Russia's Geography Problem

Russia is immense--it spans 5,000 miles across,2,000 miles vertically12, crosses 11 time zones3, borders everywhere from Norway t North Korea4, and is as close to Anchorage as it I to Amsterdam5. It’s huge... but it has a problem. A problem that can explain part of why th 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 portio of almost every political decision the countr has ever made. Russia’s geography is flawed. What you have to remember about Russia I that the majority of Russians live in Europe. 3/4 of Russia’s population lives in th western quarter of the country6. Therefore, as a countr with a fairly centralized power system, many of its decisions go to protect the countr core in and around Moscow. You see, a lot of the success of certain countrie over others depends on how well its geography protects it. The US, for example, benefited hugely fro being an ocean away from every large military power. The only real armed forces that could threate the US in its infancy were in Europe and Asia and therefore an invasion would require trans-oceanic supply line which are hugely expensive and logistically difficult therefore weakening an invadin army.

 O the European continent, France has a similar situation—their northwestern border is protecte by the English channel, their western borde by the Atlantic Ocean, their southern border by th Pyrenees mountains and Mediterranean ocean, their southeastern by the Alps mountains and their northeastern by the Rhine river7. The eastern half of their northern borde is, however, largely unprotected geographically—a fla Germany exploited in both World War One and World War Two by invading through Belgiu and Luxembourg—but the protection still di concentrate attacks into a choke point and kept the country significantly more protecte than other European countries. Here’s Cody from Alternate History Hub t explain Russia’s territorial expansion. Russia’s first territorial expansion sinc it first became a unified East Slavic State in 8828 wa entirely a quest for power. But over time this growth for glory transforme into an effort to protect the very core of the country. This early Russia was at very unprotecte and vunerable. There was no geographic protection to kee foreigners from migrating into their lands. The onl natural resource Russia had their disposal to repel an invader was pure manpower. In the comin centuries, what was then known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow quickly expanded.

 By the tim Ivan the Terrible was crowned ruler of the Tsardom of Russia, the country had sprea it’s borders east to the Urals, south to the Caucasus mountains and west to the Carpathians. Soon eve Siberia was conquered which before then, was an independent Khanate—a territory rule by a Khan. That was Cody from Alternate History Hub. I collaborated with him to make a grea video on his channel about what the world would be like if Russia had never become it own country which I’ll link in the description and at the end of the video. Now, with all this territory, Russia, or a least Moscow, had some serious protection9. Siberia is large enough that no army coul invade through it and make it to Moscow. The suppl 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 I over the Ural mountains to get to Moscow10. Attacking from the south or west would als take an army either across water or through mountains. By the time the 19th century rolled in, Russi had truly become an unconquerable power. Countries could and can take over portion of Russia, but there is no conceivable way that a singl country could fully occupy and conquer Russia. T occupy a territory of that size, a country would need an estimated 13 million traine ground troops--more than the 17 largest militarie combined11. However, despite its defenses, Russia ha never developed economically to the same level as some of its neighbors.

 Its GDP per capita I right around that of Mauritius, Grenada, and Turkey12. And this, once again, can be at leas partially attributed to Geography. Historically, naval power equaled power. The two were synonymous. There was no bette way for countries to project their power and grow their economy than to have a powerfu navy and merchant fleet. Many of the most powerful countries today—th United Kingdom, Japan, and China for example--were ones that once ha the most powerful navies in the world. There’s  reason that none of the 18 largest economies in the world are landlocked countries13. Up until th  last century, maritime shipping was the fastest way to get goods and people across the worl and its still cheapest way to ship goods lon distance. Having good water access allows countrie to trade with the world but Russia, despite it 23 thousand miles of coastline14, has no significant warm-water, ice-free ports with direct acces to an ocean. Alaska does, Canada does, Icelan does, Norway does, and Sweden too, but Russia is fundamentally limited in its maritime powe because it has no easy way to access the world’s oceans year round.

