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Russia’s Survival Strategy

Winston Churchill, in 1939, described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In 2017, media coverage of Russia continues to portray the Eurasian nuclear behemoth as fundamentally unpredictable: The media inundates us with stories of seemingly divergent actions that don’t connect neatly according to any cogent foreign policy; they attempt to induce the impetus of Russia’s government by interpreting scattershot clues left by Putin’s seemingly erratic actions.

Induction vs. deduction; tactics vs. strategy

For those who didn’t enjoy high school geometry enough to remember the basics, here’s a quick review of two logical systems: Induction begins with specifics, analyzes and evaluates them and their relationship to each other to develop an understanding of a general governing principle. Conversely, deduction posits an overriding law, predicts specific consequences, and then, searches for evidence in the minutia.

Induction is fundamentally more manageable: it focuses on small details, one at a time, and attempts to fit them together in a big picture. Inductive reasoning is similar to constructing a jigsaw puzzle. With patience, and hard work, we can solve most jigsaw puzzles; assembling the pieces creates small images that coalesce into larger images, making it easier and easier to apprehend a grand scheme.

Deduction, on the other hand, requires an adroit imagination to manufacture, essentially from scratch, a sweeping, but simple governing principle. Typically, difficult tasks require more creativity earlier in the process.

Tactics and strategy bear similarities to inductive and deductive reasoning, respectively: Tactics are smaller pieces of a larger plan called a strategy.

Often, we employ the words tactical and strategic synonymously; however, they are distinct terms. Tacticians achieve goals with limited scopes guided by strategists fulfilling an overarching purpose. Strategists obscure the grand scheme and rarely notify tacticians of the rationale driving the need for the tactician’s constrained objectives.

Myopic media coverage typically reports on Russia’s tactical maneuvers: cyber warfare undermines democracies; sophisticated statecraft blends political posturing, diplomacy and espionage; absorptions or invasions of old, yet vital, corners of the Soviet Union — Crimea, Georgia, Ukraine; reinforcement of air and naval bases in Syria and escalating political support for Assad. It’s true, all these events, and more, occupy headlines, but the root cause rarely pervades our newsfeeds.


Early in 2015, an episode of Fareed Zakaria’s “Global Public Square” enlightened me to The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan.

Initially, I scanned the book, read the introduction, and maybe a chapter or two; then, I put it down and forgot about it. I returned to The Accidental Superpower after President Trump’s inauguration: I was concerned, that not only might the United States blunder away superpower status — whatever that is — but the very concept of superpower might no longer hold meaning in the budding era. Longing to learn the secret ingredients of a superpower, I finished reading Zeihan’s book.

The Accidental Superpower is one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years: It focuses on geography’s influence on the fate of nations and governments. Providential geographic placement may be the most important factor in the survival of a culture, and its ability to sustain governance.

For me, the most memorable thing about the book was the author’s take on Russia and its unenviable geography. Russia straddles the entirety of what Zeihan terms the hordelands.

(RIA Novosti)

The hordelands are historically unruly stretches of central Eurasia; they abut the three great Eurasian hubs — the North European Plain, the Middle East across to India, and China with its peripheral cultures. Hordelands dwellers access the three hubs via passes through or around various geographical barriers: the Carpathian, Caucasus, Tian and Altay Mountains; the Black and Caspian Sea; the Karakum Desert.

Peter Zeihan writes the following about the hordelands:

It is a harsh land. Inland continental plains suffer from high winds, brutal winters, broiling summers, and fickle precipitation. Many of the lands are marginal for human habitation. It is a place of poverty. The rivers are as hostile as the land, flowing away from the arable portions rather than through them, with the land’s utter flatness and the weather’s unpredictability generating constant challenges of flood and drought. Hunger often reigns. Yet it is a land of many. The central mass of somewhat usable land is over three thousand miles east to west and typically about five hundred miles north to south. It may not be a third as productive per acre as the American Midwest once droughts, floods, locusts, and transport and storage loss are factored in, but it is the greatest stretch of flatland on the planet, and possesses a combined population of a major power.

It is a place of insecurity. The lack of reliable weather combined with the lack of local barriers to movement make it easy for any piece of civilization to fall to forces natural or man-made. Any people who rise in this harsh landscape crave what bits of security they can find or wrestle out of the earth — or from each other. It is a land where governments are local, and where raiders of every epoch have swept fast and loose across the grasslands.

