Who remembers manifest destiny? An internet search picks on America’s version of manifest destiny first. The presumption of western expansion was our basis for believing in a manifest destiny. Russia’s manifest destiny had a similar historical underpinning only about expanding east to the far reaches of Siberia, and even today’s Alaska and parts of the California coast. How we forget.
Both involved the subjugation of native peoples and it wasn’t pretty in either case. But there is something forgotten in this comparison. The American growth was accompanied with significant economic expansion. The Russian expansion, not so much, and, besides communism, there may have been a reason for that. The climate. The very name, Siberia, connotes cold wastelands. Worse than that, they were vast areas suitable for one thing: Invasion. None of this is conducive to economic expansion.
The Russians have understood this for a very long time.
Geography and Empires
Peter Zeihan, a unique voice in geopolitics, has a background in economics, and is a strong proponent for the concept, “Geography is destiny”. Maybe that could be expanded to say geography is manifest destiny. If that is the case, Russia has had to face a fundamental conclusion: What a lousy place for an empire. Most of the empire is uninhabitable. In spite of that, there is a history of scores of invasions like Genghis Khan which have taken place over the last 500 years, Siberia and much of Russia has simply not been a destination spot to go live. While we have seen the population of the rest of the world grow from a billion to nearly 8 billion within the last 100 years, the population density of Siberia hasn’t moved much past 2 people per square mile.
A successful empire requires a lot of people they just don’t have. Add to that the decline in birth rates, the rise in death rates, and the depressing effect of a static economy, and one can begin to appreciate just how lousy an empire that can be.
Peter Zeihan emphasizes that the impact of birth rates spells doom for the Russian future. Technically, all that can happen is that the economy simply has to adjust to decline in population. However, in their case, they are running out of enough people to defend what they currently have.
So, some have been looking at the contentious history between Siberia and the Manchurian region of China and concluded a land grab is not far off in the future, despite the “all in” agreement recently made between Russia and Communist China.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has created a new situation in the history of warfare. Put simply, the current state of affairs has completely eliminated the element of tactical surprise. Instead, now, in this conflict, there are “empty battlefields”. Peter Zeihan has suggested that historical precedence makes open flat areas prime for invasion. But, now, instead, the element of tactical surprise has been eliminated by vastly improved intelligence gathering capabilities on both sides. The moment one side makes a move, the other can mount a counter move very quickly.
At the moment, the two competing “strategies” are: 1) Russia: Use small, platoon size, units spread out over the battle field to take a couple hundred meters of land with heavy artillery support, and 2) Ukraine: Destroy Russia’s artillery. Other experts talk about how costly this is in lives and equipment. This looks much like a war of attrition. Usually the winners are the ones with the larger economy.
However long the support for Ukraine lasts, whatever small gains Russia achieves, it still has the look and feel of a stalemate. How long can that really last? But this also brings us back to the larger issue.
Now the conversation is about rendering large flat areas of land useless in warfare. Does this change how we think about Russia’s geography? Perhaps. There is no easy answer. The Russian tactics have many built in limits. How much can they really expand munitions production? How quickly can they replace destroyed artillery? How long can they keep losing their men?
Russia is on the horns of a twin dilemma: Theirs is an empire few want to defend, and the number remaining ready to defend it is getting smaller. As if to rub salt in a wound, there are reports that where Russians have set up new communities in other countries those economies are growing even faster now. This seriously reduces the chances that Russia’s best and brightest will return any time soon. All of this just underscores the title: What a lousy place for an empire.
Note attribution: Image is from National Geographic