The August 2008 War Ten Years Later

History is full of short wars that are quickly forgotten. The five-day war between Georgia and Russia war a decade ago this week felt significant at the time but faded from the headlines quickly as a severe financial crisis unfolded. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, brought renewed attention to the war as a crucial moment in the emergence of Russian revanchism. Ten years later, what is the real significance of the August 2008 war?

The war began when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a military offensive against Russian backed separatists in the small breakaway region of South Ossetia. When Russia responded forcefully, Saakashvili re-cast his actions as defensive, as little Georgia fighting the invading Russian bear.

The truth was more complicated and revealed in a subsequent investigative report led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. Saakashvili’s government initiated what the report tactfully termed “open hostilities” on the evening of August 7, hours after unilaterally declaring a ceasefire. Civilians, defenders and some Russian peacekeepers died in Georgia’s initial military barrage against Tskhinvali (Tskhinval to Ossetians), the ‘capital’ of South Ossetia.

Already primed for trouble, Russian troops on the border mobilized in response and were in the Roki tunnel in the early hours of August 8. Their progress to Tskhinvali, where street fighting raged, was slow. It took the lumbering Soviet era tanks three days to finally arrive from the Russian border, a distance of only 37 miles. Russian airplanes attacked Georgian positions both inside and beyond the contested regions of the country. Russian troops pushed beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, occupying large parts of Georgia, and menacing the capital Tbilisi.

Though Saakashvili had miscalculated and Georgia was soon defeated, it won the public relations battle in Washington DC. Saakashvili’s fluent English, media entrepreneurship and ties on Capitol Hill proved crucial. Instead of a distant skirmish in a faraway region of the Caucasus mountains, the war was framed as a globally significant harbinger of a new Cold War.

Senator Joseph Biden rushed to Tbilisi and declared upon return that the war was the most significant in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Senator John McCain, running as the Republican candidate for president, agreed. He admired the hard-charging Saakashvili and had even visited South Ossetia in 2006.

Condemning Russian aggression at a campaign rally in York Pennsylvania, McCain solemnly pronounced that “today, we’re all Georgians.” The line garnered modest respectful applause. (His declaration that “it’s time we got serious about our energy crisis and stop sending $700bn a year overseas to countries that don’t like us very much” brought loud applause and cheers, a sign of things to come for the Republican Party).

Lost amidst this geopolitical emotion was the complicated situation on the ground within South Ossetia. Saakashvili’s ill-judged offensive was disastrous for the ethnic Georgians living in the area and nearby, to say nothing of Ossetian and other victims. Thousands lived in a cluster of villages to the north of Tskhinvali, an enclave within territory unevenly controlled by separatists. When war came, these villagers were forced to depart suddenly, abandoning homes, land and property that would soon be ravaged by irregular militias from all over the Caucasus. The same held for villagers in other parts of South Ossetia and beyond.

Travelling on the road to Tskhinvali into March 2010, I witnessed the scale of the subsequent destruction. Village after village along the Transcaucasian highway lay in ruins, a panorama of once thriving settlements reduced to rubble and ruin. The thoroughness of the destruction reminded me of Bosnia, a charred and gutted landscape produced less by fighting than plunder afterwards. As in Bosnia, there was also a logic at work, a claiming of territory by negation, by destroying it as a meaningful place for those who once lived there. Geographers have a word for this: domicide, the killing of place.

Travelling further into the town revealed how Ossetians also had homes, apartment buildings and community centers destroyed by the war. For them, the war was a trauma of exposure before welcome rescue by the Russian military. The overwhelming majority of Ossetians today want to join Russia.

Many Atlanticist officials today see the August War as a warning that was ignored. One analogized it as a ‘Rhineland moment’ that was later followed by Crimea as a ‘Sudetenland moment.’ Analysts point out that Russia not only invaded a sovereign country for the first time but used new weapons, cyberwar and Russia Today, to aggressively further its aims. Hybrid warfare, they argue, found its first kinetic expression during the August War.

The problem with these interpretations is that they are forms of ‘thin geopolitics.’ They present a one-sided account of the war as the unfolding of Russian expansionist desire rather than a competitive geopolitical game of expansion and reaction, with significant localized dimensions. The August War was the first violent clash between two very different ‘imperial’ formations, an EU/NATO with expansionist aspirations, and a Russian state reviving old imperial practices and attitudes. Just prior to the August War, it was the EU/NATO states that initiated revisionist policies. The first was the recognition of Kosovo, the first time a secessionist territory within a post-communist independent state was recognized as an independent state. The second was NATO’s Bucharest Declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would become members. Border change and geopolitical re-alignment was the EU/NATO’s first move in 2008; the August War of 2008 and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states was Russia’s response. Local actors jockeyed for position within this geopolitical tussle.

