Russia’s Geography Problem


This is a Wendover Productions video made
possible by Backblaze and in collaboration with Alternate History Hub and
Real Life Lore. Russia is immense–it spans 5,000 miles across,
2,000 miles vertically12, crosses 11 time zones3, borders everywhere from Norway to
North Korea4, and is as close to Anchorage as it is
to Amsterdam5. It’s huge… but it has a problem. A problem that can explain part of why the
average Russian, living at the same latitude as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Canada,
makes only $7,500 American dollars per year. A problem that can explain at least a portion
of almost every political decision the country
has ever made. Russia’s geography is flawed. What you have to remember about Russia is
that the majority of Russians live in Europe. 3/4 of Russia’s population lives in the
western quarter of the country6. Therefore, as a country
with a fairly centralized power system, many of its decisions go to protect the country
core in and around Moscow. You see, a lot of the success of certain countries
over others depends on how well its geography protects it. The US, for example, benefited hugely from
being an ocean away from every large military power. The only real armed forces that could threaten
the US in its infancy were in Europe and Asia and therefore any
invasion would require trans-oceanic supply lines
which are hugely expensive and logistically difficult therefore weakening an invading
army. On
the European continent, France has a similar situation—their northwestern border is protected
by the English channel, their western border
by the Atlantic Ocean, their southern border by the
Pyrenees mountains and Mediterranean ocean, their southeastern by the Alps mountains,
and their northeastern by the Rhine river7. The eastern half of their northern border
is, however, largely unprotected geographically—a flaw
Germany exploited in both World War One and World War Two by invading through Belgium
and Luxembourg—but the protection still did
concentrate attacks into a choke point and kept the country significantly more protected
than other European countries. Here’s Cody from Alternate History Hub to
explain Russia’s territorial expansion. Russia’s first territorial expansion since
it first became a unified East Slavic State in 8828 was
entirely a quest for power. But over time this growth for glory transformed
into an effort to protect the very core of the country. This early Russia was at very unprotected
and vunerable. There was no geographic protection to keep
foreigners from migrating into their lands. The only
natural resource Russia had their disposal to repel an invader was pure manpower. In the coming
centuries, what was then known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow quickly expanded. By the time
Ivan the Terrible was crowned ruler of the Tsardom of Russia, the country had spread
it’s borders east to the Urals, south to the Caucasus mountains,
and west to the Carpathians. Soon even
Siberia was conquered which before then, was an independent Khanate—a territory ruled
by a Khan. That was Cody from Alternate History Hub. I collaborated with him to make a great
video on his channel about what the world would be like if Russia had never become its
own country which I’ll link in the description and at the end of the video. Now, with all this territory, Russia, or at
least Moscow, had some serious protection9. Siberia is large enough that no army could
invade through it and make it to Moscow. The supply
lines would have to be thousands of miles long through inhospitable conditions. Not only that,
but that army with a one or two thousand mile long supply line would then have to make it
over the Ural mountains to get to Moscow10. Attacking from the south or west would also
take an army either across water or through mountains. By the time the 19th century rolled in, Russia
had truly become an unconquerable power. Countries could and can take over portions
of Russia, but there is no conceivable way that a single
country could fully occupy and conquer Russia. To
occupy a territory of that size, a country would need an estimated 13 million trained
ground troops–more than the 17 largest militaries
combined11. However, despite its defenses, Russia has
never developed economically to the same level as some of its neighbors. Its GDP per capita is
right around that of Mauritius, Grenada, and Turkey12. And this, once again, can be at least
partially attributed to Geography. Historically, naval power equaled power. The two were synonymous. There was no better
way for countries to project their power and grow their economy than to have a powerful
navy and merchant fleet. Many of the most powerful countries today–the
United Kingdom, Japan, and China for example–were ones that once had
the most powerful navies in the world. There’s a
reason that none of the 18 largest economies in the world are landlocked countries13. Up until the
last century, maritime shipping was the fastest way to get goods and people across the world
and its still cheapest way to ship goods long
distance. Having good water access allows countries
to trade with the world but Russia, despite its
23 thousand miles of coastline14, has no significant warm-water, ice-free ports with direct access
to an ocean. Alaska does, Canada does, Iceland
does, Norway does, and Sweden too, but Russia is fundamentally limited in its maritime power
because it has no easy way to access the world’s oceans year round. The port of Novorossiysk is
ice-free, but its throughput is limited both by the depth and size of the port15. St Petersburg also
has an important port, but it freezes for many months of the year. On the Pacific side, ports like
Vladivostok also occasionally freeze during the winter. But the ice is not the biggest problem
with these ports. The biggest problem is that their access to
the worlds oceans is all through choke-points controlled by either NATO countries
or NATO allies. To get to the ocean from
Novorossiysk, you need to pass through the Bosphorus straight which is controlled by
Turkey—a NATO country; to get to the ocean from St
Petersburg you need to pass through the Danish straights controlled by Denmark—also a NATO
country16; and to get to the ocean from Vladivostok and many of the other Pacific
ports you need to pass through the sea of Japan which
is controlled by Japan—a close ally of NATO. If Russia ever decided to attack a NATO country,
their access to the oceans would be restricted by these NATO countries17 because the NATO
treaty includes a mutual defense pact—if one country is attacked, all respond. This would cripple
both Russia’s navy and economy. Now, back to defenses. There’s one major flaw to Russia’s geographical
defense system– the northern European plain. Whereas every other border has a geographical
defense preventing easy invasion from a foreign army, this completely
flat plain just acts as a funnel easily bringing an army from Western Europe right up to Moscow
. While 18 a large part of the Soviet Union’s motive to expand into eastern Europe was to
spread the socialist revolution, Stalin still believed
that he needed to create a zone of buffer states in order to defend against the threat
of the USA and its allies in Western Europe19. With its influence over all of Eastern Europe,
the USSR had both manpower and political power to keep
the west far from Moscow. Since the fall of the
Soviet Union, Russia has continued to strive to keep political power in the region. Out of the 15
states that emerged from the Soviet Union, 12 joined a Commonwealth of Independent States
with Russia20–essentially aligning them politically with Russia–while three joined both NATO
and the European Union–Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. That means that, on paper, Russia still
had a strong political buffer between it and western Europe. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad,
and the countries of Belarus and Ukraine covered almost all of the Northern European Plain. Not only that, but Russia used its influence
in Ukraine to sign a long term lease on the warmwater
port of Sevastopol which greatly expanded the naval capabilities of Russia’s black-sea
fleet21. Except, Ukraine as a whole progressed to be
more and more pro-European in the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union which
was a major reason for Russia’s invasion of Crimea. While on the surface Putin might have claimed
Russia’s invasion was to save the Russians of the
area from the increasingly westernizing country, the annexation of Crimea was in reality a
strategic imperative to keep warm-water port of Sevastopol. A Ukraine that was friendlier to the
west likely would have ended Russia’s lease on the port so in Putin’s mind, he needed
to invade Crimea in order to prevent a crippling blow
to Russia’s ocean access. Now, Russia has managed to overcome many of
its geographic challenges partially because of two things–oil and natural gas. It has enormous energy reserves partially
because of its enormous size. Russian natural gas pipelines provide for
40% of Europe’s natural gas demand. Some countries such as Bulgaria, Lithuania,
Latvia, Estonia, and Finland are almost fully dependent on Russia for their natural
gas . This 22 gas dependency is a major reason why
Germany, for example, a country with high Russian oil dependency, is much less likely
to criticize Russia than a country like the UK,
which has virtually zero Russian gas dependency. If
Russia shut off the gas to Germany, it would devastate them, but stopping gas exports to
the UK would have little effect. The US has attempted to reduce Russian influence
in Europe by exporting liquefied natural gas across the
Atlantic. It costs more, but it allows western european
countries to buy their energy from their American ally. Now, none of this discussion of ports and
power is to say that if there was no Norway or
Sweden blocking the way to the ocean and the water was a bit warmer Russia would be the
Sweden of the East. Saying that would be foolish. Geography does have an enormous influence
on human development, but it doesn’t determine it. Much of history is defined by chance, not
circumstance because, in the end, reality is just the confluence of chance and circumstance. This video was made possible by Backblaze,
so I was going to do this big complicated pitch where I figure out the value
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knowing your data is safe. I want to remind you to check out the video
that Alternate History Hub made about what the world would be like if Russia didn’t
exist. It’s a great video, and then he
collaborated with Real Life Lore to make another great video about what would happen if
the Soviet Union Reunited. Other than that, you can support Wendover
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Comments 18

