When Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union 'a major geopolitical disaster of the century' he wasn't channelling his inner Marxist-Leninist. Russia's leader is not interested in remaking the Soviet empire, which finally fell apart 30 years ago today, on Boxing Day 1991. But he does want to roll back the losses of the post Cold War era, expand Russia’s sphere of influence, and build a buffer zone around the homeland. It's this that explains Russian aggression on the borders of Ukraine. While western observers might like to paint this as mindless sabre-rattling, the reality is that this massing of troops is driven by fear – and the memories of past encroachments onto Russian soil.
Understanding this is key to realising what Putin is up to. Russia's leader is a politician whose nationalism has been on display in every foreign policy move throughout his time in power. During the 1999 Kosovo War it’s thought he was one of the foreign policy hawks successfully urging president Yeltsin to send an armoured column to Pristina Air Base ahead of Nato troops arriving. That was a watershed moment, the signal sent to Nato was: ‘This far – and no further’. It was ignored.
Russian thinking is dominated by its geography and history. It has been invaded via the flat land to its west by Sweden, Poland, the Lithuanian Empire, the French, and the Germans (twice). The Russians don’t want to defend along a 1,000-mile-long flat frontier, their reflex is to try to push up to the 300-mile gap between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathians and plug it. Unfortunately that space is better known by another name: Poland.
The Russians also want, at the least, a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine to guarantee Nato troops will not be on the border with short supply lines. So when Ukraine flipped, Putin engineered the uprising in the Donbass region (creating a mini buffer zone) and annexed Crimea.
Moscow’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia is also linked to the fear of Nato advancing ever closer. The former Warsaw Pact members Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Albania, GDR (East Germany) and the Czech Republic/Slovakia are all now in Nato. It is also why Russia keep 2,000 troops in the Moldavian breakaway republic of Transnistria.
Much of its Arctic policy is derived from the same impulse. Russia’s submarine-based nuclear second-strike ability is on the Kola Peninsula adjoining Finland. Putin has made it a priority that Russia’s economic interests in the Arctic will be protected by its military. Vast untapped reserves of oil and gas have been found, some in waters with overlapping sovereignty claims. Moscow staked its claim on most of the Arctic in 2007 by planting a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. Russia also expects to increase its share of fish in the ocean as warming waters push fish northwards.
Moscow is trying to take advantage of the melting ice by establishing the Northern Sea route along its coastline as a major trade corridor between Europe and Asia by 2035. That is a work in slow progress; the volume of traffic is well below what Russia expected by 2021. Nevertheless, trade is expected to grow, and if so Russia can profit from port and transit fees and build a bigger market in Asia for its oil and gas. To safeguard these interests, Putin has re-opened several Arctic military bases which were mothballed after the Cold War ended. He has also invested in new radar and drone bases.
Elsewhere Moscow has also been busy causing mischief by increasing the rate of its surface ship, submarine, and air patrols. The aim here is to test Nato’s response times while it has been conducting joint naval exercises just 100 miles from Russia’s coast, and cold weather troops have been training in northern Norway. Each side views the other as a threat; they are toe to toe in the Arctic, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and getting closer to each other in eastern Europe.
Russia does not have many friends. The overstated friendly relationship between Turkey’s president Erdogan and Putin is not a ‘bromance’ but more ‘frenemies’. As for the Iranians, they have long memories: Russia annexed territory it controlled and then, in the guise of the Soviets, occupied Iran itself.
Moscow has made efforts to be the dominant outside power in the Central Asian Republics, but here again, there are memories of de facto occupation. The mass forced deportations of peoples, mostly to, but also from, Central Asia also complicates relations. As for China, Beijing now successfully competes for influence in the region thus blocking Moscow’s attempts to roll back the losses of the end of the Cold War.
Eastern Europe though is the flashpoint; Russia views encroachment on its borders as an existential matter. This stance will not change. In the event of renewed major conflict in Ukraine, Russia would probably seek to increase the buffer zone, linking the Donbas down to the Crimea and cutting Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov. If Belarus looked as if it might follow Ukraine out of the Russian orbit it is probable Russian troops would cross the border and end up on the Polish frontier.
Neither scenario may come to pass, but if either did, the root cause would not be mindless Russian aggression – it’s fear. Nato is not a threat, but in the Russian mind centuries of violent history will not be erased by decades without war.
Tim Marshall is the author of Prisoners of Geography