Prisoners of Geography
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Prisoners of Geography

Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World

Tim Marshall

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Prisoners of Geography

Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World

Tim Marshall

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About This Book

In this New York Times bestseller, an award-winning journalist uses ten maps of crucial regions to explain the geo-political strategies of the world powers—"fans of geography, history, and politics (and maps) will be enthralled" ( Fort Worth Star-Telegram ). Maps have a mysterious hold over us. Whether ancient, crumbling parchments or generated by Google, maps tell us things we want to know, not only about our current location or where we are going but about the world in general. And yet, when it comes to geo-politics, much of what we are told is generated by analysts and other experts who have neglected to refer to a map of the place in question.All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. In "one of the best books about geopolitics" ( The Evening Standard ), now updated to include 2016 geopolitical developments, journalist Tim Marshall examines Russia, China, the US, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Japan, Korea, and Greenland and the Arctic—their weather, seas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and borders—to provide a context often missing from our political reportage: how the physical characteristics of these countries affect their strengths and vulnerabilities and the decisions made by their leaders.Offering "a fresh way of looking at maps" ( The New York Times Book Review ), Marshall explains the complex geo-political strategies that shape the globe. Why is Putin so obsessed with Crimea? Why was the US destined to become a global superpower? Why does China's power base continue to expand? Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy? Why will Europe never be united? The answers are geographical. "In an ever more complex, chaotic, and interlinked world, Prisoners of Geography is a concise and useful primer on geopolitics" ( Newsweek ) and a critical guide to one of the major determining factors in world affairs.

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Publisher
Scribner
Year
2015
ISBN
9781501121487
Map of Northern Asia

1



RUSSIA

Vast, vaster, vastest (adj): of very great area or extent; immense
Russia is vast. It is the vastest. Immense. It is six-million-square-miles vast, eleven time zones vast; it is the largest country in the world.
Its forests, lakes, rivers, frozen tundra, steppe, taiga, and mountains are all vast. This size has long seeped into our collective conscious. Wherever we are, there is Russia, perhaps to our east, or west, to our north or south—but there is the Russian Bear.
It is no coincidence that the bear is the symbol of this immense size. There it sits, sometimes hibernating, sometimes growling, majestic, but ferocious. Bear is a Russian word, but the Russians are also wary of calling this animal by its name, fearful of conjuring up its darker side. They call it medved, “the one who likes honey.”
At least 120,000 of these medveds live in a country that bestrides Europe and Asia. To the west of the Ural Mountains is European Russia. To their east is Siberia, stretching all the way to the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Even in the twenty-first century, to cross it by train takes six days. Russia’s leaders must look across these distances, and differences, and formulate policy accordingly; for several centuries now they have looked in all directions, but concentrated mostly westward.
When writers seek to get to the heart of the bear they often use Winston Churchill’s famous observation of Russia, made in 1939: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” but few go on to complete the sentence, which ends “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Seven years later he used that key to unlock his version of the answer to the riddle, asserting, “I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”
He could have been talking about the current Russian leadership, which despite being now wrapped in the cloak of democracy, remains authoritarian in its nature with national interest still at its core.
When Vladimir Putin isn’t thinking about God, and mountains, he’s thinking about pizza. In particular, the shape of a slice of pizza—a wedge.
The thin end of this wedge is Poland. Here, the vast North European Plain stretching from France to the Urals (which extend a thousand miles south to north, forming a natural boundary between Europe and Asia) is only three hundred miles wide. It runs from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south. The North European Plain encompasses all of western and northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and nearly all of Poland.
From a Russian perspective this is a double-edged sword. Poland represents a relatively narrow corridor into which Russia could drive its armed forces if necessary and thus prevent an enemy from advancing toward Moscow. But from this point the wedge begins to broaden; by the time you get to Russia’s borders it is more than two thousand miles wide, and is flat all the way to Moscow and beyond. Even with a large army you would be hard-pressed to defend in strength along this line. However, Russia has never been conquered from this direction partially due to its strategic depth. By the time an army approaches Moscow it already has unsustainably long supply lines, a mistake that Napoleon made in 1812, and that Hitler repeated in 1941.
Likewise, in the Russian Far East it is geography that protects Russia. It is difficult to move an army from Asia up into Asian Russia; there’s not much to attack except for snow and you could get only as far as the Urals. You would then end up holding a massive piece of territory, in difficult conditions, with long supply lines and the ever-present risk of a counterattack.
You might think that no one is intent on invading Russia, but that is not how the Russians see it, and with good reason. In the past five hundred years they have been invaded several times from the west. The Poles came across the North European Plain in 1605, followed by the Swedes under Charles XII in 1708, the French under Napoleon in 1812, and the Germans—twice, in both world wars, in 1914 and 1941. Looking at it another way, if you count from Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, but this time include the Crimean War of 1853–56 and the two world wars up to 1945, then the Russians were fighting on average in or around the North European Plain once every thirty-three years.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Russians occupied the territory conquered from Germany in Central and Eastern Europe, some of which then became part of the USSR, as it increasingly began to resemble the old Russian empire. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by an association of European and North American states, for the defense of Europe and the North Atlantic against the danger of Soviet aggression. In response, most of the Communist states of Europe—under Russian leadership—formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955, a treaty for military defense and mutual aid. The pact was supposed to be made of iron, but with hindsight, by the early 1980s it was rusting, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it crumbled to dust.
President Putin is no fan of the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. He blames him for undermining Russian security and has referred to the breakup of the former Soviet Union during the 1990s as a “major geopolitical disaster of the century.”
Since then the Russians have watched anxiously as NATO has crept steadily closer, incorporating countries that Russia claims it was promised would not be joining: the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia in 2004; and Albania in 2009. NATO says no such assurances were given.
Russia, like all great powers, is thinking in terms of the next one hundred years and understands that in that time anything could happen. A century ago, who could have guessed that American armed forces would be stationed a few hundred miles from Moscow in Poland and the Baltic States? By 2004, just fifteen years after 1989, every single former Warsaw Pact state bar Russia was in NATO or the European Union.
The Moscow administration’s mind has been concentrated by that, and by Russia’s history.
Russia as a concept dates back to the ninth century and a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus, which was based in Kiev and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. The Mongols, expanding their empire, continually attacked the region from the south and east, eventually overrunning it in the thirteenth century. The fledgling Russia then relocated northeast in and around the city of Moscow. This early Russia, known as the Grand Principality of Muscovy, was indefensible. There were no mountains, no deserts, and few rivers. In all directions lay flatland, and across the steppe to the south and east were the Mongols. The invader could advance at a place of his choosing, and there were few natural defensive positions to occupy.
Enter Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar. He put into practice the concept of attack as defense—i.e., beginning your expansion by consolidating at home and then moving outward. This led to greatness. Here was a man to give support to the theory that individuals can change history. Without his character, of both utter ruthlessness and vision, Russian history would be different.
The fledgling Russia had begun a moderate expansion under Ivan’s grandfather, Ivan the Great, but that expansion accelerated after he came to power in 1533. It encroached east on the Urals, south to the Caspian Sea, and north toward the Arctic Circle. It gained access to the Caspian, and later the Black Sea, thus taking advantage of the Caucasus Mountains as a partial barrier between it and the Mongols. A military base was built in Chechnya to deter any would-be attacker, be they the Mongol Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, or the Persians.
There were setbacks, but over the next century Russia would push past the Urals and edge into Siberia, eventually incorporating all the land to the Pacific coast far to the east.
Now the Russians had a partial buffer zone and a hinterland—strategic depth—somewhere to fall back to in the case of invasion. No one was going to attack them in force from the Arctic Sea, nor fight their way over the Urals to get to them. Their land was becoming what we now know as Russia, and to get to it from the south or southeast you had to have a huge army and a very long supply line and you had to fight your way past defensive positions.
In the eighteenth century, Russia, under Peter the Great—who founded the Russian Empire in 1721—and then Empress Catherine the Great, looked westward, expanding the empire to become one of the great powers of Europe, driven chiefly by trade and nationalism. A more secure and powerful Russia was now able to occupy Ukraine and reach the Carpathian Mountains. It took over most of what we now know as the Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Thus it was protected from any incursion via land that way, or from the Baltic Sea.
Now there was a huge ring around Moscow that was the heart of the country. Starting at the Arctic, it came down through the Baltic region, across Ukraine, then the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, swinging back around to the Urals, which stretched up to the Arctic Circle.
