Russia as a concept dates back to the ninth century and a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus, which was based in Kiev and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. The Mongols, expanding their empire, continually attacked the region from the south and east, eventually overrunning it in the 13th century. The fledgling Russia then relocated northeast in and around the city of Moscow. This early Russia, known as the Grand Principality of Moscow, was indefensible. There were no mountains, no deserts, and few rivers.
Enter Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar. He put into practice the concept of attack as defense—consolidating one’s position at home and then moving outward. Russia had begun a moderate expansion under Ivan’s grandfather, but Ivan accelerated it after he came to power in the 16th century. He extended his territory east to the Ural Mountains, south to the Caspian Sea, and north toward the Arctic Circle. Russia gained access to the Caspian, and later the Black Sea, thus taking advantage of the Caucasus Mountains as a partial barrier between itself and the Mongols. Ivan built a military base in Chechnya to deter any would-be attacker, be they the Mongol Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, or the Persians.
Now the Russians had a partial buffer zone and a hinterland—somewhere to fall back to in the case of invasion. No one was going to attack them in force from the Arctic Sea, nor fight their way over the Urals to get to them. Their land was becoming what’s now known as Russia, and to invade it from the south or southeast you would have to have a huge army and a very long supply line, and you would have to fight your way past defensive positions.
In the 18th century, Russia, under Peter the Great—who founded the Russian Empire in 1721—and then Empress Catherine the Great, expanded the empire westward, occupying Ukraine and reaching the Carpathian Mountains. It took over most of what we now know as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—from which it could defend against attacks from the Baltic Sea. Now there was a huge ring around Moscow; starting at the Arctic, it came down through the Baltic region, across Ukraine, to the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, swinging back around to the Urals, which stretched up to the Arctic Circle.