PODCAST: The Geopolitics of Russia

Russia’s indefensibility has been a key feature of the huge nation throughout its history as its been invaded multiple times. In this podcast we look at Russia’s eternal geopolitics.
3rd June 202227 min

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[00:00:00] Yusuf: it’s been three months since Russia invaded Ukraine and there’s been a lot of discussion about why Ukraine is so important to Russia. So we’ve been thinking at Geopolity that we’ll do a series on the geopolitics of key nations around. Russia seems like a good place to start as it’s been on the news a lot recently. In future podcasts, we look to do some of the other nations, such as the US, France, UK, China, and Germany, as well as well as different regions around the world.

[00:00:45] Yusuf: So I’ve got geopolity founder Adnan Khan here to discuss the geopolitics of Russia today. How are you keeping Adnan it’s been very long time since we’ve had one of our chats.

[00:00:55] Adnan: I’m good to Yusuf. I’m good. Yeah. It has been a while. Alots been happening. It’s been a while, so it’s good to be back.

[00:01:01] Yusuf: So I guess the best place to start is what do we mean when we’re saying the geopolitics of a nation? What does that term actually mean?

[00:01:12] Adnan: I think that’s a really good place actually. There’s a number of ways we can make sense of any nation. You can look at the people, you can look at the economic structure. You can look at the values of a particular people. Now using a geopolitical framework. It allows us to see what is eternal, and what is not eternal about our nation. So whilst we may assume things change in any country over time. However things such as geography, they don’t change and they remain the same and as a result, they actually affect the behavior of people for long periods of time. So the fact that the US is surrounded by the Pacific and the Atlantic, which is very unique. There is no other country, well, apart from north America, there no other countries that have such a reality. So as a result, America is far away from many of the conflict zones in the world, and this has an impact on American society its impacted America’s power and to the point is even impacted how America gets involved in the world. So although many things change things like geography, which is a heart of geopolitics, they don’t really change and that allows us to identify those fixed factors that impact a nation.

[00:02:30] Adnan: So from this, what we can see is that all societies have imperatives. These are things they need to do in order to survive. And the challenge to survival, it give rise to constraints because there’s limits to what nations can do in order to survive. So a country like Ukraine, a small country, like some of these islands of Latin America and in the Caribbean. They need to survive, but they have a lack of a resources. So what you find is despite all the imperatives, things you need to do to survive, there are limits on how nations can achieve them. So what geopolitics does is it’s all about identifying the imperative and the constraints of nations. And this allows us to make sense of those things that are eternal , and those things that are not about nations. So geopolitics really is about looking at those fixed factors irrespective of time and place, which shape a nation. And, it’s been quite a popular framework really to look at countries.

[00:03:34] Yusuf: So with that definition in mind then, what would we say is Russia’s geopolitical imperatives and what are their constraints?

[00:03:45] Adnan: Okay, so if there’s one word that sums up understanding the geopolitics of Russia, it’s indefensibility. Now, Russia has been around for a few hundred years and in the last 600 years, Russia has been invaded once every century. In the last 200 years, Russia has been invaded on average every 33 years, so you know, Napoleon. You had Germany world war one, and then you had to Nazis in world war II. And if you look at Russia, it’s an absolutely huge country. It straddles i think more than nine times zones. Some parts of Russia are frozen for most parts of the year. Some parts of Russia are warm. Some parts of Russia are above the Arctic circle, where there are parts of the year where the sun doesn’t really set. And there’s also parts of the year where the sun never rises high enough for them to see the day. Russia also has varied climate. So all of this has made it very difficult for Russia to defend all its territories. Now, the reason why Russia is difficult to defend is because the majority of Russia’s population, it sits on what’s called the Northern European plain. This is the area that starts in France, it goes for Germany, goes through Poland and then it opens up and goes right the way into Russia and this has obviously been the route many of the invaders from Europe have come into Russia. You find Russia the European border there’s all natural barriers. it sits on plains. So from Moscow all the way down to the black sea, where Ukraine is, what you find is although there’s a border on a map, there’s no physical border And this has really come to define Russia and the Russian people. Russia started of as a very small city in Moscow and what they’re realised is all around them. They were just surrounded by flatland and they were vulnerable to invasion. Then what they did over the century was they expanded their territory until they got to the Pacific until they go to the Caucuses and they expanded all the way into Europe. So really when we’re looking at the imperatives of Russia, which is how do they survive their expansion of their borders is them defending themselves. So by creating these large buffer zones between your core territory and your borders, what they’re trying to do is defend themselves. And that’s why I use the term, to make sense of Russia its really a discussion about Russia’s indefensibility. So, over the centuries, this imperative has defined Russia again and again and again. So Russia has a certain type of a government always. Russia has a certain type of a military. Russia has a certain type of relationship with the rest of the world due to this indefensibility. So really for Russia to defend itself, it needs to expand and all of that cost money. All of that requires a certain type of economy. All of that requires a large armed forces. And this has defined Russia. If you understand all of this, you can make sense of Russia’s actions.