‘Thicker’ forms of geopolitics inevitably paint a more complicated and less theological picture of conflicts. They study the game of geopolitics rather than support one side, right or wrong. But they are vital if policy-making is to rest on geographic facticity not theological discourse. The August 2008 war was a co-created conflict across multiple scales. Making the war into another citation of sin in a New Cold War theology of complaint against Putin does not make that complexity go away.

Dr Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech National Capital Region. He is the co-author of Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal (Oxford, 2011). His latest book is Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus (Oxford, 2017). @Toal_CritGeo

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The following is a working correction list for Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus. Oxford University Press have this list and the next print run of the book will incorporate these corrections (some are already fixed). If you’ve spotted an error not listed please let me know about it:

P. 125: Line 7; believes –> believed

P. 147: Mikheil Mikheilovich –> Mikheil Nikolozovich

P. 163: Israeli military contractors. [missing ‘r’]

P. 169: Remove redundant ‘later’ from sentence starting: “Subsequently Russian military…”

P. 192: ‘stephen’ should be Stephen [2 last line]

P. 194: “written by campaign aide Ben Rhodes.” [missing ‘e’]

P. 205: 2nd paragraph, first line: ‘to advanced’ should be ‘to advance’

P. 211: Last paragraph, first line: ‘greatest difficulty‘ [missing ‘y’]

P. 229: “Slava Rossiya!” –> ‘Slava Rossii!”

P. 236: “the three problems… facing Ukraine” should be “facing Crimea”

P. 243: First mention of Akhmetov so should have his first name listed: Rinat (this name cite is absent from the index)

P. 247: Line 16; Change to: Igor Bezler (another military veteran) [remove GRU]

P. 258: Change to: “Girkin, the FSB veteran”

P. 259: Change: “Bezler, yet another veteran” [remove GRU]

P. 264: Line 29; Delete: ‘along with’

P. 265: Change “both retired GRU agents” to “both retired Russian agents”

P. 266: Debeltseve –> Debaltseve.

P. 274: Year 2014 –> 2015.

P. 283: 7th line: remove “In 2014” since it is discordant with February 2015.

P. 285: Column six, row 3: “Russian region” –> Russian Republic”

P. 294: Change ‘on the heels of’ –> ‘before’

P. 296: First line, first full paragraph: 2015 –> 2016.

p. 302: Second last line: is –> are

P. 340: Note 15: Should read: Marat Kulahmetov

P. 361: Note 64, add year: 2014.

Back of the Book Jacket.

Murphy blurb:
mis-spacing ‘the’
Add ‘these’ before “selected conflicts.”

Mitchell blurb:
answers –> answer
his –> its

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Near Abroad Book Launch in Washington DC

A big thanks to the Center on Global Interests and George Washington’s IERES for facilitating the launch of Near Abroad.

Click here for a video of the Near Abroad Book Discussion with Gerard Toal, 7 March 2017

Screen Shot 2019-12-19 at 4.57.44 PM

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Near Abroad

Near Abroad cover

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it invaded Georgia. Both states are part of Russia’s “near abroad”—former Soviet republics that are now independent states neighboring Russia. While the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 faded from the headlines, the geopolitical contest that created it did not end. Six years later, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, once part of Russia but part of independent Ukraine since the Soviet collapse. Crimea’s annexation and subsequent war in eastern Ukraine have produced the greatest geopolitical crisis on the European continent since the end of the Cold War.

In Near Abroad, the eminent political geographer Gerard Toal moves beyond the polemical rhetoric that surrounds Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine to study the underlying territorial conflicts and geopolitical struggles. Central to understanding are legacies of the Soviet Union collapse: unresolved territorial issues, weak states and a conflicted geopolitical culture in Russia over the new territorial order. The West’s desire to expand NATO contributed to a growing geopolitical contest in Russia’s near abroad. This found expression in a 2008 NATO proclamation that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO, a ‘red line’ issue for Russia. The road to invasion and war in Georgia and Ukraine, thereafter, is explained in Near Abroad.