 The port of Novorossiysk I ice-free, but its throughput is limited both by the depth and size of the port15. St Petersburg als has an important port, but it freezes for many months of the year. On the Pacific side, ports lik Vladivostok also occasionally freeze during the winter. But the ice is not the biggest proble with these ports. The biggest problem is that their access t the worlds oceans is all through choke-points controlled by either NATO countrie or NATO allies. To get to the ocean fro Novorossiysk, you need to pass through the Bosphorus straight which is controlled b Turkey—a NATO country; to get to the ocean from S Petersburg you need to pass through the Danish straights controlled by Denmark—also a NAT country16; and to get to the ocean from Vladivostok and many of the other Pacifi 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 NAT treaty includes a mutual defense pact—if one country is attacked, all respond. This would crippl both Russia's navy and economy. Now, back to defenses. There’s one major flaw to Russia’s geographica defense system-- the northern European plain. Whereas every other border has a geographica defense preventing easy invasion from a foreign army, this completel flat plain just acts as a funnel easily bringing an army from Western Europe right up to Mosco .

 While 18 a large part of the Soviet Union’ motive to expand into eastern Europe was t spread the socialist revolution, Stalin still believe that he needed to create a zone of buffer states in order to defend against the threa 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 kee the west far from Moscow. Since the fall of th Soviet Union, Russia has continued to strive to keep political power in the region. Out of the 1 states that emerged from the Soviet Union, 12 joined a Commonwealth of Independent State with Russia20--essentially aligning them politically with Russia--while three joined both NAT and the European Union--Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. That means that, on paper, Russia stil had a strong political buffer between it and western Europe. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, nd the countries of Belarus and Ukraine covered almost all of the Northern European Plain. Not only that, but Russia used its influenc in Ukraine to sign a long term lease on the warmwate port of Sevastopol which greatly expanded the naval capabilities of Russia’s black-se fleet21. Except, Ukraine as a whole progressed to b 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 claime Russia’s invasion was to save the Russians of th area from the increasingly westernizing country, the annexation of Crimea was in reality  strategic imperative to keep warm-water port of Sevastopol. A Ukraine that was friendlier to th west likely would have ended Russia’s lease on the port so in Putin’s mind, he neede to invade Crimea in order to prevent a crippling blo to Russia’s ocean access. Now, Russia has managed to overcome many o its geographic challenges partially because of two things--oil and natural gas. It has enormous energy reserves partiall because of its enormous size. Russian natural gas pipelines provide fo 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 natura gas . This 22 gas dependency is a major reason wh Germany, for example, a country with high Russian oil dependency, is much less likel to criticize Russia than a country like the UK which has virtually zero Russian gas dependency. I Russia shut off the gas to Germany, it would devastate them, but stopping gas exports t the UK would have little effect. The US has attempted to reduce Russian influenc in Europe by exporting liquefied natural gas across the Atlantic. It costs more, but it allows western europea countries to buy their energy from their American ally. Now, none of this discussion of ports an power is to say that if there was no Norway o Sweden blocking the way to the ocean and the water was a bit warmer Russia would be th Sweden of the East. Saying that would be foolish. Geography does have an enormous influenc on human development, but it doesn’t determine it. Much of history is defined by chance, no circumstance because, in the end, reality is just the confluence of chance and circumstance. This video was made possible by Backblaze so I was going to do this big complicated pitch where I figure out the valu of computer data in order to calculate the return on investment for signing up to Backblaze but then it was pointed out to me that, you already know you should back up your data. It’s like brushing your teeth, doing th dishes, taking out the trash—its something that you know you should do but don’t wan to because its easy to ignore it. The only thing is, backing up your data doesn’ have to be difficult or expensive. With backblaze, you just download their applicatio to your computer, pay $5 per month, and it works I the background continuously backing up your data. You can just completely forget about it.If you ever do lose your data, all you hav to do is sign into your account at and download your data. If your internet isn’ fast enough, they even have an option to ship you a physical drive with your data instead. Whats best is that you can try this out fo free for 15 days by using the link wendover. If you lose your data during those 15 days you’ll still get it back at no cost. Afte that its only $5 per month for the peace of mind of knowing that, no matter what, you data is safe. By signing up at this link, you’ll als be helping me out so I can make more great Wendover Productions videos. Once again, sign up over at to get a 15 day free trial—thats 15 free days o knowing your data is safe. I want to remind you to check out the vide that Alternate History Hub made about what the world would be like if Russia didn’ exist. It’s a great video, and then h collaborated with Real Life Lore to make another great video about what would happen I the Soviet Union Reunited. Other than that, you can support Wendove Productions at wendoverproductions, follow me on Twitte @WendoverPro, watch my last video on The Economics of Airline Class here, check ou my fan-moderated subreddit here, and most oall, subscribe to this channel to receive all my future videos right when they com out. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll se you in two weeks for another Wendover Productions video.

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