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Regions & CountriesJanuary 28, 2020 | 19:29 GMT
Georgia
Georgia
Georgia is located in the Caucasus region, a transcontinental zone between Europe and Asia, and is surrounded by powerful neighbors that have controlled part or all of the country throughout much of its history. These include Russia to the north, Turkey to the southwest and Iran to the southeast. Georgia's core is found in the capital city of Tbilisi, where the country's economic, political and demographic resources are concentrated. But because of Georgia's largely mountainous terrain, the country has distinct regional differences and contains various non-Georgian ethnic groups that have traditionally maintained autonomy from Tbilisi. These groups, most notably the Abkhazians and Ossetians to the northwest and north, have posed a separatist problem for the Georgian state. The territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia established de facto independence from Georgia with the help of Russia in a 2008 war. Because of Georgia's disputes with Russia and its military vulnerability, Tbilisi has sought to integrate with Western blocs like NATO and the European Union. However, Georgia's geographic distance from Europe and its exposure to Russia has made that a difficult prospect. Thus, Tbilisi also seeks supplementary partnerships with countries like Azerbaijan and Turkey.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:11 GMT
Kazakhstan
The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan rests in the heart of Central Asia, bordering Russia to its north; China on its east; Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan along its south; and the Caspian Sea to its west. The defining feature of Kazakhstan is the Kazakh Steppe, a large dryland stretching across more than 70 percent of the country. Only 12 percent of the country's land is arable, and the majority of that is in the north connecting into Russia's agricultural belt. There is also a large pocket in the south. This expanse has largely pushed the population of nearly 18 million to the outer borderlands. The steppe is encircled by a series of sizable mountain ranges. The core of the country lies in the corridor stretching across the Shymkent (also known as Southern Kazakhstan) and the Almaty region, where the climate is warm compared with the inhospitable deserts of the steppe. This stretch of land lies in the Syr Darya river basin, creating a fertile pocket of land protected to its east, west and north by mountain ranges. Shymkent and Almaty were some of the largest stopping posts along the Silk Road, and they now have the country's densest population and swaths of the financial, industrial and agricultural sectors. To the region's south lies the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan — a vulnerable point to its core. The Kazakh economy is dominated by its energy sector, making up nearly 20 percent of the gross domestic product. The country exports 78 percent of its oil production, regionally and along large trunk lines to China and Russia. Along with its agricultural and metals wealth, Kazakhstan's energy sector has made the country highly valuable to its neighbors. In recent decades, the country has positioned itself as the financial hub of Central Asia, tying in the banking systems of its smaller neighbors. Kazakhstan maintains strong ties with Russia, which reach back to its empire and Soviet phases. But the government in the capital, Astana, is also developing links to China and other players to balance Moscow. The country tries to maintain working relationships with its smaller neighbors, who have seen bouts of instability. Kazakhstan's challenges stem from its mostly hollow interior, from encroaching large powers and from the potential instability of smaller regions on its border.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:02 GMT
Moldova
Moldova
Moldova is a landlocked country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. Like its immediate neighbors, Moldova is a borderland state contested between Russia and the West. Moldova's small size, flat terrain and strategic location on the Bessarabian gap has made it vulnerable to invasion and control by outside powers throughout its history. The territory that now makes up Moldova was contested between the Ottoman and Russian empires in the 19th century. In the 20th century, the Romanians, Germans and Soviets fought for control over its territory. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Moldova became an independent state for the first time in modern history, with its economic, political and demographic core located in the capital of Chisinau. Independence has not removed external competition for influence over Moldova. The country's political system is roughly evenly divided between pro-Russian and pro-European Union groups that clash — sometimes violently — over the country's orientation toward Moscow or toward the West. Moldova is also divided geographically, with the territory of Transdniestria breaking away from Chisinau's control in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Transdniestria remains de facto out of the control of the Moldovan government and is supported financially and militarily by Russia. Coping with these various internal and external divisions is Moldova's primary geographic challenge.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:10 GMT
A horse grazes in front of Kara-Kul lake in the Chon-Ak-Suu valley, 300 kilometers southeast of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan
Located in the southeast corner of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan borders China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan is land-locked and almost entirely mountainous, making economic development difficult. The country has some mineral resources such as gold, but it does not have significant deposits of oil or natural gas. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest states of the former Soviet Union. Its mountainous terrain fosters significant internal political and social divisions, particularly between its northern and southern regions. Kyrgyzstan has two population and political cores distinct from each other — one in the capital of Bishkek and the other in the corridor between Osh and Jalal-Abad. This has created an unstable post-independence political environment in the country, with Kyrgyzstan experiencing two revolutions in the past seven years alone. In 1924, Josef Stalin shaped borders in Central Asia to deliberately divide the Fergana Valley region and its people into three political entities. Kyrgyzstan's large Uzbek and Tajik minority populations in the south, as well as disputes over its limited water resources, have led to tensions and frequent border disputes with its neighbors. Despite the economic, security and political difficulties created by its geography, Kyrgyzstan's strategic location makes it an area of competition between larger powers. Russia is Kyrgyzstan's largest trading partner, and the country hosts a Russian military base in Kant. The United States also has an air base in Manas, a key transit point for NATO military operations in nearby Afghanistan. Taking advantage of this external competition while trying to overcome internal weaknesses shapes Kyrgyzstan's strategy.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:28 GMT
A picture showing the Register in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. The most populous state in the region, it is the only country to border all other Central Asian states. Uzbekistan is a significant producer and exporter of oil and natural gas which, along with agriculture, dominate the country's economy. These resources, as well as the country's strategic location and the presence of militant groups, have brought the interest of foreign powers such as China, Russia and the United States. Because of this, Uzbekistan's primary geographic challenge is to maintain unity while also balancing against its regional neighbors and external powers. Historically, Uzbekistan was an important component of the Silk Road, and cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are still key political and population centers in the country. After Uzbekistan became overrun by the Mongols, it became the seat of an expansive Timurid dynasty. The territory of Uzbekistan was then divided between a series of Khanates before being absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. A former member of the Soviet Union, the landlocked country gained independence in 1991. Modern day Uzbekistan is centered around its capital in Tashkent, though the country has substantial regional divisions. While the western half is largely sparsely populated desert, the majority of the population is concentrated in the demographic and agricultural heartland of Central Asia, the Fergana Valley. The valley itself is divided by a series of complex and poorly defined borders established during the Soviet era to prevent the emergence of a unified Central Asian state. These borders have led to ethnic tensions, resource disputes, and the frequent border skirmishes between Uzbekistan and neighboring states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:31 GMT
Ukraine
Ukraine

Ukraine is the quintessential borderland state. The country borders three former Soviet states (Russia, Belarus and Moldova) and four countries in the European Union (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania). Ukraine also has a coastline along the Black Sea to the south. Ukraine sits on the Northern European Plain, the area that has historically served as an invasion superhighway going east and west. Beyond its strategic location, Ukraine's geography has only facilitated such invasions. The country consists of flat and fertile plains, with the exception of the Carpathian Mountain range that arches into the far west of the country. But even these mountains can be penetrated and have not posed a significant barrier to invasion. Given such lack of barriers, Ukraine's wide-open geography is inextricably linked to that of Russia. Ukraine's agricultural and industrial belts have traditionally been integrated with Russia's, and Ukraine serves as the primary transit state for Russian energy exports to Europe. Due to its location and abundance of agricultural and mineral resources, Ukraine has been contested between regional powers for centuries. This competition is currently playing out in an extreme form today, with a Western-backed government confronting a Russian-backed uprising in eastern Ukraine. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Ukraine has several population and political cores, including Lviv in the west, Kiev in the center and the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. These different cores make administering Ukraine difficult. The current crisis in Ukraine is therefore merely the latest iteration of the country's internal divisions and the long-standing East-West conflict over the country. Maintaining sovereignty and unity in the face of this competition is Ukraine's primary geographic challenge.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:48 GMT
Russia
Russia

