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Revanchism: a demand to recover lost territories

Irredentism: a demand to annex culturally similar territories

Both of these terms from 19th century nationalist struggles are highly relevant to today’s Russian war on Ukraine. Revanchism, drawn from French, is most associated with the French obsession with regaining Alsace and Lorraine after losing this provinces to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. Irredentism, drawn from Italian, dates to the struggles for Italian unification, and the persistent demand to gain control over all Italian-speaking areas (such as those controlled by Switzerland and Austria).

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We can easily see both ideas in the demands posed by Vladimir Putin to justify his invasion. Ukraine’s long history of being subject to both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union justifies, in Putin’s view, its reabsorption into Mother Russia. Because Ukrainians are closely related, linguistically and culturally, to Russians, irredentism follows logically, in Putin’s mind.

Putin seems not to have considered that Ukrainians actually see themselves as different from Russians, and actually want to be independent from Russia. They have, indeed, developed their own nationalism over against Russia.

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Putin first intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014, when he occupied Crimea and set up pro-Russian enclaves in southeastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government at that time was in no position to mount effective resistance, but the intervening eight years have allowed them to build a much stronger military ands fight the current Russian invasion to a standstill—at least to this point. The Russians are secure in control of Crimea (which they have annexed), and may be able to consolidate their control in the southeastern provinces that have a majority-Russian population. But the Ukrainians can probably stop them there, as long as massive military aid from NATO and the EU keeps flowing.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has made clear that he wants the war to end by negotiation, rather than being fought to a bitter end that would reduce his country to rubble. He has publicly abandoned seeking NATO membership and offered instead some sort of neutrality under some sort of international guarantees. He has not publicly accepted the loss of any territory, but he will probably have to do that to get to peace.

While Putin has remained publicly disengaged from negotiations, there is a Russian negotiating team, but so far they have not, it appears, moved significantly from Putin’s original m maximalist objectives, which amount to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and its replacement by a pro-Russian government, and incorporation of Ukraine into Russia. None of these objectives appear reachable today.

So Russia will likely also want negotiations soon, perhaps after the Ukrainian forces blunt their offensive in the Southeast. The fighting will stop, Russian forces will withdraw to whatever territories the truce allots to them, and the reconstruction of Ukraine will begin. There will doubtless be massive international aid, but it seems unlikely that Russia will be compelled to make any short of reparations. By rights they should, but unless the Ukrainians win an unexpected major victory in the field, they won’t be able to force Russia to pay up. In any case, the Western sanctions on Russia will have severely wounded the Russian economy: their ability to pay will be sharply curtailed for some time.

At that point, with the war over, Ukraine will have to live for a long time with the risk that at some future time, Putin or a successor will see advantage in playing the irredentist or revanchist card against Ukraine. Its security will thus depend heavily on what sort of international guarantees are negotiated as part of the truce ending the current war. If NATO membership is out, what is to be done?