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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.
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.