Toal: Putin’s “affective geopolitics”

20 03 2014

In a detailed and fascinating analysis of Vladimir Putin’s speech marking Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula, geopolitical analyst Gerald Toal (Gearóid Ó Tuathail) assesses five competing theories about Russia’s move.

“Why did Russia seize Crimea, and why did it do so when it did? These are questions scholars will debate for some time. There are competing hypotheses:

“1. The Geostrategic Explanation.

“Russia acted as it did to protect its only warm water port, the home of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastapol. It was a decision that emerged from the dominance of a military mindset in the Kremlin, and is a mark of the power of the Russian navy as a force in foreign policy decision making.

“2. The Imperialist Explanation.

“Russia is an inherently expansionist empire, irrespective of regime type: Tsarist, Communist, ‘democratic,’ competitive authoritarian. This is an essential element of its ‘DNA’ and this imperial character will inevitably return during moments when the state is more powerful than its neighbors. Its borders are temporary frontiers. The Tsar decides and his subjects obey. Folks on the political Right tend to adhere to this explanation. They tend to cast the question of Russia as a civilizational struggle, one that affirms essentialized existential difference.

“3. The Regime Type Explanation.

“Russia is a hybrid regime, a particular mix of authoritarianism and popular democracy. Because the Russian Presidential form of governance concentrates so much power in a Putin’s hands, he has the ability and capacity to take radical foreign policy decisions without meaningful check to his actions. The Crimean decision is indicative of further drift towards super-presidentialism and state authoritarianism in the Russian Federation.

“4. Offensive Realist Explanation.

“Russia is acting like any other great power. In an anarchic and competitive state system, great powers with some offensive military capability can never be certain of the intentions of other states. Because Ukraine was a bordering state with territorial control over a vital military security asset of the Russian Federation, and because the key national security portfolio of the Ukrainian state had called into perceived enemies of Russia, it was rational of Russia to invade Crimea in order to acquire strategic control over this militarily vital territory. This explanation considers regime type largely irrelevant, and discourse superfelous.

“5. The Improvised Instrumentalization of Russian (Geopolitical Cultural) Affect Explanation.

“After the failure of the Russian gambit to secure Ukraine to the Eurasian Customs Union, and the advent of a pro-Western government in Kiev, the Putin inner circle made the decision to invade Crimea for multi-causal reasons. The Black Sea naval base was a consideration but it was inseparable from an affective imaginary geography of Crimea’s place in a glorious Russian past. The decision was not ‘strategic’ or ‘rational’ or regime-determined but a geopolitical gambit (pre-conceived and likely already war-gamed) that involved the coordinated use of military actions and political technologies in order to unfold ‘managed secession’ (‘secession in a box’) and a theatre of legalism while simultaneously generating an affective wave that would legitimate the regime, its actions and subsequent plans. The action, in sum, was a continuation of the spectacle of the Winter Olympics. It was ‘affective geopolitics.’

“I find the latter explanation, the one that places the production of geopolitical affect and legitimacy at its center, the most compelling. My ongoing work on the August 2008 war explores this theme. Lets review the first section of the speech (only part available; will post rest as it becomes available) for evidence supporting the different hypotheses. Watching the visuals of the speech provides a whole other layer of meaning, of body language, authority, anger, affect, tears, etc. Its really quite compelling (but beyond what I can do here). Affect researchers could measure applause duration, volume, etc. Putin’s speech resonated in the room. Lets see what polling data reveals about how strongly his move resonates (i) with what groups within the public as a whole, and (ii) for how long. There is a latent tension within Russian geopolitical culture between imperial nationalism and ethno-nationalism that is worth watching. See the excellent piece on this by Goode and Laruelle.

The textual analysis follows. Toal concludes:

“A truly monumental speech. [. . .] This is about a military base but one inseparable from notions of ‘military glory.’ This is about an imperial geopolitical culture struggling in a globalized world but not one destined to reproduce an inherent expansionist logic. This is about the power-policy process in Russia, and super-presidentialist politics, but that institutional organization of power does not explain Crimea on its own. This is about great power insecurity but not in the culture & regime agnositic way offensive realist understand it. Instead, we need to grasp the resentments and cynicism, the loathing and longing, the pride and emotion being channelled by Putin. This is ‘affective geopolitics,’ ‘hot’ not cold ‘hardheaded’ geopolitics. This is Putin’s move but one impossible to explain without understanding Russian geopolitical culture, its contradictions and unresolved questions.

“Is Putin ultimately a KGB manipulator, an orchestrator, an instrumental user not true believer? Inner motivations are, to a certain extent, irrelevant: public display is what matters. The last word should belong to Oscar Wilde whose Gwendolen, in The Importance of Being Earnest declares:

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”

Read the entire piece here.



4 responses

30 07 2014
Geopolitics: The Ukraine conflict in the multipolar world order | UKR-TAZ

[…] see my post about Gerald Toal’s work on Putin’s “affective geopolitics.” It seems the original post (from Toal’s excellent Critical Geopolitics blog) has […]

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