Ukraine: What’s Behind Putin’s Ethnic Irredentism?

One of the key ideas underlying Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his recognition of the break-away regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine has been the need to protect ethnic Russians on post-Soviet lands that Russia is reclaiming as essentially, historically and culturally, Russian. Unsurprisingly, the argument has now partly fed into a wider political narrative involving not only the rebel areas of the Donbas region, but the whole of Ukraine.

As in the case of Crimea, Putin’s latest justification of military intervention remains unsupported by evidence of a genuine pattern of abuse, or even ‘genocide’, against ethnic Russians in the Donbas region or Ukrainians themselves in Ukraine as a whole. For its part, Ukraine is seeking a pronouncement by the International Court of Justice on what it considers to be a false claim of genocide made by Russia in the context of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which both states are signatories.

However, Putin’s ‘genocide’ claim doesn’t raise merely an issue of evidence. It speaks to deeper views of secession and ethnicity.


Multi-ethnic coexistence at home, ethnic chauvinism abroad?

On the one hand, Putin’s ‘ethnic’ card, the same card that he played in earlier crises to fuel secessionism in post-Soviet states (e.g., in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008), seems to contradict the tightly guarded no-secession-friendly policy upheld by Russian institutions at home. Reflecting a model of ethnic federalism inherited by the Soviet Union, the Russian Constitution nevertheless does not recognise a right of secession for the (largely ethnically defined) federal republics. Article 3(1) of the Russian Constitution states that sovereignty in the Federation resides in its ‘multinational people’, not a distinct ethnic segment of Russian society. Both the Russian Constitutional Court and the Russian government itself have repeatedly affirmed (directly or indirectly) their commitment to preserving the territorial integrity of the country. Instead of secession, they have openly endorsed the concept of self-determination within the institutional and territorial framework of Russia through autonomy and federalism.

On the other hand, when stepping back from matters of legal and institutional detail, this clash between ethnic and territorial paradigms appears to project an equally contradictory role of Russia, one that pursues multi-ethnic coexistence at home while actively fuelling ethnic chauvinism within the post-Soviet space.

On closer inspection, Putin’s line of thinking effectively ties up with Russia’s view of the parameters of secession and his own view of the role of Russian ethnicity in the former Russian empire. Though opposing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and ruling out a freestanding right to secession in international law, Russia has upheld the notion of ‘remedial secession’ on human rights grounds, including forms of oppression by the central government against a particular ethnic group. In Donbas and elsewhere, the Russian thesis manifestly fails on account of evidence, but more than that, it remains legally inconclusive from the point of view of positive international law.

Legal technicalities aside, why is Putin appealing to ethnic Russians abroad to fuel unilateral ethnic secessionism and irredentism, the very things Russia is opposed to within its own borders?

As clearly suggested by the Russian Constitution, the breakup of the Soviet Union did not change the civic idea of a multi-ethnic people who identify with the state and its institutions – the ‘Soviet people’ was replaced by a similarly diverse conception of Russian national identity within the borders of the new state. Putin has never renounced that civic vision but has increasingly recognised an ethnically/culturally Russian core at the heart of his state-centred understanding of national identity, one that still respects (nominally at least) the rights of non-ethnic Russians within.

It is this blend of civic (non-ethnic) and ethnic nationalism that over time has enabled Putin to cast himself as protector of what he believes is an ethnically Russian core within the former Soviet space. Unrealistic and blatantly illegal under international law as they are, his expansionist territorial claims across the region can be explained by Putin’s attempt to recreate a wider and quasi-imperial civic space (in the image of past imperial set-ups) in which ethnic Russians – all Russians of historic Russia (as he understands it) – play a culturally dominant role across the wider range of nationalities. In this sense, Putin’s war in Ukraine is as much a ‘cultural’ war as it is one built around specific military and geopolitical objectives. As a viral post erroneously published and subsequently removed by Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti so clearly reveals, Putin’s hybrid brand of nationalism ultimately speaks to deep resentments towards the West and a world order that Russia largely perceives to be the offshoot of ‘Anglo-Saxon globalization’.

Russia should stick to the facts, withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory, return to the Minsk agreements and enable a process of constructive multi-ethnic coexistence to take roots in the post- Soviet space just as Russia claims to be doing at home. For its part, the international community has the responsibility to respond to Russia’s gross illegalities by staunchly defending the right of the people of Ukraine to self-determination free of any external coercive interference. More than that, states need collectively to double down on containing Russia’s aggressive expansionism in the name of a credible rule-based international system, as resoundingly voiced this week by the United Nations General Assembly.


Gaetano Pentassuglia is Professor of International Law, Liverpool John Moores University, Centre for the Study of Law in Theory and Practice, School of Law, UK; Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Liverpool, UK. He sits on the Steering Committee of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.


Cover Photo: Servicemen of the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic hold flags in Nikolaevka, Donetsk, February 27, 2022 (Sergey Averin / Sputnik / Sputnik via AFP)

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