History Hub and Real Life Lore. Russia is immense--it spans 5,000 miles across, 2,000 miles vertically12, crosses 11 time zones3, borders everywhere from Norway to North Korea4, and is as close to Anchorage as it is to Amsterdam5. It’s huge... but it has a problem. A problem that can explain part of why the average Russian, living at the same latitude as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Canada, makes only $7,500 American dollars per year. A problem that can explain at least a portion of almost every political decision the country has ever made. Russia’s geography is flawed. What you have to remember about Russia is that the majority of Russians live in Europe. 3/4 of Russia’s population lives in the western quarter of the country6. Therefore, as a country with a fairly centralized power system, many of its decisions go to protect the country core in and around Moscow. You see, a lot of the success of certain countries over others depends on how well its geography protects it. The US, for example, benefited hugely from being an ocean away from every large military power. The only real armed forces that could threaten the US in its infancy were in Europe and Asia and therefore any invasion would require trans-oceanic supply lines which are hugely expensive and logistically difficult therefore weakening an invading army. On the European continent, France has a similar situation—their northwestern border is protected by the English channel, their western border by the Atlantic Ocean, their southern border by the Pyrenees mountains and Mediterranean ocean, their southeastern by the Alps mountains, and their northeastern by the Rhine river7. The eastern half of their northern border is, however, largely unprotected geographically—a flaw Germany exploited in both World War One and World War Two by invading through Belgium and Luxembourg—but the protection still did concentrate attacks into a choke point and kept the country significantly more protected than other European countries. Here’s Cody from Alternate History Hub to explain Russia’s territorial expansion. Russia’s first territorial expansion since it first became a unified East Slavic State in 8828 was entirely a quest for power. But over time this growth for glory transformed into an effort to protect the very core of the country. This early Russia was at very unprotected and vunerable. There was no geographic protection to keep foreigners from migrating into their lands. The only natural resource Russia had their disposal to repel an invader was pure manpower. In the coming centuries, what was then known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow quickly expanded. By the time Ivan the Terrible was crowned ruler of the Tsardom of Russia, the country had spread it’s borders east to the Urals, south to the Caucasus mountains, and west to the Carpathians. Soon even Siberia was conquered which before then, was an independent Khanate—a territory ruled by a Khan. That was Cody from Alternate History Hub. I collaborated with him to make a great video on his channel about what the world would be like if Russia had never become its own country which I’ll link in the description and at the end of the video. Now, with all this territory, Russia, or at least Moscow, had some serious protection9. Siberia is large enough that no army could invade through it and make it to Moscow. The supply lines would have to be thousands of miles long through inhospitable conditions. Not only that, but that army with a one or two thousand mile long supply line would then have to make it over the Ural mountains to get to Moscow10. Attacking from the south or west would also take an army either across water or through mountains. By the time the 19th century rolled in, Russia had truly become an unconquerable power. Countries could and can take over portions of Russia, but there is no conceivable way that a single country could fully occupy and conquer Russia. To occupy a territory of that size, a country would need an estimated 13 million trained ground troops--more than the 17 largest militaries combined11. However, despite its defenses, Russia has never developed economically to the same level as some of its neighbors. Its GDP per capita is right around that of Mauritius, Grenada, and Turkey12. And this, once again, can be at least partially attributed to Geography. Historically, naval power equaled power. The two were synonymous. There was no better way for countries to project their power and grow their economy than to have a powerful navy and merchant fleet. Many of the most powerful countries today--the United Kingdom, Japan, and China for example--were ones that once had the most powerful navies in the world. There’s a reason that none of the 18 largest economies in the world are landlocked countries13. Up until the last century, maritime shipping was the fastest way to get goods and people across the world and its still cheapest way to ship goods long distance. Having good water access allows countries to trade with the world but Russia, despite its 23 thousand miles of coastline14, has no significant warm-water, ice-free ports with direct access to an ocean. Alaska does, Canada does, Iceland does, Norway does, and Sweden too, but Russia is fundamentally limited in its maritime power because it has no easy way to access the world’s oceans year round. The port of Novorossiysk is ice-free, but its throughput is limited both by the depth and size of the port15. St Petersburg also has an important port, but it freezes for many months of the year. On the Pacific side, ports like Vladivostok also occasionally freeze during the winter. But the ice is not the biggest problem with these ports. The biggest problem is that their access to the worlds oceans is all through choke-points controlled by either NATO countries or NATO allies. To get to the ocean from Novorossiysk, you need to pass through the Bosphorus straight which is controlled by Turkey—a NATO country; to get to the ocean from St Petersburg you need to pass through the Danish straights controlled by Denmark—also a NATO country16; and to get to the ocean from Vladivostok and many of the other Pacific ports you need to pass through the sea of Japan which is controlled by Japan—a close ally of NATO. If Russia ever decided to attack a NATO country, their access to the oceans would be restricted by these NATO countries17 because the NATO treaty includes a mutual defense pact—if one country is attacked, all respond. This would cripple both Russia's navy and economy. Now, back to defenses. There’s one major flaw to Russia’s geographical defense system-- the northern European plain. Whereas every other border has a geographical defense preventing easy invasion from a foreign army, this completely flat plain just acts as a funnel easily bringing an army from Western Europe right up to Moscow . While 18 a large part of the Soviet Union’s motive to expand into eastern Europe was to spread the socialist revolution, Stalin still believed that he needed to create a zone of buffer states in order to defend against the threat of the USA and its allies in Western Europe19. With its influence over all of Eastern Europe, the USSR had both manpower and political power to keep the west far from Moscow. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has continued to strive to keep political power in the region. Out of the 15 states that emerged from the Soviet Union, 12 joined a Commonwealth of Independent States with Russia20--essentially aligning them politically with Russia--while three joined both NATO and the European Union--Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. That means that, on paper, Russia still had a strong political buffer between it and western Europe. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and the countries of Belarus and Ukraine covered almost all of the Northern European Plain. Not only that, but Russia used its influence in Ukraine to sign a long term lease on the warmwater port of Sevastopol which greatly expanded the naval capabilities of Russia’s black-sea fleet21. Except, Ukraine as a whole progressed to be more and more pro-European in the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union which was a major reason for Russia’s invasion of Crimea. While on the surface Putin might have claimed Russia’s invasion was to save the Russians of the area from the increasingly westernizing country, the annexation of Crimea was in reality a strategic imperative to keep warm-water port of Sevastopol. A Ukraine that was friendlier to the west likely would have ended Russia’s lease on the port so in Putin’s mind, he needed to invade Crimea in order to prevent a crippling blow to Russia’s ocean access. Now, Russia has managed to overcome many of its geographic challenges partially because of two things--oil and natural gas. It has enormous energy reserves partially because of its enormous size. Russian natural gas pipelines provide for 40% of Europe’s natural gas demand. Some countries such as Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland are almost fully dependent on Russia for their natural gas . This 22 gas dependency is a major reason why Germany, for example, a country with high Russian oil dependency, is much less likely to criticize Russia than a country like the UK, which has virtually zero Russian gas dependency. If Russia shut off the gas to Germany, it would devastate them, but stopping gas exports to the UK would have little effect. The US has attempted to reduce Russian influence in Europe by exporting liquefied natural gas across the Atlantic. It costs more, but it allows western european countries to buy their energy from their American ally. Now, none of this discussion of ports and power is to say that if there was no Norway or Sweden blocking the way to the ocean and the water was a bit warmer Russia would be the Sweden of the East. Saying tha...
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