[00:06:52] Yusuf: So when you say they, and they’re trying to defend themselves, who do you actually mean? Who are the Russian people? What’s their origin?

[00:07:00] Adnan: So the the Russian people they originate from Slavic tribes. The Savik people were groups of pagan tribes that resided and moved to Eastern Europe. That’s were they emerged from. So Russia as we know today, they emerged around Kiev in Ukraine and that should already tell you why Ukraine is so important to Russia. It originated as what was known as the Kievan Rus,’ which was a collection of Slavic tribes and they were in Ukraine around the Dnieper river. And we’re talking here about ninth century onwards. And what happened then was around the 1200 CE, the Mongols were expanding and what they did was they invaded and destroyed Kiev. So those Slavic tribes that survived they migrated 300 miles north and they settled on a plain which they eventually called Muscovy, which we now know as Moscow. So that’s where these people emerged from and eventually they would embrace Christianity. They have their own a church, but as Russia or the Russian people expanded their territories, this brought them into contact with Turkic people, this brought them into contact with Finish people. This bought them into contact with the Tarters who were a type of a Turkic people, and it brought them into contact with Inuit people. So what you find is ethnic Russians, the Slavic tribes, their history is defined by them having to live and cooperate with many people who are ethnically different to them and this has been a big struggle for the Russian people. They’ve had to constantly live and try and get on with people who are ethnically different to them have a different culture. They’ve had to rule over them and Russia is a big territory. So the Russian people although the serotype is white blue eyed christian, you find today you can have Turkic people, you have Tarter people who are mixture of a Turkish people. You have Finish people. The Russian people today, they have mixed with all sorts of different ethnicities, but the Russian people in origin are a white Slavic people, who are more and more becoming a minority in Russia.

[00:09:16] Yusuf: Russia has a history of strong autocratic leaders. Is this in any way connected to the geopolitics of Russia?

[00:09:23] Adnan: Yeah, absolutely, whoever is in power in Russia or Moscow, they have to manage a large territory with varying resources with extreme climate and with infrastructure networks. And actually, if you look at Russia’s history, Really Russia, although one country really its a group of regional economies, regional nations and identities, which is all lumped together as Russia. So as a result the job of whoever leads this country is beyond the resources and capability of Moscow. So that’s why Russia has always gone down the route of autocracy of dictatorship, of a secret service to maintain control of all these territories. So, if you keep in mind the original heartland, or even today, the heartland of Russia is from Moscow down to the Caucuses. This area is surrounded by flatland and all sorts of people that could invade it. So their best form of defence for the Russian people was to exp and. But obviously, if you’re going to expand you’d have to conquer other people. So as a result, Russia had a strong history of a strong leader, autocratic leaders, you don’t get democracy generally in Russian history, you don’t get consensus type rule. You don’t get a parliament as effective. What you usually have is a faction or a very strong leader. So if you look Ivan, the terrible, Peter and Catherine the great, Stalin and Putin. This is very characteristic of Russia’s history. And again, this goes back to there geopolitics, where they are trying to maintain control of a large area, which requires a lot of resources and resources they don’t have that in order to defend themselves. Having autocratic strong leaders has been a constant feature of Russia’s history.