  • I hope you like this video! I know its a bit more serious than some others ones but hopefully its still an enjoyable watch.

    Also, people have been asking for them, so I’ve put a link in the description to a copy of the script with sources in footnotes. I’ll be doing that for every video from now on.

    Please also go and check out backblaze! Sponsors make this channel happen (seriously) and Backblaze is a legitimately good product that I’ve used for a while so at the very least go and try them out with their 15 day free trial. It helps both me and you out.

  • Well… You forgot that Russia is most northen country than any other exept Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland. But these 5 countries have ports – you told us about it. But you forgot something – these countries have small population. Even Canada's population is about one forth of population of Russia. Russia have good agriculture lands only in Europe. So it's not only about ports, its about surviving here up to 20th century.

  • Very good information, now I know a lot now because of you! Thanks really👏

  • Лайк, подписка.
    Всё по полочкам, без лишней политоты.
    Спасибо автору!

  • Russia did not invade Crimea, rather Crimea voted over 90 % to join Russia.

  • Old data…

  • 8==>~° 0~: omnomnom

  • Thanks foreigner for talking shit about my country and proving why we are poor

  • You probably didn't know about it when you made this video, but our biggest problem is corruption. Our territory is perfect. We have enough resources, and it can't be a problem. Thanks for your attention

  • U can walk all of Russia and see only half of India

  • I want to have a video about USA

  • "Ukraine progressed to be more and more European"

    I'm sure that was a completely organic phenomenon, and definitely not the result of the EU-backed Euromaidan Movement.

  • I am heavy weapons guy, this is my weapon…

  • Excuse me? The sea which located next to Vladivostok is East Sea not sea of japan. It’s governed by Republic of KoreA

  • It seems Russia's real problem is that they believe everything is military. Fearing the US will attack keeps them spending for war instead of for science and business in general.

  • BENDOVER Productions.

  • What you have to remember is that at anu one time, three quarters of all Russians are drunk.

  • Naval Power = Power "the two were synonymous" – REALLY? And yet germany had but an inconsequental navy at best and yett Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire DOMINATED most of Europe, both militarily and economically for well over a century. And arguably still do today.

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