Despite being the largest country in the world by area, the Russian Federation occupies territory that is indefensible and unforgiving. The core of Russia, running from the Volga grain belts up through Moscow proper to the Baltic Sea, lacks any natural features to fortify it from attack. This is why the country has traditionally anchored its territory to major geographic barriers far from its core in an attempt to keep foreign powers distant. As a result, Russia has inevitably had to reach east across the frozen tundra of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, southeast to the Tien Shen mountains of Central Asia, south to the Caucasus Mountains bordering Iran and Turkey, and finally west to the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe. But, there is one major hole in this geographic expanse: The Northern European plane. The Northern European plane is a gap between the Carpathian Mountains and the Baltic sea which, at its narrowest, is 480 kilometers (300 miles) across. This narrow point, referred to as the Polish funnel, lies just West of Warsaw and reaches down Krakow in the south. Russia has faced three major attackers along this axis; Napoleon, Wilhelm II, and Hitler. Most recently, the expansion of NATO and the European Union into Central and Eastern Europe has raised Russian hackles. Moscow would much prefer to control the lands between Russia and the Polish funnel — pushing as far west as possible — knowing full well that once an attacker has passed that narrow chokepoint, it is an open march to Russia's heartland. For this reason, Moscow seeks to occupy or influence its borderlands, or at the very least, maintain their neutrality. Looking beyond its indefensible borders and largely hollow interior, Russia boasts a diverse population of 144,463,450 people and a powerful military. These armed forces, backed by an autocratic political system, help protect the country's unwieldy land mass. Russia's economy is inherently fragile and highly dependent on commodity exports ranging from grain to energy. The country is traditionally at its most powerful when a strong, heavy-handed leader is in charge, such as current Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite this, though, the Kremlin must continually deal with internal political divisions, rising ethnic tensions and regional dissidence.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:37 GMT
Tajikistan
Tajikistan
Tajikistan lies in the southeast corner of Central Asia, bordering Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, China to the east and Afghanistan to the south. Tajikistan is landlocked and largely mountainous, and the country does not have sizeable oil or natural gas resources like some of its Central Asian neighbors. These factors have created significant barriers to economic development in the country and made it the poorest of all the former Soviet states. Tajikistan's core is centered around the capital of Dushanbe, though the country's clan-based politics and mountainous terrain have fostered substantial regional differences and divisions in areas like Sughd to the north, Khatlon to the south and Gorno-Badakhshan to the east. These divisions were on display when Tajikistan experienced a civil war in the early post-Soviet period from 1992-1997, which killed or displaced much of the country's population. Tajikistan has also had periodic water and border disputes with its neighbors, especially Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with which it shares the Fergana Valley. Despite Tajikistan's internal divisions and lack of energy resources, the country is of substantial interest to outside powers like Russia, China, and the United States. Tajikistan shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, which has made the country vulnerable to militancy and narcotics flows. Russia is the strongest external power in Tajikistan, hosting a military base there, but China has become increasingly active in the economic and security sphere, while the United States pursues counterterrorism and counternarcotics initiatives in the country. Balancing these external powers while managing its internal divisions is Tajikistan's primary geographic challenge.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:33 GMT
A view of the President palace in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is located in the southwest corner of Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north, Afghanistan and Iran to the south and the Caspian Sea to the west. Turkmenistan's defining geographic feature is the Karakum Desert, which covers over 80 percent of the country's territory. This desert landscape gives Turkmenistan a sparse population of only about 5 million. Most of the country's people are concentrated in population centers along irrigation channels and river basins in the extreme north and south of the country. One such center is Ashgabat, which serves as Turkmenistan's capital and the demographic, political and economic core of the country. The economy of modern-day Turkmenistan is dominated by natural gas production and exports. Turkmenistan has one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas, and its small internal market means most of its natural gas supplies are available for export. This wealth of energy resources makes Turkmenistan a target of interest for larger powers including Russia, China and the West. However, the country's overwhelming reliance on energy exports also makes it particularly vulnerable to swings in global energy prices. Turkmenistan's location near neighbors such as Iran, Uzbekistan and the perennially unstable Afghanistan creates substantial security concerns for the country. It has been one of the most politically centralized and externally isolated countries in the world since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, when Ashgabat declared itself officially neutral and opted out of any foreign military alliances. Maintaining this strategic neutrality in an unstable and dynamic neighborhood, while also managing an economy that is highly dependent on energy resources, is Turkmenistan's primary geographic challenge.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 14:32 GMT
Mir Castle in the Minsk region of Belarus.
