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Russia’s Vulnerability can be Shown with a Map

Image Credit: Visual Capitalist

Prenote: We stand on the right side of history, beside our comrades in Kyiv. But we go beyond lip-service. We've also put our money where our morals are. In 2021, Comrade Kyiv gave £1,439.80 to Human Rights Watch, an independent, non-profit NGO that exists to give voice to the oppressed and promote freedom and equality everywhere. 

In late February, we donated another £500 to Human Rights Watch to support their efforts in Ukraine. Until the end of March, we’ll also donate 50% of all Comrade Kyiv sales to Human Rights Watch too. I wrote this blog because I wanted to understand why Russia had attacked their peaceful and friendly neighbour, Ukraine.

Russia is vast. Immense beyond comprehension. It spans eleven time zones and shares borders with 14 countries. Despite its colossal size, it is vulnerable. Russia knows this. The West also knows this. Any enduring superpower needs easy access to waterways and oceans to facilitate the movement of trade. It also needs to be able to protect its borders. Russia’s very existence depends on geography. The stakes are very high.

A lack of ocean access

Image Credit - Mauldin Economics

A country’s access to oceans and waterways influences the size of its economy and the security of its existence. They’re the lifeblood of any country. Their presence facilitates the transportation of goods. The feed populations. They can be mined for oil and gas. And a powerful navy will guarantee that country’s sovereignty. 

Russia is almost completely landlocked. What access it has to oceans and waterways is blocked by other countries. “During the Cold War, air bases in Norway, Scotland, and Iceland, coupled with carrier battle groups, worked to deny the Soviet Union access to the sea”. This stranglehold cost the USSR. The West had the upper hand when it came to the negotiating table. Even today, Russia has just three ways of accessing the global maritime trade. 

  1. Through the Black Sea - Russia has several ports on the Black Sea. Seaside cities like Sochi and Novorossiysk. And since 2014, five ports in Crimea. These are Russia's only true major warm-water ports. But, leaving the Black Sea is difficult. The Black Sea is connected to the Mediterranean by The Bosporus, a narrow waterway controlled by Turkey - now a NATO member. It’s a choke point, and can easily be closed to all Russian military traffic - something Turkey has already done in recent weeks
  1. Through the Baltic Sea - The Skagerrak Strait connects the Baltic Sea to The North Sea. The narrow strait is controlled by NATO members Denmark and Norway.
  1. Through the Arctic Ocean - Far from Russia’s major population centres is The Arctic Ocean. The few ports that do exist are unusable in the winter. Vladivostok is the largest. It sits on the Pacific Ocean and is ice-locked for about four months out of the year. It’s also enclosed by the Sea of Japan, which is dominated by the Japanese. “This does not just halt the flow of trade; it prevents the Russian fleet from operating as a global power.”

Across The European Plain

Image Credit - Mauldin Economics

70% of Russia’s population lives to the West of the Ural mountains. They live in cities which sit close to Russia’s western border with Europe, and clustered along its southern border with the Caucuses - an area which makes up just 20% of Russia’s entire territory. To the East are the Ural mountains, a natural barrier where the remaining 30% of Russia’s population live. They’re spread across the North and Siberia, an area which represents almost 80% of Russia’s total size, and is known for its harsh climate and relative inaccessibility. 

Because the area to the West of the Ural mountains is flat, Russia is vulnerable and difficult to defend. There are few natural barriers in the North European Plain to prevent an army attacking from the west. Any European power could easily march an army across this flat area directly into Moscow. And it’s happened before. Napoleon, Hitler, and even Finland have tried.

Russia's response

Russia’s strategy has been to maintain control, militarily or by intervening in the politics of its neighbouring countries - creating a buffer zone of sorts. Since the fall of the USSR, Nato has welcomed the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania into their ranks, bringing St. Petersburg within a hundred miles of a NATO country. And there was nothing that the Russians could do. They’ve instead focused their efforts on building an alliance with Belarus’ authoritarian leader, redrawing their border with Georgia, stabilising the situation in Chechnya by installing their own loyal leader, annexing Crimea, and finally by starting a war in Ukraine. Russia is vulnerable. Because of Russia’s vulnerability, it uses aggression on the global stage. 

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Further Reading


Tetris: The Game That Challenged Soviet Control and Conquered the World

The state controlled almost all aspects of daily life in the USSR, including entertainment. However, everything changed in 1985 when Alexey Pajitnov created an unapproved computer game based on a puzzle game from his childhood. The game consisted of random pieces that players would rotate to fill rows, and when each row was completed, it was deleted. He named it "Tetris," combining "tetra," the Greek word for four, and "tennis."


East vs West: A Comparison of Soviet & American Cold War Posters

As the dust of WWII settled, the uneasy peace between the Western superpowers and the USSR was faltering. Tensions escalated as both sides built ever bigger nuclear arsenals. But, artists weren’t confined to the sidelines. They were fighting an ideological war, using propaganda to win the hearts of their own people and to sway opinions beyond their borders.


The Buran: The Soviet Response to NASAs Space Shuttle

On November 15, 1988, the Soviet Union's first reusable space shuttle, the Buran, launched in what is now present-day Kazakhstan. This little-known chapter in the Cold War space race saw the Soviets build their own version of NASA's Space Shuttle to challenge the USA for space supremacy. The Buran, Russian for "blizzard", was once the future of the Soviet space program. But, its first flight was also its last. A year after its launch, the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed. The space shuttle program was suspended. In 1993, it was canceled altogether.


Not Lovin' It: The Rise and Fall of McDonald's Diplomacy

On a chilly winter’s morning in January 1990, hundreds of Russians lined up as early as 4am to try a McDonald's hamburger. At 10am, the first McDonald's restaurant in the Soviet Union opened its doors in Moscow's Pushkin Square. 32 years later, McDonald's closed all of its 847 stores in Russia and left for good. It was the end of an era and the death of Hamburger Diplomacy.
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