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Tim Robbins' excellent "Prisoners of Geography" (2016) begins with a quip on Russia’s geopolitical situation:  

“Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: 'Why didn't you put some mountains in Ukraine?’"

Russia’s trouble with Ukraine is that God put Russia’s mountains (the Urals) way out east, beyond the city of Perm, where they are little help against invasion from the west.

"If God had built mountains in Ukraine,” Robbins continues, “then the great expanse of flatland that is the North European Plain would not be such encouraging territory from which to attack Russia repeatedly. As it is, Putin has no choice: he must at least attempt to control the flatlands to the west. So it is with all nations, big or small. The landscape imprisons their leaders, giving them fewer choices and less room to maneuver than you might think."

This was written in 2015, a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea, and six years before the current crisis over Ukraine’s fate began.

Geography is not the only basis of war and peace, including for Russia. Nevertheless, given so many borders with other countries, and the corresponding fact that Russia itself is a threat to others, it’s not surprising that Moscow over the centuries has had so many enemies. Despite its own size and power, but also because of it, Russian leaders have always perceived the country as being in perpetual danger.  

This makes Moscow’s intentions hard to decipher. During the Cold War, was the Soviet Union’s strategy offensive or defensive? The debate in the West never ended. What about Putin’s intentions today? It’s the same issue.

Let’s add demography to geography. Like any big power, Russia needs a strong economy to maintain a strong military. A strong economy and military require an adequate demography. Russia needs more people, whereas its demographic trendline has been negative for years, especially among men, whose average lifespan has significantly declined.

How can Moscow produce more people? Its birthrate for many years has been one of the lowest in the world, and is not likely to rise. One ready-made solution is demographic theft. Stealing Crimea’s 2 ½ million majority-ethnic Russian population was a start.  

But a few millions are far from enough. Thus, Putin’s coveting of Ukraine. In Moscow’s eyes and in a long-term view, Ukraine is not only territory. Its population of 44 million, or at least the ethnic-Russian part, is a natural target. The issue is how to acquire them.

Putin’s unexpected scholarly article last summer argued that Ukraine is hardly a separate country, that "historically and culturally" it is part of a Great Russian population. By unfortunate twists of fate, Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state in the 19th and 20th centuries was the major loss in a historical process that left 25 million ethnic Russians stranded outside the Motherland, "a genuine human tragedy,” as he put it. It is likely that Putin really believes this.

Thus, taking Crimea in 2014 was not simple pickpocketing. It’s a fact that until 1955 Crimea was part of Russian territory, albeit non-contiguous. The twist of fate was that leadership in Moscow decided to unilaterally cede Crimea to Kyiv, in a seemingly witless act of communist faith that the Soviet Union would never come apart. For Putin, this is unfathomable.

Of course, geopolitical logic also pointed to Crimean annexation. Anchored at Crimean Sevastopol, the Russian Black Sea fleet can defend Russia’s southern flank and has direct access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. This is important because, otherwise, Russia lacks even a single warm-water port.

Finally, the issue Putin emphasizes in the current crisis is Ukraine's relationship to NATO and the European Union

To join the Union, however unlikely that is right now, would irrevocably seal Ukraine’s economic, social, and cultural orientation. Ukraine would become part of the transatlantic world, its population, resources, and political culture definitively separated from the Russian Orthodox Motherland. Russia would be excluded from the West, ending the historic tension between its westernizing and Slavophile tendencies.

Likewise, if Ukraine were admitted into NATO (again, however unlikely that is at the moment), it would inflict grievous harm to Russia’s geostrategic situation. A sizable segment of its political elite sees NATO as an existential threat. Putin imagined a personal humiliation: If he traveled to Sevastopol, he couldn’t abide being greeted by a NATO admiral. 

In sum, Washington must recognize that Putin's obsession with Ukraine is no simple matter. Nor is his intransigence devoid of justification. But this doesn’t mean bowing to his demands.

To Americans, Putin today is perceived as an aggressor, but in fact he’s playing a weak hand. Putin is motivated to take risks because Russia’s strategic situation is so threatened. As a personal matter, his place in Russia’s history is on the line. (Gorbachev’s fate is always on his mind).

Putin doesn’t want war because he couldn’t be sure of winning quickly and decisively. There are other options. For example, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a few months ago warned that a Moscow-orchestrated coup was imminent. But neither can Putin, having raised the stakes so much, afford to get nothing, or very little, out of the current crisis. It’s a mistake to believe that Putin’s goal is merely to achieve a bilateral negotiation with Washington in order to confirm Russia’s great power status.

As for Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden can accept a larger range of outcomes than Putin. Yet, however understandable Putin’s concerns might be, Biden can’t concede too much, lest he and the U.S. appear to be weak.

Putin evidently has more to lose than Biden. But both want to settle without a war. It’s a classic geopolitical negotiation that demands high diplomacy.

And what part is the Kyiv government to play in the determination of its fate?

That remains to be seen. Zelenskiy is fully engaged with the U.S. and yet must avoid becoming a victim of Russian-U.S. calculations. Saving his country from Putin’s clutches would be worth a score of humiliations.

Ronald Tiersky is the Joseph B. Eastman '04 Professor of Political Science emeritus at Amherst College. The views expressed are the author's own.