Americans who don't know their geography can't understand the Ukraine war

The 19th-century German geographer Friedrich Ratzel once wrote that "great statesmen have never lacked a feeling for geography."  "When one speaks of a healthy political instinct," Ratzel continued, "one usually means a correct evaluation of the geographic bases of political power."  Europeans and Asians have always had a better grasp of the importance of geography than Americans because unlike Americans, their potential adversaries and opponents were usually located close by, not an ocean away.

Laszlo Bernat Veszpremy is a Hungarian historian and the editor of a science journal called Corvinak.  Writing in The American Conservative, Veszpremy has provided a geography lesson for Americans in an effort to help them understand the Russian-Ukraine war.  The article is titled "The Inexorable Crowbar of Geography," and in it Veszpremy urges Americans to "put maps and encyclopedias back on their tables" so they can understand the "central geographic reality" of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

That geographic reality is the "East European Plain," which extends over two million square miles.  It is the largest lowland in the world.  The great British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder sketched what he called the "Great Lowland" in his geopolitical masterpiece Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919).  Mackinder described this plain as a "gateway" into Europe from Asia, and into Asia from Europe.  He characterized this lowland as "the strategical fact of decisive meaning" for Eurasian geopolitics.  Mackinder described the raids of hordes from Asia — Tatars, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Mongols — that helped shape modern Europe.  Centuries later, European empires — Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, and Nazi Germany — traversed the great lowland and struck into the heart of European Russia.

Veszpremy writes that it is impossible to understand Russia's perspective on Ukraine without "taking into account the many perilous periods of Russian history ingrained in the soul of the Russian people."  The Russian empire was born in Kiev and expanded until engulfed for two centuries by the Mongols.  Poland invaded Russia in 1609, and in the Great Northern War of 1700–1721, "the Swedish army got as far as Central Ukraine before being defeated in 1709."  A century later, Bonaparte led a multinational army into Russia and occupied Moscow.  And a century after that, the Kaiser's army advanced deep into Russia and forced the new Bolshevik regime to sue for peace.  And in the summer of 1941, Hitler's armies took Ukraine and advanced toward Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad before being stopped by the Russian weather and stiff Russian resistance.

Veszpremy writes that Russia still "feels militarily vulnerable on her Western border," and Russia "will never cede control of the lands she considers vital for the country's future; she will never abandon the areas where the country can be easily attacked."  Putin, some European experts believe, desires to resurrect not the old Soviet Union, but the old Russian empire — and Ukraine was an important part of that empire.  Historians to this day still disagree as to whether Stalin at the end of World War II wanted all of Europe or just enough of eastern and central Europe to feel secure.

Veszpremy does not excuse Russia's aggression or downplay Russia's wartime atrocities.  But the facts of geography, and Russia's historical perspective on that geography, are factors that the United States and its NATO allies ignore at their peril.  As Mackinder advised the Western democracies many years ago, peace and stability will come about only when we "adjust our ideals of freedom to [the] lasting realities of our earthly home."

Image via Public Domain Pictures.

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