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

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.


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

The Crimea Precedent & the Post-Soviet De Facto States

IMG_5144.JPG - Version 2

The well-known Political Science blog The Monkey Cage, now owned by the Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezoswe all work for Amazon nowposted earlier today a concise 3 graph summary of what our De Facto State Research Survey reveals about likely attitudes amongst different ethnic groups in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria (we left out our research results from Nagorny Karabakh since it is not directly supported by the Russian Federation and has its own unique features). We want to thank The Washington Post and particularly Erik Voeten of Georgetown for his assistance in swinging open the door of the Monkey Cage sufficiently to let two Irish political geographers propel some hopefully useful place-based knowledge into the maelstrom of debate that engulfs us post-Crimea. It is painful to summarize years of research into a few paragraphs but at least we didn’t have to write it as a bumper sticker.

Posted in Abkhazia, Armenia, August War, Caucasus conflict, Current affairs, De Facto States, ethnic cleansing, Five Day War, forced displacement, Geography, Nagorny Karabakh, Putin, Russia, Saakashvili, World political map | Tagged | 1 Comment

Bosnia by the Black Sea? Could Crimea be another BiH?


I have an op ed on this topic on the Open Democracy Russia website under the title “Could Crimea Be Another Bosnia?”

For Bosnia specialists, below is the source I used for the opening quote. Specialists will know I analyzed this ‘performative structure’ in my long article on Dodik’s referendum discourse in Nationalities Papers though it was cited incorrectly as Croatian Radio 1990 when it should have, obviously, been 1991, and I incorrectly attributed it to Karadzic whereas Nikola Koljevic, SDS’s BiH President at the time, is the figure reported as using that characterization.

Also, Bosnian specialists will know that there is considerable debate over the significance of October Memorandum passed by the Socialist Assembly and the relationship of ‘sovereign’ to ‘independent.’ Izetbegovic stressed that sovereignty did not mean independence. As we know, the “independence” declaration came later after the Feb 29-March 1 1992 referendum. This understanding equates “independent” with “independent state” in the international interstate system. There is a second more localized understanding of independent, that of a coherent unified (“within its existing borders”) non-encumbered singular actor in a federal system (with a legal right to secession from this system). This, of course, was a stepping stone to the first meaning, which is why Karadzic’s SDS members were dramatically upping the ante after the (depending on your perspective) illegal maneuvre or democratic majority vote on the Memorandum of Sovereignty in October 1991. In the end, to avoid confusion, I dropped the word ‘independent’ though this is how Ana Trbovich described (my emphasis) the Memorandum  A Legal Geography of Yugoslavia’s Disintegration (Oxford, 2008) p. 220: “The proposed Memorandum declared the republic a sovereign and independent state within its existing boundaries…”


November 14, 1991, Thursday


SOURCE: Text of report from Sarajevo

(c) Croatian Radio, Zagreb 1600 gmt 11 Nov 91


LENGTH: 513 words

Who is against Yugoslavia is against us, and now, after the plebiscite, we have enough arguments to prevent the separation of the whole of Bosnia-Hercegovina from Yugoslavia, Radovan Karadzic, president of the SDS, said at a press conference today in reaction to the referendum of the Serbian people in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

It is clear after the plebiscite that the statistical figures of the last census were incorrect and that the number of Serbs is higher. In some municipalities the number of Serbs who voted was about 1,000 higher than had been stated in the census, Vojislav Maksimovic, chairman of the SDS deputies’ club, stated at the same press conference.

The plebiscite of the Serbian people is a democratic reply to undemocratic pressures, and it is now clear that Bosnia-Hercegovina does not have to be either sovereign or independent as far as the people are concerned, Nikola Koljevic, member of the Bosnia-Hercegovina Presidency from the SDS ranks, said. The plebiscite has provided Europe with an indication as to where a solution to the problem of Yugoslavia should be looked for. But we in Yugoslavia do not need their recipes, Momcilo Krajisnik, President of the Assembly of the Serbian Nation, said, going on to add that as early as in the course of the current week that same Assembly would verify the results of the plebiscite and pass decisions to reflect its outcome.

In the light of the above it is quite clear what motives were behind the plebiscite and what further steps the SDS is going to take. This was a plebiscite in which people were allowed to cast votes by producing only an identification card, without adequate lists or any control.

According to the organisers the voting also took place in other republics and countries. Results have already been received from Switzerland, America, Sweden, and Germany and are expected from the Soviet Union from Bosnia-Hercegovina Serbs who work there.

After the counting of votes it became clear that the turnout at some polling stations had been larger than the number of names on election lists. According to Radovan Karadzic, almost 100% of votes were for while the number of those who voted against was below 1%. In the light of their statement that they expected over 1,500,000 voters to cast their vote, it is easy to conclude that one of the aims of the plebiscite was that over 51% of Bosnia-Hercegovina adolescents were for Yugoslavia. But this will be very difficult to prove.

[Note Tanjug (in English 2050 gmt 11 Nov 91) noted ”Apart from Serbs, members of other ethnic communities born or living in Bosnia-Hercegovina were also allowed to vote if they wished so, but on differently-coloured ballots.” The report went on ”Asked by journalists what would happen now, Karadzic said this depended on the other two partners in the government coalition – the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). SDS can agree with HDZ and SDA on everything except the position of Bosnia-Hercegovina in Yugoslavia, Karadzic said.”]

Posted in Bosnia, Bosnian war, Current affairs, De Facto States, Political Borders, Political Geography, Putin, Radovan Karadzic, referendum, Rhetoric, unilateral declaration of independence | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Global Conflicts. My Online Course Syllabus




I’ve been teaching ‘global conflicts’ at Virginia Tech for over twenty years, initially as an undergraduate course called “Geography of Global Conflicts.” In 1995, I offered the course online for the first time. The course has evolved considerably since then, always online, and is now an introductory graduate course in Government and International Affairs called simply ‘Global Conflicts.’ Over the years I have developed a good sense of what does and does not work through online teaching. Unlike many online courses, I don’t place a premium on constant online presence and interaction. Instead, I organize the course around five three week modules, each of which has a written assignment at its end. This course is conceptually demanding, writing intensive, and is not for everyone. Indeed, online teaching works best only for a subset of students, and has definite limits for those students who are not self-starters, organized and independent. I am not an online education enthusiast nor someone who decries it either, though the political economy driving its adoption has pernicious features,  one of which is to further deepen already existing inequalities  and class division within academia. That issue goes beyond online instruction.

Attached is my syllabus for the coming semester.

GIA & PSCI 5254 Global Conflicts Spring 2014_Final

This will be my last blog posting (and tweet) for a good while. I want to make some progress on projects personal and academic.


Je serai de retour!



Posted in ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, Geography, Kurdistan, Kurds, Nagorno-Karabakh, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Nagorny Karabakh, nationalism, Political Borders, Political Geography, South Ossetia, Turkey | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Birth of a Nation: Radovan Karadžić and the Ethnopoliticization of Bosnia in 1990

Stjepan_Kljuić,_Radovan_Karadžić,_and_Alija_Izetbegović_in_Sarajevo_1992By the time he strode to the podium in Skenderija Hall, Sarajevo, on 12 July 1990 to speak, the journey of Dr Radovan Karadžić from obscure psychiatrist to politician, wartime leader, and later accused war criminal had begun. Karadžić had been working for months behind the scenes with likeminded Serb nationalists in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia to create a new political party, a party explicitly for people of Serb nationality in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In neighboring Croatia the Serbian Democratic Party (Српска демократска Странка / Srpska Demokratska Stranka, СДС or SDS) his friend, and fellow psychiatrist, Jovan Rašković, helped found on February 17, 1990, was a model. Two different inaugural boards worked to found a similar party in BiH, and many prominent Serb Sarajeveans were approached to lead the party. All turned it down, and Karadžić, with Rašković’s blessing and public endorsement before his speech, had become leader almost by default. Also endorsing the party that day in Skenderija Hall was the leader of a party of similar ethnopolitical ambition in BiH for those who identified as Muslims, Dr Alija Izetbegović whose Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske Akcije) was founded only two months earlier. Together with the HDZ (lead initially by Stepan Kljuić, pictured left with the two others above) the SDS and SDA would triumph in the November 1990 elections in BiH, ethnopoliticizing the polity in a ‘democratic’ way that had never occurred before. Within two years, Bosnia would be in the midst of a brutal civil war.

