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ABSTRACT

The full-scale invasion and partial occupation of Ukraine by Russian forces in February 2022 onwards is a tragedy first and foremost for the people of Ukraine. The invasion illustrates the importance of intersecting and diverse interdisciplinary perspectives on territory, politics and governance within and beyond Ukraine and Russia. Our editorial initially addresses some of the more localised and nationalised consequences of the invasion. Thereafter, the focus shifts towards the realignment of extra-territorial flows of people, money and objects, including grain and oil. The territorialised of agency of states and non-state actors alike continues to vary revealing in turn opportunities for competitive or geopolitical advantage. Longer term, the mixed reactions to the Ukrainian crisis reveal both the potential for solidarity but also the difficulties in store for those seeking forms of climate and food justice.

1. INTRODUCTION

As editors of Territory, Politics, Governance (TPG), we have, in the recent past, reflected on global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the accompanying special issue, our authors tracked and traced the multiple geographies and temporalities of infection, control, and recovery (Dodds et al., Citation2020; Territory, Politics, Governance, Citation2022). Our 2022 journal cover featured an image of an airport and was intended to signify the tentative return of global mobility and the ending of lockdowns around the world.

However, as we entered 2022 itself, another shock descended upon Europe and then the wider world: the launch of a full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation against the independent state of Ukraine. Having endured partial occupation and annexation since 2014, Ukrainian citizens and their political leadership were confronted with a direct military assault. Cynically framed by the Russian authorities as a ‘special military operation’, there was even speculation that the invading forces would overwhelm their weaker Ukrainian opposition within days (Gill, Citation2022). Eighteen months later, Ukrainian and Russian forces remain locked in what has turned out to be one of Europe’s biggest land wars since the Second World War, with tragic consequences for Ukrainian communities especially. Battlefield losses have been high. By August 2023, the US government estimated that, on both sides, over 190,000 troops had been killed and as many as another 300,000 injured, with over 60% of the casualties Russian (Cooper et al., Citation2023). The United Nations (UN) estimated that over 26,000 civilian casualties have occurred between February 2022 and August 2023 (United Nations, Citation2023). The physical destruction of housing, industry and infrastructure, as well as the despoliation of the natural environment, continues. In May 2023, the World Bank estimated the cost of reconstruction at US$411 billion over a decade (World Bank, Citation2023), and this figure will continue to grow the longer the invasion and conflict persists.

The invasion illustrates the importance of intersecting diverse interdisciplinary perspectives on territory, politics and governance as we seek to make sense of its effects, which have rippled across not only Ukraine and Russia but also around the world (Baradrin, Citation2023). Academically, debates have ensued within English-speaking political science over the explanatory power of different scholarly perspectives. Established American scholars of the realist school, such as John Mearsheimer, have attracted considerable citational momentum and at times accompanying controversy (Mearsheimer, Citation2022). Others, such as Stephen Walt, have used the opportunity to consider which theories in the discipline of International Relations (IR) stand up to scrutiny or not (Walt, Citation2023). Straightforwardly for some IR theorists, Russia’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was prompted by a desire for physical and ontological security. By this way of thinking, the decision to invade was a rational response to NATO expansion and a longstanding fear that Russia was being encircled and discredited as a great power. This explanation is inadequate for critics of realism. For Russian- and/or Ukrainian-speaking experts, many of whom have been Ukrainian scholars living and working outside Ukraine, it underestimates domestic dynamics (Klinke, Citation2023a, Citation2023b), not least the debatably precarious character of Vladimir Putin’s national authoritarian rule, of which his desire to re-establish maximal borders for a greater Russia that includes Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites is a key animating principle (Galeotti, Citation2022). It also assumes that Ukraine’s right to territorial integrity is secondary to the Russia–NATO relationship.

While Russia might have underestimated Ukrainian resolve and the emergence of a durable coalition of European–American–Asian support, it is equally rational of and vital for Ukraine to resist the Russian occupying force and to eventually seek both European Union (EU) and NATO membership. As reminds us, Ukrainians and their supporters around the world have demanded that the world stand with them against the Russian full-scale invasion. Running through these ideational debates is a ‘great power’ thread, which posits that all this cannot be seen in absolute isolation. For many analysts and scholars, the invasion and ensuing war in Ukraine is indicative of something more wide-ranging: the manifestation of a global schism between a US-led coalition broadly sympathetic to the fate of Ukraine and a grouping of countries around the world that are actively enabling and trading with Russia. In short, there has been a lively debate regarding the limits of the explanatory power of theories of status-seeking, ontological security, leadership, decision-making processes as well as geopolitical manoeuvring.

Figure 1. ‘Stand with Ukraine against Russian Invasion’, an anti-invasion protest in Vancouver, BC, Canada, 26 February 2022.

Source: ‘Stand with Ukraine against Russian Invasion – Vancouver Anti-War Rally, 26 February 2022’, by GoToVan, licensed under CC BY 2.0 (https://flickr.com/photos/47022937@N03/51906093623).

Three protestors hold up signs painted with the Ukrainian flag at an anti-invasion protest in Vancouver. Two of the signs are in English and read ‘stand with Ukraine’ and ‘our people deserve better’.
Figure 1. ‘Stand with Ukraine against Russian Invasion’, an anti-invasion protest in Vancouver, BC, Canada, 26 February 2022.Source: ‘Stand with Ukraine against Russian Invasion – Vancouver Anti-War Rally, 26 February 2022’, by GoToVan, licensed under CC BY 2.0 (https://flickr.com/photos/47022937@N03/51906093623).