Geopolitics is often though of as a game of chess. Near Abroad provides an account of real life geopolitics, one that emphasizes changing spatial relationships, geopolitical cultures and embodied dispositions. Rather than a cold game of deliberation, geopolitics is often driven by emotions and ambitions, by desires for freedom and greatness, by clashing personalities and reckless acts. Not only a penetrating analysis of Russia’s relationships with its neighbors, Near Abroad also offers a critique of how US geopolitical culture frames Russia and the territories it sustains beyond its borders.


Near Abroad is a brilliant and indispensable contribution to our understanding of post-Soviet politics and the hidden power of geopolitical culture. Examining the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, Toal convincingly shows that geopolitical practice is neither inherently rational nor driven by objective external pressures, but is rather infused with deep normative assumptions about the legitimate boundaries of political spaces, shared discourses and flows among transnational political communities, and highly stylized emotional appeals.” — Alexander Cooley, Director, Harriman Institute, Columbia University; author of Logics of Hierarchy and Great Games, Local Rules.

“Gerard Toal is one of the smartest and most interesting thinkers working on post-Soviet politics today and his incisive new book, Near Abroad, does not disappoint. Toal sheds new light on how Russians think about their neighbors, with major implications for regional stability and the West more generally.” — Henry Hale, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University; author of Patronal Politics.

“Cutting through the overarching narratives that dominate discussion of Russia’s engagement with its ‘near abroad,’ Toal offers telling insights into the underlying geopolitical conceptions and arrangements that are at the heart of the territorial struggles that have unfolded in Ukraine and Georgia. The book is not just a contribution to understanding selected conflict, however. It will help audiences beyond the academy appreciate the nature and value of the ‘critical geopolitics’ project that Toal himself has played such an important role in advancing.” — Alexander Murphy, Professor of Geography, University of Oregon, and former President, Association of American Geographers.

“In this valuable work, Gerard Toal attempts to answers the question, ‘Why does Russia invade his neighbors?’ Toal performs the deft and essential balancing act of recognizing both that Russia poses significant threats to its region and that events and leaders outside of Moscow have also played a role in the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the US. This book is an extremely important contribution for those of us looking for a deeper, more thoughtful and challenging analysis of the dynamic between Russia, its neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia, and the US.” — Lincoln Mitchell, author of The Democracy Promotion Paradox.

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Srebrenica After Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I was in northern Italy, enjoying that wonderful country and the hospitality of a good family. On the TV news, we saw pictures from the fall of Srebrenica. I remember  being struck by the phrase ‘Musulmani’ during the broadcasts (with its echoes of Primo Levi). Having spent the previous three years in the US closely following the Bosnian war, and the painfully slow and inept international response to it, I was exasperated that nothing substantive had been done to protect this manifestly vulnerable UN ‘safe haven.’ Readers of Critical Geopolitics (1996) will know that the second last chapter is an attempt to grapple with the US debate over Bosnia and geographies of moral proximity and responsibility.

The horror of Srebrenica eventually came to light thanks to the intrepid reporting of David Rohde and others. In 1998 I wrote an essay on what was known about Srebrenica then (link below) for the book Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. Smith (Routledge, 1999). Toal_EthnicCleansingSafeArea_Srebrenica1999

AB014My first visit to Srebrenica was for the memorial in 2002. It was still an open field with only the foundations for what would become the Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery (pictured). The previous year there had been some stoning so there was a strong Republika Srpska police presence along the road, a disturbing site to those returning to grieve. I returned in 2004 and there met Sarah Wagner, whose ethnographic work with the Srebrenica victim families and ICMP I admire tremendously.

A few weeks ago the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina asked if I would make a few remarks at a Capitol Hill event to support H. Res 310 which affirms Srebrenica as a genocide. The Rayburn Building room was full of Bosnian families, including some survivors of Srebrenica. I spoke and then Michael MacQueen, who does amazing work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) investigating suspected war criminals in the United States, spoke. Finally Semir Osmanovic, a student in Finance at Virginia Commonwealth University spoke. He looks like an all-American kid, blonde haired, well dressed, good looking. He is from a small village outside Srebrenica and he told the story of his happy childhood until the day came when the VRS attacked and burned down their home, driving the family into Srebrenica to seek shelter. There he was close to starvation for two years until 11 July 1995 when the VRS and Mladic came, his father fled and his grandfather was taken off the bus they were being transported out on. There were many tears in the audience.

