How does geography pose a problem to Russia and its relationship with NATO?

Below is my EPQ, entitled, as above, ‘How does geography pose a problem to Russia and its relationship with NATO?’. The EPQ (standing for Extended Project Qualification), is an optional qualification, that can be in any format (mine is an essay, but a friend of mine made a piece of software), that sixth form students can take, in my case alongside my A Levels. More information about the qualification can be found on AQA’s website here. I also include a PDF version of the project for ease of reading, which I attach here. I do however ask that this is not republished anyway else; I will consider this to be plagiarism. If you have any comments, please feel free as ever to send me a message on Twitter, or email me at


The purpose of this extended project has always been to open the readers’ eyes as to the complex nature of international relations, in direct contrast to the media’s portrayal of the discipline. The example of the Russian – NATO relationship is one of the most complex on the world stage today. This essay is intended to be neutral, and thus will make supported claims that conflict with the western media’s narrative. This is intentional. In this essay, I explain the geographic challenges facing Russia today, and provide case studies of specific regions where Russia has acted in the past to protect their geostrategic interests, for example in Crimea, and also examples of regions where it may need to act in the future, such as the island of Gotland in The Baltic. I will then explain how these geographical headaches catalyse the deteriorating relationship, and how whilst NATO may disagree, Russia must act to protect her interests. These acts may seem hostile, but they are necessary, and are often provoked by the liberal western alliance. It is no surprise that when my two parties come to blows, the event is portrayed very differently by CNN compared to Russia Today. This is not to say that both portrayals are correct, rather that they are a different perspective. I intend to open the reader’s eye to the Russian perspective. To conclude my abstract, I attach what I believe to be the wisest rule of statecraft, and one which the Russian leadership takes very seriously.



“Let him who desire peace, prepare for war”

Vegetius, 4th century AD philosopher




Post-Cold War, the West would rather the world move away from territorial issues of expansionism and military power, and instead focus attention towards more united issues such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, human rights etc. As Walter Russel Mead states in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, post-Cold War, the Western, particularly NATO priority has been to “shift international relations away from zero-sum issues toward win-win ones”.[1] The deteriorating relationship between Russia and NATO is therefore disturbing. The Russian annexation of Crimea went to show just how unpredictable the “Russian Bear’ continues to be. Indeed, there are those who argue that the Cold War never really ended.[2] Russian military expenditure as a percentage of GDP has risen every year since 2011, and in 2013, Russia spent more of its GDP on military power than the USA: that hadn’t been seen since before the supposed end of the Cold War.[3]

The media have a habit of simplifying international relations. In the case of the Russia – NATO relationship, it’s often portrayed like a film. Russia are always in the wrong, and NATO are the omnibenevolent, omnipotent party just trying to bring world peace. The reality however is far from this. If one was to come to power in Russia, they would inherit a multitude of geographical headaches, that the majority of the western politicians fail to appreciate. As a western leader, there are various issues that require attention to govern successfully, such as healthcare, education, the economy. However, as a Russian leader, you also have to tackle the huge problem of Russia’s geography. This difference between governing Russia and governing say France is seldom appreciated. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a topic I will come onto later, however the event was used extensively to reinforce the western rhetoric: Putin is evil, we are the peace makers. The reality however is very different. In this essay, I will explain how geography serves to hinder Russia, and how geography may explain why NATO is perhaps guiltier of destabilising Eurasia than they might admit.

The frequency with which I mention the phrase ‘in a time of war’ may be confusing to some. The concept of war in our relatively stable Europe seems alien, but not to Russia. They must constantly think how they would fare if there was war tomorrow. Since Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, Russia have been fighting on its western border on average once every thirty-three years.[4]

The Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously divided forecasters into “those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.” Vladimir Putin, like Russia leaders before him, is the former, and he must always prepare for the worst-case scenario. As a result, throughout my research I have taken each geographical factor, and looked at how it would be a problem for Russia in a time of war, and thus how it poses a problem for Russia’s relationship with NATO.

[1] Mead, W. R. (2014, May 1). The Return of Geopolitics – The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers. Retrieved from Foreign Affairs

[2] Frum, D. (2015 , July). The Cold War Never Really Ended. The Atlantic

[3] Central Inteligence Agency . (n.d.). Russia. Retrieved from The World Factbook

[4] Marshall, T. (2016). Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. Elliott & Thompson Limited

We need more rivers – the reasons behind Russia’s lack of money

Russia is a land of superlatives. Almost twice as large as the next largest country Canada, its size can at least partially explain some of the problems it faces today. It is over 70 times larger than the UK, and yet that’s about the only league table Russia tops the UK on. Russia’s GDP per capita of $8,748 is similar to that of The Bahamas, and significantly below the UK’s figure of $42,609.[1] Both the UK, and indeed The Bahamas, are far smaller, and so we can deduce that Russia’s sheer size is likely a limiting factor in its economy.

Historically, naval power equalled power. There was no better way for a country to project their power and grow their economy that to have a powerful naval and merchant fleet. Many of the world’s most powerful nations today, like the UK and Japan, are ones that once had the world’s most powerful navies. There’s a good reason why none of the ten largest economies in the world are landlocked.[2] Maritime shipping is still the cheapest way to transport goods long distance. But Russia, despite its 23,000 miles of coastline, has no real warm water, ice free ports, with direct access to an ocean.

The majority of Russia’s north coast is deep inside the Arctic Circle, and therefore frozen for much of the year. When it’s not, any ship carrying cargo would need an icebreaker to accompany it out of the Arctic Sea, although this is beginning to change as I explain in The Russian Ocean.[3] Moreover, any sea port on the north coast is also in Siberia.

Siberia is a land of extremes. With the exception of the poles, it is the coldest place on Earth. As Figure 1 shows, the majority of Siberia is what the German botanist and climatologist Wladimir Köppen would refer to as Subarctic.[4] Throughout history, Siberia has simply been too hostile a region to be habitable, and this continues today. Siberia is one of the most sparsely populated regions on earth. The administrative district of Koryak Okra in north eastern Siberia has a population density of <0.1 people/km2. With the exception of the Trans-Siberian railroad, which connects Moscow to Vladivostok, there are few railways that could allow trade with the rest of the world through Siberia’s north coast. Thus, the combination of sea ice and Siberia’s economic inactivity makes Russia’s north coast useless.

St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, is a crucial Russian port on the Baltic Sea. Like Russia’s north coast however, it is flawed. The Neva River within the city usually freezes up in November, and break up occurs in April.[5] That’s up to half of the year where, as a sea port, it’s useless.

There is however another geostrategic problem with St Petersburg. In the event of war, Russia wouldn’t be able to get out of the Baltic Sea. To get into the North Sea and on into the Atlantic Ocean, a ship must pass through the Skagerrak, a narrow body of water controlled by NATO members Denmark and Norway, both with navies capable of blockading the strait, and with the Royal Navy nearby. If in a time of war ships did make it through the strait, to get to the North Atlantic they’d either have to go through the English Channel, a choke point that the British and French navies could block, or through the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, and UK) gap. Here, they’d come up against the US Air Force, as well as the RAF, and Royal Navy. To all intents and purposes, St Petersburg is only useful economically for 6 months of the year, and in a time of war, it would be completely useless.

Then there’s the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, also home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.[6] The port however is simply too shallow and too small to facilitate large scale cargo operations. The port is also poorly connected to the Russian heartland, reducing the profit margin of exports and increasing the cost of imports that come through the port.

Another issue facing Novorossiysk, as well as the other Black Sea port of Sevastopol, is that access out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean is restricted by the Montreux Convention of 1936, which gives Turkey, now a NATO member, complete control of the Bosporus, the strait and strategic choke point which any ship must pass through between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.[7] Whilst in peacetime Russian naval ships can pass through the strait in limited numbers, this would not be possible in the event of war, and the Bosporus would be very easy to blockade. This is one of the reasons why, in 2015, Moscow had their hands tied when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that entered its airspace. In such a confrontation, Turkey has the upper hand, because it can close down the Bosporus and impede the Russian economy.

Once inside the Mediterranean, any Russian naval or cargo ship is totally exposed to NATO members and their navies. Eight  NATO members surround the Mediterranean. In war time, Russia wouldn’t be unable to trade, and would be unable to project any form of sea power.

Not only are they landlocked, but they lack land where they can grow crops. Russia can be divided into three main areas. The tundra is found north of the Arctic Circle. Too cold for trees and crops, the subsoil is permanently frozen, sometimes to a depth of several hundred metres. That’s around 5.5 million km2, or 32% of Russia’s land, totally unusable agriculturally.[8] Then there’s the taiga, which represents over a quarter of the world’s forest. Stretching far across Russia’s latitude, the soil in this area is boggy, and lacks any natural food for crops. Again, a huge area of Russia unusable agriculturally. Finally, the steppe, the plain stretching from Hungary to Mongolia. This region, as shown in figure 2, is the most productive of Russia’s land.

