No, Russia Doesn't Require Buffer States for Its Own Security

"The destiny of geography" has nothing to do with it.

The recent resurgence in thinking about the role of geography in international politics has brought a welcome mix of sound analysis and discussion of geopolitics and causes of conflict. The return of geopolitics to discourse on modern conflict has proved quite helpful in analysis of current crises. However, along with this resurgence in thinking about the role geography can have in facilitating interstate competition, slippery analysis continues to confound many commentators. Too much focus on treating geography as a unique causal variable has led to misplaced focus on geography as causing conflict rather than as a facilitating factor in modern conflict.

A major example of this problematic analysis of geography and conflict can be seen in many recent discussions of Russian foreign policy. Recently, many analysts have consistently claimed that the real cause driving Russian foreign policy and Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has been geography. Specifically, they claim that Russia’s unfavorable geography necessitates Russia’s territorial grabs, as a means of creating buffer areas to defend their near abroad. Given the history of Napoleon, Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany and others’ quest to push into Russian territory, this argument seems to have face validity. Yet, in the modern era, assuming that geography mandates Russian power projection is a flawed assessment that gives less credence to Russian expansionist and power-grabbing ideology than it should.

This argument manifested itself most recently in The Atlantic, in a piece discussing Russian geography and the need for natural buffer states. The argument largely posited that due to the central European plains on Russia’s western border, land invasions would be relatively simple as the flat land is conducive to offensive maneuver. Hence, Russian geography mandates its need for buffer states to expand the amount of territory an invader would need to advance to capture the Russian heartland. This is emblematic of many commentators, since the response from many has been to see recent Russian actions begun in Ukraine as a natural outgrowth of security concerns based on geography. However, this view of Russian geography mandating Russian pursuit of buffer states is archaic and fundamentally wrong.

Nuclear Revolutions and Buffer States:

The belief that Russian geography requires Russia to pursue buffer states, due to Russian security concerns, is outdated and based on a lack of understanding of how the nuclear revolution changed the calculus of security for major powers. The nuclear revolution allowed states to no longer worry about the mobilization schedule of a prospective invader, and instead focus on ensuring a credible second-strike capability to make any invasion into the homeland as painful as possible. Defending the homeland did not depend on the amount of territory the invading army had to traverse following 1945, but rather on the ability to deliver a retaliatory strike.

First, why did Russia require buffer states in the past? The logic behind Russia pursuing buffer states claimed that when great powers were concerned with possible invasion, they would seek to gain territory on their frontier to delay the possible advance of a rival army and allow for a strategy of defense-in-depth. The increased amount of time it would take for an invading military to march across the buffer state would make invasion less likely to succeed, due to the increased defensive capability of the state being invaded. Buffer states were required to ensure the security of great powers with permeable geographical frontiers. Given the ease with which a prospective invader could advance on Russia’s western frontier, buffer states to increase the time Russia would have to deploy defensive forces were seen as a positive.

Once nuclear weapons were invented, however, buffer states were no longer seen as necessary regardless of geography, as nuclear deterrence worked to ensure the territorial integrity of great powers with nuclear capabilities. Buffer states are not required, since the defensive capabilities of second-strike nuclear capabilities are not enhanced or changed in any way by having early warning and delay of invasion. Thus, the utility of buffer states and the concerns of geography invariably changed following the nuclear revolution. Without the concern of quick invasions into the homeland of a rival great power, buffer states lose their utility regardless of the geography of the territory.

Buffer States In Decline: