Presidential Press and Information Office Donguzskij

The Plain, the Line, & the Gap: Russia’s Western Front

Geopolitics is the analysis of geographic influences on power relationships in international relations; a succinct enough sentence for one of the primary factors affecting how states interact with each other. Though much of geopolitical writing has tended towards the more political than the more geographical, the latter has a far more lasting effect on the geopolitical positions of nations. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines the dramatic effect of geography on Russia’s history, destiny and modern strategy.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Examples of geopolitics are myriad, and can be seen in the failures of the mighty Roman Empire to bring Scotland into the fold, the importance of the Khyber Pass from antiquity to modernity, the fact that Pizarro conquered the Inca three hundred and fifty years before the scramble for a far closer continent, among many others. Perhaps geography is not mentioned often because it is effectively constant. Governments change, alliances shift, Switzerland’s mountains are still there.

Russia, however, lacks such a natural border as mountains or water. Its major mountain range, the Urals, is entirely within the country and thus provides no defensive advantage (unless, of course, an invading power were to completely occupy either European or Asian Russia). The Caucasus are also relevant for Russian strategy, yet Russia controls only the north slope of the range. There are also no major bodies of water or rivers that serve to defend Russia. The Volga might be the longest river in Europe, but its function in Russia is purely domestic. Russia’s major ports on the Baltic and Black seas are easily contained; in the event of war with NATO the Russian fleets in Baltiysk and Sevastopol would be trapped. Russia’s primary advantage, which to many other nations might well be a disadvantage, is its land.

Mackinder, one of the founders of geopolitics as a discipline, put forth his Theory of the Heartland (image below), stating that whichever power controlled the heartland of the World Island could control the world itself. The theory emerged in 1904, but was quickly found lacking the next year by decisive Japanese victory over Russia. The Russian Baltic fleet sailed the long way to join the fray and was promptly defeated, while the Trans-Siberian railroad was still incomplete, making it very difficult for Russian reinforcements to come to the front. The Russian Empire controlled the Heartland, but nothing else.

The Heartland (or pivot area) of Mackinder’s theory strongly resembles the borders of the Russian Empire and USSR.

Russia’s control of the Heartland has informed its ambitions and its strategy for nearly as long as there has been a Russia. Lacking in natural defensive borders that can secure it, Russia is rich in land. A strong army, however, cannot project power in the same way that a strong navy can (partially explaining why the Great Game occured in Central Asia instead of Scandinavia), which means that Russian power can only be projected in its immediate area and wherever its allies may be. Russia has no answer to America’s Guam and Britain’s Diego Garcia from which it can play a role in conflicts around the world. It thus remains a regional power, strong within the Heartland but dependent on the goodwill (or desperation) of actors such as Assad for any influence beyond its immediate frontiers.

These logistical difficulties in projecting power have informed Russia’s perspective for much of its history. Looking to Europe, there are three key aspects of geography that must be considered by political scientists and geographers in order to come to a full understanding of Russian strategy, past and present. These three aspects are the Great European Plain, the Peterburg-Rostov line, and the Suwalki Gap.

The Great European Plain stretches from the Urals in the east all the way to the Atlantic coast of France.

Looking at the above topographical map of Europe, certain political features are clearly visible, such as the Spanish-French, Czech-German, and Romanian-Bulgarian borders. It is nearly impossible, however, to pin down precisely where Russia begins and ends. It is also comparably more difficult to invade Italy with cavalry or tanks than it is to invade Russia. With this in mind, Russian strategy has primarily focused on acquiring as much land along its borders as possible and using them as a sort of “crumple zone” in the same sense as cars do: to protect the more valuable sections within. Antagonists such as Napoleon and Hitler have sought to rule Russia, but were brought to heel in part because of the bitter winter, but also because of the simple yet possibly-frightening fact that if you travel far enough to the east, eventually you’ll be surrounded by Russia.

The effect of the geography is most readily visible in studying the Russian strategy in response to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. By harassing the enemy while also transporting entire factories and populations further east, and forcing the enemy to stretch and overextend his supply lines while maintaining strong internal lines, the Soviet forces could bend but not be broken. It directly contributed to the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad: having advanced deep within Soviet territory but at a great expense of blood, the Soviets held firm when the Nazis were ill-equipped for winter and ill-prepared to fend off a counter-assault. The Soviets bent, but the Nazis broke, just past the Peterburg-Rostov line. Essentially, this is the line beyond which lies the true Russian heartland. With exceptions, the Russian people and their agriculture and industry lie to the east of this line. Everything to the west is part of the crumple zone.