In the twentieth century, Communist Russia created the Soviet Union. Behind the rhetoric of “Workers of the World Unite” the USSR was simply the Russian Empire writ large. After the Second World War it stretched from the Pacific to Berlin, from the Arctic to the borders of Afghanistan—a superpower economically, politically, and militarily, rivaled only by the United States.
How big is the biggest country in the world? Russia is twice the size of the United States or China, five times the size of India, seventy times the size of the UK. However, it has a relatively small population (144 million), fewer people than Nigeria or Pakistan. Its agricultural growing season is short and it struggles to adequately distribute what is grown around the eleven time zones that Moscow governs.
Russia, up to the Urals, is a European power insofar as it borders the European landmass, but it is not an Asian power despite bordering Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and North Korea, and having maritime borders with several countries, including Japan and the United States.
Former US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was mocked when she was reported as saying “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” a line which morphed in media coverage to “You can see Russia from my house.” What she really said was “You can see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.” She was right. A Russian island in the Bering Strait is two and a half miles from an American island in the Strait, Little Diomede Island, and can be seen with the naked eye. You can indeed see Russia from America.
High up in the Urals there is a cross marking the place where Europe stops and Asia starts. When the skies are clear, it is a beautiful spot and you can see through the fir trees for miles toward the east. In winter it is snow-covered, as is the Siberian Plain you see below you stretching toward the city of Yekaterinburg. Tourists like to visit to put one foot in Europe and one in Asia. It is a reminder of just how big Russia is when you realize that the cross is placed merely a quarter of the way into the country. You may have traveled 1,500 miles from Saint Petersburg, through western Russia, to get to the Urals, but you still have another 4,500 miles to go before reaching the Bering Strait, and a possible sighting of Mrs. Palin, across from Alaska in the United States.
Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was in the Urals, at the point where Europe becomes Asia, accompanied by a Russian camera crew. The cameraman was a taciturn, stoic, grizzled veteran of filming, and was the son of the Red Army’s cameraman who had filmed a great deal of footage during the German siege of Stalingrad. I asked him, “So, are you European or are you Asian?” He reflected on this for a few seconds then replied, “Neither—I am Russian.”
Whatever its European credentials, Russia is not an Asian power for many reasons. Although 75 percent of its territory is in Asia, only 22 percent of its population lives there. Siberia may be Russia’s “treasure chest,” containing the majority of the mineral wealth, oil, and gas, but it is a harsh land, freezing for months on end, with vast forests (taiga), poor soil for farming, and large stretches of swampland. Only two railway networks run west to east—the Trans-Siberian and the Baikal-Amur Mainline. There are few transport routes leading north to south and so no easy way for Russia to project power southward into modern Mongolia or China: it lacks the manpower and supply lines to do so.
China may well eventually control parts of Siberia in the long run, but this would be through Russia’s declining birthrate and Chinese immigration moving north. Already as far west as the swampy West Siberian Plain, between the Urals in the west and the Yenisei River one thousand miles to the east, you can see Chinese restaurants in most of the towns and cities. Many different businesses are coming. The empty depopulating spaces of Russia’s Far East are even more likely to come under Chinese cultural, and eventually political, control.
When you move outside of the Russian heartland, much of the population in the Russian Federation is not ethnically Russian and pays little allegiance to Moscow, which results in an aggressive security system similar to the one in Soviet days. During that era, Russia was effectively a colonial power ruling over nations and people who felt they had nothing in common with their masters; parts of the Russian Federation—for example, Chechnya and Dagestan in the Caucasus—still feel this way.
Late in the last century overstretch, spending more money than was available, the economics of the madhouse in a land not designed for people, and defeat in the mountains of Afghanistan led to the fall of the USSR and saw the Russian Empire shrink back to the shape of more or less the pre–Communist era with its European borders ending at Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in support of the Communist Afghan government against anti-Communist Muslim guerrillas, had never been about bringing the joys of Marxist-Leninism to the Afghan people. It was always about ensuring that Moscow controlled that space in order to prevent anyone else from doing so.
Crucially, the invasion of Afghanistan also gave hope to the great Russian dream of its army being able to “wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean,” in the words of the ultra-nationalistic Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and thus achieve what it never had: a warm-water port where the water does not freeze in winter, with free access to the world’s major trading routes. The ports on the Arctic, such as Murmansk, freeze for several months each year: Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is ice-locked for about four months and is 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. In addition, waterborne transport is much cheaper than land or airborne routes.
However, the “warm-water open sea-lanes” dream has seeped away from Moscow, further now perhaps than for two hundred years. The Afghan experience is sometimes called “Russia’s Vietnam,” but it was more than that; the plains of Kandahar and the mountains of the Hindu Kush proved the rule that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires.”
This lack of a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans has always been Russia’s Achilles’ heel, as strategically important to it as the North European Plain. Russia is at a geographical disadvantage, saved from being a much weaker power only because of its oil and gas. No wonder, in his will of 1725, that Peter the Great advised his descendants to “approach as near as possible to Constantinople and India. Whoever governs there will be the true sovereign of the world. Consequently, excite continual wars, not only in Turkey, but in Persia. . . . Penetrate as far as the Persian Gulf, advance as far as India.”
When the Soviet Union broke apart, it split into fifteen countries. Geography had its revenge on the ideology of the Soviets, and a more logical picture reappeared on the map, one where mountains, rivers, lakes, and seas delineate where people live, how they are separated from each other and, thus, how they developed different languages and customs. The exception to this rule are the “stans,” such as Tajikistan, whose borders were deliberately drawn by Stalin so as to weaken each state by ensuring it had large minorities of people from other states.
If you take the long view of history—and most diplomats and military planners do—then there is still everything to play for in each of the states that formerly made up the USSR, plus some of those previously in the Warsaw Pact military alliance. They can be divided three ways: those that are neutral, the pro-Western group, and the pro-Russian camp.
The neutral countries—Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan—are those with fewer reasons to ally themselves with Russia or the West. This is because all three produce their own energy and are not beholden to either side for their security or trade.
In the pro-Russian camp are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Armenia. Their economies are tied to Russia in the way that much of eastern Ukraine’s economy is (another reason for the rebellion there). The largest of these, Kazakhstan, leans toward Russia diplomatically and its large Russian-minority population is well integrated. Of the five, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan have joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (a sort of poor man’s EU), which celebrated its first anniversary in January 2016. All, including Tajikistan, are in a military alliance with Russia called the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The CSTO suffers from not having a name you can boil down to one word, and from being a watered-down Warsaw Bloc. Russia maintains a military presence in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia.
Then there are the pro-Western countries f...

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