Friday, August 26, 2016

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

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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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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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