For nearly eight centuries, Russia has been trapped in a loose cycle: It rises from chaos, returns as a regional and sometimes even global power, grows aggressive as the system cracks, and then collapses before rising again. Russia's cycle starts with a catalyst that causes governance to break down and disrupts the social order, leading to collapse. In the 13th century, it was the Mongol invasion; in the 17th century, the Time of Troubles; in the 20th century, the Russian Revolution, fall of the Soviet Union and the 1998 financial crisis. And after collapse comes resurrection. Typically the system that governed during the crisis is transformed into something new — usually with a strong personality at the fore. This figure tends to create a stable system in which Russia can consolidate itself and its borderlands.
All those systems, however, have fallen into the problematic pattern of trying to consolidate the heartland while expanding Russian influence, practically ensuring their own collapse. Expanding Russian influence comes at an immense financial, military, political and social cost. When the inevitable stress points begin to emerge, Moscow tends to tighten its grip and to act more aggressively within and along its borders. Eventually, cracks in the system force a complete transformation. Then the cycle begins anew.
That cycle is less about political choices than it is about geographic constraints. Russia operates from an inherently weak geographic position. It is the largest country in the world, covering roughly 13 time zones (split now into four mega-zones). Yet 75 percent of the country is virtually uninhabitable frozen tundra that becomes marshland in the summer, making domestic trade extremely difficult. Maritime trade is also difficult for Russia, given that its only warm-water port, on the Black Sea, is blocked by rivals, including Turkey. Therefore, the country has struggled to develop economically.
Furthermore, Russia's heartland — which runs from St. Petersburg south through Moscow and into the Volga region — lies on a series of plains, making it vulnerable from all sides. This has forced Russia to seek to expand its borders and influence outward to create a buffer zone between its heartland and rival regional powers. Thus the dilemma: Russia must expand to survive, but that expansion is unsustainable and has historically led to its collapse.