The Russian Empire’s “crumple zone” west of the Peterburg-Rostov line in 1914, which would contract in 1917, expand greatly after 1945 and contract again after 1991.

Caught in the limbo of being simultaneously a European country yet distinctly un-European, Russia is strategically vulnerable to Europe in a way that it is not to Asia. Most of Russia’s population and production is on the European side of the Urals, and with nothing but wide-open plains to defend them, it becomes necessary to adapt the terrain to their advantage. Though Poland suffered multiple partitions throughout its history, it might not have happened that way; had there been another power further east of Russia, it could be Russia which might have ended up partitioned, as it has the same basic vulnerability as Poland.

Instead, Russia has been able to use the Poles and other nationalities as part of its crumple zone, which can be thought of in terms of tiers, drawing upon George Friedman‘s work on the line. Most easily imagined in terms of the Cold War, the first tier was comprised of those states which were directly under Moscow’s control: Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. The second tier includes Poland, Rumania, and other Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe, while the third would include East Germany, stretching Russia’s crumple zone deep into Europe. Ultimately communism proved unsustainable, and so this defensive perimeter collapsed, leaving only Russia’s direct control over the Kaliningrad oblast on the Baltic and an alliance of convenience with Belarus as NATO expanded to fill the vacuum left behind by the sudden demise of the Soviet Union.

Image result for suwalki gap
In the event of a Russia-NATO conflict, securing the 65-mile-long Suwalki Gap will likely be the initial objective of both sides.

Given the rise of tensions between Russia and NATO since Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the present political geography is no less important for strategic planning than any other aspect. Russia, having lost almost all of its crumple zone, has found itself on the back foot in trying to reestablish that perimeter in the face of an expansionist NATO. This is not to blame NATO, but to make sense of Russia’s actions. Many analysts, including some of Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s own, have anticipated a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, something which is not altogether impossible to imagine, and may well be sold in the Russian media as a defensive measure to secure the homeland.

A largely meaningless decision in 1945 to integrate former East Prussia into the Russian SFSR directly as the Kaliningrad oblast has now become a major thorn in the side of NATO. By its existence, there exists a 65 mile (104km) line between Poland and Lithuania, the only land connection between the Baltic states and the rest of NATO. Simultaneously, there is a 65 mile line that must be controlled by Russia if it wishes to resupply Kaliningrad by land. This region, roughly the size of Connecticut, is all that remains of the crumple zone. Belarus may be a Russian ally, but President Lukashenko highly values his state’s sovereignty, and may be officially neutral in any conflict yet permit access so as not to be conquered himself. Thus in order to secure more of a defensive perimeter, any strike on the Baltics would need to be swift, and it would need to secure this small strip of land in order to prevent NATO from effectively reinforcing its position in the Baltic. This was the scenario which I suspect was likely on the minds of planners of last month’s Zapad exercises, using the pretense of defending Belarus from a Ukraine-style revolution.

Russia remembers its history well. May 9th is celebrated as Victory Day, marking Nazi Germany’s surrender. Victory Park in Moscow is dedicated to the triumph over Napoleon, being situated on the very hill on which the French emperor waited in vain for the keys to Moscow’s Kremlin. Commemoration of the Bolshevik revolution was replaced by National Unity Day on November 4th, marking the uprising that threw out the Polish occupiers from Moscow four hundred years ago. The revered Orthodox icon Theotokos of Vladimir is considered to have saved Moscow from Tamerlane’s conquests in 1395. And Aleksandr Nevsky, later canonized as a saint, defended Novgorod and Kievan Rus’ from both the Swedes and the Livonian Order. Russian history is one of repeated expansion and contraction, and given the lack of any natural barriers, the land itself has become a soft barrier. This is Russia’s geopolitics and Russia’s Western Front. Stripped of its crumple zone, Russia is vulnerable, and will seek creative ways to offset and even negate this vulnerability.

No matter the political situation, military strategists and tacticians must all fall into line before the hard law of geography and understand the view of Europe from the East.

Suggested reading list on this topic:

Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois who is currently completing his postgraduate studies in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon has experience living and working in both Ukraine and Russia, and now focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of Russia

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