For our interdisciplinary and intersectional journal, we are not invested in whether any particular theory is more successful than another in predicting or explaining why the 2022 invasion occurred and unfolded in the way that it did. For one thing, there is a real danger that, in the face of ongoing human and ecological tragedy, this becomes something of an intellectual parlour game. Ukrainian scholars have warned repeatedly, especially on social media platforms, that their expertise and critical voices are being ignored and overridden by others who have neither the language skills nor the requisite contextual knowledge of Ukraine’s complex history, culture and geography. Evidence of deep-seated ignorance was widespread in the rest of Europe in February–March 2022, with many media reporters struggling to correctly pronounce the country’s capital city. The director of the Ukrainian Institute London Olesya Khromeychuk ruefully noted that many academic publications and public panels have had many uncomfortable qualities ever since:

It soon became obvious that, even in the middle of a full-scale attack, western observers viewed Ukraine simply as a pawn in a geopolitical game being played by Russia and the collective West. Some were beating their chests and saying ‘Yes, Ukraine’s agency has been overlooked. We will have no more conversations about Ukraine without Ukraine’. And yet, many panels went ahead with no in-house Ukraine experts or no Ukraine experts at all. (Khromeychuk, Citation2022, p. 28)

Respectful of that timely warning and others (e.g., (Lyubchenko, Citation2022), this editorial articulates a TPG-inspired agenda for future work and invite our authors and readers to engage further with us. We would particularly welcome Ukrainian scholars to consider publishing their future work in our journal. Recently, TPG has published several articles on authoritarian and populist governance in Russia (Paustyan, Citation2022), but there will be scope for further work that considers further the violent spatial and territorial logics of Putin’s regime. As John Agnew noted in this journal’s first editorial back in 2013, before the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, spatial terms such as place, territory and territoriality remain highly pertinent analytical registers with which to make sense of the intersection of governance and politics (Agnew, Citation2013). Private and public actors ranging from the Wagner Group and Greek shipping owners to the UN and international groupings such as the EU and Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the BRICS) far exceed the fixed spaces and formal power-geometries of international politics (Massey, Citation1993).

Whatever the outcome of the post-2022 Ukrainian invasion, we need to remind ourselves that territories, polities and governance are human interventions, ones that can be used for pursuing dangerous and deadly projects as well as serving as sources of inspiration and resilience. We note that if this invasion and conflict is understood to be operating at multiple levels, from local sites of conflict, mobilisation and displacement to the ‘high politics’ of nations, to international relations, geoeconomics and geopolitics, then there is perhaps a better chance of understanding its magnitude and long-term manifestations. At one level it represents fixity: the forceable annexation of one country’s sovereign territory by another and the assertion of plenary governing authority over it. Had Russia achieved its aims, the occupation of Ukraine would have been complete rather than partial. At another level, this crisis reveals itself to be a complex restructuring of flows, both within countries and across national borders, of people, capital, commodities and munitions. These processes are not only material in nature; ideas move across borders as well. Both the Russian and Ukrainian leaders and their supporters have traversed the globe seeking to consolidate their respective coalitions. Diverse actors have in turn constructed a multiplicity of narratives, identities and images that valorise or demonise groups, or justify actions, not least Putin’s invocation, reproduced through a captive media, of a righteous ‘Greater Russia’ against a ‘nazified’ Ukraine (Brusylovska & Maksymenko, Citation2023; Troianovski, Citation2022), and Joe Biden’s and Volodymyr Zelensky’s framing of the conflict as a ‘civilizational battle’ between liberal democracy and authoritarian despotism (Dyczok & Chung, Citation2022; Biden, Citation2023).

2. TERRITORY, POLITICS AND GOVERNANCE WITHIN UKRAINE AND RUSSIA

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates the internal workings of territory, politics and governance within those countries. The war is at its root about control over territory. Struggles for territorial advance and control have been relentlessly dynamic. Lines of control shift daily as rival forces battle for control of volumetric spaces from trenches and tunnels to pitched battles over land and air. There has been no shortage of social media pundits, including a battery of retired military officers, pouring over real-time images and reporting and offering their diagnostic judgements. Drones have featured heavily as both weapons and vital objects of intelligence-gathering. The control or destruction of transportation and energy infrastructures have featured notably in the strategic calculations of both Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Indeed, a shocking case of infrastructure warfare occurred in June 2023: Russian forces have been accused of destroying part of the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant. Built in 1956, the dam crosses the Dnipro River, and its breach has flooded a large area of south-eastern Ukraine affecting territories controlled by both Ukraine and Russia. Approximately 40,000 people on either side of the river are likely to be displaced with dire implications for the prospects of settlements, infrastructure and agricultural capacity. Elsewhere, Ukraine has faced the dire prospect of nuclear disaster – a terrifying prospect in the shadow of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown – as Russian forces stand accused of trying to blow up the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. If Russia stands accused of destroying a large dam, then Ukrainian forces are thought to be guilty of destroying part of the underwater Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would have fed natural gas to the German market. Both acts provide a powerful reminder that volumetric control is not only about occupation but also informed by a logic of disruption and destruction (cf. Bille, Citation2020) – which raises the question of whether Russia is interested in governing a future Russified Ukraine or destroying it through what we would term ‘infracide’.

