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

On the Foreign Policy of an “Authoritarian Kleptocracy”: Thoughts on Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy

I recently finished Karen Dawisha’s remarkable new book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon and Schuster, 2014), a deeply researched book on the power circle that congealed around Putin in St Petersburg and moved with him to Moscow, eventually assuming power in mid-1999 and the Presidency in 2000. The book is not a Domhoff style ‘power structure’ analysis for Russia so much as it is an ‘inner circle’ analysis, focused on key figures rather than institutions. It revisits many well known episodes in Putin’s career rise — covered already in English by Martha Gessen and Hill & Gaddy — and provides even greater depth of analysis without ever being strident. In broad institutional terms the power nexus that Putin is at the center features the siloviki, corrupt politicians, and enterprising businessmen, those connected to organized crime and those with relationships to it. The lines blur here considerably as it is broadly alleged the FSB largely controlled organized crime, and it had telling relationships to certain oligarchs and politicians. Needless to say, the book presents a dark and disturbing look at the group of people who were empowered as Putin transitioned to power in Russia. It is the portrait of a kleptocratic elite, and a Putin system that Dawisha terms an “authoritarian kleptocracy.”

PutinKleptSee Dawisha discuss the book here and here. As one respondent at the Wilson Center presentation remarked Russian Studies becomes Criminology Studies with this book.

The book’s website with many documents and resources, including a useful chronology of events in Russian politics, is here.

Most of Dawisha’s book is taken up with the rise of Putin and his first 100 days. Towards the end there is a discussion of foreign policy, with the theme of capital accumulation opportunities and dynamics to the fore. This aspect I found somewhat inadequate (in here defense this was the conclusion to the book). Thus, for example, the August War is read in terms of South Ossetia as a criminal outpost, not a territory but a counterfeiting hub for the siloviki. The Crimean annexation is read within the terms of discussion about desired and owned property on the Crimean coast. The foreign policy of an ‘authoritarian kleptocracy’ in other words is a patrimonial geopolitics, with the national interest indistinguishable from the personal property interests and desires of Putin.

A more compelling theme is the centrality of geopolitical spectacles to regime legitimacy from the very outset of Putin’s rule. Dawisha argues that the Dagestani raid by Basayev was a ‘false flag’ operation, initiated by his FSB handlers. She also is convinced the summer 1999 apartment bombings in Russia were the work of the FSB. Thus, the argument goes, the regime was born kleptocracic and anti-democratic and used from the very outset ‘active measures’ to create spectacles of violent crises in order to shore up its power. In this sense, then, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine do not represent a break in Russian foreign policy but continuity with the past.

Because she brings academic training and real depth of research to bear, I think Dawisha’s book is more formidable than the other works that have investigated this topic in English so far: Lucas, etc. Yet, the prosecutorial tone of investigative journalism throughout the book makes it different from ‘academic’ work.  This is a book that deserves to be debated seriously, and separated out from the strident anti-Russian posture of many journalists and some politicians today. That it agrees with most of their contentions is, however, a point that must be conceded. Whether it will be processed as a demonstration of Tilly’s old claim — the state as organized crime – or as an affirmation of the need for civilizational struggle against Putin and Russia (a dangerous conceit, in my view, given Londongrad, Berlusconi, etc)  is something that is worth watching.

Posted in August War, Critical Geopolitics, Current affairs, Geopolitics, Masculinity, Russia | 1 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.

Posted in Current affairs | 2 Comments

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

Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy

IMG_2546Over three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Barry R. Posen present his latest book Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy (Cornell UP, 2012).  Grand strategy for Posen is a state’s theory of how it provides security for itself. The book is a sustained challenge to what he sees as the dominant grand strategy of the US since the end of the Cold War: Liberal Hegemony. It is a convergence of two of four “sets of ideas competing for the affection of the US foreign policy establishment” (p. 6) in 1990: Cooperative Security (dominant within the Democratic Party), Primacy (largely within the GOP),  Selective Engagement and Isolationism. The latter two are the basis for the alternative to Liberal Hegemony he presents in the book which he names Restraint.

Posen is a former student of the late Kenneth Waltz and is a scholar of military planning and force structure. This shows in

(1) his conceptual foundations (p. 20):

      1. the anarchical condition of international politics
      2. the propensity of modern people to identify with groups larger than themselves
      3. the enormous, destructive power of nuclear weapons
      4. the propensity of war, once underway, to create a system of action resistant to human control

(2) his positivist methodological commitments. His theories are “causal arguments, which have been repeatedly tested, formally and informally.”

(3) the great deal of attention he devotes to the force structure the US needs for transition to the normative vision of offshore balancing he outlines.

I read the book with an eye to how he explains the August War and Russia’s (subsequent to the book going to print) intervention in Ukraine. Predictably, he sees Russian behavior as ‘external balancing’ of the United States:

Russia has also done what it can to limit the extent of US penetration of their former republics in Central Asia [this forgets the 2001-02 period of course]. More generally, Russia has become assertive and is trying with some success to build a sphere of influence on its periphery. And it has used force in one case, Georgia, to make the point that it believes it has a droit de regard in these regions. United States strategists see Russian behavior of this kind as aggressive. The possibility that prior Western activities are prompting a Russian balancing response is seldom conceded. NATO “enlargement” is conveniently forgotten; Russia should not mind that the alliance that crushed its Soviet parent has been picking up the chips on Europe’s poker table and moving its frontier inexorably in Russia’s direction…Balance of power theorists would have expected Russia to push back as soon as it had the power; it has a little power, and it is pushing back (p. 30-31).

This is a very nice distillation of the dominant perspective among some US political realists (Walt, Mearsheimer). It is compelling, logical and, I would argue, wrong. Why? Well, the book I’m working on will have the detailed critique but suffice it to say that it relies on a determinism about ‘balance of power’ politics that tends to short-cut if not ignore the fact that geopolitics is cultural and ideological. Geography and spheres of influence are inextricably tied to geopolitical culture and do not stand alone as objective facts about distance and space. There is nothing inevitably about ‘great power politics’ though certain tendencies can be identified. How geopolitical cultures are (re)defined by regimes and leaders matters crucially in explaining specific conjunctural outcomes, such as the August War or the Crimean intervention. Why did they occur when they did? Why did they occur given that it could easily be argued they were both counterproductive to Russia achieving stable friendly relations with states on its borders? As Robert Cooper suggested recently, Russia has created a condon insanitaire not a cordon sanataire on its rimlands, states where the ethnic majority community are now actively hostile to Russia rather than potentially persuadable by Russian soft power.

Posen’s book is a compelling one, and I expect I’ll use it in future graduate teaching on American Foreign Policy. There is, of course, no such thing as pure political realism. It is always entangled within other commitments and normative values. Posen’s are ultimately nationalistic and, to a milder extent, libertarian. He cares about the US, first and foremost, and about the ways in which the US’s commitments to Liberal Hegemony cost the country and empowers somewhat reckless behavior by allies (Georgia under Saakashvili appears as Exhibit A for what he terms ‘reckless driving’). Less US hegemony, he argues, is also good for the world in that it allows the inevitable shifts in the balance of power to work themselves out in a largely peaceful way. Posen’s libertarian commitments aren’t front and center in his book – there is little on the costs to the quality of liberty at home of Liberal Hegemony — but it is clear that his passions are with anti-establishment activists for a smaller state to supposedly let market capitalism work better. Other version of political realism (e.g. the work of Charles Kupchan) don’t require subscription to libertarian ideals.

In sum, this is a book that should be widely read and debated. It offers a well crafted challenge to the default liberal internationalism that most in the GOP and Democratic Party share.

Posted in August War, Cato Institute, Current affairs, Five Day War, Libertarian, Saakashvili, Washington D.C. | 1 Comment

Stent’s The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century

HavePintAngela Stent’s new book The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, 2014) is an excellent account of four resets in the US-Russian relationship since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Stent is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She served two stints in the US foreign policy bureaucracy, one at the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and one at the National Intelligence Council. These insider experiences, and her Georgetown position, have given her significant social and symbolic capital inside the Beltway (what some might term the ‘East Coast foreign policy establishment’), capital that we benefit from as her new book is based on a remarkably extensive and impressive list of interviews with former US government officials (those interviewed are listed but, unfortunately, there is no date or place for the interview).

A superior example of the genre of  diplomatic history (i.e. a chronologically employed narrative analysis of events and competing perceptions with no explicit method or IR theory discussion), the book is the best account of US-Russian relations in the second Bush and Obama administrations there is. A great deal of controversial contemporary history is condensed here into a very well written narrative that is balanced, nuanced and never polemical. Certainly some will have wanted greater depth of key events, but that is for future historians and specialists to provide. Here Stent provides us with remarkably close access to the perceptions of key figures on the US side. For example, through her interview with Joshua Bolton (George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, 2006-2009), we learn about Bush and Putin’s conversation at the opening of the Beijing Olympics (after war broke out in South Ossetia) and Bush’s comment to Putin: “I’ve been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded.” “I’m hot-blooded too,” Putin retorted. Bush started back at him: “No Vladimir,” he said, “You’re cold-blooded” (p. 172).

