Geography has given Ukraine a hard time. It holds good cards, such as rich soils and rivers that flow south into the Black Sea, allowing Ukrainians to export their wheat to the rest of the world.
But its bad, especially its position where the arid Asian steppes meet the wetter mountains, forests and plains of Europe, is really bad. Ukraine’s very name probably comes from an old Slavic word meaning “border country”, and for at least 6,000 years it was fought over by more powerful neighbors.
At the end of the Stone Age, the Black Land of Ukraine attracted immigrants from the Balkans, who expelled the hunters who previously lived there, turned it into agricultural land and built some of the largest cities that the prehistoric world has ever seen.
In 500 BCE, the Athenians wanted Ukraine to be their breadbasket and sent merchants with ships full of silver to buy its grain. In the Middle Ages, khans leaving Central Asia used Ukraine as a (relatively) mild winter pasture for their horses and sold its people into slavery. In the 14th century, the Lithuanians treated Ukraine (or Ruthenia, as they called it) as a buffer against these khans, and in the 16th century, Poland turned it into another against the Turks. In the 17th century Sweden was also drawn in, making Ukraine a pawn in its wars with Poland and Russia – and the Russian tsars came to see Ukraine as a dagger pointed at their hearts.
Since then, the history of Ukrainians is mainly about what came from Russia. Until the 16th century, the Russians were most worried about the Mongol khans, to whom they paid tribute in the hope of buying peace, but in the 1550s Ivan the Terrible began to push them back using cannons and muskets state-of-the-art Europeans. Russian settlers crossed the Urals in 1598 and continued until they looked at the Pacific in 1639.
Never again would the nomads of the steppes threaten Russia, and since 1571, when the Crimeans burned Moscow, the tsars, general secretaries and presidents of this city have always considered the West as the source of their greatest problems. Polish armies took Moscow in 1610, transporting Tsar Vasili IV to Warsaw in a cage and assassinating him.
The Swedes besieged Saint Petersburg in 1705 and penetrated deep into the Ukraine in 1709; Napoleon burned Moscow again in 1812; Germany pushed Russia into revolution in 1917, detaching Ukraine as an independent country; and in 1941 the Germans again threatened Moscow. No wonder Russians fear Europe.
For more than 400 years, Russian leaders have known that they will have no security if they have enemies in Ukraine. It’s just a reality for them. Catherine the Great absorbed the region into Russia in 1764, adding Crimea in 1783. Since then, Ukraine has been key to Russian efforts both to create strategic depth for defense against Europe and to gain access to hot water ports.
Catherine was actually aiming to pursue the capture of Crimea by marching on Constantinople, something the Soviets were still considering in the 1980s. When Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” , he meant that he had wiped out 400 years of Russian politics.
The point of this history lesson is that Vladimir Putin is no anomaly seeking to dominate Ukraine.
Geography is fate, and like the Romanovs and Bolsheviks before him, Putin grasped the geographic reality that Ukraine is key to Russia’s security. Regardless of the outcome of the current war, neither Putin nor anyone who replaces him will begin to see the map differently. But what can possibly change what they do with what they see.
Prior to 1945, Ukraine’s neighbors relied constantly on force to achieve their goals. But after 1945, while Western leaders remained prepared to use force, they also saw that soft power worked better. Much of the world wanted to share in the prosperity of the US-dominated global economic system and the freedoms that came with democracy, and that often did more to advance US goals than any amount of threat. The European Union has expanded eastward since 2004 because people welcomed it, not because NATO armies exported it.
Soviet Russia also had soft power and made its own efforts to export it during the Cold War. In the 1970s my grandfather, a steelworker in Stoke-on-Trent, used to tell me earnestly how much better life would be after the revolution, and an uncle even gave me a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.
However, Russia has always remained more willing to use force than the West. For the American diplomat George Kennan, stationed in Moscow in 1946, Stalin and his entourage “stand before history, at best, as the last of this long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian leaders who relentlessly forced [their] countries to new heights of military might in order to ensure [the] external security of their internally weak regimes”.
Kennan was more right than he thought, and three-quarters of a century later, little has changed in the Kremlin. The 1989 revolutions shattered Russian hard power for a decade, but Russian leaders started using force again to solve their strategic problems in the early 2000s. Defeating the Russian army in 2022 will not bring peace.
When Finland defeated Stalin’s invasion of their country in 1939, he simply conscripted more men, bludgeoning the Finns into submission in 1940. The only way to dissuade Russia from taking the same approach in Ukraine is to persuade its leaders to pursue their geopolitical goals without resorting to violence, just as Kennan advised the United States to do during the Cold War. Deterrence and appeasement are never far apart. The path to peace will involve increasing the benefits for Russia of accepting the status quo as well as increasing the costs of attacking it.
Putin may not be more persuasive than Stalin, but containment is a marathon, not a sprint. The costs of fighting the American military and economic giant deterred Stalin from starting World War III; in the 1970s, the growing benefits of respecting the status quo convinced his successors to engage in detente; and in the 1990s, peaceful coexistence briefly seemed possible.
Containment 2.0 hardly seems like an attractive option. Like the original version imposed on the USSR, it will constantly create crises and bring the risk of even nuclear war. Its costs will be a constant drain on the global economy. And most alarming of all, it risks pushing Russia and China together into a far more menacing alliance than the Soviet Union ever was. But the harsh truth is that there is no better choice.
Too bad poor Ukraine, so far from God, so close to the Russian Federation.
Ian Morris teaches at Stanford University and is a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the bestselling author of Why the West Rules – For Now, War: What is it Good For?, and more recently, Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000 Year History (Profile Books)