War has returned to Europe. It’s on our screens, portraying a scale absent from the continent for a lifetime, with news and social media displaying the raw brutality of it all. As the future of Ukraine is being fought over, the entire world is asking, why did Russia choose to invade? What changed from the status quo established by the Minsk agreement and annexation of Crimea in 2014? While many pundits focus on Vladimir Putin’s personal justification and psychology, the historical context paints a bigger picture.
Foremost, there is the historical precedent of geography, which shaped Russian military and foreign policy for centuries. Over three-quarters of the 144 million Russians are concentrated West of the Ural Mountain chain, acting as the natural border of Europe, and located primarily on the Great European Plain.
This natural feature, a long, funnel-like continuous flat plain, is concentrated in Poland, starting at 200 miles, due to the Carpathian Mountains, which expand exponentially toward Russia. Essentially, this creates an indefensible Russian position against western invasion where it is easiest to invade.
Russian leadership has learned from history that natural borders are their best friend, and that a lack of them ends in disaster. Historically, European armies, from Napoleon to Hitler, have used this highway to invade Russia, since it becomes most indefensible as the plain meets the population centers below the Ural Mountains.
Additionally, as a world power, Russia is limited in its ability to project power via its navy. Furthermore, when analyzing Russian geography, most of their ports are frozen during the winter or located far from strategic positions. This motivated the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when the lease on the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, Russia’s only strategically placed warm-water port, was ending.
Lastly, by the southernmost end of the plain before the barrier of the Carpathian Mountains, is Ukraine, sharing the largest border with western Russia of more than 1,900 km. For Russia, Ukraine lies along the corroded arteries of the Russian state and therefore, needs to be a buffer state ensuring NATO doesn’t have the military capability to disrupt the oil and industrial-rich area of the Volga River along the southern end of the Great European Plain.
Western influence in Ukraine puts Russia at a strategic disadvantage, expanding the possible defensive front beyond a defensible position, practically ensuring a western victory in the theoretical case of war.
Regardless of what any Ukrainian government says or does, Russian history has been made and broken by this geography and the Kremlin will be motivated to harden these vulnerabilities, irrelevant to the current degree of threats to it.
BUT WHY the urgency?
Firstly, the importance of Russian energy. Currently, Russia enjoys a near-monopoly in the European energy market as the EU collectively receives 40% of its energy from Russia. This market share allows Gazprom, a state-owned company, to artificially raise prices and provides the Kremlin with the ability to weaponize exports to extract concessions.
However, this is a double-edged sword, as Gazprom and Rosneft, the other significant Russian oil company, allegedly make up more than 25% of budget revenues, making Russia dependent on the EU.
Recent discoveries in Ukraine reveal 39 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, ranking 23rd largest globally. These reserves are concentrated mainly in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Crimea and along the Donbas, areas contested by Russia.
However, $19.5 billion would be required to develop the sector into a competitor. While in the short term, this won’t threaten a sector that is over 40% of the Russian economy, European oil dependency in the eyes of the Kremlin is vital to national security.
Therefore, the current fronts of the invasion and negotiations demands demonstrate an insistence from the Kremlin to harden their holdings on key areas for today, to prevent threats to national security in the future.
The final piece of this puzzle is Russian demography. Currently, there is a twofold crisis that will have an acute impact on their military. Firstly, the Russian fertility rate is less than 1.2 births per woman, the largest peacetime decline in the nation’s history, and not enough to sustain the current population size, a haunting statistic that leadership is aware of.
Additionally, due to poor health infrastructure, the Russian male life expectancy ranks 113th in the world at 67 years old. This results in a wonky-looking demographic chart with two exceptionally worrying trends. Firstly, the size of the available population for military service is rapidly shrinking.
Secondly, the last Soviet generation is nearing the end of its life. If Putin doesn’t make a move now, the Russian military will be too small to defend its current borders or change them to something defensible. The reason the Russian army is audaciously moving toward Kyiv to break Ukraine’s morale is because it’s their last chance.
Why Putin decided to invade will be debated in the media today and by historians tomorrow. However, the details around the invasion will only muddy the waters of Putin’s personal motivation, since the justification was flimsy, the military was ill-prepared, and logistics broke down to an embarrassing scale.
The maps and demographic trends tell a different story, one of geographic vulnerability dictating Russian strategies for centuries and of a closing window of opportunity. Rather than stare down the barrel of this fate, the Kremlin is demonstrating their urgency to redraw the map by invading Ukraine and having it justifiably backfire.
Nevertheless, they’ll use all their cards, from Belarus, threatening nuclear war, and making exceptional demands for a settlement. In their eyes, the clock struck midnight and Putin is willing to challenge geopolitical norms; the sound was deafening and there’s no turning back.
The writer is a graduate of the Argov Fellows program, former educator, and researcher with an eye for the big picture looking to bring nuance analysis to a broader audience.