by Peter Zeihan on April 26, 2022
In many ways, Ukraine’s geography largely mimics that of the American Midwest: a broad swath of highly productive agricultural land with a largely navigable river running through it. In the United States, the Mississippi delivers the bounty of the Midwest to the port of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. In Ukraine, the Dnieper flows to the Black Sea where it empties at the port of Kherson. Kherson should be a familiar name to those of you who have been following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, given the Russian military’s efforts to capture the city. Geography helps give an understanding of its significance.
Ukraine’s historic ability to grow surplus crops and deliver them via river to the Black Sea should not be overlooked. The Black Sea, and especially the Turkish Straits, affords Ukraine a considerable advantage over much of Russia: the output of its primary productive geographies enjoys relatively easy access to global ports. Ukrainian grain–and oilseeds, and coal, and metals, and so on–can in normal times reach international ports and thus link Ukraine to a globalized economy.
Not so for Russia. The Russians’ primary river, the Volga, empties into the Caspian Sea which unlike the Black Sea has no access to global maritime trade. The Volga is also prone to spectacular cycles of freezing, and flooding, and ice damming. Russian economic development largely stalled until the 19th century, when Moscow was able to develop rail networks to the Baltic Sea and Black Sea (also why so much of Russian imperial history focused on securing the Caucuses and Crimea; access to the Black Sea and ports beyond was [and still is] critical for Russia’s economic survival).
Ukraine represents the best-situated, most productive piece of Russia’s former Soviet empire, and the one that could most easily integrate with the West, and beyond. Which is why control over Ukraine has been so central to Russian imperial strategy for centuries, and why I fear future Russian military action will focus on destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and economy.