Russian Irredentism: Killing Kin To Save the Kin?

11 March 2022, 1739 EST

Watching recent events (and inspired by this tweet about Latvia’s PM’s take on this), I am reminded of a famous misquotation from the American war in Vietnam: “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Seems like Putin’s Russia is killing the kin in order to save them. The attacks on the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine are hurting those that Russia is supposedly trying to help. This speaks to a variety of ethnic/irredentist dynamics.

First, when a country tries to reclaim supposedly lost territory, the ethnic kin in the lost territory don’t have to demand this effort but it does help legitimate (or at least soften the illegitimacy) of the cause. It also might impact the domestic politics of the redeeming country. In our book, Bill and I found that irredentist foreign policies did not seem to be related to how endangered the kin are, but, of course, we didn’t consider whether the danger came from the irredentist state.

Second, the plight of the kin (real or imagined) can operate in at least two ways: putting pressure via domestic politics on the leadership of the kin state to do something about it or providing an opportunity for the leadership to focus the domestic audience on this threat to the nation (which includes those outside the country). That is, it can be a bottom-up or top-down dynamic. 

I don’t believe that Putin is really motivated to create a Greater Russia

In this case, it is pretty clear it is top-down – that Putin was under little or no domestic pressure to do something about the plight of Russians in the Ukraine. Instead, among his motives may have been a desire to strengthen Russian nationalism at home by emphasizing the us-ness of Russian speakers within and outside of Russia at the expense potentially of other conceptions of the Russian nation. But I can’t imagine that killing Russian speakers in Ukraine helps the building of domestic support within Russia or to define the Russian nation in ways that abet Putin’s desires to stay in power.

This reinforces my conclusion (and my bias) that irredentist claims are often insincere – and that Russia’s irredentism towards Ukraine writ large* is entirely insincere. I never thought that the separatist groups in the Donbass were genuine efforts at greater self-determination rather than Russian proxies. Putin’s speech to kick off the war focuses on appeals to irredentism, including that Ukraine never really existed and has always been Russian.

Absorbing Crimea and taking the eastern regions of Ukraine… altered the balance of political power in Ukraine

I think that Putin would have been happy in 2013 with a pro-Russia Ukraine, and that he would have been happy in 2021 with a pro-Russia Crimea-less Ukraine. I don’t believe that Putin is really motivated to create a Greater Russia – despite his apparently longing for the good old Soviet days. I do think he wants domination. He would’ve been satisfied with dominating Ukraine and Belarus and other parts of the former Soviet space.

The threat to that domination was never NATO. It was the European Union. Again, the timing here is suggestive – 2014 when Ukraine starts looking to the EU; 2022 when Ukraine keeps looking westward.

Here is an irony and a stupidity: that Putin, by absorbing Crimea and by taking the eastern regions of Ukraine out of Ukraine’s political system, altered the balance of political power in Ukraine. He removed the most Russia-leaning components. This meant that even if the rest of Ukraine wasn’t pissed off, the balance of voters shifted by subtraction, making it more likely to have pro-western leaders. Putin improved Zelenskyy’s chances of getting elected. It’s like how if California seceded that would make it impossible for the Democrats (as currently configured) to win at the national level. Well, Putin did this. He made it far harder for a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician to win just on the numbers – causing a conflict that consolidated Ukrainian national identity was just icing.

This conflict is an intersection of many things: irredentism and other elements of ethnic politics (see the Ukrainian diaspora mobilizes), civil-military relations, alliance politics, sanctions, coercive diplomacy, nuclear strategy (stability-instability paradox), and more. From most perspectives, Putin has screwed up big time, including by making the third classic error of thinking regime change will be easy (don’t wager with a Sicilian when death is on the line is the second). Which, of course, is not reassuring because there is plenty of room for Putin to get into deeper and deeper trouble, hurting more and more people and risking a wider and wider war. 

*With the exception of Crimea. While the referendum was a sham, there did seem to be a fair amount of Crimean Russians who wanted to be in a Greater Russia.