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If We Don’t Understand Crimean History, We May Repeat It

By Baruch Pletner,

Russia is the most geographically disadvantaged major country in the world. This fact, simply stated, is at the root of Russian foreign policy and its paranoia from the beginning of the 18th century and to this very day.

Having no geographically defined and defensible borders such as coasts, rivers, or mountain ranges, Russia has had to relocate its capital twice due to pressure from its enemies. First organized in the 9th century around the northwestern city of Novgorod, not far from today’s St. Petersburgh by the Varangian (Viking) Prince Rurik of the Rus tribe, the nascent Russian state had to relocate 800 miles south to Kiev, due to pressure from Teutonic knights from Poland and the Baltics. Soon thereafter the newly Christian Kievan Rus was being harassed by Muslim Tartar marauders emanating from the Crimea and elements of the Golden Horde, a Mongol power ruled by Genghis Khan’s descendants. Exposed and difficult to defend, Kiev slowly yielded its capital status to the Duchy of Muscovy and the city of Moscow where it remained until Peter the Great built his Window to the West on the Neva river early in the 18th century, and where it is again today.

While the power of the Mongols was broken by Moscow in the early 16th century, Russia remained completely exposed on its western borders to emerging powers such as Poland, Prussia, and even Lithuania. At the same time, Russian geography caused it to remain extremely isolated; most overland traffic was done via rivers, which like the Dnieper and the Volga flowed north to south, terminating in inhospitable and wild places on the shores of the Black and the Caspian seas. The flow of goods and ideas from the West was thus nearly impossible. As a result, while Russia had a few centuries to peacefully develop and grow, it remained technologically backward. As late as the early 17th century it had no sizeable standing military force capable of executing large scale maneuvers. The “streltzy” (literally: shooters) regiments stationed in Moscow armed with medieval matchlock muskets and halberds served as lifeguards for the tsars and could not be considered an effective military force that could stand up to European powers…

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