War without people How the ‘geopolitical worldview’ among dictators and scholars alike enables the unthinkable in Ukraine
Those who unleashed and support the war with Ukraine think about the world in a certain way. They see a map with borders, spheres of influence, objectives, and targets. Next to each country on this imaginary map is an index of its “sovereignty.” There are powerful and independent “superpowers,” there are ordinary “great powers,” there are regional powers, and then there are the “regular” countries. But the map makes no room for people; on this scale, human beings are simply invisible. In the following essay, Meduza “Ideas” editor Maxim Trudolyubov argues that this geopolitical vision only makes sense if you’re viewing the world through crosshairs.
In the world described above, might makes right and the weak have no choice but to accept it. Nations group together, form alliances, enter into conflicts, and make peace with each other. The weak states must fear the strong states and can expect only a little sovereignty. Larger and stronger states, meanwhile, can afford greater sovereignty. The biggest states get all the sovereignty imaginable.
Nations with a lot of sovereignty play the “big game,” moving their pieces on the “great chessboard.” These states have “grand strategies” and “geostrategic goals” that determine the “world order.” We’ll call this worldview a “geopolitical” perspective.
Black magic in politics
The geopolitical worldview had its heyday in European and American thinking between the latter half of the 19th century and the end of the 20th century. In more recent decades, support for these ideas among political elites has often been only implicit because two world wars, the deaths of untold millions, and unfathomable destruction combined to discredit geopolitics as a lens for understanding human affairs. The culmination of geopolitical thinking was the Second World War, which began as an attempt by several countries, namely Germany and Japan, to reshape the world order in their favor.
Despite this history, the geopolitical worldview hasn’t vanished; in one form or another, it remains common with scholars of international relations and among some politicians — especially the aggressive ones. Geopolitics is irresistible to political leaders who cultivate “historical resentment” — a toxic mix of historical myths, national grievances connected to seized territories and economic failures, and obsession with external threats and foreign enemies who reject the nation’s value system. This thinking poisons not only the platform of Vladimir Putin but also the work of other leaders who are essentially his kindred spirits: politicians like the leaders of Hungary, Venezuela, Cuba, Serbia, and partly China and Turkey. All these men complain constantly about past humiliations, insufficient recognition, the hostility of certain foreign powers, and supposedly unfair modern-day borders.
This perspective appeals not only to politicians pandering to mass resentments but also to foreign policy theorists, academics, and analysts who try to understand and sometimes even justify Russia’s war against Ukraine by speaking the language of “great power politics.” The Russian authorities’ favorite scholar in this field is University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, who never tires of repeating that the United States and Western Europe bear responsibility for the war unleashed by Moscow. According to Mearsheimer, blame for Russian troops bombing peaceful cities in a neighboring country falls on the expansion of NATO and “turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy,” which he says constitutes “an existential threat” “from a Russian perspective.”
The world’s dehumanization
Such reasoning precludes the subjectivity of “regular” nations in relation to “greater powers.” Viewing the world this way treats “powers” like single, uniform entities, as if they were individual people. This kind of thinking cannot accommodate all the life within these countries — all the people with their different beliefs, faiths, disagreements, plans, and dramas. This worldview is blind to that diversity, seeing only an imaginary monolith of economic and cultural activity. This substitution is tangible even at the linguistic level. Look at any geopolitical insight and you’ll read about how countries “decide,” “want,” “suffer,” “are humiliated,” “are outraged,” and “call for.” But a state can’t do any of these things — only living, breathing people can. Any “national decision,” moreover, has many opponents within that very nation.
First, the disappearance of all living things happens in theory, in the process of unpacking or discussing the next grand geostrategic idea. For most people who think in terms of “world orders” and “great power politics,” however, this erasure of life takes hold and shapes future ideas. Those who embrace this worldview only impoverish themselves; they’re stuck talking about rearranging lifeless entities or studying them for academic degrees. The real disaster comes when this “science” is applied — when geopolitics becomes the only language spoken by those who wield power. When this happens, war begins.