More broadly, Ukraine has grappled with its geopolitical identity since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and its emergence as a sovereign successor state, in 1991. Would the largest country of (eastern) Europe (after Russia) identify with the West, joining the former Warsaw Pact countries which had embraced NATO and EU membership? Or would it assume the role of a buffer state on the edge of Russian influence, directing its cultural and economic attention to the east? The events of the last two decades, from the Orange Revolution of 2004–05 to the 2013–14 Maidan Uprising protesting the government’s abandonment of an association agreement with the EU under Russian pressure, to the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, suggest that the answer is deeply contested. National electoral politics has pitted the Ukrainian-speaking majority in the country’s west against Russian speakers in the east, the latter demanding greater autonomy and sometimes independence (Marlin, Citation2016). Despite this domestic territorial cleavage, the full-scale invasion in 2022 revealed that Russian-speaking autonomists in the eastern oblasts would rather be part of Ukraine with recognition than join a ‘Greater Russia’. Language-speaking communities in Ukraine do not map neatly onto geopolitical orientations.

In Russia, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 enjoyed a degree of public support that might have surprised those living and working outside the Federation. Russia’s occupation of another sovereign state violates international law and rules and norms associated with territory, borders and warfare (see also Lizotte et al., Citation2022). Yet for Russian nationalists, the invasion is justifiable because Ukraine has never really been, in their view, authentically independent (e.g., the designation of Ukraine as part of ‘Greater Russia’) and, even if it has had a quasi-independent period (1991–2022), it is guilty of harbouring political forces that are antithetical to the interests of the Russian Federation (Ortmann, Citation2023). The prospect of Ukraine becoming a part of NATO and the EU is unacceptable. As Putin (Citation2021) emphasised, post-Maidan Ukraine is merely a ‘puppet state’ of the West and the ‘true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia’. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia and individual political and economic elites by Western states after the Crimean annexation, and the withdrawal of Western companies from oil and gas investments and more generally from engagement with the Russian economy, have only fuelled Putin’s nationalist framing of Russia as a victim of Western aggression, which in turn justified the invasion and the case for national mobilisation in support of the war. As with his brutally prosecuted Chechen wars, Putin has used external scapegoating and conflict to divide opposition to his rule and distract from a range of domestic crises (German, Citation2003; Stoner, Citation2023), including widespread corruption, vast income inequality, stalled economic growth and declining living standards. Western sanctions have not achieved their aim. Russia has shown no sign whatsoever of undoing the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Elites in Moscow and St Petersburg have outsourced the human misery of economic sanctions and war to Russia’s poorest and minoritised peoples while employing a variety of mechanisms, including pivoting trade relations to China and India, using second passports, and money laundering to retain control over assets and sustain flows of capital and goods.

The domestic stakes are high for both countries. For Ukraine, it is existential. A Russian victory would spell the end of Ukraine as a sovereign state. Even a partial victory may lead to the end of Ukraine’s political and economic autonomy from Russia and would further diminish the territory it governs. For Russia, anything short of claiming victory (which it could do under a variety of scenarios) may destabilise Putin’s regime and inaugurate an uncertain and potentially more dangerous chapter for the country and its people. The fate of the Russian rouble has endured a sizeable devaluation since the full-scale invasion and fell past the threshold of 100 roubles per US dollar in the summer of 2023. Western sanctions and military spending are eating into Russian currency reserves. Russia raised interest rates abruptly in the summer of 2023. International observers expect Russia to suffer further economic contraction and cost-of-living crises (Kurmanaev & Safronova, Citation2023).

3. THE REORDERING OF FLOWS AND POLITICO-ECONOMIC ALIGNMENTS

If the immediate territorial conflict is most directly about Russia seeking to fix authority over third-party space, many of its broader effects and implications are best understood through bidirectional flows of people, goods and ideas within and across national boundaries. Perhaps the most visible flow is of people. Approximately one-third of Ukraine’s pre-invasion population has been displaced and thus the most important flow has been unwanted internal and international displacement (Roy, Citation2023). Over 5 million are estimated to be displaced within Ukraine itself (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Citation2023b). The number estimated to be living outside Ukraine because of the invasion is 6.28 million (UNHCR, Citation2023a). Germany and Poland have each received over 1 million refugees and the Czech Republic over 500,000, with other countries accepting smaller numbers. Over 1 million refugees are now in Russia, some of whom were reportedly forcibly transferred and forced to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship. The refugee influx has put an economic and political strain on receiving countries. Poland’s right-wing government now faces an election challenge from more radical forces aligned with Russia; pro-Russia far-right parties are also gaining ground in the Czech Republic (Bronert, Citation2023; Havlík & Kluknavská, Citation2023). Russia is reportedly actively fomenting anti-Ukraine and anti-refugee sentiment in refugee-receiving countries (Belton et al., Citation2023). Can political support for the accommodation of refugees be sustained, especially as the conflict drags on? Given the extent of destruction within Ukraine, how many may never return?

The conflict has reconfigured labour markets internally and abroad. Although several interventions have been put in place to keep the Ukrainian economy functioning, including income assistance and the relocation of enterprises, the material implications of the conflict are dramatic. In 2022, Ukraine experienced a loss of around a third of its economic output and an inflation rate over 25% (Harmash, Citation2023). The oversupply of job seekers due to internal and international migration put downward pressure on worker wages across all sectors (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Citation2022; International Labour Organization (ILO), Citation2022). At the same time, with many people fleeing the war, impacts on labour markets in neighbouring countries such as Poland have also been significant.

The forced displacement of Ukrainian people represents one of the largest waves of European migration since the Second World War and more recently the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Ukrainians are now the dominant labour migrant group in the EU. As of June 2023, over 98% of beneficiaries of EU temporary protection are Ukrainians, and it is estimated that slightly over 4 million non-EU citizens from Ukraine are under the scheme (Eurostat, Citation2023a). However, in many cases, the will to preserve the possibility to travel back to Ukraine regularly affects the choice to apply for temporary protection schemes (Andrews et al., Citation2023), which in turn makes it difficult to evaluate the actual number of Ukrainian refugees abroad. This raises questions on how previous migration patterns, primarily characterised by circular dynamics, relate to cross-border practices during the war and how this process intersects with racial and gender dimensions and the perception of Ukrainian in European countries (Vorbrugg & Bluwstein, Citation2022). Disturbingly, as refugee groups have noted, there has been a notable contrast between the way Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed into the homes of citizens in countries such as the UK and Germany compared with refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere in the world, including Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Yemen. Resettling Ukrainians appears to be (more) politically acceptable to Europeans and North Americans because they are framed as a relatively wealthy, culturally and religiously compatible population that, amongst other things, successfully competes in the Eurovision Song Contest (a winner most recently in 2022).

Before the 2022 invasion from Ukraine to Poland and Germany, 70% of migrant workers were men. Due to Ukraine’s mobilisation of men for war service, women now represent the overwhelming majority, about three-quarters in Europe (Andrews et al., Citation2023). Female migrants face distinct challenges. They might be exposed to systemic violence, including sexual violence (Pertek et al., Citation2022). Unlike in the past, they move with children, not necessarily their own, and sometimes also elderly people, their motivation to leave the country being to remove the most vulnerable people from the war. Access to work in the host countries is therefore tied to care and school placement, essential to enabling entry into the labour market (Andrews et al., Citation2023). Yet this experience, although distressing, have highlighted how women are moving independently as breadwinners, and in so doing gaining new autonomy and empowerment.

The redirection and interruption of flows of Russian commodities and capital have had domestic ripple effects in countries around the world. The invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the precarious energy situation of a world economy dependent on fossil fuels. Soaring consumer prices and the food crisis have brought the conflict to people’s lives, inserting geopolitical concerns into every home. Before the invasion, Russia was by far the EU’s largest supplier of energy, accounting for 49% of coal imports, 38% of natural gas imports and 26% of crude oil imports (Eurostat, Citation2023b). In Germany, a deliberate decision had been taken to deepen that dependency as the country pivoted away from nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Natural gas had been framed as a crucial transition fuel on the way to full decarbonisation. Energy dependence on Russia was a major strategic error for Germany, undermining its political and economic leverage following the Ukrainian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and later eastern Ukraine. As Russia restricted exports, Germany executed a Zeitenwende (turning point) – with a primary focus on committing to higher expenditure on military matters/equipment (reaching the NATO 2% gross domestic product (GDP) target for defence, Germany has been for many years between 1.2% and 1.4%) and a secondary realisation regarding energy security – including restarting mothballed coal-fired power stations, diversifying energy imports and the subsidisation of higher consumer energy prices. Caught between high inflation and high energy prices, on the one hand, and strong climate change commitments, on the other, support for Germany’s post-2021 red–green–yellow ‘traffic light’ coalition (featuring the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats) has eroded, even as support for parties of the right (the Christian Democrats and anti-system Alternative for Germany) has grown. At the time of writing, evidence suggested that the German government was retreating away from the adoption of a legal requirement to commit to the 2% of GDP defence target (Hansen, Citation2023).

Another important flow that was perhaps not immediately fully appreciated by Western observers is Ukrainian grain. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters to the Global South. Cutting off Ukraine’s grain exports has raised global prices for wheat and maize while destabilising politics in many African countries and arguably worsened political conflict in countries such as Sudan. Bolstering his political position, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has positioned his country as a regional power capable of brokering arrangements between Russia, Ukraine and the wider world. Türkiye was instrumental in negotiating with the UN a deal that enabled some grain exports to be transported from Ukraine via the Black Sea on to markets, especially in the Global South. Türkiye’s initial intervention, and the vocal opposition of Egypt and other African states to Russia’s abrogation of the deal in July 2023 (Roth, Citation2023), illustrates the ‘middle power’ dynamics described below.

As Western nations have sought to isolate Russia with sanctions and limitations on trade, Russia has worked with a suite of countries – including Brazil, China, India, Iran, Türkiye and Saudi Arabia – which have their own reasons to import Russian oil, purchase Russian weapons and cultivate a relationship with Putin’s Russia, not least because they regard the US as an unreliable, declining or fickle geopolitical ally. And if China is likely to remain a close economic and strategic ally of Russia, others are likely to be cautious about condemning Russia. If one follows trade and investment patterns, then it is striking how Russia’s ability to trade and monetise its resource base remains largely intact with some surprising cross-territorial relationships and stakeholders. The last five years have witnessed further evidence of international investment in Russia’s energy sector as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China, Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have registered their interest. India has become the largest exporter of Russian refined oil (which then gets exported to the EU for use as diesel and jet fuel) and Greek ship owners are allegedly transporting Russian oil via ‘ghost ships’ using spoofed geolocation data (Braw, Citation2022). China is the largest importer of Russian crude oil. New pipeline projects such as Power of Siberia 2 (in the wake of the Power of Siberia pipeline which opened in 2014) should be fully operational by 2030 and transport oil from Russia to China via Mongolia. Despite Russia’s efforts to restrict capital flight, many Russian elites have expatriated money, and in some cases themselves and their families, through a variety of means: offshore bank havens, networks of shell corporations, and purchases of luxury yachts and housing. As witnessed before, countries hit with sanctions by some parties but not others are being aided and abetted by congeries of partnerships and horizontal networks that highlight how our political, economic and financial worlds are made by political action and inaction, hidden and obvious actors, and the interplay of mobility and immobility.

As people, goods and capital flow out of Russia and Ukraine, and established flows of commodities are disrupted, we also see new inbound flows of aid, munitions and military personnel. While not ‘putting boots on the ground’ directly, the United States and other NATO members have made money, weapons, ammunition, aircraft, tanks and drones available to Ukrainian forces. This has polarised politics in some donor countries. In the United States, influential voices in the Republican Party have attacked the Biden administration for its ‘blank cheque’ Ukraine policy. In Europe, the isolationist far left and the authoritarian far right have argued either that their countries have no business in a regional conflict or accepted Putin’s narrative that Ukraine is the aggressor. In this vein, the political left in Europe has been swift to blame NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War for provoking Russia’s defensive reaction in Ukraine and argue that admitting Finland and Sweden only strengthen Russia’s resolve (see Moisio, Citation2022 for a summary of this view). In the background lie conflicts about the interpretations of past conflicts (Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq) and concerns about setting future precedents (Taiwan). In this context it is interesting to note the divergence of public opinion (Krastev & Leonard, Citation2023). Within the EU, for example, there are important differences over who is to blame for the war and around the balance between peace and justice with either a call for peace above justice (especially in Italy) or a demand that justice be secured first and foremost rather than a race to secure peace (in Poland). At the same time, Russia has sponsored a reciprocal flow of capital accumulation by non-state actors in support of its military objectives. Deploying mercenary forces, most infamously the Wagner Group, has given Russia military influence in parts of the Middle East and Africa. At the same time, Wagner has exploited the resources of smaller African countries such as Central African Republic (CAR), using gold-related revenue and forestry concessions in those countries to fund its activities in Ukraine and other places (Marten, Citation2019; Pokalova, Citation2023).

Thus, flows of ideas, frames and narratives rooted in alternative conceptualisations of territory, politics and governance at all scales are crucial to this chapter in world history. Putin’s invasion is authorised by a cultural–economic conceptualisation of a Greater Russia and an interpretation of post-Cold War Western actions as punitive. The United States, UK and EU have mobilised around an image of Russia as a predatory state against which they represent global forces of democracy and freedom. Right-wing governments, such as Poland’s, have been forced to align with one narrative or the other. China, India, Türkiye and other powers are seeking to increase their geopolitical standing by presenting themselves as honest brokers. And of course, there is Ukraine’s most visible export: President Zelensky as globetrotting advocate for his country, clad in green military fatigues as he stands before the world’s parliaments and video screens. It is perhaps no accident that he is an actor who became famous for portraying an everyman accidental president on a Ukrainian television series, Servant of the People.

4. THE TERRITORIALISED AGENCY OF SMALL STATES AND MIDDLE POWERS

While it might be tempting to focus on the actions of ‘big’ and ‘powerful’ nations such as Russia and their influence on geopolitical rivalries and outcomes, it is important to note that there is also no lack of ‘small states’ and middle powers (particularly from ‘outside’ of the EU/European context) who have articulated strong sentiments with regard to the Ukraine–Russia War but whose voices and agency have perhaps not gained sufficient attention and analysis. As Moisio (Citation2022, p. 2) pointedly underscores, realist proponents have jumped at the opportunity to advance the view that the territorial sovereignty of ‘small states’ like Ukraine (even as Moisio acknowledges that Ukraine is not particularly ‘small’) ‘is nothing but a constantly negotiated and contested phenomenon as great powers dominate the international system and engage in security competition with each other’. This, in the words of Moisio, reproduces (rather uncritically) the widely held belief that ‘small states are [simply] pawns and tokens in world politics’.