[00:11:18] Yusuf: I feel that even though they’ve had these very strong leaders, they’ve always had economic troubles in the past. So there are regularly collapses in the country, for example, in 1917 and then again in 1991, what’s the reason for that.

[00:11:34] Adnan: So Russia, it is the largest country in the world. It straddles, I think over nine times zones, but 75% of Russia is uninhabitable. Most of Russia is frozen for over six months of the year. And in the summer, a lot of this area, it turned into marshland. So you’re not going to get much agriculture day and it’s actually very, very difficult to live there. And all this means it makes domestic internal trade very difficult. But one of the things that Napoleon, actually said when he invaded Russia in the early 1800s is they’ll conquer a town and in the next town will be 2 – 300 miles away that literally in between town, there was no infrastructure. There was nothing. The one, the reasons why Napoleon’a force and all forces, who invade Russia struggle it’s such a huge country. How do you feed your troops? How do you maintain them? You’ve got hundreds of miles of land in between towns. This makes invasion difficult, but it also means domestic trade and domestic economic development is also difficult. Russia also is struggled with maritime trade. I think 95% of global trade is via the ocean and I think apart from one port in the black sea, most of Russia’s ports are frozen for most parts of the year and the Black Sea port in Crimea, which is a warm water port meaning that for mostly year the water’s not frozen, it can be blocked by a Turkey. So Russia heartland can only be defended by expanding Russia’s borders. But expanding Russia’s borders come at immense financial, political, economic, social costs. So in effect Russia’s imperative to survive is completely out of sync with the abilities capabilities they have. Russia has to defend, protect such a huge country that just takes up so much resources, or either you take care of your people or you take care of your country. So to give you an example, In the last decade of the Soviet union. So in the 1980s, half of industrial production of the union was going towards maintaining the military. It wasn’t actually going for the benefit of the domestic economy. And that’s why Russia has a regular history of the economy collpasing Russia collapses, a strong ruler comes, he unites the nation. He builds some of the economy. Then he or she have to expand Russian territory to defend it. And there comes a point where maintaining Russia’s borders is undertaken at the cost of taking care of the people. And in the most recent history, we saw that under the Soviet Union. We saw how near the end of the Soviet union, when it was made public russians budget, Russia spending people are horrified the amount of money that was going towards the military. They were absolutely horrified and then now they could understand why they queuing up for toilet row and bread because most of the money that was being made in the country was going towards maintaining the military. Now the military was being used to defend the country and this is the age old Russian problem in order to defend the country, the, to expand their borders, this requires resources. And then eventually this leads to an uprising and the removal of the government, because people have enough of their resources being siphoned off to defending the country rather than their own economic prosperity.

[00:14:54] Yusuf: Now you’ve painted quite a bleak picture about Russian past and even their future. It seems like quite an impossible situation that they’re in. Isn’t there, anything that they can do differently?

[00:15:08] Adnan: This comes to the heart of geopolitics Yusef the assumption here is Russia has various options, but Russia’s geography is not going to change. The fact that Russia is a huge country, the fact that 75% people can’t live on, the fact that where most of Russia’s population reside, which is in European Russia, is surrounded by indefensible borders. This has been the case in the ninth century with the Kievan Rus. This was the same under Peter and Catherine the great, it was the same under the Communists. And it’s the same today. And this is why using geopolitics is a very handy tool to use because we look at those things that don’t change. They could change the type of ruler that they’ve got, they could change the type of economy they have, but we’re assuming here that the throw of the geopolitical dice gives you options. Geopolitics is about geography, its about power and where the Russian people are, where they reside, your contrained by geography. You can try and use technology to get and Russia has tried that but this is where the Russian people emerged. this is where they resided. This is where their Homeland is. And as a result, the best they’ve tried to do is make use of their resources in a way where they take care of the Russian people and actually protect themselves aswell.

[00:16:26] Yusuf: So you mentioned the Soviet Union in your last question, now what was the impact of Communism in Russia? Has that had a lasting impact even to today?