Academics are generally privileged in this world relative to most: certainly I am. If we study conflict, we have responsibilities to those who are suffering from injustices and wanton cruelty in what we study. We can use our professional training and skills to do some simple things: present the facts, contextualize, seek understanding and employ judgement (listening this summer to Tony Judt’s spoken book with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, has been helpful and inspiring). I do believe we are off track when we treat Bosnia or Syria in abstracted and usually de-contextualized social science terms as “civil war case studies” or as data labs. But that is a larger debate…

I am grateful to Josh Tucker and the Monkey Cage team for publishing a considerably revised version of my comments at Srebrenica Genocide event on 9 July 2015. Subsequently, Bruce Hitchner drew my attention to an educational resource — sponsored by the British Embassy, Sarajevo (kudos to them and the work of the British government at the UNSC) — I really should have known about but didn’t at the time: Srebrenica: Mapping Genocide. It is worth viewing the 38 minute video for what it achieves — a sense of the arc of the genocide — but also for where it could have been more precise in its geo-locational presentation and graphic imagery. An accessible and concise yet comprehensive geographic and geopolitical analysis of the Srebrenica genocide remains to be written.

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Post Post-Soviet Space

IMG_7960It is a commonplace today to speak of the “map of Europe being re-written” and point to the actions of Russia in Crimea and the Donbas. But the process of ‘re-writing’ the world political map is perpetual. A key question is to determine significant moments of rupture and break, when we transition (to stick with a textual metaphor that has its limits) from one chapter to the next. Currently, geopolitical commentary is trashing about for a new language to describe the current moment, with memes like the ‘return of geopolitics’ and ‘revisionist geopolitics’ (re)appearing. Both are unhelpful, the first particularly so as it delimits geopolitics to a certain approach to international affairs rather than the innate condition of international affairs. Our world is always already situated geopolitically, within geopolitical fields (spaces), within geopolitical cultures, and a geopolitical condition (order of time/space compression shaping how we experience international events). The second has its blindness to the last two decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Today, it is more helpful to think historically about the rupture in the fields of Eurasian space and post-Soviet space. The key data (as I’m arguing in my manuscript in progress) is 2008, Kosovo’s UDI and recognition, the Bucharest summit, and then the Georgian-Ossetian-Russian August War. The key moment defining post post-Soviet space is the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

IMG_7973In our recent Monkey Cage blog piece JohnO and I argued against the current practice of seeing the Donbas as another ‘frozen conflict’ scenario (Nial Ferguson does it, like so many others, today in the FT, debunking ‘fairy tales’ while implicitly seeding another if only we hadn’t ‘strategic patience’ aka ‘dithering’). This misses the key rupture of 2008, and also the crucial fact that Crimea was outright annexed while any new Novorossiya in the Donbas will be unlike anything we’ve seen before with the existing de facto. This statelet will be the first true post post-Soviet de facto state, and its uniqueness should be appreciated by all.

Thanks to all at the Kennan Institute yesterday (esp Mattison Brady for these photos) for hosting JohnO and I as we presented preliminary results from our RAPID grant work. We’ll be publishing future pieces in the next few months, and academic papers as soon as our schedules allow. Let me leave with a quote from George Kennan (younger twice removed diplomat cousin of the showman popularizer George Kennan after whom the Institute is named) that is (Am Diplomacy, p. 97) relevant to our times: “We tend to underestimate the violence of national maladjustments and discontents elsewhere in the world if we think that they would always appear to other people as less important than the preservation of the judicial tidiness of international life.” The world political map is messy and we should never expect it to be judicially tidy.

Posted in August War, Donbas, Donbass, Geopolitics, George Kennan, Kennan Institute, Novorossiya, return of geopolitics, revisionist geopolitics, Wilson Center | Tagged | Leave a comment

Geopolitical Games and Ordinary Citizens

IMG_2830  Today’s Monkey Cage blog features the first publication of survey data based research on geopolitical attitudes among ordinary citizens in southeast 6 Ukraine and Crimea. This research was funded by a RAPID grant from the Political Science division of the National Science Foundation. Our initial proposal had to be modified because of the outbreak of fighting in the far eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk in April 2014. The survey research was administered in 6 southeastern oblasts (excluding Donetsk and Luhansk)  in December 2014 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) while the Levada Center conducted the research in Crimea. We wish to acknowledge the professionalism and independent integrity of both organizations in helping us realize this social scientific and academic research driven project.


