by Claire Cullen

Does the study of the recorded past serve any vital purpose? In light of present day circumstances, that is a compelling question. Perhaps a brief examination of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine will shed light on the topic.

When Vladimir Putin sent troops into the region in 2014, many questioned his audacity. Yet seen through the prism of history, the decision should not have been surprising. Ukraine had made overtures to NATO. Such an alliance would threaten Russia’s control over the naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea. At this juncture, Putin looked to the past.

In 1725, Peter the Great wrote, “(Russia should) 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.” Thus began a continuum: Catherine the Great, Tsar Alexander, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, …Vladimir Putin. All looked to the south. Access to a warm water port is as much a part of Russian history as the Bolshoi and Pushkin.

The geographic realities are self-evident. Russia’s northern ports are frozen for months at a time.  Ships plying the Baltic route to the North Sea must navigate the NATO controlled waters of the Skagerrak Strait. Those docked in the Black Sea face the narrows of the Bosporus. Clearly their blue water navy faces tremendous obstacles. And the ultimate goal, the Indian Ocean, remains at bay. Putin’s objective isn’t simply Sevastopol. This is but a transitional step to his ultimate goal.

Ukraine was first incorporated into Russia in the ninth century. A significant Russian-speaking population has lived in the region for two centuries. A careful study of each nation shows that their histories are intertwined. Thus from Putin’s perspective, annexation was both logical and inevitable. He could no more abdicate control of the region than the United States could cede the Gulf of Mexico, or access to the Panama Canal, to a hostile alliance.

This does not mean that we have to accept Russia’s actions. What it does mean is that we must understand their motivation. And that brings us back to the fundamental question posed above.

Does the study of the recorded past serve any vital purpose? Absolutely. For without a firm understanding of history, it will be impossible to develop any effective strategy for the present and the future. “The bear in the woods” is now a presence in Syria and a supporter of Iran on the Persian Gulf. Sound familiar? It should. Peter the Great pointed Russia in this precise direction nearly three hundred years ago.

For Further Reading:

Imperial Gamble; Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War    — Marvin Kalb
Prisoners of Geography; Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World    — Tim Marshall
The Revenge of Geography; What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate      — Robert Kaplan
Pacific; Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers    — Simon Winchester