Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Power Vertical

Geography Is Destiny

Hard travelin' near Omsk
Hard travelin' near Omsk

Stratfor this week published a little paper called “The Geography of Recession” that is worth taking a look at, if only to be reminded of the old axiom that “geography is destiny.”


The report begins with statistics showing how the global recession is affecting various countries and then moves on to an interesting, geography-based explanation of why the recession is, so far, more than four times worse in Russia (change in GDP of negative 9.5 percent over the last 12 months) than it is in the United States (a decline of 2.6 percent).


Stratfor’s analysis of the United States – how its geography, including the world’s largest mass of arable land and a generous inland waterway system that promotes open and cheap domestic trade, produced a resilient and flexible political and economic system – is intriguing reading.


But Power Vertical readers are going to be most interested in the Russia section, which provides a neat summary of the Kremlin’s geographical and historical issues. And that section boils down to this, in Stratfor’s words: “If in economic terms the United States has everything going for it geographically, then Russia is just the opposite.” That is, a harsh climate, masses of barely inhabitable land, a disconnected river system that freezes for much of the year, a lamentable lack of warm-water ports, and no meaningful geographic borders separating it from its neighbors.


As a result, Russia’s historic national strategies have been predetermined: “Because Russia lacks a decent internal transport network that can rapidly move armies from place to place, geography forces Russia to defend itself following two strategies. First, it requires massive standing armies on all of its borders. Second, it dictates that Russia continually push its boundaries outward to buffer its core against external threats.”


The standing armies are a constant drain on the economy and the expansion strategy means “large populations that do not wish to be part of the Russian state and so must constantly be policed.” The lack of labor and capital needed to cope with the needs of the vast territory, Stratfor reminds us, impels Russia toward centralized planning in an effort to harness the limited resources available “to achieve even a modicum of security and stability.”


This, in turn, historically drives Russia toward systems having small ruling elites, an impulse that has been pushed to an extreme in the era of Vladimir Putin. The small elite means a shortage of attention and innovation, meaning that “unless management is perfect in perception and execution, any mistakes are quickly magnified into national catastrophes.”

The Stratfor conclusion, then, is: “It is therefore no surprise to STRATFOR that the Russian economy has now fallen the furthest of any major economy during the current recession.”

-- Robert Coalson

Tags: history,geography,economy,Russia

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: TS from: UK
June 03, 2009 20:20
Why are you giving this guy such uncritical support? At the risk of answering my own question...<br /><br />He is ex-CIA, a notorious neo-con, and at best an uncritical thinker, more often a polemicist - check out some of the reviews of his most recent book on Amazon. (;s=books&amp;qid=1244059752&amp;sr=1-1). <br /><br />This kind of uncritical report undermines some of the valuable analysis you otherwise present. <br />

by: Richard Mimna from:
June 03, 2009 20:59
Russia will most likely go into default before the years end. There really isn't much hope for them; Putin, and his cronies, have failed beyond the point of any real chance for recovery.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
June 04, 2009 10:03
TS:<br /><br />Why are you giving this guy such uncritical criticism? When all you can do is launch a personal smear, rather than disprove his factual statements by citing contradictory published evidence, you reveal yourself as a massive hypocrite.<br /><br />Russia's economic downturn is FOUR TIMES worse than America's because Russia is led by an unqualified and proud KGB spy who has pursued cold-war confrontation rather then economic development and diversity. Russians have ignored his failure, and ignored his barbaric crackdown on civil society designed to hide that failure.<br /><br />Hence, they richly deserve the suffering they now endure, and if they don't learn from it Russia will go the way of the USSR. Your offensive propaganda only helps to hasten the arrival of that fateful day.

by: Vytautasba from: vilnius
June 04, 2009 10:14
Interesting to interpret using geography. However as far as geography goes Russia has everything both the good and bad. It is really the quality of the leadership that will be the most important factor in Russia's development. Going down the road of authoritarianism, using the judicial system to insure political control, and avoiding any attempt at diversifying the economy have more effect than having connected rivers and ice free ports. Still a fun analysis to read and ponder.

by: Demyan
June 04, 2009 11:25
This, in turn, historically drives Russia toward systems having small ruling elites... It is therefore no surprise ... that the Russian economy has now fallen the furthest of any major economy during the current recession.”<br /><br />Hmm, shouldn't it have been China then? I'll let others list other contradictions and not-quite-facts in Stratfor's unimpressive theory.

by: Karl from: Germany
June 04, 2009 12:39
@TS from UK : that the authors are neo-cons and worked for the CIA does NOT prove they are wrong... the analysis is a geo-political explanation of an economic crisis, not a political opinion.... You can criticise the methodology, but why on earth is being a neo-con an obstacle to geographical analysis, while being a liberal or a socialist is not ?? Moreover, the analysis is thought-provoking, and finally one can read a historically and geographically based explanantion of the crisis....

by: Ivo
June 04, 2009 16:31
I think one thing the author got wrong — geography has blessed Russia with all conveivable natural resources. Look at Finland for example, what do they have? Timber and what else, and yet it's a country a with a very high standard of living, it's very democratic and non-corrupt. Oh and the whole of it is up there in the North, Russia at least has access to the Black Sea.

by: Ivo
June 04, 2009 16:50
Uh... sorry, that article is a waste of time. That dude's puttin' emphasis a bit too much on geographical determinism, tellin us how great and blessed the USA are with the rivers and harbours system, blah blah.

by: Richard Mimna from:
June 04, 2009 19:18
This perspective is only one of many possible points-of-view. Just as a video game can be analysed by a programmer, an artist, an architect, and a game playing consumer, each may have a unique perspective to offer that may actually be correct within their individual spheres of reality. This is only an analysis from a non-political view, and may be totally correct from it's intended vantage point. It doesn't hurt to look thru a pair of rose colored sunglasses once in awhile.