Turning the investigative optic ‘elsewhere’ can, however, help to reveal more varied and multifaceted territorialised and politicised positionalities of ‘small states’ and their active involvement in shaping global debates. To illustrate this, compare the responses of two Asian polities, Singapore and Taiwan, to the disastrous events in Ukraine. The immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw the Singaporean government swiftly issuing a ministerial statement to frame the crisis at the critical interface of international law, sovereignty and the existential survival of ‘small states’. According to Singaporean Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the situation in Ukraine represents a ‘clear and gross violation’ of the ‘fundamental norms of international law and the UN Charter, that prohibit the use of force and acts of aggression against another sovereign state’ (Balakrishnan, Citation2022). In condemning Russia’s unprovoked attack as being premised on ‘historical errors and crazy decisions’, he went on to contend that ‘a world order based on “might is right”, or where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer” … would be profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states’. Based on this line of reasoning, Singapore has demonstrated its resolve (on the international stage) not to choose sides in this geopolitical affair, opting instead to uphold diplomatic principles and the ethos of international law, even if this stance runs contrary to the views of one or more significant global powers. Approaching the issue at a different scale, some Singaporean academics have tried to postulate why the Singapore citizenry has remained ‘underwhelmed’ by the news of war in Ukraine, despite the government’s high-profile treatment of this development. George et al. (Citation2022) argue that citizens recognise the strong temptation to see the world through the great power lens. However, they also call on Singaporeans to find ways to defend Singapore’s position as a smaller state that is situated in an increasingly contentious part of the world. In so doing, they echo the Singaporean state’s insistence on abiding with international norms designed to protect weaker and less privileged actors as a first line of defence. Simultaneously, they emphasise the importance of the judgements of local citizens as being guided by ‘facts, conscience and a commitment to peaceful co-existence’.

The geopolitical agency of ‘small states’ can also be witnessed through the reactions of the Taiwanese government. As with her Singaporean counterpart, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen was quick to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, adding that the ‘determination of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland’ has inspired ‘freedom-loving people around the world’ (cited in Parello-Plesner, Citation2023). But in contrast to Singapore, the Tsai administration has gone beyond rhetoric by introducing significant policy changes to reinforce Taiwan’s defences against foreign aggression, including extending compulsory military conscription from four to 12 months (beginning in 2024). Taiwan’s military also released an updated civil defence handbook in June 2023 that for the first time includes a section educating the public on how to tell the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese soldiers based on their uniforms, camouflage and insignia (Reuters, Citation2023). As pointed out above, many believe China intends to annex Taiwan; these efforts can be seen as ways to enhance Taiwan’s military and civic capabilities to deal with such an increasingly possible scenario. Indeed, Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Roy Chun Lee has been quoted saying that ‘China views the war in Ukraine as a “test case” for its own designs on Taiwan’ (Standish, Citation2023, p. 1). In more explicit fashion, Taiwanese netizens have widely circulated with the slogan ‘Ukraine Today, Taiwan Tomorrow’ to draw the striking parallels between the two geographical contexts (Baron, Citation2022). From the perspective of these netizens, Putin’s assertion that ‘there is no such thing as Ukraine and that it’s part of Russia’ corresponds with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s exhortation that ‘there is no such thing as Taiwan, and there is just one Chinese nation’ (Baron, Citation2022, p. 2). Thus, the geopolitical fates of Taiwan and Ukraine are rhetorically conjoined.

African countries also find themselves between the Scylla and Charybdis of great power manoeuvring, yet have found pathways to independent action. Russia believes that it can be a great power in Africa and emulate China’s rapid progress as a major investor and sponsor. Russia’s geopolitical strategy is not only to contest control and access to Africa’s natural resources against other powerful states (including former colonial powers such as France and others such as the US), but also it views the continent as an expanding market. Putin used a recent Russia–Africa summit to promise more investment on the continent, though some 70% of its African trade is only concentrated in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa (Fabricius, Citation2023a). At the summit, Russia and its African allies opportunistically invoked memories of the Soviet Union’s support for anti-colonial struggles in Africa to bolster Russia’s global status. To attract African allies, and as a counternarrative to Russia’s refusal to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), Putin promised free grain shipments to the CAR, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe. The Declaration of the Russia–Africa Summit itself cast the West as a common enemy of Africa and Russia, a narrative strongly supported by Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa who encouraged victims of sanctions to cooperate (Vines & Amare, Citation2023).

However, South Africa viewed Russia’s ‘donation’ of free grain as demeaning and irrelevant to the urgent need to reinstate the BSGI and to end the war through negotiations. Somalia aside, the recipients of Russian grains supported UN General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Ramani, Citation2023). Other African countries such as Ghana and Mozambique openly ‘condemned the Russian invasion’s devastating impact on Africa and the global security’ (Ramani, Citation2023, p. 294). As with those smaller states in Asia, there are plenty of states in Africa seeking to negotiate their own ‘third ways’.

Unlike Kenya, which has taken a pro-Western stance, South Africa adopted a non-aligned position. Pretoria hosted a joint 10-day naval drill with China and Russia that coincided with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a day before the arrival of US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, and secretly allowed the Russian-registered vessel Lady R, which is believed to have transported weapons to Russia, to dock in Simon’s Town (Cape Town) in December 2022 (Harper et al., Citation2023; Khoza et al., Citation2023; Parker, Citation2023). These behaviours by South Africa led to a diplomatic fallout between Pretoria and Washington, but also reinvigorated Washington’s charm offensive to rebuild US–South Africa relations to maintain its closest ally in the region. In South Africa, criticism of non-alignment fuelled broader discontent with the governance and foreign policy under the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and reanimated debates about South Africa’s trade relations with the US through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) (Fabricius, Citation2023b; Khoza et al., Citation2023). AGOA removes tariffs for many Sub-Saharan African countries through to September 2025.

The Africa Peace Initiative (API) led by South Africa, but including a wider regional representation from the Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, might be viewed as an attempt by smaller states to curry favour with Russia and, more indirectly, with China. While some have questioned the independence of the API, linking its financial support to controversial businessmen (Singh & Reva, Citation2023), a multinational diplomatic effort towards resolving conflict beyond the continent’s borders is historic. Though the initiative has not ended the war, few international actors have sustained such a dual engagement with both Kyiv and Moscow (Singh & Reva, Citation2023). African leaders are using the crisis to reinforce the centrality of the UN Charter on territorial integrity, to push for the reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to strengthen the representation of Africa in the council, and to challenge Western sanctions against African countries.

