Thursday, November 27, 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.

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

Latest Podcasts

About This Blog

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