Belarus
Belarus is a landlocked country located in Eastern Europe. The country is almost entirely flat with little in terms of geographic barriers or protective features. Belarus' borders to the east with Russia and to the west with Poland and Lithuania are virtually wide open. One exception though is the Pripet Marshes on its southern border with Ukraine. Due to the lack of these barriers and the presence of more powerful states in the region, Belarus has been historically a difficult independent state to sustain. Belarus sits in the North European Plain, the geopolitical superhighway of Europe. This is the area that has historically been the prominent invasion route of European powers like Germany and France into Russia and vice versa. Russia took control of Belarus from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century, incorporating it into the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Belarus was subject to Nazi occupation during WWII, in which the country lost more than 25 percent of its population, but then was reincorporated into the Soviet Union with the Germans’ defeat.The 20 years of independence since the fall of the Soviet Union is the longest Belarus has known in its modern history, but it still in many ways serves as a de facto buffer state between Russia and Europe. Belarus was one of the most industrialized republics of the Soviet Union, and it still maintains a large industrial base centered in its capital city of Minsk. Belarus has fertile agricultural lands and is one of the world's leading producers of potash and other fertilizers. It is also a key trade and transit hub for Russian energy to Europe, making the country an enduring focus of competition between Russia and the West.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 00:34 GMT
Armenia
Armenia
Located in the Caucasus region, Armenia is situated on the transcontinental land bridge between Europe and Asia. Several powerful countries in its neighborhood surround Armenia, including Turkey, Russia and Iran. For much of Armenia's history, part or all of the country has been controlled by each of its neighbors. Russia, which controlled Armenia most recently during the days of the Soviet Union, remains the most influential external power in the country to this day. Armenia's capital, Yerevan, is the country's core and contains most of the country's resources. The city of Gyumri, where Russian military forces are stationed, is key to the country's security. This Russian military presence protects Armenia from its neighboring rivals, Turkey and Azerbaijan. From 1988 to 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The region is now under de facto Armenian control but remains a lingering source of tension with its neighbor Azerbaijan. Because of its disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia is economically isolated. The country thus depends on Russia for economic support and military protection. However, Russia does not always act in Armenia's best interest. Still, sustaining Russian support - or that of another power capable of defending Armenia in its complex and contested neighborhood - is Armenia's greatest geographic challenge. Latest Forecast - Q2 2018: Next year will kick off a busy election season in the Caucasus, too. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia will each hold presidential elections in 2018. More than the outcomes of these votes, though, the larger states nearby will influence foreign policy in the region. Azerbaijan and Georgia, for instance, will continue their efforts to forge closer energy, infrastructure and security ties with Turkey, while Armenia strengthens its military partnership with Russia and fortifies its economic links with Iran. Along the way, Tehran and Ankara will be careful not to challenge Moscow's strategic position in the Caucasus. Russia will remain the primary arbiter in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, working to prevent the dispute from escalating while at the same time supplying both sides with arms.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 00:50 GMT
A view of the administrative center of the Gakh region of Azerbaijan, located at the foot of the southern slope of the Greater Caucasus, on the river Kurhumchai.
Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is located in the mountainous and strategic region known as the Caucasus, which lies at the intersection of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The country is in many ways defined less by its own territory than by its powerful neighbors. To the north is Russia, to the south, Iran and to the west, Turkey. All three of these countries have controlled parts or all of modern Azerbaijan throughout its history. Most recently the country was ruled by Russia under the former Soviet Union, but all its neighboring powers retain substantial influence and continue to shape the country. Outside its mainland borders is Azerbaijan's landlocked exclave of Nakhchivan, which flanks its historic rival Armenia and borders Turkey and Iran. Within Azerbaijan is the Armenian exclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a Soviet-era holdover that, along with Nakhchivan, creates major regional tension. From 1988 to 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan's capital city of Baku, located east along the coastline of the Caspian Sea, is where the country's economic, political and demographic resources are concentrated. Though the Caspian has no ocean access, Azerbaijan has been able to leverage its energy resources and location by building the Southern Gas Corridor energy route. This helps the country balance regional powers and maintain sovereignty from Russia in ways that neighbors Georgia and Armenia cannot. Despite this, Azerbaijan will always struggle with its position in a complex neighborhood, surrounded by larger powers. The country must maneuver carefully in order to preserve its independence.
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