Russia is in a geographically vulnerable position; its core is inherently landlocked, and the choke points that its ships would have to traverse to gain access to oceans could be easily cut off. Therefore, Russia can’t be Athens. It must be Sparta, and that means it must be a land power and assume the cultural character of a Spartan nation. Russia must have tough if not sophisticated troops fighting ground wars. It must also be able to produce enough wealth to sustain its military as well as provide a reasonable standard of living for its people—but Russia will not be able to match Europe in this regard.
So it isn’t prosperity that binds the country together, but a shared idealized vision of and loyalty toward Mother Russia. And in this sense, there is a deep chasm between both Europe and the United States (which use prosperity as a justification for loyalty) and Russia (for whom loyalty derives from the power of the state and the inherent definition of being Russian). This support for the Russian nation remains powerful, despite the existence of diverse ethnic groups throughout the country.
As a land power, Russia is inherently vulnerable. It sits on the European plain with few natural barriers to stop an enemy coming from the west. East of the Carpathian Mountains, the plain pivots southward, and the door to Russia opens. In addition, Russia has few rivers, which makes internal transport difficult and further reduces economic efficiency. What agricultural output there is must be transported to markets, and that means the transport system must function well. And with so much of its economic activity located close to the border, and so few natural barriers, Russia is at risk.
It should be no surprise then that Russia’s national strategy is to move its frontier as far west as possible. The first tier of countries on the European Peninsula’s eastern edge—the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine—provide depth from which Russia can protect itself, and also provide additional economic opportunities.
With regard to the current battle over Ukraine, the Russians have to assume that the Euro-American interest in creating a pro-Western regime has a purpose beyond Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, not only have they lost a critical buffer zone, but Ukrainian forces hostile to Russia have moved toward the Russian border. It should be noted that the area that the Russians defend most heavily is the area just west of the Russian border, buying as much space as they can.
The fact that this scenario leaves Russia in a precarious position means that the Russians are unlikely to leave the Ukrainian question where it is. Russia does not have the option of assuming that the West’s interest in the region comes from good intentions. At the same time, the West cannot assume that Russia—if it reclaims Ukraine—will stop there. Therefore, we are in the classic case where two forces assume the worst about each other. But Russia occupies the weaker position, having lost the first tier of the European Peninsula. It is struggling to maintain the physical integrity of the Motherland.
Russia does not have the ability to project significant force because its naval force is bottled up and because you cannot support major forces from the air alone. Although it became involved in the Syrian conflict to demonstrate its military capabilities and gain leverage with the West, this operation is peripheral to Russia’s main interests. The primary issue is the western frontier and Ukraine. In the south, the focus is on the Caucasus.
It is clear that Russia’s economy, based as it is on energy exports, is in serious trouble given the plummeting price of oil in the past year and a half. But Russia has always been in serious economic trouble. Its economy was catastrophic prior to World War II, but it won the war anyway… at a cost that few other countries could bear. Russia may be a landlocked and poor country, but it can nonetheless raise an army of loyal Spartans. Europe is wealthy and sophisticated, but its soldiers have complex souls. As for the Americans, they are far away and may choose not to get involved. This gives the Russians an opportunity. However bad their economy is at the moment, the simplicity of their geographic position in all respects gives them capabilities that can surprise their opponents and perhaps even make the Russians more dangerous.