Given her previous studies on and familiarity with Germany, we also hear German perspectives such as that of a ‘senior German official’ who described America as suffering from “empathy deficit disorder” in its dealings with Russia.

Through her participation in the Valdai International Discussion Club, Stent is able to provide us with a close-study of Putin and the evolution of his thinking, and that of his deputies. This is perhaps one of the distinctive features of the book, the fact that it makes a genuine effort to provide us with the view from the Russian center of power. Certainly it is one feature that makes the book much more balanced than other more polemical works on Russia’s ‘new imperialism.’

The book calls out the importance of geographical facts and realities on a number of occasions. It concludes by giving Henry Kissinger the last work, citing his attribution of some of the persistent problems in US-Russian relations to “the inability of American officials to appreciate Russia’s history or geography and to a tendency to assume that Russia’s definition of its needs are similar to those of the United States” (p. 273). This conclusion is problematic in so many ways but it is interesting. And its certainly better than the assumption that all would be okay if they both only drank Guinness regularly.

Posted in Affect, August War, Bush, Caucasus conflict, Current affairs, Five Day War, George Kennan, Georgia, Obama, Putin, Rice, Russia, Saakashvili, Washington D.C. | Leave a comment

Social Survey Research in De Facto States After Crimea

“Daddy works in a magical, faraway land called Academia.”I’m very happy to announce that I’ve a new home office, as a year long house extension project has come to an end. I will seek to renew my writing for this site, though I’m conscious that time spent writing here and on Twitter is time away from R&R, reading and writing, not to mention, most importantly, my family. Certainly, I’d be a much better academic if I neglected my family and kids more! I’m striving on not being too lost in the magical faraway land.

Folks who follow my random musings on Twitter will know that John O’Loughlin and I received a RAPID grant from the US National Science Foundation to build upon our past survey research in de facto states. The Award Description is here, with the summary opening written by the NSF. We are very grateful to the good folks at the Political Science division of the NSF who, as most US academics will know, have had to deal with a concerted political effort in Congress to gut social science research, especially political science. See the AAG statement on this.

IMG_1637

One place where social science research is also under the shadow of politics and politicization is Russia. Our previous NSF research project allowed us to employ the Levada Center to conduct a rigorous social science survey in Abkhazia in 2010. They did a terrific job, and were able to proceed unimpeded by the political authorities in Abkhazia (though then President Bagapsh, RIP, pictured above, wasn’t exactly smiling when we met with him, among many others, on our trip to Abkhazia. The Georgian government at the time was not particularly happy about our research, and we sought to convey their perspective in our journal articles). The Levada Center, as many know, is reportedly under considerable political pressure in Russia now as a result of a sweeping “foreign agent” registration law. Whether this law, in effect, criminalizes the aspiration of international researchers to contract with the Levada Center to conduct reliable social survey research on political attitudes is an open question. For the record, our experience cooperating with Russian academics has been excellent; they have been invaluable partners.

The importance of reliable and independent social survey research free of government interference and conducted to the highest standards of rigor should be obvious. Just today,   Alex Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell have an excellent article in Foreign Policy that uses the results of the Levada survey to provide useful public information to a broad English-speaking audience about likely cleavages and attitudes in Abkhazia today. It should be underscored that Professors Cooley and Mitchell’s policy positions, analysis and recommendations are ones that are independent of our research and its results. The goal of our research has never been to provide policy recommendations, though as citizens and moral beings we inevitably have positions on the world we are situated within and encounter. The opening purpose of our research is to generate social science data as a pathway towards knowledge and debate. It doesn’t have a political angle or agenda from the outset (yes, at a deeper level, there are complexities of national socialization, the unconscious, affective conditioning, etc). Whether that is a problem in the polarized conditions after Crimea, and the ongoing fighting in the Donbass, is something we will find out in the next few months.

Posted in Abkhazia, Caucasus conflict, Congress, Current affairs, De Facto States, Democracy, Geography, Political Borders, Political Geography, Putin, South Ossetia, World political map | Leave a comment