The complex geopolitics of the skies

Following the Russian attack, Editorial Director Walter Mariotti analyzes the delicate politics of Ukrainian airspace, closed for the first time since World War II.

This article was originally published on DomusAir n.4, April 2022.

The 24th of February 2022 is a date that will remain impressed in our memory and be studied carefully by future historians. On that day, as a first response to the Russian attack, the Ukrainian air space was closed to civilian flights for the first time since the Second World War. But that wasn’t the end of it. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) wrote that flying in neighbouring regions may be dangerous. And so Moldavia, south-west of Ukraine, closed its air space, while Belarus, to the north, prevented civilian flights from passing over a part of its territory. According to Easa, there are security risks for travelling in the air space of countries neighbouring Ukraine within 100 miles of the Ukrainian border. A recent Easa Conflict Zone Information Bulletin states “The presence and possible use of a wide range of ground and airborne warfare systems poses a high risk for civil flights operating at all altitudes and flight levels.”

A fluid representation of the situation is found on the website Flightradar24, which shows all worldwide flights and routes in real time. Nearly one month after the start of the conflict, to the east of Europe there is a void that corresponds almost perfectly to Ukraine. In this space there are no airplane symbols, which instead crowd the space around it. And this is not just a representation, this is reality. The no-fly zone is not just an interpretation but the very essence of what we are experiencing. Nato member countries are opposed to Volodymyr Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Far from being a question of safety for civilian flights, it would signal the entrance of the Organization into the conflict. The map of the sky, its confines and rules, is as important or perhaps more important than its terrestrial counterpart. Because airports and connected infrastructure are the true hubs in the contemporary era.  

Unlike in the past, even the recent past, in which they were only one of many systems of connection, certainly the most advanced but also the most fragile, today airports design the geopolitical map and thus redesign nations and power relations. A recent example, although quite different from the war, has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which interrupted over 90% of civilian flights and effectively brought the third wave of globalization to a close. It opened a new global dimension that may seem to be the continuation of the previous one but is actually completely different, as we are seeing day after day. A reality that is redesigning all relations at all levels, and in which airports and intermodal infrastructure connected to them are increasingly crucial.

Beyond the desolation of the moment, this all confirms the value of the intuition of DomusAir, which remains a critical locus of thought on intermodal infrastructure centring on airports, generating a new dimension for geopolitics, the economy, finance, and sociology. In a word, for the history of the 21st century, which not only has not ended—as some would-be intellectuals thought a few years ago—but is redefining global hierarchies, densities, and orders that are unexpected, and also unfortunately sometimes unpleasant. We will be there.

Cover of DomusAir n.4, April 2022

Opening image: Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Salesforce Transit Center, San Francisco, Usa, 2018. Photo Jason O'Rear

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