Irredentism is refers to efforts by groups or countries to reunify lost territories with a homeland. I wrote a book with Bill Ayres about the irredentism that did and did not occur in the 1990s: Greater Armenia, Greater Croatia, Greater Serbia vs Hungary, Romania, and Russia not pursuing such efforts. We got to release a paperback edition with a new preface in 2015 thanks to .... Putin's irredentist move where Russia seized Crimea. Here's what I know about irredentism from my previous work and from other people's work in this area and how these basic rules apply here.
- Irredentism is always costly for the country engaging in the effort--it generally requires war since countries do not part with their territory without a fight (well, almost always).
- What is bad for the country may or may not be good for the leader. Irredentism is a nationalist effort that can tie folks together towards a common identity. Politicians may use irredentist appeals (whether they follow through on it or not) to refocus the country's nationalism on this cause rather than other aspects (see Hungary and Viktor Orban where Hungary was optimally obnoxious to the neighbors--enough to get support domestically, not enough to risk war).
- #2 suggests a third rule--Realists have a hard time explaining irredentist efforts because they do not help the country become more secure or even gain more power. They just gain perhaps some territory and some new citizens. In the 21st century, this does not help Russia become more powerful or more secure. Maybe it will make Putin more secure, but that ain't the same thing, is it?
- Irredentism is driven by domestic political dynamics more than international. Some would argue that countries engage in irredentism when there is a good opportunity, but I can summon examples where countries not only jump through open windows but also attempt to jump through brick walls. Somalia engaged in irredentism both when it was relatively stronger than its neighbors and when it was weaker. Croatia engaged in irredentism even as it was being taken apart by an irredentist war thanks to Serbia.
- What about these domestic political dynamics? It is not just pure nationalism since nationalisms are around all the time--it takes a political entrepreneur to push for "reunion" and one has to figure out their game. And that is where I am mostly stumped since I don't know contemporary Russian politics these days. All I can say for certain is that the domestic game matters quite a bit.
- One thing that enables Putin is that Russia is already a multiethnic country dominated by one group. This war doesn't change that, and irredentism is easier/more desirable for countries in this position. In our book, we found that fear or hate of others, xenophobia, can actually inhibit irredentism since a successful irredentist foreign policy is the equivalent of a giant wave of immigration--adding many new others to one's country. But Russia is not so xenophobic so it can do this without the nationalist backlash (unlike, say, Hungary).
Update: 7. Irredentism need not be consistent. The actor may not claim all disputed/historical territory. The key is what is digestible--who lives where, how easy are they to rule, what do they do to the domestic political balance of the irredentist state. In this case, that means maybe Eastern Ukraine gets absorbed formally or informally but perhaps not all of Ukraine.
Russian irredentism here is more than just imagined since the territory in question used to be part of Russia and there are Russian speakers who may identify with Russia and want to be part of Russia (#notallUkranians or even residents of Eastern Ukraine). Saddam Hussein's moves against Kuwait were not really irredentism since there was not really a people or land to be be redeemed.
This does not make Russia's moves legitimate at all. But it does give this a bit more heft within Russia than Poland or Bulgaria. The Baltics? Oh my. The history gives Putin something to play with and he seems to have his own grievances at stake in all of this--resenting the breakup of the Soviet Union. International law, such as it is, is not on his side. Conquest is not hip as the Kenyan rep at the UN made clear. And while the US has committed many awful acts including a pretty illegitimate war in 2003, it has not engaged in conquest lately. Who has? Um, China with Tibet and perhaps Taiwan in the near future. So, rule 6: don't expect the UN to stop this.
This is a bad move for Russia and the Russian people and much worse for Ukraine. Whether it pays off politically for Putin is not clear. Many irredentist efforts are gambles that do not pay off very well. And, yeah, there was not much anyone could do to deter Putin and Russia in this. As long as the US/NATO weren't willing to risk WWIII over a non-ally, we had few cards to play.
In sum, irredentism means war, and it is not easy to deter or prevent. Ukraine is screwed, and there is not much we can do about it but make it costly.