EurasiaNet Book Review
Is the geopolitical conflict between the United States and Russia not the result – as it is usually portrayed – of fundamentally different values held by the two states? Is the problem really that their geopolitical values are in fact too similar?
That is the provocative argument of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus, a new book (published by Oxford University Press) by geographer Gerard Toal. Toal analyzes the conflicts in Ukraine since 2014 and in Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008, paying close attention to the language used by the various parties.
While rhetoric is often seen as a smokescreen, hiding the “real” geopolitical motivations behind a state’s actions, Toal takes that rhetoric more seriously. His 1996 book, Critical Geopolitics – one of the founding texts for the discipline of the same name – sought to deconstruct geopolitical thought. The Mackinders, Brzezinskis, and Dugins of the world, Toal argued, claim a scientific, objective basis to their theories that in fact conceals the prejudices and emotions lurking behind the use of state power.
In Near Abroad, Toal applies that theory to the recent conflicts in the post-Soviet space. These conflicts are usually portrayed in one of two ways: either Russia is a revanchist imperial power (the “liberal” approach, in international relations terms) or a rational actor fighting back against threats to its security (the “realist” explanation). Both those approaches have limitations, Toal argues, while suggesting a focus on the way that the various sides felt about the conflicts, what he calls “affective geopolitics.”
“It is a supreme irony of the current geopolitical crisis that both the United States and Russia draw upon structurally similar affective storylines in their geopolitical cultures to produce mutually incomprehensible interpretations of the same events,” Toal writes. On the 2008 war over South Ossetia, Toal writes: “Crucial to grasping how the war was understood by Russia and the United States ... is an appreciation of the operation of a structurally similar myth of victimization and rescue that is saturated with colonial tropes. To Russia, Ossetians were the victims of a resurgent fascist nationalism that was genocidal in nature. To the United States, little Georgia was the victim of a resurgent imperial Russian aggression.”
Georgia’s leadership learned how to speak the language of United States foreign policy, a process begun under President Eduard Shevardnadze but perfected under his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. This featured heavy use of global rhetoric like “the free world” and “democratic values,” which flattered American sensibilities and concealed the messy reality on the ground in South Ossetia.
“Saakashvili did more than rhetorically frame Georgian interests within the terms of Bush administration discourse. He absorbed it almost verbatim and, with the enthusiasm of a convert, rearticulated an amplified version right back to Bush and others,” Toal writes. “The dynamic that took hold was a relationship of mutual admiration and affirmation, with top Bush administration officials projecting onto Saakashvili their own ideological aspirations, while Saakashvili mirrored these and, in turn, projected his own aspirations onto the Bush administration.”
During the course of the five-day war in 2008, the Georgian justification for its actions shifted as its prospects for success faded. In the early stages, Saakashvili presented it in terms that reflected the US justification for invading Iraq – liberating a captive population and restoring order to an ungoverned space. “This geopolitical black hole of chaos could no longer be tolerated by a law and order state,” Toal writes, paraphrasing the Georgian rhetoric of the time.
But as the tide turned and it became clear Russia had the advantage, the rhetoric instead focused on a Russian “invasion” (which required fudging the timeline, in particular of the notorious Russian military column moving through the Roki Tunnel from Russia into South Ossetia, which Toal convincingly demonstrates) aimed at crushing Georgia’s efforts to create a free and democratic state.
Russia’s interpretation of the war, Toal argues, was rooted in President Vladimir Putin’s desire to “make Russia great again.” Putin saw NATO encroaching towards its borders and ethnic Russian and other minorities suffering in the post-Soviet states outside Russia’s borders. And Georgia’s sneak attack on South Ossetia, which resulted in the deaths of Russian peacekeepers, triggered an emotional response in the Kremlin.
“Saakashvili’s move provoked the anger and disgust of the Russian leadership. This was affective, not strategic geopolitics, and the language that accompanied it—‘war criminal’ and ‘genocide’—was not the language of diplomacy or transactional geopolitics. Instead, this was the language of righteous anger,” Toal writes.
“Saakashvili was portrayed as Hitler in some speeches and as Saddam Hussein in others, but most commonly he was framed in the base archetype shared by both, a madman and blood-thirsty lunatic. Announcing the ceasefire agreement on August 12, [then-President Dmitry] Medvedev stated that ‘there are some people who, unlike normal people, once they’ve smelt blood, it is very hard to stop them.’”
There are of course limitations to this deconstructive approach. But in a realigning, “post-truth” world it behooves us to pay closer attention to, and take more seriously, the stories states
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul.