Putin aims to dominate nature. He has claimed that areas outside the recognized borders are part of the Russian Federation. He has a selective historic memory. Those countries were part of Russia in 1912, but not in 1712, and many were still independent states in 1812. Moreover, Slavic nations rose as a result of the settlement after a period of migration. The Greeks and Romans never encountered the Slavs. The natural obstacles found by these travelling peoples have not changed.
Famous is the description of Caesar’s bridge built over the river Rhine (De Bello Gallico, Book 4). The bridge built in 54 BC employed a technique unknown to the local Germanic peoples who often identified easy crossing points with the word ‘furt’. Many German or Austrian towns have that term today: Frankfurt, Erfurt, Klagenfurt. Even the town of Oxford indicates an easy crossing point with the term Saxon version of the word: ‘ford’. The ‘other place’, Cambridge, also indicates a crossing with the term ‘bridge’. These easy crossing points were crucial because migrants did not know how to cross rivers in the ‘migration period’, formerly known as the ‘barbarian invasions’.
Caesar’s supporter and later first governor of Roman Egypt, Cornelius Gallus, wrote a line of poetry about a key river in Ukraine: the Southern Bug, anciently known as Hypanis. It was also described by the historian Herodotus (‘Father of lies’). Gallus indicated that the river divided two continents: Europe from Asia. [‘uno tellures diuidit amne duas’, or ‘by a single river it divided two lands’]. Gallus is remembered for his friendship with the poet Virgil who dedicated his pastoral poem (Eclogue 10) to him, and there we have the first description of Arcadia as a mythical land of peace and tranquillity.
Gallus focused on the importance of the Southern Bug River. It has not changed. The port city at the mouth of the river, Mykolaiv (Nikolaev) is being bombed incessantly. It is the gateway for the Russian troops to advance to Odessa. Moreover, behind Odessa is the Russian occupied strip of land, and the self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria. The Southern Bug is so deep and wide the Germanic tribes could not cross it easily in the early centuries of the Christian era.
Hitler gave Transylvania to Hungary and offered Transnistria to Romania in 1941. That was the region between the Dniester River and the Southern Bug. The region of Transnistria, today an unrecognised republic, hosts the Russian army. If the Southern Bug is crossed by the Russian troops, the next step is Odessa.
The Ukrainians have understood that nature could be their ally. They understood the rivers and generally water are natural obstacles and have threatened to destroy the bridge that connects the Russian mainland to Crimea. Without it, Crimea would be rather isolated. NATO in 1999 bombed the bridges crossing the Danube to subdue Yugoslavia.
Putin believes borders are mobile, but the natural obstacles his troops are encountering will not change. The idea that Russia could take over all the land east of the Dnieper and, in the South, reach Odessa with ease, is based on historical precedent, but does not consider the lie of the land. The spring mud, the marshes, and wide rivers could be his quagmire.