(above — Black Sea drainage basin; below — Volga river drainage basin)
The economies of Russia and Ukraine depend on exporting bulk goods like oil, coal, iron ore, grain, uranium, and manufactured goods. The easiest way for Russia and Ukraine to transport these goods is via ship or barge rather than by truck or train, for a number of reasons:
- ships are generally the most efficient way of moving bulk goods long distances
- the railways of Russia and Ukraine use a different gauge than those of other European countries and so do not directly connect to one another in most cases
- most of the import markets for grain are in North Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, and most of the import markets for goods like coal, iron ore, and Russian-made or Ukrainian-made weapons are in Asia
- relying on land transport would make Russia and Ukraine dependent on Eastern and Central European nations like Poland, Romania, Italy, and especially Germany. It might also make Russia reliant on Ukraine or Belarus, which sit in between Russia and European markets.
- The Volga-Don river system (the two rivers are connected to one another via a canal, next to Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad – which solves the problem of the Volga flowing into the landlocked Caspian Sea) is where nine of Russia’s sixteen largest cities are located, including Moscow
- The Volga and Don rivers in Russia and the Dnieper and Dniester rivers in Ukraine are wide, deep, long, and relatively slow-flowing, and as such can be used by large vessels. Moreover, their extreme width – they are often about 5 km across, and far wider than that in many places – has made building bridges across them expensive, further constraining land transport alternatives.The Volga and Dnieper are especially visible in the satellite image below:
Russia and Ukraine have two main options for their water transport: via the Baltic Sea or via the Black Sea. The Baltic route has a number of crucial limitations too:
- Ukraine does not border it directly, and Russia barely borders it directly
- It generally freezes over a lot during the winter, particularly the Gulf of Finland where Russia’s main access to it, next to St Petersburg, is located
- The populations of Russia and Ukraine mainly live in areas where the rivers flow towards the Black Sea rather than the Baltic
- Accessing the Atlantic Sea via the Baltic would make Russia dependent on Baltic Sea powers like Germany, the Scandinavians, and perhaps even Poland, Finland, or Britain
- The Baltic is an extraordinarily out-of-the-way route for exporting grain to the Middle East and Asia, or other goods and commodities to Asia
- Most of landlocked central and eastern Russia and all of Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia are located much closer to the Black Sea than to the Baltic
If Russia and Ukraine are to use the Black Sea to reach international markets, however, they must be able to ensure passage through the gulfs on either side of the Crimean Peninsula, as well as through the narrow Turkish Straits next to Istanbul and through the Aegean Sea occupied by Turkey, Greece, and the Greek islands. Given that in recent years Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine, involved itself militarily in south-eastern Ukraine, and built up the area around Sochi along the Black Sea, while at the same time Turkey’s economy has expanded and Greece’s has practically collapsed, the relationship between the Russians and the Turks has now become of particularly great importance.
Some other Turkish-Russian issues to watch:
- The Syrian Civil War, which Russia has entered into more directly in recent weeks, and in which Russia and Turkey generally find one another on opposite sides
- Turkey has become Russia’s main vacation destination. With Russia’s population aging and desiring to get away from Russia’s dark, cold, long winters, and with the recent Sinai peninsula attack on the Russian plane flying out of the resort haven of Sharm el Sheik threatening Russian tourism to Egpyt, which is Russia’s second largest vacation destination, this is a big issue.
- More than 10 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, and Russia also has a sphere of influence in Muslim Central Asia, in resource-rich Turkic countries like Kazakstan (where very large numbers of Russians live), Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
- Turkey wants to wean itself off its dependence on importing Russian energy, and then eventually supplant Russia as Europe’s energy supplier by connecting European markets to the energy producers in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and Central Asia
- Turkey and Russia have both historically wanted influence in Bulgaria, a Slavic Christian Orthodox country, and Greece, a Christian Orthodox country. Russia has looked to these countries as a source of leverage over Turkey, since the city of Istanbul is exposed to the borders of both and reliant on passage through the Greek Aegean. Bulgaria and Greece could also provide Russia with a winter vacation destination and, if intermodal transportation can become more efficient, a way to access the Mediterranean without passing through the Turkish Straits.
- The Balkans continues to have tensions between Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim groups – with the Orthodox closer to Russia and the Muslim ones to Turkey – and between Slavic and non-Slavic groups. Meanwhile, the Caucasus continue to have serious tensions between Christian Armenia, which is close to Russia and despises Turkey, and Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan, which is close to Turkey. Turkey and Russia are also the only two countries apart from Azerbaijan and Armenia to border Georgia, and in the past Russia has accused Georgia and Turkey of helping groups in the Russian Caucasus in places like Chechnya.