[00:16:37] Adnan: So under the Soviet Union, under communism, Russia expanded to its furthest extent. Russia’s borders was from the Pacific, it was all the way on the border with Afghanistan. It went all the way into the Caucuses into Azerbaijan Armenia and its border was a 1000 miles in Europe from Moscow all the way in Berlin. This was when Russia was its most secure. The Russian people had lots of buffer zones around them in any invasion. Russia could fall back and prepare his forces. For any one to invade Russia during the Soviet union, it was a tall order because the heartland of Russia was way further than their borders where. On the other hand, what communism also did is it ripped the heart out of Russian society and the Russian people. So communism, it completely abhorred the religion. Religion had no part to play in in fact, it was the opium of the masses you’ve all been fooled. Now keep in mind culturally, the Russian people had their own church. They.re Christian people and when the Soviet union came and implemented communism this was completely ripped out from the nation. Then on top of that, the Soviet union expanded into central Asia and these are different people. It expanded into the caucuses. It expanded into Eastern Europe. So on one hand, you’ve got communism and now you’re ruling over people who have completely different beliefs. So you find what the Soviet union did it used a secret service. It used the iron hand. It used the very brutal tactics by Stalin to really control the people. So I will say in many ways, the Soviet union made Russia, but it also destroyed Russia at the same time. They destroyed the Russian people. And in fact, today, A lot of the things that were achieved on the Soviet union, the problem is still with us today. So the fact that Russia population is in decline, the fact that Russia suffered from so many social problems, alot of is goes back to communism. So on one hand the Soviet union took the Russian people into space. They developed lots of technology. They invented Intercontinental ballistic missiles. They established or try to win people to a utopia. Many people around the world sacrificed for achieving the ideals of communism. On the other hand it completely destroyed the social fabric of the Russian people. And that’s why in the 1990s, not surprising many of the former Soviet Republics, they jumped ship as quickly as they could. These Eastern European countries became independent. Ukraine became independent, Central Asian Republic became independent. So it was in many ways a double-edged sword.

[00:19:14] Yusuf: So we’ve talked about where Russia came from and its people and the geopolitics around it. Does the war in Ukraine today fit into that same context or is this something different going on?

[00:19:27] Adnan: So, yeah, the war in Ukraine, it completely fits into Russia’s historical geopolitical challenges. Ukraine is where the Russian people Slavic people originate from it is on the border with Russia. It is a buffer region to the Heartland of Russia. So historically Russia has always tried to expand and have Ukraine as a buffer zone. So, what you’re seeing take place in Ukraine currently is really just a modern version of an age old problem that Russia had to deal with. So if you look at it, the argument for Ukraine by the Russians has constantly been, if Ukraine joins NATO, if Ukraine is not with Russia, the west have come right up to Russia’s border. The north of Ukraine is a couple of hundred miles Moscow so this is an existential for a Russia. This is a geopolitical constraint russia has. So really what’s going on in Ukraine is really part of the long history of Russia. So, expanding from the Heartland of Russia to have a buffer zone. Ukraine is probably the key buffer zone russia needs, the full of Ukraine, Ukraine going Western now mean the west are right up to Russia’s borders. And keep in mind historically the major threat major invasion route has been on the Northern European, plain. The German forces the French forces, the Lithuanian forces, the Polish forces have come through the Northern European plane to come and invade Russia. As far as the Russian people are concerned, they are just seeing the modern version of that today.

[00:21:04] Yusuf: So you, you can never talk about Russia without talking about Vladimir Putin. He has been there since, as far as I can remember, and he apparently has single-handedly taken Russia into war in Ukraine. Where does he actually fit in, in Russia’s long history of autocratic leaders?

[00:21:25] Adnan: So that’s a great question actually because Putin is really just the recent or modern version of a long line of Russian leaders who have expanded Russia’s borders in order to defend it. Putin came into power when Russia was in chaos in the 1990s, Russia was completely falling apart. It was going through a great depression and the Soviet Union, the Communist party had been thrown out of power in 1991. The KGB had lost its teeth. So the security class who for long had defended the Soviet Union, there were no longer in power. And what Russia experienced was a complete disaster in the 1990s. So Putin who represents security class, they were able to get back into power in 1999. And since then, what they’ve been doing is recentralised in the country, taking back Russia’s resources. Making Russia strong domestically. And then what Putin started doing was expanding into the former Soviet republics, so Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Everything I’ve just said there is what every Russian leader has been doing since the day Russia was created. So Putin is no different to any other Russian leader. Only thing i would add here is the way a lot of this is being reported is it’s Putin Putin personally. Now Russia is too larger country for one person to rule over it. Even Stalin, who was very powerful to rule about Russia, you need a whole class a whole faction to help you. And what you got in Russia is a security class, have a state, a state called Russia and Putin is from the security class. So although the west keep painting Putin. Putin single-handedly is not like that. Putin is from a class of people and that’s the security class. And their view is Russia, the Soviet union was destroyed by the west. They are now fixing that and making Russia a power again. Whilst Putin may be the leader as we know, in any country, one person is never the system or the only leader for any country to operate for any ruler to be effective. You need a whole faction, a whole cost of people around you. And in this case, Putin just represents the security class.

[00:23:39] Yusuf: The security class that you mentioned? it seems like Putin must have a great deal of control over them for him to be in power for such a long period of time. People would argue that is there anyone that could replace putin? What can you tell us about the security class.

[00:23:57] Adnan: So what unites a security class is, they have the same view about their country and the world. Russia’s a victim, Russia collapsed. Russia is a power. Russia should be respected. Russia is strong. That’s what unites the security class. Now obviously someone from amongst them needed to practically rule and because Putin was close eventually to Boris Yeltson who’s completely messed up the country. He happened to emerge. So there are actually many, many people that in fact, Putin had been ruling Russia with about six or seven key advisers. And he’s all from the security class. You’ve got the Secret Service, Putin himself was from the secret service originally. You’ve got the military. And then obviously since then, you’ve had other class of people who have the business class who have emerged. You’ve had to in industrialists, you had the oligarchs as well. So there are actually many people that could replace Putin. And this is where I think west has to be careful here. They all assumed Dimitri Medvedev. He was a bit more Western, a bit more pro-business. And he would open up to the west and he didn’t. And the reason why that is, is he was a protege of Putin. He looks at the world from a Putin standpoint as well. So even when Putin doesn’t decide to call it a day what’s going to happen is this is won’t be a change in Russia. What you’re seeing is a transition and what a transition is, is a face changes, but the underlying system remains. So obviously the wars going on, you’ve got a whole propaganda war going on in Ukraine, and the waste may doubt if Putin made the decision on his own. But what you find is the Russian people have generally supported him. And you’re not seeing a breakdown in the security class. Now this may change mostly going forward. You’ve got the economic sanctions and things like that, but Russia is too large of a country for one person to completely dominate it. You need lots of other people to work with you. And those people you can’t just rule them with the iron fist. It’s just not possible as to what you find is a security class have the same view about making a strong Russia about their view about the world, about their, their view, about even the countries that are their enemies. And that’s what unites them. And that’s what keeps them strong.

[00:26:09] Yusuf: So all these geopolitical constraints that you mentioned, and the factors that we’ve discussed today, if we take those into account, where do you actually see Russia’s future?

[00:26:19] Adnan: So looking forward Yusuf I see Russia facing numerous problems. My personal view is I think Russia has done well considering what happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, I think they’ve gone as far as they really can and the reason why I say that is because Russia is facing significant challenges that are going against it going forward.

[00:26:43] Adnan: The first of these is, is population Russia’s population when the Soviet union collapsed with about 150 million today is down to 140 ish million, and it’s declining they’re in population decline. The publishing that does exist, suffer from numerous health issues due to the collapse of the Soviet union and a problem they had. As their population declines, non-ethnic Russian will become a larger proportion of their population. And from amongst them, the largest already is Muslims. And under the Soviet union and under Putin, he’s had to use an iron fist really to maintain a grip of the Muslim polulation. Also when your population’s declining, the amount of people paying taxes will reduce when your taxes reduce the income and budget will reduce. It leads to a spiral effect of numerous number problems. So Russia is demographics is going against it.

