State behavior in international politics is usually driven by a factors such as the economy, geography and ideology. As far as Russia is concerned, while it has a strong military and a comparative stable economy, the lack of natural borders and strategic depth creates a vacuum for geopolitics to dominate Russian behavior on the international stage.
Tim Marshall, in his book ‘Prisoners of Geography’ says Putin’s perspective is that geography would not be so kind to its country in the event of war or other need. This is because the Russian navy would not have the option to get out rapidly to the Baltic Sea if required, since NATO allies control the Skagerrak Strait and GIUK Gap (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom), while Turkey, part of NATO, controls the Bosphorus under the 1936 Montex Pact. Vladimir Putin’s biggest nightmare, yet, might be that Ukraine would one day be able to host a NATO maritime base. Russia’s sole warm-water port, Sevastopol, situated on the Crimean promontory, gives Moscow a decisively large base for its maritime armada.
Meanwhile, the fact that the world’s largest state lacks natural borders and strategic depth created impetus for its invasions. If we trace their history, this was known as the policy of ‘expansion for survival’, introduced by Tsar Ivan. Ivan policies were extremely aggressive, introducing a policy of ‘attacking to defend’. He was responsible for the massive expansion of territories that turned Russia into the great bear that it remained for centuries. After Ivan, geographic concerns led many other Russian rulers to adopt this expansionist policy.
When WWII ended, the Soviet Union’s primary concern was ensuring that it could never again be invaded by a European power. Non-Russians may easily forget or be unaware of the fact, but Russia has suffered several times throughout its history at the hands of European nations, and as World War II drew to a close, Stalin vowed that his nation would never again be faced with another Hitler or Napoleon.
At the same time, the reason Russia has been invaded by European powers so many times in the past is its unfavorable geography. It is located at the eastern end of the European plain, a lowland area with natural barriers and fewer natural defenses. The European Plain extends deep into Russian territory and, historically, has been used as an easy highway for invading armies, leading straight into the political and economic heart of Russia. The only possible way for Russia to protect its borders from invaders is to build a series of prohibitively expensive fortifications across the vast plains.
Moreover, by sitting on the eastern side of the great plain, Russia’s border forces are concerned about it being defended against numerous possible invasions through such geographical loopholes. This was the reason why Napoleon and Hitler’s armies were able to penetrate so deeply into Russian territory and, had the machine gun not fundamentally changed the nature of fighting WWI, Germany too would have likely been able to invade deep into Russia as well.
Meanwhile, to protect itself, Russia would need to aggressively expand westward on the European plains, thereby reducing the number of possible corridors of invasion. American and western leaders at the end of WWII fundamentally misunderstood the Soviet Union’s intentions though. At first, Stalin was happy to let the governments of the eastern European nations dictate their own affairs, as long as they swore fealty to Moscow; but when the United States launched NATO, Stalin believed that the West was once more preparing for a confrontation with Russia and immediately cracked down on Soviet bloc nations and their governments.
As the Cold War drew to a close, the Soviet Union repeatedly courted the United States and NATO, hoping to transition to a more friendly state of relations. Moreover, when revolutions swept across the old Soviet bloc, the Soviet Union agreed to the US demand that it would not use military forces to quell them. The Soviet Union eventually allowed German reunification with the demand that NATO’s expansion stop west of Germany so that the country would forever remain a buffer zone between the West and Russia.
The new Russia also wished to retain its influence on its neighbors, as it had done so far for nearly half a century; by keeping its neighbors close politically, Russia could feel safe from another European invasion or the effect of another European war. Shortly after reunification, Germany’s membership of NATO was approved President Bill Clinton set his sights on a larger NATO expansion, with countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary joining in. This event was a strategic disaster for post-Cold War Russia, which suddenly saw the keys it had enjoyed for nearly half a century eroded overnight.
Concerns grew in Russia over the countries desperate to join NATO because it would give them the protection to chart their own course. For decades, they had been ruled by Soviet proxies; however, NATO protected them from Russian interference. It is easy for Westerners to see Russia as paranoid, yet the country has not only been invaded many times, but its geography has actively opposed it even in peacetime. Russia has a few year-round ports from which they operate their commercial and naval fleets, as most of its ports are subject to winter freezes or are far from major population centers. Russia’s access to the sea was easily blocked by Western navies, such as the British in the 17th and 18th centuries, and this geographic location drove much of its desire to expand.
Russian expansionism is, in Russian minds, all about national survival. Because of its unfortunate geographical and geopolitical factors, it has suffered catastrophic invasions throughout its history, as well as economic and military blockades, and Russia has often been a victim to European powers. Russian leaders believe that only through expansion they can survive and prevent future disasters. At the same time, President Putin wants to exert regional influence on his neighbors, even arguing that his great-power status gives him the right to do that. Influence in the region and beyond is considered critical to keeping Russia geographically, politically and economically secure.
Russia has suffered some major blows over the years, with World War II and the Cold War leaving Russia weak and surrounded by the NATO alliance. The only way for Russia to survive would be to expand its territory, even as it wishes to do so without beginning a new Cold War.