Eastern Ukraine: Irredentism Isn’t What We Think It Is

I’ve read several interesting and insightful things about Eastern Ukraine recently. The first was posted a while back by Will Moore, who asked “Is Crimea’s Ethnic Conflict Banal?” Picking up on work by John Mueller on Bosnia back in the 1990s Moore points out the likelihood that, far from being a “popular uprising,” it is likely that the armed takeovers of Crimean (and now, eastern Ukrainian) buildings by various “local” groups were largely done by gangs of thugs who could be easily mobilized because they like exercising power and threatening (or using) violence on others. I found this argument persuasive back in the 1990s when Mueller first proposed it, and I think that Moore’s application of it Ukraine is spot-on. It certainly fits the broader picture that seems to be emerging, which is one of Russian interference through intermediaries – who now seem to be rather well-armed for a “citizen militia”.

The second piece was a well-considered article posted recently to Political Violence @ a Glance by Brantislav Slantchev. In it he puts together a key argument about Russia’s motives in Ukraine:

As I have argued here and here, Putin’s regime is by now almost entirely legitimized by the idea of recovering Russia’s rightful place in the sun. His policies have explicitly aimed at overcoming what I call the Cold War Syndrome – the purported illness that has afflicted Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union and that is to blame for all its current troubles at home and abroad. Briefly, with the disappearance of the military might of the USSR, Russia has been unable to resist the victorious West which has relentlessly advanced everywhere, pushing a new Iron Curtain ever closer to the Russian borders. The expansions of NATO and the EU, the increasing commercial and cultural penetration around the globe, globalization itself, all of this has marginalized Russia, depriving it of influence and forcing it into the humiliating role akin to that of former colonies of the West: exporter of raw materials to fund Western consumerism. Russia can only prosper if it counters these tendencies and establishes a zone of influence in Eurasia. It must halt the inexorable advance of the West, which has moved the Iron Curtain east, and this can only be done if it recovers its military posture.

His take-away from this argument is that sanctions are unlikely to reverse Russian behavior, and may even make matters worse. That’s an important conclusion in itself, but Slantchev’s argument struck me also for what it says about the likely future course of the conflict in Ukraine.

If Slantchev is right, then either destabilizing or dismembering Ukraine is central to Putin’s domestic political legitimacy. Crimea was low-hanging fruit, but if Putin is trying to make the argument that Russia is returning to its “proper place” in the world then dominating Ukraine is a necessary step in such an argument – far more so than influencing the Stans or even beating up on small former Soviet republics like Georgia. If this is true, then there is a serious motivation gap here: Russia may care about the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine far more than either the US or Europe (many Americans can’t even fine Ukraine on a map). That kind of motivational edge can be a powerful advantage.

What strikes me most about all of this is what it says about irredentism and our popular notions about ethnic conflict. I myself tend to be pretty sympathetic to ethnic separatism and irredentism, if only because I think that people ought to be governed by those they want to be governed by. But what we see playing out in eastern Ukraine today isn’t about ethnic self-determination. Irredentism it may be, but irredentism as a tool in the service of elite power

Continued interference from Russia suggests that the conflict is about Russia’s domestic politics, not the rights of various Ukrainian groups – and it is extremely unlikely that Putin is motivated by any coherent sense of “Russian nationalism” beyond wanting to bolster the strength of his own regime. The escalating violence on the ground, being driven to a large degree by self-appointed armed gangs, demonstrates that even if there are forces internal to Ukraine driving some of this they are not interested in what “the people” want. Any additional “elections” or “referenda” conducted from here on out will be about as legitimate as elections under the old Soviet Union, or perhaps a bit like some labor union “elections” is the bad old days – vote the “right way” or be subject to severe sanctions.

Ultimately what we’re seeing in Ukraine is a slow-motion breakdown of political processes in favor of brute force. Russia, through threats and proxies, has indicated how it wants things to go and has signaled its willingness to use whatever means necessary to get the outcomes it likes – whether that involved annexing additional chunks of Ukraine, replacing the government in Kiev, or simply creating a long-running conflict that cripples the Ukrainian state. This may play very well in Russian domestic politics, as it looks like Russia is “regaining its strength”. To the rest of the world, it simply signals a Russian government that – like its proxies in Donetsk and elsewhere – behaves thugishly and with no respect for the rule of law. It’s good domestic politics and lousy foreign policy – just what we have come to expect in that part of the world.