Here is an English language translation of Karadžić’s maiden speech to the SDS BiH founding congress: IntroductorySpeechFoundinSDSAssemblyKaradzic. (Its further evidence for the dangers of ‘genocide-thinking’ and ‘genocide-obsession’ but that is another story).

“‘Serbs, You Are Allowed to be Serbs!’ Radovan Karadžić and the 1990 Election Campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” has just been published online by Ethnopolitics (a Taylor and Francis journal). The article is a study of how the ethnopoliticization of BiH by SDS unfold in the 1990 election campaign. The piece has its origins in the research and translation work undertaken by Adis Maksić into how Oslobodjenje covered the 1990 campaign as part of his NSF supported assistantship at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2011. This research was greatly helped by chats with the famous Oslobodjenje editor at the time, Kemal Kurspahić, who now works locally in Alexandria, Virginia. Kemal is a real gentleman, and we thank him for all his help. As we dived further into the research, I learnt that Dr Robert Donia was writing a biography of Karadžić. He very generously shared the relevant draft chapters with us, and subsequently agreed to serve on Adis’s Ph D committee. His generosity, encouragement and support all helped advance this research.

The paper was first presented at a conference on the former Yugoslavia organized by Dr Carl Dahlman at the Miami University in Ohio and a few days later at the Association for the Study of Nationalities in 2012 by Adis. We want to thank Karl Cordell for professional editorial work in helping us improve the paper, and its anonymous reviewers who provided constructive quality academic feedback on the paper. It is a better paper because of this unsung and often unacknowledged labor. We will pass it on.



Posted in Affect, Bosnia, Bosnian war, Current affairs, Democracy, ethnic cleansing, genocide, political system, Radovan Karadzic, Rhetoric, war crimes, World political map | Tagged | 2 Comments

Internal Legitimacy in De Facto States

The question of legitimacy is, of course, a central one in the study of de facto states. Unrecognized states don’t have it from the international community (or from only a few as in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and so it is all the more important that they demonstrate to the world that they have it internally. Its self-validation, self-justification and part of the struggle to nudge the international community into moving some way towards recognizing some form of legitimacy in their case. Dichotomizing legitimacy into external and internal components is helpful as a first step in asking deeper questions about legitimacy but what do these notions really mean? Given the full spectrum sensitivity of parent states to any form of international legitimacy to de facto states, ‘external legitimacy’ is not a single condition (UN membership, for example) but a hierarchy they fear is a slippery slope. Should international mobile phone companies be able to offer service in Abkhazia, for example? What about Visa and Mastercard usage? Should Save the Children be allowed to operate, or the World Health Organization?


And what is ‘internal legitimacy,’ a condition permanently enjoyed and earned by de facto states? Is there a difference between what residents (can we call them citizens without playing the legitimation game?) think of the idea of their state, and what they think of its institutions or of the government of the day? Many self-styled US ‘patriots,’ after all, loudly proclaim that they love their country but hate their government (and sometimes its laws, especially if they have anything to do with gun control; c.f. the NYT article on county sheriffs recently that didn’t point out that most of these same sheriffs are secessionists as TRMS did last night). Is the same phenomenon observable in de facto states?

“Convincing State-Builders? Disaggregating Internal Legitimacy in Abkhazia” is the latest article to be published as part of the De Facto State Research Project. It is available on Open Access from International Studies Quarterly, and will eventually appear in regular form in 2014.

Click here to access the article

It explores the question of ‘internal legitimacy’ and seeks to use our 2010 survey to disaggregate this notion. Kristin Baake, UCL, took the lead in writing the article, with Ward and O’Loughlin helping with the statistics. My contribution to this particular article involved (re)conceptualization and (re)writing.

Above is a photo I took in Ochamchire, Bagapsh’s home town, which I happen to like. Behind the unipolar recognition of Medvedev is some prosperity but also the Georgian absence, the scars of war, the tourist signs of mountains and palm trees, while in the foreground is the banal present.

Posted in Abkhazia, Caucasus conflict, Current affairs, ethnic cleansing, Five Day War, genocide, Geography, Geopolitics, Georgia, legitimacy, Russia, Saakashvili, South Ossetia, World political map | Tagged , , | Leave a comment