Tim Marshall is the author of The Power of Geography and Prisoners of Geography, published by Elliott & Thompson.
by Tim Marshall
War reveals many things, mostly tragic. Among them is how geography continues to have the power to cause conflicts, and to influence both how they are fought and their terrible 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 swings southwards in an arc before petering out in Romania. After that the flat land runs down to the Black Sea. Throughout history, if a large army wanted to approach Russia from the west, the Carpathians stood in the way, forcing it to skirt south or north around the range, more usually north. This northern flat land is called Poland – it is the narrowest point of the North European Plain, which stretches all the way back to France. Once an invading army heads east through Poland, the plain widens again all along the Russian border.
Russia has been invaded several times from this direction, most famously by Napoleon’s army in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941. Therefore, Russia has repeatedly tried to plug the gap – to occupy Poland, most recently during the Cold War. Failing that, the fallback position is to occupy or control the land immediately in front of that as a buffer zone – Belarus and Ukraine.
Russia also always seeks access to a warm-water port. To the north, its navy is hemmed in by the ice pack for part of the year, and forced to navigate in a constricted space when sailing out of the Baltic Sea and through the Skagerrak Strait to reach the North Sea.
Putin has been able to use this history and geographic weakness to garner support at home, playing on his country’s collective memory and fears of the outside world.
In 2014 Russia occupied a sliver of Ukraine as a thin buffer zone and annexed Crimea to ensure it would have the warm-water port of Sevastopol in perpetuity, as opposed to on loan. In 2022 it felt strong enough to try to take the rest.
The war brought Russian forces into Belarus and towards the Polish border. It also positioned them next to the Suwalki Gap – a short border of just 40 miles between Poland and Lithuania. At one end lies the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, home to 15,000 Russian troops; on the other lies 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 it 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 across a wide front. Its forces in the region usually sit just inside Russia at the Smolensk Gate, a 50-mile-wide territory between the Dzwina and Dnieper river systems. Military forces moving into or out of Russia are often channelled through it. Now the Russian army that normally guards the gate can move forward through Belarus, which makes Poland and other countries nervous.