I rarely post about contemporary events, particularly ones involving any kind of armed conflict. Too often we don’t have a clear view of what’s happening, and what we do know comes through the fog of war. Which I definitely think is the case in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s often years, sometimes decades, before we find out about much of what’s happening in times like this.
However, I do sometimes like reading history related to these events. Often that history may offer insights into what’s happening. I suspect and hope government officials are aware of these factors, but I’m only seeing them discussed glancingly in the public commentary.
The question is, why invade Ukraine? Much of the commentary has focused on Putin and rumors about his state of mind. Other commentary on his comments years ago that the fall of the Soviet Union was a catastrophic mistake. So maybe this is about him trying to rebuild the Soviet Union. Or maybe it’s deeper than that, more about trying to rebuild the old Russian Empire.
The history here is interesting. The beginnings of the Rus’ people seem to be in early Varangian (Viking) migrations into the relevant regions. In the early centuries Rus’ was actually centered on medieval Kiev (modern day Kyiv). But Kievan Rus’ was cut short by the Mongol invasions and occupied for centuries.
Moscow managed to stay outside of that occupation, although they had to pay tribute to the Mongols and their successor state, the Golden Horde. Muscovite Russians later felt like Ukrainians were lost brethren being brought back into the fold. But the two groups had been separated for centuries, and the Ukrainians never subsequently felt like part of the family. Russia’s often brutal treatment of Ukraine throughout its history hasn’t helped.
But this sense of Russian brethren largely fits with a lot of the rhetoric Putin issued prior to the invasion. He seems to see Ukraine as part of greater Russia. But this leads to the question, why have the Russians historically cared about Ukraine? Was it just bloody-minded expansionism? Or was there something more strategic involved? And is Putin motivated by similar concerns today?
In modern times, most international trade takes place on the seas. This wasn’t always true. The ancient Silk Road ran overland through Asia. But when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, it cut off the Silk Road. This forced Europeans to find alternate routes to eastern lands, which they did by developing new navigation techniques and exploring new sea routes.
The result is that world trade shifted to this new theater. It meant that countries that were landlocked, without access to the oceans, were at a major disadvantage in terms of trade. Having access to oceans dramatically increases the number of trading partners you can have, substantially increasing the standard of living for a country’s residents.
A cursory glance at Russia on a map wouldn’t lead you to think this is an issue for them. They appear to have extensive coastlines. However, most of their coastline is on the Arctic Ocean. The ports there are remote, and the waters at those ports are frozen most of the year. Russia also has access to the pacific ocean, but this is in the far east. 80% of Russians live west of the Ural Mountains. Anything shipped through those eastern ports would have to be transported across the vastness of Siberia.
Early in its history, Russia understood this, and made gaining access to warm water ports a priority. Tsar Peter I (the Great) managed this in the early 1700s when he successfully conquered territory on the shores of the Baltic Sea. He considered this territory so critical he built a new city there, named it Saint Petersburg, and made it his new capital. (It would remain the capital of the Russian Empire until the Communists took over in 1917.)
But while the Baltic Sea was a vast improvement over the White Sea and Arctic Ocean, there were still issues. Baltic ports are still frozen for part of the year. And Saint Petersburg is at the inner extreme of the Baltic Sea, with passage between several other countries that could complicate Russia’s access to the broader oceans. The Russian Empire partially alleviated some of these concerns by later conquering the Baltic states and Finland, giving them broader and more secure access to that sea. But it’s worth noting that today, Russia’s access is again somewhat narrow.
Peter also wanted access to the Black Sea. Much further south, it has ports that generally don’t freeze. And it would give Russia easy access to trading in the Mediterranean. (In modern times, the value of this access is enhanced by the Suez Canal.) Peter I wasn’t able to accomplish this in his time, but later rulers did. By conquering Ukraine and adjacent regions.
That explains Russia’s historical interest in this region. But what’s with the contemporary situation? Again, looking at a map, Russia seems to have access to the Black Sea on its own, with no need for Ukrainian territory. But similar to the Baltic Sea situation, that access is on the northeastern shores of the Black Sea. Any navigation has to pass by Ukraine, notably the Crimea.
On top of that, Seveastopol, the largest city in Crimea, has historically been the base of operations for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Which seems to explain Russia’s interest in this region, and why they siezed it in 2014. The Russian mindset may be that a hostile Ukraine would be a risk to access of Crimea and more broadly through the Black Sea.
(Interestingly enough, another vulnerability for anyone accessing the Mediterranean through the Black Sea is that it involves passage through the Bosporus, the Strait of Istanbul. Russia realized this in the 19th century, and once tried to make alliances in order to seize it from the Ottoman Empire. Turkey undoubtedly was aware of this history and their strategic situation, which is probably why they joined NATO pretty early in its history.)
It’s probably also worth mentioning that the fertile productivity of Russian lands has never been great, maybe related to distance from the seas and the resulting temperatures. However, the productivity of Ukraine’s soil is relatively high. I suspect Russia is dependent on grain from Ukraine to at least some degree, which introduces another danger from a hostile Ukraine.
So maybe this explains why Putin felt it was in his interest to unleash death and misery on Ukraine, even knowing it would cause economic pain for his country. He may be betting that the pain from sanctions is relatively short term and weighing it against the longer term benefits of controlling Ukraine. Maybe. Although if he does decide to nationalize the assets of companies that pull out, it may be a very long time before they trust Russia enough to invest in it again, so the pain might be far longer than he’s contemplating.
None of this necessarily gives us clues on how this ends. One thing I was struck by when reading the history of this region, is how often efforts at western liberalization seem to fail. The Russians knew in the early industrial period that they were at a major disadvantage with most of their population being stuck in illiterate serfdom, but efforts to rectify this always seemed to run up against ruling class interests.
In the late 1800s, as progress finally started to be made, it resulted in a more educated population, but one with seething resentments, that eventually culminated in the 1917 revolutions, and ultimately a return to an authoritarian state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it looked for a short time like Russia might finally be headed for democracy, but the chaos and pain that ensued drove the population back into the hands of an autocrat, who could at least make the trains run on time and pay the bills.
That seems to be a recurring pattern in Russian history. Plurality rarely appears to work. The lesson always seems to be that a strong authority is more important than one that takes into account everyone’s interests. Of course, that means one man’s miscalculations can be very costly for an entire society.
Overall, this history makes it hard to be optimistic about how things might turn out. This is a case where I really hope I’m missing something.
I got a lot of the information for this post from Russian History: A Very Short Introduction, and Russian History from the Captivating History series. The second one in particular I found pretty informative and recommend checking out if you’re interested.