American Diplomacy
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January 2012

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The Geopolitics of Russia: Permanent Struggle
By George Friedman, STRATFOR
Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, contributing editor

Russian plans to move short-range missiles into the country’s Kaliningrad exclave prompted STRATFOR’s preparation of this “re-featured” assessment of the country’s geopolitical situation, whose historic core, according to George Friedman, was built on the indefensible medieval principality of Muscovy. Without rivers, oceans, swamps, or mountains to mark its borders, that core historically relied on weather and forests to assist its defense against forces sweeping in from the Asiatic steppes or the North European Plain. Subsequent expansion—often into unusable terrain—enhanced the security of Russia’s heart, but its later absorption of buffers—including peoples not willingly playing that role—enhanced Russian defenses even as it made the country appear aggressive to outsiders, and restive buffers posed internal threats to Russian security.

Centuries of expansion and a small population left Russia lightly settled and poorly served by its transportation system. With climate shortening the Russian growing season and limiting agricultural output, only a highly centralized government under a strong leader and a large bureaucracy could ensure widely spread cities received sufficient amounts of food and kept the “nation” from flying apart. Russia’s “two core political problems,” then, are “holding the empire together” and “maintaining internal security.” Together they explain much of Russia’s national security strategy in the modern era.

Following a historical review of Russian efforts to counter military threats to its security, Friedman observed that following the collapse of the post-World War Two Soviet empire, Russia once again had borders like its 17th-century predecessor. Though Russia still dominates the Eurasian heartland, it lacks adequate access to the world’s oceans. Even so, Russia now faces little threat in the east from a China showing no interest in expanding its western reach. Despite the vulnerability created by Russia’s stunning withdrawals in the West and the Caucuses, no nation threatens to invade Russia from the east or the south. Even so, its lack of geopolitical stability and strategic culture prompts Russia to seek security through expansion and domination of its immediate neighbors.

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