Is war in Ukraine a new global spatialisation?

A major shift in global political and economic spatialisations is underway. While we may think of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict as “in Ukraine” or focused on specific cities, it already has global effects such as increases in gasoline prices and the sadness and sick feelings witnessing the violence that proliferate through social media images. Vladimir Putin has announced a radically different set of not only national boundaries but a different vision of the distinction between Russian and Ukrainian culture, despite the consistent voting of Ukrainians in support of national autonomy since the end of the Soviet Union. In addition, Putin annunciates a vision of former Soviets and even Eastern Europe as a Russian zone of influence and de facto control that draws on both the legacy of the USSR and the Tsarist Empire of the 19th century. In effect, his ambitions are almost Napoleonic in scope and scale and he has been compared to Hitler in his use of aggression and attempts to annex neighbouring states.

The Nordstream2 pipeline has been one economic victim. Ironically it represented a commercial and economic bridge between Europe and Russia. Blocking it certification, reinforces boundaries between blocs of nations such as the EU and the post-Soviet region. Ukrainian President Zelensky referred to the Russian invasion as the creation of a “new Iron Curtain.” New borders, barriers and restrictions add to the sense of increased division.

Putin has been referred to as a 19th century thinker. While borders never vanished, the era of rampant globalisation focused on the expansion of horizons and the technological speeding up of interconnections – the annihilation of space (distance) with time. A planet split into separate blocs is a fundamentally different conception of the world.

War is being fought “live” on social media to an extent not seen before. As civilians and children are seen being killed by invading soldiers, or incinerated by armoured machinery and bombs, sympathy for the Russian aggressors is lost. This only hardens divisions.

At the heart of the globalisation was never a smooth homogenous space but the set of “global cities” concerned to keep their distinctiveness while being sorted into hierarchies of influence and importance, starting with the trio “London-New York-Tokyo…”. For most, to be peripheral or on the margin meant being in a regional centre, not actually out of the network. Warfare in Ukraine and on social media is war in cities: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Luhansk… These urban tokens represent regions and their integration into global networks. Their destruction is intended urbicide. Their destruction signals their disconnection and the disconnection of regions from the space of global flows. Even though social media images convey atrocities around the world, these become voyeuristic glimpses into spaces which are increasingly inaccessible. All too often the fate of these spaces of atrocity is to be disconnected from memory also: forgotten.

The sad reality is that NATO and OECD countries have tenaciously but unsuccessfully attempted to force many countries to become democratic. But, Ukraine, a country that has moved in the direction of democracy on its own actually propelled by grassroots movements is the one that has been left to fend for itself. This suggests an ironic willingness on the part of elites to accept a globe that is less than open, a world of divisions rather than flows. If that is their position, then the outcome can already be written.

At stake in the war in Ukraine is not whether or not it is to be a province or autonomous nation. At stake is the global space of flows.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)