Book Watch: Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus


Review by John A. Pennell

14 March 2017 – Kyiv, Ukraine

Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus (Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 2017) by Gerard Toal. $29.95.

ISBN-10: 0-190-25330-4

ISBN-13: 978-0-1902-5330-1


Gerard Toal’s Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus adds a new perspective—that of critical geopolitics—to analyses of the causes behind the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations over the years and especially with regard to Ukraine and the Caucasus. According to Toal, critical geopolitics reveals how the post-Soviet space is highly contested with competing power centres ranging from Russia to territories seeking independence to minorities within those states seeking special status to external powers such as the U.S. supporting one group over another. As Toal states simply at the outset, “geographies matter,” and in particular as unresolved territorial disputes in the “post-Soviet space” have contributed to such worsening bilateral relations between the two countries. Part of the reason behind this is that, Toal claims, common Western liberal and realist interpretations of Russian actions in its “near abroad” fail to account for the highly contested nature of these locales, how emerging power structures and historical narratives shape independence and/or separatist movements on the ground as well as the public discourse of these movements, and the role that external actors, such as the U.S. and NATO, play in the unfolding of these movements.

The book is organized into several parts. The first seeks to explain the key terminology used, a summary of post-9/11 relations between the U.S. and Russia, and the lens under which Toal examines the events leading to the breakdown in such relations. Toal then seeks to answer the question as to why Russia “invades its neighbours,” which is followed by a review of the U.S.’ relationship with Georgia, and the different interpretations of Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia and the lead-up to and fallout from Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014. The last part of the book reviews U.S. geopolitical culture with regard to Russia.

At the outset, Toal tries to explain sensitivities associated with the names of specific geographical locations, which, as he puts, are “often chosen to signify ownership of a territory or place, symbolically marking the political and cultural dominance of one group, and one geopolitical relationship, over others.” In the Western understanding of the term “near abroad,” according to Toal, it indicates Russia’s reluctance to accept the full independence and sovereignty of countries of the former Soviet Union, and even worse, that Russia harbours expansionist ambitions to reincorporate these states back into its fold. By contrast, in the Russian understanding of the term, it refers to former Soviet states, with the exception of Russia, or other states or territories which were part of the Russian Empire prior to the Soviet era. In other words, while countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, in the typical Russian understanding of the term, are today independent, sovereign states, they are still historically connected to Russia, or within its (at least former if not current) “sphere of influence,” in Toal’s view. However, based on Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine, and more recent actions and concerns in other parts of the former Soviet Union, the Western understanding of the term “near abroad” would appear to have more weight.

Next, Toal describes how, after the 9/11 attacks, relations between the Bush administration and Russia were steadily improving until the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which then quickly precipitated a decline in such relations. Since that time, other factors which contributed to a worsening of relations included: Russian belief that the U.S. was behind the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine as a form of regime change and sought to do the same to Russia; the expansion of NATO to former Warsaw Pact states and to potentially Georgia and Ukraine (see more below); U.S.’ recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008; the U.S.’ condemnation of Russian actions in the 2008 war with Georgia and subsequent commitment of significant assistance to Georgia; and Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and purported annexation of Crimea in 2014 which was then followed by U.S. and Western sanctions against Russia.

NATO expansion was a particularly thorny issue for Russia, Toal claims. According to Toal, key phrases and terms used by proponents of NATO expansion, or “enlargement”, include “Europeanizing,” “joining the West,” “extending the borders of freedom,” and “becoming a part of the “free world”—all of which brought great anxiety to Russia. The final straw for Russia came, Toal suggests, with the 2008 Bucharest Declaration in which NATO’s North Atlantic Council agreed that both Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become NATO members. In this regard, the concerns for Russia, as Toal lays out, were manifold. First, this would be the first time that former Soviet states with long historical and cultural ties to Russia would become NATO members. No original states of the Soviet Union had ever joined “the West.” Second, NATO sought to incorporate these countries as members despite Russian pleas not to. Third, both Georgia and Ukraine were likely to face significant blowback from key domestic constituents, many of whom are considered Russian compatriots, which would have likely complicated their ambitions to join NATO.

Ukrainian soldier stands on guard

What’s important about Toal’s contribution to the literature on U.S.-Russia relations is his utilization of critical geopolitics as a tool to analyze the events described above. According to Toal, critical geopolitics combines political geography with critical theory, and thereby rejects what he calls the “geo-determinism and prevailing prejudice” which exists in traditional understandings of geopolitics. His critical approach to geopolitics is based upon three key concepts—geopolitical field, geopolitical culture, and geopolitical condition.  The geopolitical field is concerned with how power dynamics and structures, as well as physical boundaries, impact the creation of certain spaces, locales, and territories. Hence, Toal avers, Russia’s “near abroad” should be understood in terms of how contentious the borders of many of these post-Soviet states were drawn and redrawn without necessarily considering local realities. Geopolitical cultures refer to how states view the world and their roles in it, including “organizing myths, favoured narrative forms, prevalent conceits, and competing traditions.” A geopolitical condition describes how new technologies (e.g., in defence, transportation, or communications) shape trends in and our understanding of geopolitics.