Perversely, Russia is unlike much of the rest of the world, in that the regions that receive the most rainfall are the regions with soil least suited to agriculture. Its growing season of 5 – 6 months is also significantly shorter than the 9 month window western Europe has. Russia also has one of the coldest average temperatures of any nation, at -5.5oC.[9]

Russia also lacks rivers. The few it has flow in the wrong direction, or nowhere near areas of civilisation. East of The Urals, the majority flow south to north, into the arctic ocean, which is useless for trade, and don’t pass through any cities. An exception is the Lena river, which passes through Yakutsk. However, upriver of Yakutsk, there is nothing worth transporting (the area is some of the most hostile in Siberia), and downriver, there is no civilisation. Unlike the Thames, which can allow goods to pass into and out of London, the Lena doesn’t allow for this luxury. The convenience of 300 years ago, putting goods on a barge and allowing them to float downriver to your market is not one which is gifted to Russia.

Russia’s main river, the Volga, leads into the Caspian Sea. Whilst this may be useful: a ship can pass down the Volga, and into the Caspian to sell goods, the Volga passes nowhere near either St Petersburg or Moscow, the cores of Russia’s economy, and the land locked sea only allows trade with Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. With the exception of Iran, these are hardly key partners.[10]

Figure 4 (Appendix) shows Russia’s connectivity problem. With the exception of the road between Dudinka and Noril’sk in north Siberia, north of the orange annotation, there are no main roads, and no railways. This vast area is unconnected, and thus unable to trade with the rest of Russia.

Russia’s economy in a time of war against NATO would be crippled. They would be unable to export goods through their ports. Any revenue that they receive from the natural gas that they pipe to European countries would likely stop: NATO countries would immediately stop buying gas from Russia, and other European nations would be under pressure to do the same. Without revenue from gas and trade, Russia wouldn’t be able to sustain their population or their military during a war. It’s important to stress therefore that Russia is very different from Europe. Russia west of The Urals is referred to as European Russia, but Europe is a very wealthy trading peninsula, with access to the sea and plentiful land to grow crops, while Russa is a very poor nation, disadvantaged by its size and location.

The UK’s GDP/km2 is $11.7 million, while Russia’s is $70,000 (total GDP/total surface area). One could describe this as the monetary value of a km2: one km2 is worth very little to Russia’s economy, and yet a huge amount to the UK’s. The single reason for this huge difference is geography. Putin knows this, and how he acts to try and resolve the problem can at least partially explain the negative relationship between Russia and NATO. The value of land to the Russian economy is far less than the value of land to economies in Western Europe; being the largest nation on earth disadvantages Russia, and adds to their feeling of economic vulnerability.

He currently has access to Tartus, a port on the west coast of Syria. His naval presence there is limited, but in January 2017, the lease was extended. Russia have unrestricted access to the port until 2066, and have permission to build facilities to accommodate 11 naval ships.[11] Russia’s lack of sea ports is, in naval but not trade terms, solved by Tartus: in a time of war, NATO cannot stop Russian ships leaving, heading through the Suez Canal, and entering the Indian Ocean. Similarly fuel wise, a ship could refuel there if, due to war with NATO, access to other ports were blocked. However, if NATO achieves their aim of removing Syrian President Assad from power, it is a geopolitical certainty that Russia would lose access to Tartus. Russia must therefore support Assad, but in doing so, they come into conflict with NATO, damaging their relationship.[12] Indeed, friction escalated into conflict when Turkey took down a Russian aircraft that had been supporting the Syrian government, after it strayed into Turkish airspace: a recent low point in Russia – NATO relations.

Putin wants land. He has plenty of it, but as established, little of it is economically useful. A target of his is Gotland in the Baltic which I will cover later, but he will take any opportunity presented to him that allows him to gain access to a warm water port, for both defence and trade purposes, and any agricultural land that he can utilise. Russia’s geography and climate hindered her development through the nineteenth century, at a time when the rest of Europe was modernising.[13] This puts her one step behind her rivals, and thus at a disadvantage. Russia knows her position is precarious, and knows she must act with force to protect her interests, lest her geography destroy her economy.

