News out of Crimea raises the possibility of irredentism. Irredentism is the effort to reunify a “lost” territory inhabited by ethnic kin with either a mother country or with other territories also inhabited by ethnic kin (think of Kurds in multiple countries creating a Greater Kurdistan). So, if Crimea is detached from Ukraine and becomes part of Russia, it would be a successful case of irredentism. We have not seen one of these since Armenia gained hunks of Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union fell apart, and, yes, Russia helped the Armenians.
As the Soviet Union disintegrated, there was much concern about the approximately 25 million Russians left outside of Russia, including those in Ukraine. Yet, for the most part, Russia did far less than what observers feared. In our book “For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War,” we considered Russia to be in the category of East European/Former Soviet cases that could have but did not engage in irredentism — the silent dog s— which also included Hungary and Romania. Our actively irredentist cases were Serbia, Croatia and Armenia. Our book came out in 2008 just before the Russia/Georgia conflict that could be seen as irredentism. So, our narcissistic question would be: were we wrong? The less self-centered and far more important question is: do the events of recent days suggest that Putin’s Russia is likely to engage in further acts of irredentism? Our answer to that is: probably not. Why? Because some of the key dynamics in irredentist efforts which we identified more than six years ago are still relevant.
First, the plight of the kin is over-rated. We found that the relative danger facing the kin in the “lost” territory mattered less than people thought. So, while Ukrainian assurances to the ethnic Russians in Crimea and elsewhere are a good idea, the mother country (Russia in this case) may move aggressively even if the kin are safe, or they may not act even if the kin are in danger. While Putin has played up reports of ethnic Russians being harmed, most credible observers do not think this is the case. There certainly is no history in recent years of Russian-speakers in Crimea being mistreated by the Ukrainian government. Moreover, it is not yet clear if the Crimean parliament was acting in coordination with Moscow — it could be that they are asking for something that they will not get, as irredentism requires the mother country to accept the territory.
Second, we argued in the book that Russian irredentism was not so likely because Russia has an identity crisis: who counts as Russian? Putin asserted his responsibility to protect all Russian speakers (his statement was very similar to Hungary’s Jozeff Antall saying he was the leader of fifteen million Hungarians when the population of Hungary was about ten million in 1990), but not all those living in Russia agree that Russian nationalism includes Russophones as members of the Russian nation. Indeed, the existing survey evidence suggests that this crisis is not very popular back in Russia. Those in Russia, especially those who vote in the next elections, may not want yet another basket-case to drain the country’s coffers (Crimean supporters of annexation are unlikely to be future net contributors).
Indeed, a core part of our argument is that there will be nationalist forces that are against some irredentist efforts because success means including more “others” in one’s country. Annexing Crimea means not just more ethnic Russians in Russia but more Ukrainians and more Tatars. Taking on further territories, like the Donetsk region, raise even more problems of mixed populations. So, those who focus more on intolerance in their nationalist identities may not want more foreigners in the country.
Third, it is not clear that Putin is doing any of this for domestic political purposes. That is, he is currently not seriously facing strong competition from someone who claims to be a better Russian nationalist, and he has a variety of tools at his disposal to deal with domestic opposition, including arresting journalists and repressing dissent. Oh, and corruption to buy off potential opponents. There may be a domestic political payoff, in that the minority of Russians who support annexing Crimea may care more than the majority who are opposed, but there’s no obvious reason why Putin needs that extra margin of support.
Fourth, even if Russia does try to annex Crimea, it is still likely to be the exception and not the rule. It will not be the start of endless irredentism campaigns targeting the Russians in the rest of the “near abroad.” In our book, Crimea did stand out, as it combined both national interests (the Black Sea fleet) with a group of kin that was more interested than others in the Greater Russia project.
So, this crisis is not about a Greater Russia project, even if Crimea ends up in either a semi-status a la Nagorno-Karabakh or annexed in reality, as the policies focused here are unlikely to play out in other places where ethnic Russians reside, such as the Baltic Republics or even other parts of eastern Ukraine. As other writers at the Monkey Cage have argued, this is really a second-best (if that) effort by Putin to have influence in Ukraine after his preferred non-irredentist one, keeping President Yanukovych in power, failed. While countries containing some of the 25 million lost Russians are concerned, they should not panic as Putin is not Hitler (almost the original irredentist), and he is not even Milosevic of Greater Serbia fame.