This week Strobe Talbott has an extensive piece in Politico on the background of Vladimir Putin’s worldview. Despite Talbott’s past myopia on Russia, there are some interesting arguments in the long article, including the following issue of “irredentism” as a driving force for Russia’s habit of invading neighboring nations.
The best word for what might be called ethnic geopolitics is, appropriately, a musty Italian one coined in the post-Napoleonic wars of 19th century Europe: irredentism (an Italian word connoting the recovery of “unredeemed” territory and ethnic kinsmen). Throughout the 1990s, that atavistic urge was at the core of the anti-Yeltsin opposition. Yeltsin’s stubborn refusal to countenance irredentism — his affirmation of the existing inter-republic borders — made possible the relatively amicable and orderly self-dismemberment of the USSR. It also facilitated the creation of a NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace as well as other institutional arrangements that were meant to bring countries of the former Soviet bloc, including Russia and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), into an inclusive, integrated, post-Cold War, pan-European, and, to some degree, pan-Eurasian security structure. This wasn’t a Western demand or aspiration that was imposed on post-Soviet leaders. It was an aspiration of their own that we in the West responded to and supported.
Had Yeltsin and his counterparts in the other republics set off irredentist free-for-all in the post-Soviet space, stretching across 11 times zones with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the mix, it might have triggered a world-threatening cataclysm. On a more specific and less apocalyptic level, it would have been impossible to persuade Ukraine to turn over its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to Russia, especially if Yeltsin’s opponents had succeeded in their demand that Ukraine surrender Crimea as well. It wasn’t hard to imagine what that scenario looked like: Throughout the 1990s, the world had, in Yugoslavia, an ongoing reminder of the violent fate that the USSR avoided.