Like the Romanovs and Bolsheviks before him, Putin grasps the geographical reality that Ukraine is the key to Russia’s security.
Geography has dealt Ukraine a difficult hand. It holds good cards, such as rich soils and rivers that draining south into the Black Sea, allowing Ukrainians to export their wheat to the rest of the world.
But its bad ones, above all its position where the arid Asian steppes meet Europe’s wetter mountains, forests, and plains, are very bad indeed. Ukraine’s very name probably comes from an Old Slavonic word meaning “Borderland,” and for at least 6,000 years, it has been fought over by more powerful neighbors.
In the late Stone Age, Ukraine’s black earth attracted immigrants from the Balkans, who expelled the hunters who had previously lived there, turned it into farmland, and built some of the biggest towns the prehistoric world ever saw.
By 500 BCE, Athenians wanted Ukraine to be their breadbasket, and sent merchants with ships full of silver to buy its grain. In the Middle Ages, khans riding out of central Asia used Ukraine as a (relatively) mild winter pasture for their horses and sold its people into slavery. By the 14th century, Lithuanians were treating Ukraine (or Ruthenia, as they called it) as a buffer against these khans, and in the 16th century, Poland turned it into another one against the Turks. In the 17th century, Sweden was drawn in too, making Ukraine a pawn in its wars with Poland and Russia—and Russia’s tsars came to see Ukraine as a dagger pointed at their hearts.
Since then, Ukrainians’ history has overwhelmingly been about what came their way from Russia. Until the 16th century, Russians had worried most about Mongol khans, to whom they paid tribute in the hope of buying peace, but in the 1550s, Ivan the Terrible began pushing them back using newfangled European cannons and muskets. Russian settlers crossed the Urals in 1598 and just kept going until they gazed upon the Pacific in 1639.
Never again would nomads from the steppes threaten Russia, and since 1571, when Crimeans burned Moscow, that city’s tsars, general secretaries, and presidents have consistently seen the West as the source of their greatest problems. Polish armies took Moscow in 1610, carrying Tsar Vasili IV off to Warsaw in a cage and murdering him.
Swedes besieged St Petersburg in 1705 and marched deep into Ukraine in 1709; Napoleon burned Moscow again in 1812; Germany pushed Russia into revolution in 1917, detaching Ukraine as an independent country; and in 1941, Germans once more threatened Moscow. No wonder Russians fear Europe.
For over 400 years, Russian rulers have known they will have no security if they have enemies in Ukraine. This is just a fact of life for them. Catherine the Great absorbed the region into Russia in 1764, adding Crimea in 1783. Ever since, Ukraine has been the key to Russian efforts both to create strategic depth for defense against Europe and to gain access to warmwater ports.
Catherine in fact aimed to follow up capturing Crimea by marching on Constantinople, something the Soviets were still considering in the 1980s. When Vladimir Putin called the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” what he meant was that it had undone 400 years of Russian policy.
The point of this history lesson is that Vladimir Putin is not an anomaly in seeking to dominate Ukraine.
Geography is destiny, and, like the Romanovs and Bolsheviks before him, Putin grasps the geographical reality that Ukraine is the key to Russia’s security. However the current war turns out, neither Putin nor anyone who replaces him will start seeing the map differently. But what can perhaps be changed what they do about what they see.
Before 1945, Ukraine’s neighbors consistently relied on force to achieve their aims. But after 1945, although Western leaders remained ready to use force, they also saw that “soft power” worked better. Much of the world wanted to share in the prosperity of the American-dominated global economic system and the freedoms that came with democracy, and that often did more to further American aims than any amount of threats. The European Union has expanded eastward since 2004 because people welcomed it, not because NATO armies exported it.
Soviet Russia also possessed soft power, and made its own efforts to export it in the Cold War. In the 1970s, my grandad, a steelworker in Stoke-on-Trent, used to lecture me earnestly about how much better life would be after the revolution, and an uncle even gave me a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.
However, Russia always remained readier to resort to force than the West. To the American diplomat George Kennan, stationed in Moscow in 1946, Stalin and his inner circle “stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced [their] country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee [the] external security of their internally weak regimes.”
Kennan was righter than he knew, and three quarters of a century later, not much has changed in the Kremlin. The revolutions of 1989 broke Russian hard power for a decade, but Russian leaders resumed using force to solve their strategic problems in the early 2000s. Defeating the Russian army in 2022 will not be bring peace.
When Finland defeated Stalin’s invasion of their country in 1939, he just conscripted more men, bludgeoning the Finns into submission in 1940. The only way to dissuade Russia from taking the same tack in Ukraine is by persuading its leaders to pursue their geopolitical goals without resorting to violence—just as Kennan advised the US to do in the Cold War. Deterrence and appeasement are never far apart. The path to peace will involves increasing the benefits to Russia of accepting the status quo as well as increasing the costs of attacking it.
Putin might prove no more persuadable than Stalin, but containment is a marathon not a sprint. The costs of fighting the American military and economic giant did deter Stalin from launching World War III; by the 1970s, increasing benefits from complying with the status quo convinced his successors to engage in détente; and in the 1990s, peaceful coexistence briefly seemed possible.
Containment 2.0 hardly seems like an attractive option. Like the original version imposed on the USSR, it will constantly create crises and bring risks of war, even nuclear. Its costs will be a constant drain on the world economy. And most alarming of all, it risks pushing Russia and China together into an alliance far more threatening than the Soviet Union ever was. But the hard truth is that there is no better choice.
Pity poor Ukraine—so far from God, so close to the Russian Federation.
Ian Morris teaches at Stanford University and is a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the bestselling author of Why the West Rules - For Now, War: What is it Good For?, and most recently, Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000 Year History (Profile Books)