Reflecting on the Singapore and Taiwan cases, and also the agency of African countries, reveals two important insights: first, the repercussions of the Ukraine–Russia War are far-reaching, imbricating other sites, scales and spatialities (beyond simply the EU, Europe, NATO, etc.) that are fully caught up in this geopolitical episode but that have so far been underrepresented in writings and discussions. Second, so-called small states have projected new roles as middle powers. Yet their negotiations of the broader geopolitical landscape are far from homogeneous and unitary, with their responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being refracted through their own unique histories and geographies as well as contextual relations and geopolitics.

5. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

For those seeking to make sense of future global geopolitics, events in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South offer tentative clues. One potential future is an ideologically defined Cold War 2.0, in which Russia and China, opposed by the United States and Europe, continue to expand their territorial and political footprints within their respective regional spheres and across the wider world. The deepening strategic relationship between Russia and China, described at one stage as a ‘friendship without limits’ as Xi and Putin proclaimed in a joint statement at the occasion of the Winter Olympic Games of February 2022, just before the start of the invasion, is grounded in both a trading relationship (China purchasing discounted Russian oil and gas with Chinese investment in the Russian energy sector) and a shared resistance to a US-dominated international liberal order.

These antagonisms will work through a variety of channels: projection of military power, trade agreements and sanctions, and bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. In this environment, a host of so-called ‘global swing states’ from Argentina and Brazil to India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia strategically ally with one another. With over 40 countries from Africa, the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe and sworn enemies of the US such as Cuba and Iran expressing interest in joining BRICs, the expanded bloc will have the potential to reconfigure the axes of geopolitical power and international relations. In January 2024, BRICS will formally welcome to the membership the following: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia. What makes Cold War 2.0 different from its predecessor is that there are no ‘superpowers’. Even great powers such as the US and China must negotiate and navigate deeply entangled flows and relationships in trade, commerce, technology and people-to-people relationships. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been much discussed in this regard, and recent scholarship has highlighted that China’s engagement with regional partners is varied and dependent on a suite of geo-economic and geopolitical factors (e.g., Murton, Citation2023; Sidaway & Woon, Citation2017). China is the especially interesting actor as it seeks to expand its global political and economic influence (through the BRI) and assert a global agenda-setting role equal to that of the United States (via the 12-point peace plan to end the Ukraine–Russia War), while managing its complex economic interdependence with the very countries with which it competes. European nations and the EU, Indo-Pacific nations such as Australia and South Korea, and the United States, whether through NATO or other alliances such as the QUAD (the quadrilateral security dialogue between the US, Australia, India and Japan), will have to balance an array of competing economic and political interests.

Alternatively, we might also see a multipolar world of ‘realist’ geopolitics emerge, in which states jockey for economic advantage – indeed, the fate of Russian oil and gas suggests that there is no shortage of short-term opportunism at play. And this multipolar world also accommodates and facilitates regional spatial expansionism and territorial consolidation. If Russia can incorporate some or all of Ukraine into a ‘Greater Russia’, China may seek to achieve its longstanding goal of reincorporating Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has enabled China to gauge the West’s resolve and willingness or not to come to the assistance of a European state. Speculation continues that China will launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan in the next three years and seek to consolidate and further its grip on the South China Sea (Chang-Liao, Citation2023).

One must ask whether a coalition will emerge seeking to re-energise the role and ambition of the foundational international organisations and legal frameworks that have underwritten the postwar order, including the UN, NATO and EU. The UN General Assembly has passed strong resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite Russia’s UN Security Council veto. Perhaps revealing the limits of the ‘friendship without limits’, China, another Security Council member, has abstained from voting on the General Assembly resolutions (Åslund, Citation2023). The UN has played a major role in the management of refugees and supporting food security initiatives. The EU invoked the never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive (European Council, Citation2022), granting displaced people from Ukraine automatic residency and employment rights and access to housing and healthcare services for up to three years. The Ukraine conflict has also offered an opportunity to the EU to deepen its commitment to ‘speak the language of geopolitics’ and adopt a more proactive policy of military and economic intervention. Britain’s decision to align with Ukraine has paradoxically enabled a closer relationship with the EU it has worked so hard to leave since the Brexit referendum in 2016. And rather than calling NATO’s bluff, the invasion has seemingly strengthened its cohesion. Finland, long a non-aligned Russian border state, has joined the security pact, and Sweden will follow, provided that Türkiye and Hungary agree (Chang-Liao, Citation2023). Emboldened by his close re-election in May 2023, Türkiye’s President Erdoğan has made no secret of his irritation of Sweden’s willingness to host Kurdish refugee-seekers, many of whom he and his security forces consider to be hostile to Ankara’s national security interests.

Coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, which pulled attention away from climate change policy, the Russian invasion has undermined attempts to coordinate ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (Citation2022) states that there are ‘no credible pathways’ to deliver the 2015 Paris goals. Global actors now seem to embrace the new reality of a world where temperatures will soon rise beyond 1.5°C. A new era of great-powers conflict amid shifting alliances of self-interested nations may normalise potentially massive losses of life as land and ecosystems simply become uninhabitable (Schipper et al., Citation2021). The invasion has slowed down existing efforts to achieve this transformation even as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Citation2022 pp. 1086–88) authors identify climate change as a threat multiplier (Hendrix et al., Citation2023; Koubi, Citation2019; Selby & Hoffmann, Citation2014 Siddiqi, Citation2022). While international institutions remain capable of transcending self-interest, the constitution of territories worldwide has always been tied to an uneven distribution of vulnerabilities across the globe (Sultana, Citation2022). In the wake of the report, Mercer (Citation2022, p. 2) states that ‘Connecting climate change to such acts of colonisation involves recognising that historic injustices are not consigned to history: their legacies are alive in the present’. Climate and even land justice continues to inform high-level debates. The creation of the Loss and Damage Fund at the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022 was notable in this regard, recognising the responsibility of higher income countries to aid those countries already suffering the impacts of climate change, including unpredictable typhoons in the Philippines, apocalyptic floods in Pakistan and relentless droughts in South African cities (Wyns, Citation2023).

Returning to the theatre of conflict, what may follow if domestic opposition to Putin’s rule destabilises his regime? Will Moscow lose territorial control over its ‘peripheries’, including occupied territories in Ukraine? What are the geopolitical implications of a ‘failed state’ Russia for other countries, and especially in neighbouring Europe and former Soviet Central Asia? The outcome of the invasion and occupation of Russian forces remains deeply uncertain. The relationship between territory, politics and governance could look and feel quite different in a post-Putin era – and one that might not be any better from a Ukrainian perspective, let alone a Western one. There are several scenarios. Ukraine and Russia could end up like the Korean Peninsula with a near-permanent demilitarised zone in the far eastern portion of Ukraine. Or Russia retains Crimea and retreats to the 1991 international borders elsewhere. Ukraine could recapture all the territories lost to Russia since 2014. Russia may yet overwhelm Ukraine, leading to a permanent partition of the Donbas region and Crimea.

Whatever the outcome, Ukraine’s peoples have experienced extraordinary trauma. The country’s critical infrastructure and cities are in many cases virtually destroyed and will need a long-term commitment to restoration and investment. Sequestered Russian monies currently held in Western banks and deposits might help fund some of that reconstruction but will not be sufficient. And the flight of Ukraine’s inhabitants to Europe and beyond will have to be reversed if the country is not to lose further working-age people. Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction will transform the country in myriad ways, from economic recovery to physical rebuilding of the cities (Gorodnichenko et al., Citation2022). Planning scholars have acknowledged the importance of restoring critical infrastructure damaged during the war (Mitoulis et al., Citation2023) as it will be the backbone of economic recovery and urban resilience. More comprehensive analyses and forecasts may determine how to distribute limited resources across Ukraine's regions and within its cities. Some Ukrainian planners and designers have begun discussing spatial restructuring to more polycentric urban models as well as proposing solutions for housing people displaced during the war (Dulko, Citation2023). This post-war reconstruction could end up contributing to improved levels of sustainability and resilience.

Ukrainian urban leaders are already collaborating with other cities and with urban and regional planners (domestically and abroad) to plan the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities – see such initiatives as Bridges of Trust, of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), Sustainable Rebuilding of European Cities by Eurocities, or the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for the Reconstruction of Ukraine launched by the Committee of the Regions of the European Union. Other initiatives include ‘Ukraine’s Housing Recovery Forum – Rebuilding a Place to Call Home’ organised by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) in February 2023 with the participation of housing associations from all over Europe, or the Dutch Association of Municipalities VNG and bilateral initiatives (e.g., between Utrecht and Mariupol). Other cases are listed by a Ukrainian website:

Greece took over the reconstruction of Mariupol; The United States and Turkey will help Kharkiv; Mykolaiv region has enlisted the support of Denmark; The Baltic States are ready to support Zhytomyr; The Czech Republic has declared its readiness to help restore Dnipropetrovska oblast; Austria has taken Zaporizhzhia region under its patronage. (Visit Ukraine, Citation2023)

Regardless of any post-war trajectory, the geopolitical future of the country remains unsettled. Will Ukraine’s passage into the EU and NATO be accelerated as part of a longer term economic and physical security guarantee (Ratten Citation2023)? It is not clear either whether the current Ukraine president, who has been widely lauded as an internationally successful statesman at a time of immense crisis, will be the right political leader for the long difficult, expensive and painful work required to rebuild the physical infrastructure and political institutions that have been hollowed out by conflict and crisis. Whatever happens, Ukraine will continue to accommodate populations that, like the Ukrainian president, are speakers of both the Ukraine and Russian languages, and that have family and cultural ties to both national communities.

This war continues to take a heavy toll primarily on the people of Ukraine. And whatever the processes reshaping territory, politics and governance at multiple scales, the challenge as before is to ensure that there is a fundamentally just outcome for a country that is still subject to an illegal and violent full-scale invasion. While new terms such as ‘strategic autonomy’ deployed by the EU (Gehrke, Citation2022), ‘friend-shoring’ (complementing nearshoring and reshoring to reduce the environmental impact of global value chains) and ‘stakeholder geopolitics’ are being invoked to interpret these uncertain times, we have a duty not to forget the extraordinary human and environmental costs that continue to make themselves felt in Ukraine.

REFERENCES

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