[1] Statistica. Russia: Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in current prices from 2010 to 2020 (in U.S. dollars)

[2] The World Bank. GDP (current US$)

[3] Marshall, T. (2016). Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. Elliott & Thompson Limited

[4] Arnfield , J. Köppen climate classification . Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica

[5] Neva River. Retrieved from

[6] Centre for International Maritime Security. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

[7] Multilateral treaty. 1936 CONVENTION REGARDING THE REGIME OF THE STRAITS. Adopted at Montreux, Switzerland on 20 July 1936

[8] Laverov, N. (n.d.). The Extreme North . In Area Studies (Regional Sustainable Development Review): Russia (Vol. 1)

[9] Central Intelligence Agency. (n.d.). Russia. Retrieved from The World Factbook

[10] Borgisky, B. (2009, August). Russian Economic Geography . Retrieved from Economy Watch

[11] Robert Norland. (2017, January). Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases. Retrieved from The New York Times

[12] BBC. (2012, August). Russia denies warships heading for Syria’s Tartus port. Retrieved from BBC News

[13] Etty, J. (n.d.). Russia’s Climate and Geography. Retrieved from History Today

 The gap in Russia’s natural defences

There are many nations with geographic features that protect the nation’s border from invasion. Indeed, a lot of the success of some countries over others, depends upon how well its geography protects it.[1] The USA for example has benefitted significantly from always being an ocean away from any nation that could threaten it. France is similarly fortunate. Their north-western border is protected by the English Channel, their western border by the Bay of Biscay, their southern border by the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, their south-eastern border by the Alps, and their north eastern by the Rhine river. The eastern half of their northern border is however largely unprotected, a flaw Germany exploited in both world wars. Geography however concentrated attacks into a choke point, and so they only had to fight on one front.

Russia is not so fortunate. In the far east geography protects them: there’s not much to attack in Siberia except snow, and to reach Moscow you’d need supply lines thousands of miles long, making you vulnerable to counter attack. You’d also have to pass over the Urals. Few armies of significant size could do this. Essentially, it’s impossible to reach Moscow through Siberia from the east. However, there is one major flaw to Russia’s geographic defence: The North European Plain. This completely flat plain, stretching from France to the Urals, acts as a funnel that troops can easily pass through to reach Moscow. Russia has however never been conquered from this direction: by the time you approach Moscow you have dangerously long supply lines, a mistake that Napoleon made in 1812, and Hitler repeated in 1941.

The situation has however now changed. Since the 1990s, Russia has watched as NATO has steadily crept closer, encompassing former Warsaw Pact nations that Russia claims promised would never join: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). NATO, in a document published after the annexation of Crimea, stated that these nations made no such assurances.[2]

In 2009, former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stated ”No country would be happy about a military bloc to which it did not belong approaching its borders”. Russia’s borders are strategically weak. This has always worried them. But what also worries them now is their lack of a buffer zone. Since the early 18th century, Russia has had a buffer zone of states comprising of the Baltics, which are now part of NATO, Belarus, which is becoming more and more neutral, and Ukraine, which is now mostly part of the western alliance structure. Indeed, before Putin intervened by annexing Crimea, they were about to sign a huge trade deal with the EU.[3]

The buffer zone is what protected them from Hitler when he tried to come through Ukraine. Having lost that buffer, they’re extremely vulnerable if anybody ever chose to attack them. Russia, in their vulnerability, feel NATO is the aggressor. They claim the existence of NATO post-cold war is unnecessary and therefore aggressive, and they claim the expansion towards Russia’s border is a deliberate provocation.

[1] Wendover Production. Russia’s Geography Problem (2017). [Motion Picture]

[2] NATO. (April 2014). Russia’s accusations – setting the record straight. Fact Sheet

[3] Marshall, T. (2016). Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. Elliott & Thompson Limited.

The Russian Ocean

‘When the icemen come, they will come in force’

Tim Marshal in his book Prisoners of Geography

As the above quote suggests, conflict in the Arctic is not an ‘if’ event, but a ‘when’ event. The Russians have by far the heaviest presence in the region, and are the best equipped to tackle the extreme conditions. NATO has Arctic members (Greenland (part of Denmark), Canada, the US, Finland, Iceland, and Norway), but, post Cold War, doesn’t have an Arctic strategy.[1] The effect of global warming is allowing easier access to the region, and with increased access, comes conflict. Whilst the Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest ocean, the continental shelves on the ocean bed occupy more space proportionally than any other ocean, which makes it incredibly hard to settle issues of sovereignty.