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Semyon Guzman, a prominent Ukrainian psychiatrist, says Vladimir Putin hasn't gone crazy -- he's just evil.

"Many really consider that he suffers from definite psychological illnesses,” Guzman wrote in a September 30 article (a big h/t to thei ndispensable Paul Goble for flagging this).  

"This is only a convenient explanation in the existing situation. Unfortunately, it is not correct.”

Putin's character traits, "ike those of a murderer, thief or other good for nothing, are not psychiatric phenomena but rather objects of the subjects of moral philosophy.” Guzman wrote. He added that Putin was "absolutely responsible" for his actions.

Karen Dawisha, who appeared on the Power Vertical Podcast back in April, dscusses her new book "Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia"

From RFE/RL's News Desk:


The head of the European Commission says an EU-Ukraine trade deal can only be changed by Brussels and Kyiv – not Moscow.

Jose Manuel Barroso made the remarks in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin released on October 1.

Ukraine's parliament ratified its agreement with the EU last month. 

However, the implementation of the trade part of the deal has been delayed until January 2016 to appease Russia, which says the pact will hurt its markets.

Moscow has called for more three-way negotiations to amend the deal and threatened to curtail Ukraine's access to Russian markets if Kyiv implements it.

In his letter, Barroso warned Putin not to impose new trade measures, saying it would threaten the agreement with Russia to delay the EU-Ukraine pact.

(With reporting by Reuters)

And for anybody interested, here's the full text of Barroso's letter:

"Mr. President,

Following your letter of 17 September, I would like to welcome the constructive engagement from all sides in the trilateral ministerial meeting on the implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area on 12 September.

The conclusions reached at that meeting were endorsed by all participants and set out in a joint ministerial statement.

On the EU side, we have informed our Member States of the outcome of the trilateral process, and we have now obtained their approval for the necessary legislative steps.

I should emphasize that the proposal to delay the provisional application of the DCFTA is linked to continuation of the CIS-FTA preferential regime, as agreed in the joint ministerial statement. In this context, we have strong concerns about the recent adoption of a decree by the Russian government proposing new trade barriers between Russia and Ukraine. We consider that the application of this decree would contravene the agreed joint conclusions and the decision to delay the provisional application of the trade related part of the Association Agreement.

The joint ministerial statement also foresees further consultations on how to address concerns raised by Russia. We are ready to continue engaging on how to tackle the perceived negative impacts to the Russian economy resulting from the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.

I take however this opportunity to underline that the Association Agreement remains a bilateral agreement and that, in line with international law, any adaptations to it can only be made at the request of one of the parties and with the agreement of the other, according to the mechanisms foreseen in the text and the respective internal procedures of the parties.

I wish to recall that the joint conclusions reached at the Ministerial meeting state clearly that all these steps are part and parcel of a comprehensive peace process in Ukraine, respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine as well as its right to decide on its destiny.

Consequently, while all parties should implement the conclusions as laid down in the joint ministerial statement in good faith, the statement does not and cannot limit in any way the sovereign prerogatives of Ukraine.

The European Commission remains fully committed to contribute to a peaceful solution. In this respect we hope that the recent positive steps embodied in the Minsk Protocol of 5 September and the ensuing memorandum from 19 September will be fully implemented, including the monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian state border and its verification by the OSCE, and the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations and military equipment from the Ukrainian territory.

We also expect that rapid and decisive progress can be achieved in the trilateral gas talks towards a mutually acceptable interim solution for the upcoming winter period, on the basis of the compromise elements set out by the European Commission. It is key that the resumption of energy deliveries to the citizens of Ukraine is ensured and that the fulfilment of all contractual obligations with customers in the EU is secured.

Yours faithfully,

José Manuel BARROSO"


And just when you though it couldn't get any weirder, Valery Zorkin destroys your illusions.

That's Valery Zorkin, the chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court. Zorkin penned an article last week in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" (that's the official Russian government newspaper, by the way), calling for -- wait for it -- a return to serfdom. A big h/t to Elena Holodny at Business Insider for flagging this.

Here's the money quote:

"Even with all of its shortcomings, serfdom was exactly the main staple holding the inner unity of the nation. It was no accident that the peasants, according to historians, told their former masters after the reforms: 'We were yours, and you — ours.'"

Zorkin also took a shot at Pyotr Stolypin, the 19th century reformist prime minister (and a hero of Vladimir Putin's), and his judicial reforms.

"Stolypin's reform took away communal justice from the peasants in exchange for individual freedom, which almost none of them knew how to live and which was depriving their community guarantees of survival."

I wonder what that portends. Zorking also compared the abolotion of serfdom to the post-Soviet reforms of the 1990s.


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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or