Based on his critical geopolitics framework, Toal claims that Russia did not view its actions in Georgia or Ukraine as “invasions.” Rather, Russia saw itself as responding to a Georgian offensive against South Ossetia, a Russian ally, and a Western-backed “coup” in Ukraine. In order to give weight to his theory of critical geopolitics, Toal then critiques the two predominant Western “storylines” regarding Russian actions in these countries—the liberal one, in which Russia is an imperialist power seeking to reestablish a sphere of influence in its “near abroad,” and the other, the realist one, in which Russia is not only a revisionist power but views NATO encroachment to its borders as a direct threat.  In the liberal view, claims Toal, great powers act in a revisionist manner to challenge the liberal world order while in the realist view, power and geography matter more than principles or laws. Toal contends that both the liberal and realist interpretations of Russian actions vis-à-vis Georgia and Ukraine are “superficial” and insufficient. Toal describes the Western liberal view as representing a “double standard” by criticizing Russian excursions into Georgia and Ukraine while at the same time supporting NATO enlargement to Russia’s borders and/or the conduct of unilateral military actions (e.g., 2003’s U.S.-led invasion of Iraq) contrary to international law. Toal adds that this view lacks adequate consideration of local contextual factors and falsely assumes that motivations and intentions of an actor (e.g., NATO) are transparent and clearly understood by others (i.e., Russia). Regarding the realist view in Western geopolitical discourse, Toal is more sympathetic given its consideration of geography’s importance to national security but still finds a significant flaw in the theory. Toal states that realism tends to diminish the significance of the various actors competing for power (i.e., the geopolitical field) in the post-Soviet space or the importance in Russian strategic calculations of “protecting” compatriots (e.g., ethnic Russians or Russian speakers).

Hence, in Toal’s view, what is needed to overcome the weaknesses inherent in the liberal and realist theories is a more robust assessment of Russian actions that can only be offered by critical geopolitics. As explained earlier, Toal’s critical geopolitics emphasizes his claim that the post-Soviet space is highly contested. Geopolitical cultures and shared discourses are critical in understanding how identities are formed and take shape, and what governing power structures emerge, in post-Soviet space. Subsumed under this culture is affective geopolitics, which illustrates how one of the region’s predominant historical narratives—the region’s geographic vulnerability to outsiders—is deeply ingrained in much of the population, and that such thinking shapes leadership and foreign policy decisions. The geopolitical condition, which relates to how such narratives are transmitted and evolve, reveals two central themes of geopolitical cultures today—those of “conspiracy theories” and “nationalist heroics.” In other words, such themes (e.g., a fascist, neo-Nazi coup was behind Yanukovych’s flight from Ukraine in 2014) are necessary to help influence public opinion toward a specific issue or policy. Lastly, another key subcomponent of Toal’s conceptual framework relates to the relationship between proximity and distance. While advances in communications technology and transportation networks have seemingly “shrunk” the globe, geography and geopolitics still endure as key factors in international affairs given that such advances have, at least in certain cases, accelerated the desires and potential of certain states to seek greater territorial or political independence from Russia through, inter alia, seeking increased Western support for their aspirations.

In conclusion, Toal’s work is an important contribution to the field of international affairs and understanding the factors that shape contemporary U.S.-Russia relations, albeit with a twist. Toal eloquently ascribes an essential role for critical geopolitics, including its core pillars of geopolitical field, geopolitical culture, and geopolitical condition, in explaining how scholars and practitioners should view Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine. While Toal’s approach is refreshing in his call for a more nuanced and critical approach to the myriad geopolitical, historical, and other factors shaping perceptions, policies, and actions with regard to Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine, and the subsequent Western interpretations of and responses to these actions, to the untrained eye, one may see potential whataboutisms or moral equivalencies in Toal’s analysis. At times, Toal comes across as an apologist for Russian actions. While Toal is cognizant of this possibility, and he tries to make clear that his methodology should not be viewed as justification for or support of Russian actions, his arguments would have been strengthened with a more balanced, in-depth discussions on the reasons behind the aspirations of different peoples in Georgia and Ukraine to seek closer ties to the West, whether that be through NATO or EU membership, or via other avenues.

The book can be found here at Oxford

Feature photo / “Tanks in camouflage during anti-terrorist operation in Ukraine 2016” – Wikimedia Commons, 2017

Inset Photo / “Near Abroad book cover” –Oxford University Press, 2017

Inset Photo / “Soldier stands guard during operation in Ukraine” – Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, 2017

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John A. Pennell is a PhD candidate in the Defence Studies Department (DSD) within the School of Security Studies at King's College London. Mr. Pennell is a Career Member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, currently serving in Kyiv, Ukraine. His prior assignments have included Afghanistan, East Africa, El Salvador, Indonesia, Iraq, and Uzbekistan. Mr. Pennell has an M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National Defense University/National War College (Washington, DC), an M.A. in Political Science from American University (Washington, DC), and a B.A. in Politics from The Catholic University of America (Washington, DC).

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