[00:27:35] Adnan: The second problem is, Russia has still failed after 30 years to diversify its economy. 30% of Russia’s GDP relies on energy, 50% of the government budget relies on energy and about 75 to 80% of Russia exports are energy. Now oil and gas, Russia doesn’t determine the price of oil and gas, the oil and gas prices are determined by the international markets. So Russia is dependent upon a commodity where they can’t even set the price. So when oil prices are high, as they were in 2005 to 2015, Russia did very well. The moment oil prices go down. The Russian economy suffers. And now that the west have put sanction than Russia and they’re forcing countries to not trade with Russia, you’re going to have a big problem that they’re really she you’ve got here is after numerous attempts, the government has failed to diversify the Russian economy. Under the Soviet union they used to rely about half just under half their revenue used to come from energy. Today over half of Russia’s government budget it comes from oil and gas. So they heavy dependency on a single industry means most people are not involved in this industry. In Russia. Most people don’t even work in the oil and gas industries as a result they can’t take part in the prosperity and the wealth of the country.

[00:28:55] Adnan: Thirdly, even when we look at Russian energy, Russia’s history of easily accessible energy is actually coming to an end. Most of Russia’s energy we’ve seen for the last 100 years or so have been from oil wells and gas wells in easily accessible areas in the west of Russia. These oil wells and gas wells have gone past 50% usage. And what Russia’s now going to have to do is get energy from a heard accessible areas, which will be more costly and these are areas where people don’t even reside so your gonna have to build new towns. You’re gonna have to move people there. And these are in some very unhittable areas. These are areas where it’s mostly frozen which can be more costly to get the oil out. So. Russia’s dependency on energy is going to get even more problematic as it goes forward.

[00:29:44] Adnan: The other problem going againt Russia is the Arctic is now opening up because of the melting ice rather than going around Africa, going through the Mediterranean to get from one side of the world to the other on tankers. What you’re going to find now is there’s a whole new route open to the north of Russia. Now Russia historically has always had to defend his land borders so Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, central Asia and the Pacific, russia will now have to defend the north of Russia, which is in the Arctic. You’re going to have ships. You can have military ships are going to be going through those areas. There are very few people that live in these areas. There are very few people from Russia who are prepared to even move there. And this is where a lot of Russia future energy is going to be. So this is going to stretch Russia even more to find energy, which is going to be more expensive and to try and run an economy, which is dependent upon a couple of commodities.

[00:30:37] Adnan: The other thing that we’ve also seen is Russia’s military clearly hasn’t modernised. We’ve seen the logistical problems in Ukraine, despite all the talk of these wonder weapons, Russia producing these hypersonic missiles. These drones its Intercontinental ballistic missiles. You find when it comes to bread and butter, military – infantry with air support logistics, occupying a territory and holding it Russia, still stuck in the old Soviet doctrine. So this is going to cost money. This is going to take time and it’s money that Russia is going to see decline due to his dependency on energy and having a very narrow economy.

[00:31:16] Adnan: And the final one and this is probably the most problematic in my opinion, Soviet Union it had a vision for the world. It had a utopia – communism and it propagated that that was its foreign policy and it tried to ferment revolutions around the world. And there were many, many people at one across the world. Today’s Russia has no ideology. It has no values. Russia is nationalistic. It’s about mother Russia. It’s about the world respecting this. Russia actually has no values to offer to the world. It’s not even proposing an alternative to the world order. It has no values to replace the global liberal system. So despite problems with Russia’s hard power when it comes to values and soft power and image, Russia has absolutely nothing. Nobody wants to become Russian. Look at the Ukrainians who for long war under the Soviet Union. They want to separate from Russia, they dont want be any close to Russia. Thats why Russia was forced to invade them. So I think Russia has done well despite what happened at the collapse of the Soviet union. But I think they’ve got numerous problems and I think they’ve got a father early can, I just see the problems of growing and broadening in scope, which is gonna pose even more problems to Russia’s geopolitics.

[00:32:32] Yusuf: Thank you for your time today. It was a really interesting discussion. I hope the listeners enjoyed it as well. I’m looking forward to our future conversations about, uh, the geopolitics of the nations. I think that’s something that their listeners need to look out for as well. Um, if you want to learn more about Russia and the geopolitics of this region and other regions, you can check out our website for insights. We’ve got analysis and guidance, videos, and reports on there as well. Thank you for listening.

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