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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About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching territorial conflicts and the dynamics of geopolitical competition in post-Communist Europe.
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2 Responses to Airspace in De Facto States: Remarks on Ukraine Crisis at the New School, 3 October 2014

  1. Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    Some v. interesting remarks from Gerard Toal on Airspace, De Facto States and Ukraine.

  2. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Gerard Toal reflects on de facto states, airspace and geopolitics, especially in relation to Ukraine.

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