Oar reveals many things, especially tragic ones. Among them, geography continues to have the power to cause conflict and to influence both how it is fought and its dire consequences. The Ukraine-Russia conflict now takes its place in a grim pantheon of examples.
Between Russia and the rest of Europe are the Carpathian Mountains. Europe’s third longest mountain range rises in southern Poland and slopes south in an arc before disappearing into Romania. After that, the flat land slopes down to the Black Sea. Throughout history, if a large army wanted to approach Russia from the west, the Carpathian Mountains stood in the way, forcing it to circle south or north around the range, more generally north. This northern plain is called Poland – it is the narrowest point of the northern European plain, which extends to France. Once an invading army heads east through Poland, the plain widens again all the way to the Russian border.
Russia was repeatedly invaded from this direction, including by Napoleon’s army in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941. Therefore, Russia repeatedly tried to close the gap – to occupy Poland , most recently during the Cold War. Failing that, the fallback position is to occupy or control the lands immediately opposite this as a buffer zone – Belarus and Ukraine.
Russia is also still seeking access to a hot water port. To the north, its navy is surrounded by sea ice for part of the year, and forced to navigate in a tight space when it leaves the Baltic Sea and crosses the Strait of Skagerrak to reach the North Sea.
Putin has been able to use this historical and geographical weakness to win support at home, playing on the collective memory of his country and the fears of the outside world.
In 2014, Russia occupied part of Ukraine as a thin buffer zone and annexed Crimea to ensure it would have the hot water port of Sevastopol in perpetuity, as opposed to a loan. In 2022, he felt strong enough to try and take the rest.
The war brought Russian forces into Belarus and towards the Polish border. He also positioned them next to the Suwalki Gap – a short border of just 40 miles between Poland and Lithuania. At one end is the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, home to 15,000 Russian soldiers; on the other is Belarus. If they were able to close the gap, even with Finland and Sweden as NATO members, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would effectively be cut off, as this is the only land route through which NATO can reinforce the three lightly armed Baltic states.
Russia’s presence in Belarus also means direct access to Poland on a broad front. Its forces in the region are usually just inside Russia at the Smolensk Gate, an 80 km wide territory between the Dzwina and Dnieper river systems. Military forces entering or leaving Russia are often routed through it. Now the Russian army that normally guards the gate can advance through Belarus, making Poland and other countries nervous.
But despite these positions of strength, the Kremlin discovers that the law of unintended consequences is rarely more applicable than in wartime. Putin expected NATO and the European Union to split between hawks and doves. Instead, NATO has rediscovered its raison d’être and the EU has essentially moved closer.
The ramifications were dramatic. Germany shrugged off the post-war guilt of the past 75 years and got tougher, canceling Nord Stream 2, the huge gas pipeline project between Germany and Russia and pledging to spend more for defence. Hungary was also forced to make a choice: between Moscow or Brussels.
Hungary is close to Russia, so it has a strong attraction, amplified by the attraction to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of another “strongman” nationalist. But geography and history also come into play. After World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered, with entire regions transferred to other countries. Among them was Transcarpathia, which had been under Hungarian control for a thousand years. He ended up in what is now Ukraine, on the border with Hungary. About 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in what is known as Zakarpattia Oblast, and there have long been tensions over their right to use their mother tongue.
Budapest’s preferred option is to regain what it unfairly considers “lost lands”, but not to the extent that it legally claims Transcarpathia. Nevertheless, the combination of history and dependence on Russian energy dictated Hungary’s political response to the neighboring war.
Around 65% of Hungary’s oil and 75% of its gas imports come from Russia and it has refused to join in sanctioning the Russian energy sector: just this week it agreed to pay a bill owed by the operator of Russian pipeline to the Ukrainian authorities. Hungary has also refused to provide military aid to Ukraine and will not allow NATO weapons to pass through its territory en route to Ukraine – ostensibly to protect Transcarpathia and the Hungarians living there.
Administrative proceedings long threatened to cut EU funding to Hungary, due to its rule of law standards, have finally been launched after Budapest failed to join the rest of the EU in condemning Putin’s war of choice. In the long term, the Hungarian political class will have to choose between who they think is the best long-term partner for their country.
On the flow the consequences. A new iron curtain is being drawn across Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Turkey was walking away from NATO, but now, seeing a Russia determined to dominate the Black Sea basin, it knows its best bet to resist that is to stay in the alliance.
The theoretical line of this new division in Europe can be drawn further – along the borders of Iran and the Central Asian republics, and to the China Sea. On the one hand, the industrialized democracies, most of which have the United States as the ultimate guarantor of security; on the other, authoritarian states, mostly dominated by China. India is sitting on a fence for now – slow to condemn Russia’s war of aggression because it wants to keep Moscow on its side – but will find it more difficult if a major crisis between democratic nations and the China breaks out.
The ripple effects of Putin’s violence have been felt around the world and not just in terms of geopolitical relations. Russia and Ukraine are major wheat producers; 26 countries depend on it for more than half of their annual imports. The war has led to shortages and price hikes in the very countries that can least afford it. The grim reaper is invading Ukraine and children in Egypt and Yemen are going hungry. Why? The power of geography.
Tim Marshall is the author of The Power of Geography and Prisoners of Geography, published by Elliott & Thompson