The foreign policy actions Russia has taken — whether in the days of the Czars, the Soviet Union or even the modern Russian Federation — tend to confound foreigners. “Paranoid Ivan” is a term that gets thrown around, reflecting the confusion Western policymakers experience at the siege mentality of their Russian counterparts. Why do they do what they do? Why did Russia react to the collapse of the Ukrainian government with intervention, invasion and denial? The answer perhaps lies in history and geography.
Take a look at a map of the world. Russia is one of the more noticeable countries — the place is simply massive. Eleven time zones, stretching all the way from the Baltic to the Bering Strait. Why would it feel vulnerable? Why would it view its neighbors with such suspicion?
The lines on the map do not reflect the reality of Russia’s situation. The majority of the country is absolutely empty — mining towns, military installations and endless miles of tundra. Almost all of its population resides within the westernmost fifth of the country — open, flat land with no mountains or rivers to protect it from invasion.
Now, consider its history. Russia has been invaded six times from Western Europe in the past four centuries, each invasion more devastating than the last. The last major invasion was from the Nazis in 1941, which killed 27 million Russians — a loss from which its population still has not entirely recovered.
True, in all of these wars the Russians triumphed, but at what cost? Given their lack of natural borders, their only defensive option is to burn their own crops and evacuate behind the Ural Mountains, leaving their enemies to freeze and starve. The kicker is that in the process of doing so, they must freeze and starve themselves as well. Thus, their only realistic defense is to establish a buffer zone between themselves and Western Europe, to blunt the attack before it reaches their cities.
Following the war, the Soviets got the buffer zone they finally wanted, but the Soviet Union is no more, and the countries of Eastern Europe, wishing to avoid being dominated by Russia as they had been, have flocked to the European Union (EU). Most troubling for Russia, many have joined NATO, the world’s largest defensive alliance.
Now, it is quite unlikely that the NATO expansion occurred with the invasion of Russia in mind. The United States is using NATO forces to support its various missions abroad, and out of all of NATO’s wars, only one has been in Europe. It’s very difficult to imagine President Obama ordering the army to march on Moscow.
But the Russians’ understanding is this: their buffer zone is gone, and their former vassal states are angry and distrustful of them. As such, when the EuroMaidan protests began in Kiev following the Ukrainian government’s decision not to join the EU, the protesters were literally viewed as American agents, planning to strip Ukraine away from Moscow. This view ignores the reality that Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO and that Russia had nothing to offer Ukraine. Fellow Slavs or not, they have to put food on their table.
Thus, Russia has acted, stealthily invading Ukraine and seizing the Crimean Peninsula. I do not approve of this action, but in light of its history and geography, it is understandable that it has acted in this way.
American policymakers have utterly ignored Russia, spending all of their attention on the Middle East and Africa. Whether or not Russia’s security concerns are reasonable, they are at the very least something that we cannot justly ignore. Between Western short-sightedness, Eastern European resentment and Russian paranoia, the world has sleepwalked into a crisis.