All about that base: Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria are about geography

All about that base: Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria are about geography


By Crispin Burke
Best Defense guest columnist

Over the past two years, pundits have been aghast as Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, started a shadow war in eastern Ukraine, doubled down on his support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and harassed neighboring Turkey with fighter jet overflights. But a quick look at the map show Russia’s actions are part of a pattern dating back centuries — Russia’s never-ending quest for warm-water ports in the West. As geopolitical strategists Sir Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman, and Meghan Trainor note, Russia’s moves are all about that base with access to the Mediterranean.

Central Asia, a vast steppe land spanning thousands of miles, was once home to the deadliest army the world had ever known—the Mongols, who ruled an empire stretching from Beijing to Vienna. Centuries later, the Russians would dominate the same vast Eurasian Continent. Flanking Russia’s flat, defenseless steppes are some of her longest-standing adversaries: Iran, Turkey, and Germany. Geographer Nicholas Spykman, one of the architects of Cold War-era containment policy, wrote in 1942, “for two hundred years…Russia has attempted to break through the encircling ring of border states and reach the ocean. Geography and sea power have persistently thwarted her.”

Indeed, Crimea and Syria are two of Russia’s last footholds in the west. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has spread to many former Soviet states to the point where, this past spring, American armored vehicles paraded just two hundred meters from the Russian border, to the adulation of thousands of cheering Estonians. In 2014, a democratic revolution in Ukraine, home to a major Russian port in the Black Sea, further whittled away Putin’s access to the West. Likewise, the ongoing conflict in Syria threatens Russia’s only major base in the Mediterranean. Finally, skirmishes between Russian and Turkish aircraft are just a footnote in the last five centuries of conflict between Russia and the Turks, who control Russia’s access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. Indeed, there are no fewer than a half-dozen separate conflicts named the “Russo-Turkish War,” dating back to the late 16th Century.

Though Russian intervention in Syria and Ukraine may seem alarming, pundits would do well to maintain some perspective. The best Russia can hope to do is maintain the status quo — anything else is a win for the West.

The good news for the West is that Putin’s actions are a reckless gamble at best, desperation at worst. As for the bad news? It’s times like these when our adversaries are at their most dangerous.

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army Aviator stationed at Fort Bragg. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons