Gerard Toal has written an insightful book about the geopolitics of the former Soviet Union. Through case studies of South Ossetia and Ukraine, Toal unfolds the complexities of the geopolitical field and exposes prejudices on all sides.
Professor Gerard Toal is one of the prominent proponents of critical geopolitics. Through his career, he has contributed extensively to the development of this theoretical framework which places itself in opposition to more traditional schools of international relations theory like realism and liberalism.
His latest book, Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus, is not a book about the theoretical framework. Toal’s intention is to contribute to a scholarly understanding of the unfolding conflicts between Russia, its neighbors, and the West. He does this by examining the conflicts in South Ossetia and Ukraine which erupted into wars in 2008 and 2014 respectively.
However, critical geopolitics is the lens that Toal applies, and a basic understanding of the theory is necessary to appreciate what it is that Toal does in the book. Fortunately, the basic concepts are introduced early in the book. This is done rather elegantly, as Toal manages to merge empirical descriptions with theoretical explanations in a way that gently nudges the reader toward an understanding of the concepts. It almost feels like Toal is formulating the theory as he goes along. Mixing theoretical and empirical examination in the same chapter can be a recipe for a chaotic reading experience, but in this book it works very well.
The concepts of critical geopolitics
The typical realist explanation of the conflict between Russian and the West is one of great power competition: Russia behaves aggressively toward its neighbors to secure a sphere of interest. The liberalist explanation is about freedom and democracy: Russia has failed to mature as a nation and continues to threaten the liberty of its neighbors because it is stuck in a primitive mindset of another age.
Toal demonstrates how both these explanations are wrong. They only work if you ignore a whole range of counter arguments, and they fundamentally fail to explain why some events develop into crises, while other events with apparently similar traits do not.
One of Toal’s griefs with realism and liberalism is the assumption that decisions are made as a result of deliberatiton by rational actors. In fact, Toal argues, decisions are often an affective reaction, and he therefore introduces the concept of affective geopolitics to balance the rationality bias of much research.
Another problem with traditional schools of research is their tendency to create false binaries: Good vs. evil; freedom vs. repression; Russia vs. USA; Ukrainians vs. Russians. These binaries do not stand under scrutiny. They reduce complexities to an oversimplified explanation that doesn’t actually work. Toal calls this thin geopolitics, i.e. a superficial analytical framework. Instead, he suggests a quest for thick geopolitics based on the following analytical concepts:
- Geopolitical field
- Geopolitical culture
- Geopolitical condition
The geopolitical field defines the actors that are relevant for the analysis. These actors are to a large extent nationalist movements that position themselves in relation to each other and compete for the same territories.
Toal identifies five categories of actors that constitute the geopolitical field. These are:
- A metropolitan state that is striving for a stable post-imperial identity — this is Russia.
- State-challenging movements within the metropolitan state. Toal calls this an “inner abroad”. Chechnya is an example of an inner abroad in Russia.
- Nationalizing states on the border of the metropolitan state seeking to break free from dependencies and interdependence with the former imperialist center. These are Russia’s neighboring states.
- Minority regional organizations within nationalizing states. This may be secessionist movements which seek independence or reunification with Russia.
- External normative power complexes which seek to increase their influence. This is for example the EU or USA which inspire and encourage nationalizing states to develop in a certain fashion.
Geopolitical culture refers to the way the actors understand themselves and their geopolitical circumstances. For example, the above mentioned realist and liberalist explanatory models of international relations may be seen as expressions of a geopolitical culture in the United States and Europe. A geopolitical culture fundamentally has to answer questions related to identity, security, and accumulation: Who are we? How will we protect ourselves? How will we prosper?
Often there are competing geopolitical cultures at play. Toal identifies three such geopolitical cultures in Russia that have been dominant at different times. The Westernizing geopolitical culture was prominent in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it is still vocal in the Russian debate among opposition groups. The imperialist, revisionist geopolitical culture is seeking to change the existing borders and expand Russia. The imperialist culture has with some success influenced the geopolitical thinking, policies, and public debate in Russia. And lastly Toal identifies a great power geopolitical culture with a revanchist agenda. This is where he sees Vladimir Putin. The great power supporters do not as such dream about redrawing the external borders of Russia, but they do have ambitions about restoring the respect for Russia’s greatness on the world scene.
The geopolitical conditions are the circumstances under which the geopolitical culture plays out. Toal especially mentions globalization and a tabloid news culture as conditions that shape modern geopolitics.
The 2008 war in Georgia was largely Saakashvishvili’s fault
One of the more provocative aspects of Toal’s book relates to the war in Georgia in 2008. In the West, it has become almost common knowledge that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. This view is repeatedly expressed by politicians and journalists as part of our particular geopolitical culture.
Toal challenges that assumption. His account of the August 2008 war in South Ossetia tells the story from the points of view of the Georgians, the South Ossetians, the Russians, and the Americans. It is a far from flattering story for then president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili. Russia perhaps took advantage of the situation, but it was Saakashvili who paved the road to war with an aggressive and militant approach in South Ossetia.
Both Russia and USA were absorbed in a David vs. Goliath rescue fantasy. USA wanted to save the Georgians from the Russians, and Russia wanted to save the South Ossetians from the Georgians. NATO’s disastrous 2008 Bucharest declaration which promised Ukraine and Georgia membership of NATO emboldened Saakashvili to believe he could count on the United States for military support. It also crossed a red line that Putin had warned Bush against, but which was ignored.
Toal does not place the blame on anybody but tries to show how the dynamics made the war happen. He goes to great lengths to explain that trying to understand somebody’s perspective does not mean condoning their behavior.
Crimea and Donbas are two very different stories
The 2014 incidents in Ukraine are the second case study in the book. Toal examines the Maidan protests, the overturn of president Yanukovych, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the Novorossiya project which turned into a war in Donbas.
Toal believes that Putin made a strategic mistake with the actions in Crimea, and that Novorossiya was a terrible miscalculation. The conflict has turned into a disaster for Russia’s relationship with the West, and in the long term it will be detrimental for Russia’s ability to project soft power in Ukraine.
But Toal also challenges some of the conventional ideas about the events. The book includes statistical material to document popular sentiments in the populations, and notably there is a very strong support in Crimea for a reunification with Russia. Toal shows how the Maidan events divided the country, and that the typical Western image of a democratic victory over a corrupt autocracy is not shared by everyone. Indeed, it is also perfectly reasonable to view the Maidan protests as a coup against a democratically elected leader, and many Crimeans felt threatened by Ukrainian nationalism. This created the circumstances for a Russian rescue fantasy which led to the annexation in March 2014.
In Eastern Ukraine there was a very different story. There was little popular support for annexation by Russia or secession from Ukraine. Toal’s documentation shows that language is a problematic indicator of national sentiment, and one should be careful about equating vernacular with nationality. In fact, most Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine identify as Ukrainians, and they did not support the idea of secession.1 Toal argues convincingly that the Russian leadership made the mistake of thinking that Russian speakers would necessarily support a Russian intervention.
Near Abroad — Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus is an exceptionally well-written book. It contains one of the most convincing accounts that I have seen of the events in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014.
I was not familiar with the concepts of critical geopolitics before, and I found the theoretical framework useful and inspiring. The book is a good introduction for curious readers.
If you want to hear Gerard Toal explain his own message, there is this podcast of a lecture from The Ellison Center:
- One possible exception is in Donbas, where Toal was not able to conduct research. ↩