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Inconsistent Irredentism: The Limits of Greater Russia

Steve Saideman on why it’s unlikely Russia will annex more territory in Eastern Ukraine.

By: /
18 March, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

This morning, Vladimir Putin completed the second step of the Irredentism Two-Step: annexing Crimea after recognizing its independence yesterday.  The question moves from how credulous does Putin think the world is, after a blatantly sham referendum, to what next?  And there are two dynamics to consider: Russia’s irredentism and NATO’s future.

First, when we speak of irredentism, we refer to efforts to unify a “lost” territory inhabited by ethnic kin.  What Russia is doing today is irredentism.  Irredentism is almost always very controversial and almost always very costly because it usually requires war.  Countries do not give up pieces of themselves all that willingly and when they do, it is to create new countries, not give hunks of territory to their neighbours. 

Second, irredentism is often quite selective.  Hitler’s efforts to reunify the German speaking peoples of Europe, for example, suggested that irredentism is unrelenting.  The reality is more complex.  Somalia, for instance, was seen as incorrigibly irredentist for claiming the Somali-inhabited areas of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya in the 1960s.  But that was because the design of its early democracy led politicians to reach out to multiple groups, each having ties to some of the kin nearby.  In the 1970s, with a narrower set of supporters, the authoritarian regime focused solely on the Somalis of the Ogaden region in Ethiopia.  That lost war ultimately broke Somalia—irredentism can be inconsistent but is always costly. 

The importance of this is that we have to be concerned about Russia and its bullying of its neighbours, but we might not have to be so concerned about Eastern Ukraine being gobbled up next.  Why?  Because it does not combine the strategic interests, the relatively recent border changes, and previous separatism that define Russia interests in Crimea.  Irredentism tends to happen when there is log-rolling among different interest groups, such as the military/defence contractors, those with ethnic kin in Crimea, nationalists who care about past grievances, those hurt by greater international economic engagement and so on.  Other hunks of the Near Abroad are not so attractive (tasty?) for nationalists back in Moscow because they would involve incorporating more people, which means more voters and more social welfare expended elsewhere.

Indeed, the events in Crimea may worsen Russia’s identity crisis as not all Russians will agree that Russian nationalism requires enlarging the country to bring back “lost” Russians.  Moreover, there may be greater agreement on Crimea, but Russian nationalists will disagree about the value of other territory.  So, bottom line, don’t expect this to be the first annexation of many.  There may be others, but I am doubtful.

What is more certain?  That NATO’s latest existential crisis will fade.  One of the enduring truths of international relations going back to the ancient Greeks is that countries tend to respond to aggression by looking for allies as well as building up their defences.  Given austerity measures in Europe, the latter may be less likely, but the former is already happening.  That is, NATO is not going away, as its more eastern members will re-commit to the alliance.  The Baltics and Poland have been more enthusiastic members for quite a while (Estonia paid the highest price per capita of any NATO country in Afghanistan), and now the rest of the alliance is being reminded of its raison d’être.  Russia is not the Soviet Union, but it still represents the greatest threat to security in Europe.  Putin has made it abundantly clear that the institutions of Europe (such as the Helsinki agreement sanctifying boundaries) and the rules of democracy (such as non-sham elections) do not apply to Russia.  Consequently, Europe will have to use other tools to reassure their publics and NATO remains the most appropriate venue for this.

Herein lies a paradox, however. It is so very important not to extend NATO too far—guaranteeing the security of Ukraine or Georgia for example—as the collective security must be credible.  With that said, the fact that more NATO members are concerned does help to increase the value of the alliance both today and in the future. 

There is one remaining aspect of today’s reality that we must address—there is damned little that the U.S., Canada, and Europe can do to reverse this annexation.  Bargaining and coercion are all about stakes and interests, and Russia has far more skin in this game than anyone else.  Plus distance matters.  This is Russia’s backyard, and our fence starts at Poland’s borders.  We simply cannot risk World War III for Ukraine and Crimea.  Russia’s energy resources and Europe’s dependence on those resources make it very hard to punish Russia. 

Russia is already paying for this effort, as irredentism always involves costs.  Its economy has taken some hits due to sanctions and market reactions.  But politicians can promote costly policies if those costs hit people who have little power or who are distracted by the nationalism sauce du jour.  It is pretty clear that these costs are not going to be enough to compel Putin to reverse course.  We can continue to charge a price for this irredentist effort, but that is about all we can do. 

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