One of the popular routes through the Arctic ocean is the ‘Northern Sea Route’. It hugs the Siberian coastline, and is now accessible for several months of the year. NATO can blockade Russian ports, but Russia could, if necessary block this route from being used by western ships in retaliation, forcing them to instead pass through the Panama or Suez Canal, which is longer. In August 2017, for the first time, a commercial ship transited the ‘Northern Sea Route’ without the need for an icebreaker. Christophe de Margerie, the Russian ship, was launched in 2016, and Putin unsurprisingly commented “This is a big event in the opening up of the Arctic”. Not only are Russia going to use their influence in the region to benefit their shipping, but they, like all arctic nations, want the Arctic riches. In 2008, a survey estimated that the Arctic holds 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, and 90 billion barrels of oil.[2] Based on the oil price per barrel as of 1st September 2017, the oil alone in the Arctic is worth over $4.2 trillion.[3] With the Russian economy in crisis, access to resources this valuable would change their nation dramatically. Money makes nations powerful, and so it’s understandable that NATO are taking steps to minimize the amount of land Russia is given exclusive economic access to.

There are currently at least 9 legal disputes over sovereignty in the Arctic. Each nation involved claim that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea confirms that they have exclusive economic rights to the land.[4] The convention affirms that nations have rights from its shore to 200 nautical miles offshore (unless it conflicts with another country’s limits), and can declare this area an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Subject to geological evidence concerning a country’s continental shelf, a country can apply to have their EEZ extended. This is Russia’s plan to gain access to the vast majority of the wealth in the Arctic. Russia claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, an Arctic sub ocean ridge, is an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf. This is problematic for NATO – the ridge extends all the way to the North Pole.

The Svalbard Islands are the northernmost point on earth with a settled population. Most nations, including NATO, recognize them as under Norwegian sovereignty, but Russia dispute this; it would be incredibly convenient for them to be considered part of Russia. The largest island, Spitsbergen, has a growing Russian population. At a time of Moscow’s choosing, it can raise the tensions with Norway, and justify its actions with geological evidence, as well as the fact that there’s a Russian population on the island. Indeed, Moscow used the ‘ethnically Russian population’ card in justifying their actions in Crimea. The Kremlin has a law which compels it to protect ‘ethnic Russians’.

NATO can see conflict coming. They want peace, but as Vegetius says, if you want peace, prepare for war. Norway has made the Arctic its foreign policy priority. They’ve moved their entire military from the south of the country, to the north. Canada is training extensively in Arctic warfare, and Denmark has created its own ‘Arctic Response Force’.[5] Russia has responded in the same way. In 2014, they conducted an Arctic exercise that involved 155,000 soldiers, as well as tanks, jets, and ships. During said war game, the Russian military was tasked with repelling an invasion by a fictitious nation named ‘Missouri’, which clearly represented the US.[6]

[1] Marshall, T. (2016). Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. Elliott & Thompson Limited.

[2] United States Geological Survey. (2008). Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle.

[3] Nasdaq. (2017, September 1). Crude Oil Price.

[4] United Nations. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Effective November 1994

[5] Marshall, T. (2016). Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. Elliott & Thompson Limited.

[6] Startfor. (2015, January). Russia’s Plans for Arctic Supremacy.

The ethnicity problem – do you speak Russian?

‘Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard’

Vladimir Putin, March 2014, addressing the State Duma

How did Russia manage to get away with annexing Crimea? NATO has been known to intervene in non-NATO countries, so why not here? First, let’s explain what happened. Ukraine were playing both sides. They flirted with the west, while paying homage to Moscow. Putin tolerated this; all he needed was a Ukraine that would act as a buffer zone  against NATO, and one that would uphold Russia’s lease on Sevastopol. However, in 2014, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych came close to signing a huge trade deal with the EU, one that Putin decided could lead to eventual membership of the EU. For Russia, membership of the EU is simply a stalking horse for membership of NATO. Putin absolutely couldn’t allow Ukraine to join NATO. It would be a strategic disaster, and therefore he had to stop this trade deal. Putin pilled on the pressure, and gave a financial incentive to Yanukovych to call off the deal. He made a pact with Moscow instead. Street fighting erupted in Kiev, and on the 22nd February, Yanukovych fled. Anti-Russian fractions took over the government, which meant more fighting in the pro-Russian areas of Ukraine: the east. The Kremlin is compelled to protect ‘ethnic Russians’, and therefore told the world it was ‘forced’ to annexed Crimea. In a sense, Russia were forced to do so, but rather by NATO expansion.

There is over 5 million km2 of land that Russia lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. Spread across this lost land, there are Russian speakers. 14.4% of the population of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and a NATO member, are Russian.[1] Riga, the capital of Latvia, has a just under 50% Russian population.[2] It’s very easy for the KGB to discreetly incite violence in an area where there is a large Russian population, and then ‘do a Ukraine’ and invade to protect the ethnic Russians. Geography in the form of demographics is a problem for the relationship between Russia and NATO. As long as there are Russian speakers inside NATO nations, Russia has the ability to, in its opinion, have some influence inside that nation.

Putin made a speech to the State Duma in March 2014, an extract of which is quoted above. In it, he proclaimed that since the entirety of Crimea leant towards Russia, his annexation was legal. He based claim this upon a referendum, held 2 days earlier, in which asked population of Crimea stated that they wished to become part of Russia. NATO however contested this claim. In a paper entitled ‘Russia’s accusations – setting the record straight’, it stated ‘the referendum was illegal according to the Ukrainian constitution, which states that questions “of altering the territory of Ukraine are resolved exclusively by an All-Ukrainian referendum.” Additionally, the so-called referendum was organized in a matter of weeks by a self-proclaimed Crimean leadership, that was installed by armed Russian military personnel after seizing government buildings’.[3]

Such friction between NATO and Russia will remain as long as there are Russian speakers, living outside of Russia, wishing their nation was part of Russia, as it once was. Indeed, it says much about how the world sees Russia, and how Russia often acts, that in August 2017, Moscow felt compelled to reassure that it would not use military exercises in western Russia, Belarus and Kaliningrad as cover to invade one of its neighbours. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia followed war games in the Caucasus, and a ‘snap’ exercise in 2014 was used to launch its annexation of Crimea.[4] Russian exercises have to be closely monitored by NATO in the Baltic states. Indeed, there are British troops in Estonia, Canadian troops in Latvia, German troops in Lithuania, and American troops in Poland.

[1] Census 2011

[2] Census 2014

[3] NATO. (April 2014). Russia’s accusations – setting the record straight. Fact Sheet.

[4] Financial Times. (2017, September). Russia’s war games strike fear into its neighbours


Gotland – Crimea part two?

‘By occupying Gotland, even temporarily, you could prevent NATO from sending reinforcements of troops and equipment to the Baltic states. You’d also prevent NATO air missions in aid of the Baltic states, and the alliance wouldn’t be able to use the island as a base from where to hunt your submarines or interfere with your activities in the air’

Elisabeth Braw (Senior Fellow Atlantic Council), January 2015

I conclude with a forecast. Russia isn’t happy with its current geopolitical situation. Having annexed Crimea, it ideally need other areas of land to ensure their security. Gotland is Sweden’s largest island, with a population of just under 60,000. What makes it important is its strategic location in the Baltic Sea, being the largest island totally surrounded by the Baltic.[1] In 2015, Sweden remilitarised Gotland after over a decade without military there. “Gotland is a big worry for us. It could be overrun by Russia in minutes and then all of us would be highly vulnerable to an attack” warned the Estonian prime minister in late 2015. Despite the hyperbole, he has a point. If Russia were to occupy Gotland, they would suddenly be in a far better position to defend themselves, in the sense that they would be able to attack the Baltic states from two sides. Indeed, the Russians did briefly control Gotland, for 3 weeks in 1808.

Gotland dominates sea routes through the Baltic Sea, and provides a vital air base to any party that holds the island. Visby has two long paved runways, and there is a small naval base in Västra. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed an entire brigade on the island, with the entire northern half of the island becoming a ‘military only’ zone.

I forecast Sweden becoming the next member of NATO, due to their strategic location, as well as their sizable military, and their membership of the EU. NATO cannot have Sweden, and therefore Gotland, being militarily neutral. But, as ever, the geopolitical event of Sweden’s ascension into NATO would further damage the relationship between NATO and Russia; Moscow would feel even further surrounded. I return to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stating ”No country would be happy about a military bloc to which it did not belong approaching its borders”. Both Russia and NATO want security, but a security gain for one party is a loss for the other.

[1] Platzoder, R., & Verlaan, P. (1996). The Baltic Sea: New Developments in National Policies and International Cooperation


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Koppen climate types of Russia
Figure 1
Russian agricultural areas
Figure 2
Ukraine map Russian as a native language
Figure 3
Map annotated to indicate Siberia's lack of accessibility
Figure 4


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