The hordelands rarely achieve unity, but when they do, at least one of Eurasia’s three hubs fear for their existence: Attila the Hun harassed the Roman Empires; Genghis Khan threatened eastern Europe, the southern reaches of Asia, and China; Joseph Stalin forged a superpower, and competed for global domination. The expansive magnitude of the USSR ameliorated Russia’s tragic geography: It buffered its borders with a ring of satellite states occupying all the major passes into the hordelands.

Russia’s current foreign policy projects the visage of Czarist (Russia’s version of imperialism) maneuvers through the prism of western liberalism. Russians, more likely, see themselves as the victim of wretched geography, surrounded by a bevy of diversified predators. Enemies encroach from every direction, and the west, in particular, perpetually offers a morphing conglomerate, always hostile in some measure to Russian interests.

The United States, in contrast to Russia, projects global dominance from the best geography: long, intricate waterways servicing the world’s most expansive and fertile agricultural lands; largely temperate climate; minimal mountains with a bounty of passes though the ranges; two borders with no staging areas for neighboring invaders; and, of course, two vast oceans separating the hemisphere from Eurasian military threats. The United State’s direct or indirect control of the Caribbean islands, and Hawaii’s statehood makes amphibious assault, from east or west, nearly impossible. Additionally, most of the island nations rimming East Asia ally with the United States in some capacity, rendering the Pacific essentially an American lake.

The United States is a geographical fortress; Russia suffers from a kind of insecurity Americans couldn’t fathom in their worst nightmares.

In addition to exposed physical geography, Zeihan points out Russia is imploding, demographically:

The Russian people — the actual ethnic Russians — are dying out. With the Soviet collapse, the bottom fell out of the Russian birth rate … HIV and multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis run rampant through the Russian population, with most of the cases concentrated in the fifteen-to-thirty-five age group: the age group most likely to have children … By 2040, the Russian national population will almost certainly have shrunk below 120 million, with Russian ethnics but a thin majority within their own country.

According to Zeihan, Russia is doomed unless it develops an aggressive survival strategy:

Russia’s challenge is straightforward, if not simple: Its demographic decline is so steep, so far advanced, and so multi-vectored that for demographic reasons alone Russia is unlikely to survive as a state, and Russians are unlikely to survive as a people over the next couple of generations.

Yet within Russia’s completely indefensible borders, it cannot possibly last even that long. Russia has at most eight years of relative strength to act. If it fails, it will have lost the capacity to man a military, to maintain a sizable missile fleet, to keep its roads and rail system in working order, to prevent its regional cities from collapsing and to monitor its frontier.

Zeihan published The Accidental Superpower in 2014: That means Russia has until 2022, at the latest, to advance a bold, comprehensive survival plan.

In the light of geography, Russia’s recent dominance of current events makes sense. Unfortunately, it seems most headlines address the tactics employed by Russia, and the media focuses little attention on the strategy driving Russian foreign policy.

Zeihan writes, “Russia’s single largest concern is Ukraine…it is only the first threat Russia must address before 2020.” Ukraine has wheat, a strong industrial base, an energy transportation corridor including a navigable river, a large ethnic Russian population, and a gap allowing Turkey, and other nations, to threaten Russian territory.

Riddle solved, mystery explained, enigma understood

We can easily understand the reasons for Russia’s recent aggressive behavior: It’s the result of bad geography, compounded by imminent, possibly catastrophic, demographic change. Russia must act decisively, and soon, if it hopes to avert a national apocalypse. The riddle, mystery and enigma bedeviling westerners has more to do with the relative geographic security of many western nations; most notably the UK and the United States, an island nation, and a country that shares a name with the two continents of the western hemisphere. The west may be incapable to appreciate the hazards of living astride the vast hordelands with all its consequent uncertainties.

Since its inception, Russia’s existence teetered on the fulcrum between Europe and Asia; hostile powers unhindered by geographic barriers encroached from every passable approach — there are many. Ivan the Terrible, Peter and Catherine the Great, Stalin, and now, Putin all shared the same problem: highly unfavorable geography and combustible demographics. All employed the same defensive strategy: buffering via expansion.

In the 21st century, Russia’s expansion may take new forms that follow the contours of modern geopolitics; old tricks like destabilizing, or even conquering, neighboring countries are likely. Expect the evolution of other old tactics — the technology might be new — like tinkering with the political systems of rivals. No matter how aggressive, and offensive the nature of Russia’s foreign policy may grow, remember: Russia is an imperiled bear trying to save its own life; survival is its strategic goal.