Yesterday John O’Loughlin (pictured) and I presented the data that is in today’s Monkey Cage blog at an event organized by the Director of Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University, Dr Henry Hale. He and a team of fellow academics also used KIIS for a three part panel survey on Ukrainian elections, the Euromaidan protests, and security perceptions in 2014. Part of that team, Dr Olga Onuch from the University of Manchester and Dr Nadiya Kravets from the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, were in attendance as were a number of other researchers engaged in ongoing work in Ukraine. Unfortunately bad weather prevented Dr Erik Herron from attending but an article on his 2014 research on the Ukrainian electoral administration system is published, along with lots of other interesting articles, in a special edition on Ukraine’s crisis in Eurasian Geography and Economics.

‘Southeast 6 Ukraine’ is an awkward geographic designator but it is the most accurate as we are not surveying all of ‘Eastern Ukraine’ or ‘Southeast Ukraine.’ The Monkey Cage blog  piece appeared with graphs that had the title ‘Eastern Ukraine’ but this should be understood as Southeast 6 Ukraine and not areas beyond those surveyed. This issue came up yesterday in questions where someone asked what our bottom line conclusions are about “Eastern Ukraine” and Crimea. Our answer was to stress how Ukraine is made up of very distinct geographic regions. Crimea is very clearly different from the territory to its north: it is a place apart. In a very different way, so also is the Donbas(s), Donetsk and Luhansk. There is no homogenous ‘Eastern Ukraine’ or ‘Southeastern Ukraine’ but a quilt of very different places. Our survey considers two but is unable to make any observations about the Donbas(s).

Our next public presentation of this KIIS-Levada survey data, and what it reveals about the contemporary conflict between Ukraine and Russia, is at the Woodrow Wilson Center on the 13th of February 2015. The working title of the presentation is: “Geopolitical Games and Ordinary Citizens.”

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Fears and Fantasies about the “Flesh of the Nation”

Yesterday Adis Maksic defended his Ph D dissertation “Mobilizing for Ethnic Violence? Ethno-National Political Parties and the Dynamics of Ethno-Politicization.” Adis is a Sarajevo native who was fortunately able to come to the United States with his family after his family suffered a tragedy at the outset of the Bosnian War in 1992. He completed a Masters in our program in 2009 on referendum discourse in Republika Srpska, and returned to our program for a Ph D in 2011 with funding from the US National Science Foundation (our program, unfortunately, provides no independent Ph D student funding so most of our Ph D students are part-time students and full time working professionals in the DC area). Through his diligent research and translation work, we were able to write together “Serbs, You are Allowed to be Serbs”: Radovan Karadžić and the 1990 Election Campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina” which was published in Ethnopolitics 13, 3 (2014).

For his dissertation, Adis deepened and widened this research topic by studying the origins, founding, electoral triumph and subsequent political machinations of the Serb Democratic Party, Jan 1990 to April 1992 when the Bosnia war erupted with intensity. The argument in that article about the power of visceral understandings and affective experience of the nation in recruiting people to ethnonationalist movements, ethno-parties and ethnicized violence.

CroatiaAsKnifeBeyond exploring the power of affective thinking, Adis provides the best and most deeply researched account of Bosnia’s road to the ‘gates of hell’ I have read. It is a story full of contingencies and fluidity, and he relates it with extreme attention to the ‘mixed emotions’ of the participants (as well as with exemplary scholarly evenhandedness). Karadžić famously interpreted the idea of placing state borders between Bosnia and Serbia as “severing the living flesh of the Serb nation.” What is striking about the 1990-91 period is how permeated it was by fears and fantasies of extreme violence. Fear of a return of the Ustasa in Croatia was a primal theme that played on the consciousness of many (the map above is the illustration of an article in the Serbian weekly NIN on the coming to power of the HDZ in April 1990 after democratic elections in Croatia). Mass graves sites were dug up (‘pits’) and victims of the Partisans re-buried in services that created communities of affect.

By way of establishing perspective on the SDS and BiH/Yugoslav context, Adis develops an asymmetrical comparison with the rise of the Georgian national movement at the same time, analyzing Gamsakhurdia and ‘Round Table – Free Georgia’ within the terms of his overall three part analysis of  political opportunity structures, dissemination modalities, and discursive framings.

IMG_3083It is always gratifying when a Ph D student, through hard work and serious scholarly application, reaches his or her potential in a work. Adis Maksic has done so in this work and hopefully we will all see this work in book form within the next two years. Pictured with Adis in black suit and tie are external observer Dr Sarah Wagner (whose book on Srebrenica has just been published) and his Ph D committee Dr Giselle Datz, Dr Toal and Dr Joel Peters. Not pictured yet an integral and inspiring part of his committee is Dr Robert Donia, whose new biography of Radovan Karadžić has just been published, also by Cambridge University Press. Its cover photo of Karadžić before a map underscores the intimate connections between cartography, space and genocide.

Posted in Affect, Bosnia, Bosnian war, Cartography, Current affairs, Democracy, ethnic cleansing, genocide, Georgia, nationalism, neuropolitics, South Ossetia, World political map | Leave a comment

Airspace in De Facto States: Remarks on Ukraine Crisis at the New School, 3 October 2014

Given the recent helicopter shoot down in Nagorno Karabakh, and the ongoing fighting over Donetsk airport, I’m posting below some remarks I made at the New School conference last month on the Ukrainian crisis. Point 2 addresses airspace.

On Overlapping Sovereignty & Legitimacy in De Facto States

Gerard Toal, New School, 3 October 2014.

I am going to seek to bridge the theme of ‘narratives of legitimacy’ in the first panel with the question of ‘overlapping sovereignties’ by speaking a little bit about the phenomenon of enduring de facto states. There are three issues I want to raise for our discussion – de facto states, airspaces, and the flattening qualities of an affectively fueled civilizational geopolitical discourse.

  1. Ukraine and De Facto State Building.

De facto states are usually defined as states that have proclaimed and established de facto sovereignty, for at least two years, over a claimed territorial space but lack de jure recognition of this sovereignty by the international community. Sometimes the terms, internal sovereignty and external sovereignty are used, the former but not the latter acquired by de facto states. De facto states are particularly interesting because they are places where questions of sovereignty & legitimacy are raw & contested, and manifestly much more complex than conventional liberal legal understandings of these notions. This is more than overlapping sovereignties; this is an initial war of maneuver and then an ongoing war of position between sovereign centers and then sovereignty regimes. Ukraine has long been a particularly interesting location for de facto state building – think of the period between 1917 and 1920 when Ukraine saw ‘triple power’ in 1917 – the Provisional Government (13 March 1917), a Kharkiv Soviet (15 March 1917) and a Kyiv Soviet (16 March 1917), and the Central Rada (17 March 1917) which eventually proclaimed a Ukrainian People’s Republic – followed by Skoropadsky’s Hetmanate (proclaimed 29 April 1918), then the chaos of 1919 before the eventual creation of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. The horror of the Reichkommissariat Ukraine (RKU, September 1941 to March 1944) is well known, an occupation regime with murderous complexes of sovereign power & bio-politics (see the free online issue on Holocaust and Genocide Studies on Ukraine). And, today, Ukraine is the site of de facto state building gambits once more, with the Lugansk People’s Republic (proclaimed 27 April 2014, referendum 11 May, independence declaration 12 May) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (proclaimed 7 April 2014), self-proclaimed representatives of both came together to form a union of People’s Republics, the so-called Federation of Novorossiya on 24 May 2014.

Many see these emergent de facto states (and they can’t really be termed such unless they endure for at least two years) in the same terms as the four de facto states that emerged during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is worth noting, however, beyond the particular geopolitical circumstances of their creation, how enormous the current Noyorossiya is relative to the existing de facto states. Luhansk and Donestsk together had an estimated population of 6.5 million in 2012. Together the lands under rebel control in Ukraine are the home to at least 4 million people. The industrial infrastructure in this area is much more significant than we see in any of the other de facto entities. So also is the challenge of industrial transformation and social welfare.

Post-Soviet de facto states are paradoxical spaces. On the one hand, they engage in elaborate theatrics of independence yet, on the other hand, they are manifestly dependent upon their patron state, Russia and Armenian in the case of Nagorny Karabakh. On the one hand, they are sites of transgressive actions and norm defiance. On the other hand, they crave legitimacy and simulate norm adherence. They are sites where the fictive and mythic qualities of state sovereignty as territorial theatrics are most manifest, where ‘faking it on the ground until you make it into the diplomatic circuit’ is most apparent.

2 Airspaces & Vertical Geopolitics

Agnew (2005) has challenged the conventional linkage of territory and sovereignty, and developed a notion of ‘regimes of sovereignty’ that considered how the infrastructural power of major states extends well beyond the actual territory of the state (this can be described as extraterritoriality). This is part of his larger argument about the spatiality of power not being reduced to state territoriality. Territory is only one kind or expression of state spatiality, and it tends to be though of as extension and not volume. Obviously this is a huge literature but it is worth thinking about BOTH territorial formations (extension & volume) and transnational flowmations as state, and interstate, spatialities.

We can think of sovereignty in territorial terms and how three of the four post-Soviet de facto states today might be though of as spaces of Russian extraterritority, essentially dependencies with the fake form of separatism/independence. Then there are regimes of sovereignty over transnational flowmations. The Soviet Union was not only an empire of nations but an empire of infrastructural linkages and flows of various kinds, most especially people, financial subventions, and energy flows. That Soviet era infrastructure has degraded but those industrial age infrastructures endure: transportation, gas, oil and capital flows. The issue that gets the most attention is, obviously, gas and oil flows. A lesser one that has become significant recently concerns the spatialities of air transportation flows. Airports and flight are particularly sensitive issues in de facto states. Nagorny Karabakh upgraded and repaired the airport outside Stepanakert in 2011 and announced it would begin operation in 2012. However, the airport received no international codes or license from the International Air Transport Association (a trade association representing the most powerful of the world’s airlines, and headquartered in Montreal, Canada) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the specialized agency of the United Nations that codifies international air navigation norms and monitors international air transport to ensure safe flying. [Other norm producing organizations: Airports Council International (ACI) and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO)]. Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down any aircraft that fly from the airport.

Obviously the horror of MH 17 (the Boeing 777-200ER was on a scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur) where routine global flows were violently disrupted by territorial struggle on the ground, has highlighted the issue in Ukraine. Some of you will know that Simerfopol just lost its one remaining international flight to Turkey because ICAO decided after the Crimean annexation to no longer certify international flights to, from or over Crimea as protected by international law. This, in effect, left international carrier without insurance in the event of an accident in Crimea.

Rebels on the ground in Donetsk apparently believe their aspiration de facto state needs an airport. Dozens have died as DPR/Russian forces have sought to seize it from the Ukrainian military. But, even if they seize it, are rebels ever going to be able to use this airport to sustain their de facto state? Given that so many Ukrainian soldiers have died defending it, that Ukraine has itself lost military aircraft to the rebels, and that the Ukrainian military has the same BUK systems that took down MH17, this seems highly unlikely. People today may be dying for a desirable prop in a de facto statehood theatrics rather than a usable asset.

3. Flat Geopolitics

Geopolitics can be defined as the spatialities of a state’s quest for security and power in the international system. All states have geopolitical cultures, prevalent conceptions of the states identity, place and mission in the world. Elites have their competing geopolitical traditions, and ordinary citizens have their sometimes-inchoate geopolitical orientations. What is interesting is the ways in which certain hegemonic traditions in the geopolitical cultures of major powers tend to over-ride, over-write and ignore stories & scales other than their own. This is, of course, a form of imperialism, an imposition of a particular universalism upon the world. While our culture enjoys identifying how Russia engages in this practice, we tend to be blind to how our own geopolitical culture also sucks us into the terms of a flat ageographical geopolitics, a singular global or universal scale geopolitics. I think we are seeing this operate right now in how most within the current Western liberal hegemony, and even some within the realist counter to it, see what is unfolding in Ukraine. Ukraine is the mirror in which we find what we had all along, namely a civilizational struggle with Oriental despotism and authoritarianism (in the Tsarist age), with Communism (from 1917 onwards but most especially during the Cold War), with now with Russian great power assertionism, with the personification of all this in one reviled and hated figure (Putin). This tendency has long created opportunities for Moscow’s near abroad state elites to refract their own struggles and interests in its terms. Thus, the failures of Georgian state-building or Ukrainian state-building, failures sometimes if not often brought on and deepened by these very elites, become processed via heroic stories of anti-Russian resistance as “an attack on the West.” We need to be able to think about geopolitics in multi-scalar terms, in terms that acknowledge local complexities & resist global scale determinism, this relentless framing of crises within the terms of the liberal imagination, and its normative, affective commitments. Here’s I’m thinking of Serhily Kudelia’s recent PONARS memo on “The Domestic Sources of the Donbas Insurgency” wherein he concludes: “Monocausal explanations pointing to Russia as the sole culprit miss crucial domestic drivers of the insurrection.” But does emphasis on the local itself mislead?  Perhaps it can. We need a thick geopolitics, one that is open to the complexity of what is before us, and self-critical about how our own culture’s conscious and unconscious categories produce states like Ukraine as a mirror for our own obsessions & conceits. But we also need to be clear about what we are dealing with.

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Introduction: Virtual Special Issue on Russian Geopolitics

Elsevier has placed a number of its political geography articles on Open Access, in a Virtual Special Issue on Russian Geopolitics. Most, but not all, are from Political Geography. Below is the text of my introduction to the Issue, which was written August 15th, 2014. It doesn’t attempt to summarize the essays made available so I would urge detailed inspection of these.

Russian President Putin stands in front of map of Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States at Novo-Ogaryovo just outside Moscow

What has happened to Russian foreign policy? This is the central question most people across the Euro-Atlantic world are asking themselves. In the wake of the apparent accidental downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by Russian supported rebels in eastern Ukraine on the 17 July 2014, tabloid newspapers across Europe lead with blunt visceral headlines like “Putin’s victims” (The UK’s Daily Mirror) and “Putin killed my son.” Newsweek’s cover dubbed Putin ‘The Pariah’ and described him as “the West’s Public Enemy Number 1.”

PutinPariahRelations between the United States, the European Union and the Russia Federation have hit lows not seen since the end of the Cold War in Europe. With extensive Euro-Atlantic sectoral sanctions now hitting the Russian economy hard, and Russian counter-sanctions against Euro-Atlantic food producers causing considerable economic impacts in many states, most especially those closest to Russia, geopolitics has taken a seemingly sudden nasty turn. Only a few months previously, President Putin had hosted the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics and presented the world with a spectacular show of sports on snow and ice. Yet, less than a week after the conclusion of the games, he had authorized a stealth invasion of the Ukrainian province of Crimea and thereafter annexed the territory after sponsoring a hasty referendum there. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the first time since World War II that one state had deliberately flaunted international law by unilaterally annexing the territory of another state.

Shocking as the downing of MH17 and annexation of Crimea are, these dramatic events nevertheless have an important historical and spatial context we need to understand. That context is the subject of this virtual special issue of Political Geography on Russian Geopolitics. We are approaching the subject of geopolitics from a critical geopolitical perspective. There is nothing inevitable or over-determined about geopolitics. 1 We are in the realm of cultural constructions and power structures, historio-spatial inheritances and contemporary challenges, games of power and games of rhetorical performance. In this special issue we divide Russian geopolitics into two different categories, those that address Russian geopolitical culture and internal territorial governance challenges, and those that consider Russia’s geopolitical relations with its neighboring states.

Since its start in early 1982 and from the original research agendas essay from the editors, articles in Political Geography (formerly Political Geography Quarterly) have engaged with the subject of Soviet (later Russian) geopolitics. Early papers concentrated on the US-Soviet Cold War confrontation including proxy wars while others harked back to the legacy of the Heartland model of Halford J. Mackinder, usually in a critical manner, which had been re-discovered by American strategists and more recently, by the journalist, Robert Kaplan. These papers are necessarily selective but they illustrate some of the themes of Russian geopolitics that have been represented in Political Geography and which are expected also to feature prominently in the future.

1. Russian Geopolitical Culture & the State.

A geopolitical culture refers to a state’s identity in world politics, how it present and understands itself as a particular type of territorial state in the world of states. This culture has formal, practical and popular forms of expression. The most traditional and narrowest conception of geopolitics is as a form of grand strategy (geo-strategy) that accents the power of geographical givens. This is particular genre of writing that is preoccupied with war and worst-case competitive struggles between states. As a genre, it has thrived in post-Soviet Russia, with Alexander Dugin its most (in)famous proponent. Ingram’s essay provides an excellent introduction to his longstanding preoccupations.

We have a series of essays that address the practical geopolitics, with attention on how leaders in the Kremlin have long had to struggle with territorial integrity questions. Geopolitics here is a question of geo-power, of preserving and strengthening the vertical of power binding the state’s different regions to the center in the face of separatism and, to Putin’s eyes, international conspiracy. Putin’s emphasis on the latter in response to Beslan in September 2004 revealed his suspicious mentality and the categories he would use to interpret the ‘colored revolutions’ and the EuroMaidan protests in the following decade.

2. The Great Game in the Near and Frozen Abroad

Conceived in the capital of imperial great powers, classic geopolitics tended to endorse a zero-sum competition conception of international relations, geopolitics as a great game. The return of this conception to dominance within Russian foreign policy is one of the themes of our time. Many essays in this Virtual Issue address the context of its emergence.

The story of Russian geopolitics may now be front-page news but it requires essays like these to grasp it with the intellectual depth and sophistication it requires.

Posted in Critical Geopolitics, Geography, Political Geography, Presidency, Putin, Robert Kaplan, Russia, state theory, World political map | Leave a comment