The world’s dehumanization is no longer a theoretical exercise but something unfolding in reality. Applied geopolitics sweeps away any concept of living people, their deeds, and views, it destroys their homes, spares no values other than survival, and makes power extreme and regimes and state borders sacred. This breed of politics forces people to die for lines on the map and shed blood for dirt. Applied geopolitics replaces a productive economy with the mobilization of any resources that can be grabbed for war, regardless of people’s rights to life, freedom, and property.
At an official level, Russia ignores the casualties among its own military and civilians because a struggle waged between faceless entities — between national powers — doesn’t have to acknowledge the deaths of “ordinary” people. After all, both the actors and the victims here are powers, not people. This is how the dehumanization of the world works.
The authoritarian dead end
Especially destructive are the actions of those geopoliticians who devote their whole lives to “the great game.” In Russia, this often plays out through “selective modernization,” which we’ve seen with Peter I, Catherine II, Stalin, and now Putin.
Realizing that resources are scarce, the next authoritarian ruler decided to concentrate on modernizing the army and navy, postponing other sectors until later. As a result, the autocrat gets a country that’s poorly developed economically and technologically but capable to varying degrees of waging war.
Underdevelopment and corruption make Russia attractive to no one; the nation fails as a model for anyone in anything. Russia can offer the world only brute force, which is also the only means by which it can build alliances, given that no one voluntarily becomes Russia’s ally.
That’s the situation in theory, but the reality is actually worse. Russia has demonstrated to the world that it can’t even manage brute force. When taking on the “business” of a great power, it has to be handled responsibly. In Russia, we see failures not only in the civilian economy and technological innovations but also, it seems, in what ought to be the core of all great power politics: the quality of military organization.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. “For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities,” says historian and Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin. “Throughout, the country has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation.”
This pattern has only widened the gap between Russia and the West.
Russian authoritarianism creates the conditions for its own collapse. The autocrat makes all the key decisions himself, receiving less reliable information as he inspires more fear in those around him. As they try to protect themselves from the sovereign’s rage while simultaneously getting rich, these cronies do their best to deliver only the facts that the ruler wants to hear.
The authoritarian ruler is convinced that he knows better than others, but this confidence is based on the lies of subordinates. And herein lies authoritarianism’s fundamental problem. This is why authoritarians are both powerful and extremely vulnerable at the same time. They’re vulnerable especially in the event of systemic malfunctions, which is precisely the nature of the failure unfolding today in Russia (whatever happens in Ukraine). Built on lies and corruption, Putin’s geopolitics has failed. He’s failed in his attempt to reproduce the geopolitics of the 20th century in an era when economics and technology are more important than geography.
The return of human beings
Hidden behind Putin’s geopolitical smokescreen, there’s an emptiness that defies understanding. Maybe he wanted to spark another crisis to maintain his grip on power and merely miscalculated the scale, or perhaps he wanted revenge on the Ukrainians for insulting him and simply took it too far. Nothing here constitutes an excuse, but these motivations are nevertheless couched in the language of geopolitics, which assumes contempt for the lives of people. When pursuing any “geopolitical” project, individuals cease to be relevant to the authorities.
If Russia has any future at all, there can be no room for geopolitics, just as there should be no room in tomorrow’s Russian government for any adherents of this black magic. There should be no place for the public cultivation of foreign threats, the creation of enemies of the people, or trading in national grievances allegedly rooted in seized territories. Borders today must lose their invented sacredness. After all, they’ve always been inventions — the result of wars, collapsed empires, negotiations, random decisions, and mistakes. Borders are battles buried in the earth, and it should be forbidden to dig them up.
If there’s any positive aspect to today’s catastrophe in Ukraine, it’s the moral bankruptcy of geopolitics laid bare. Geopolitics sees the world from the cockpit of a bomber jet. And Russia’s warmongers aren’t alone in there: everyone who tries to justify war using the language of “great power politics” is seated right there beside them.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock