Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it invaded Georgia. Both states are part of Russia's "near abroad" - newly independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union and are now Russia's neighbors. While the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 faded from the headlines in the wake of the global recession, the geopolitical contest that created it did not. Six years later, the spectre of a revanchist Russia returned when Putin's forces invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, once part of Russia but an internationally recognized part of Ukraine since the Soviet collapse. Crimea's annexation and follow on conflict in eastern Ukraine have generated the greatest geopolitical crisis on the European continent since the end of the Cold War.
In Near Abroad, the eminent political geographer Gerard Toal moves beyond the polemical rhetoric that surrounds Russia's interventions in Georgia and Ukraine to study the underlying territorial conflicts and geopolitical struggles. Central to understanding are legacies of the Soviet Union collapse: unresolved territorial issues, weak states and a conflicted geopolitical culture in Russia over the new territorial order. The West's desire to expand NATO contributed to a growing geopolitical contest in Russia's near abroad. This found expression in a 2008 NATO proclamation that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO, a "red line" issue for Russia. The road to invasion and war in Georgia and Ukraine, thereafter, is explained in Near Abroad.
Geopolitics is often thought of as a game of chess. Near Abroad provides an account of real life geopolitics, one that emphasizes changing spatial relationships, geopolitical cultures and the power of media images. Rather than being a cold game of deliberation, geopolitics is often driven by emotions and ambitions, by desires for freedom and greatness, by clashing personalities and reckless acts. Not only a penetrating analysis of Russia's relationships with its regional neighbors, Near Abroad also offers an analysis of how US geopolitical culture frequently fails to fully understand Russia and the geopolitical archipelago of dependencies in its near abroad.
Toal, director of the government and international affairs program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, National Capital Region campus, analyzes Vladimir Putin's military actions in Georgia and Ukraine to demonstrate how "structurally similar affective storylines in U.S. and Russian geopolitical culture produced mutual incomprehension." He begins by delving into Putin's worldview. In Putin's own words, with the collapse of the Soviet Union "tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory." Toal believes that Putin is not trying to recreate the U.S.S.R., but to bring these self-identified Russians back into the fold and "to make Russia great again." Thus, Putin sees NATO and E.U. expansion as a threat to those Russians living "near abroad." American actions during George W. Bush's administration and onward that support "democratic" regimes in Georgia and other border countries have only increased Russian fear of a takeover of these regions by Western nations. American support of an independent Kosovo and American rejection of Ossetian independence are evidence that a chillingly similar rhetoric is employed by both Russia and the West to justify their aims. Toal's thorough, academically oriented study provides a window into the beliefs of many Russians and is a corrective to the point of view prevalent in Western news.