Victor Davis Hanson
Irredentism—the romance of reclaiming “unredeemed” old lands—is a symptom of messianic presidents and premiers, and national paranoia and insecurity. Leaders demagogue about the recovery of ancient territories that previously had weakened the nation’s imperial grandeur and power.
Supposedly long-scattered and oppressed peoples with common linguistic, religious, and cultural affinities are recombined—usually by violently overthrowing their contemporary governments and forcing them into a new ethnic super state. Yet irredentism is often a one-way street. Supposedly homeless expatriates—the Greeks of Constantinople, Italians in Malta, Germans in the Sudetenland, Serbs in Bosnia, and Russians in Ukraine—are said to be even more zealous nationalists than their kindred in the motherland. But just as often the territory to be reunited in a grand imperial scheme can be more reluctant than the would-be uniter.
Early 20th-century Greek romantics fancied resurrecting the old Μεγάλη Ιδέα or “Great Idea.” That was the dreamy recreation of a panhellenic Eastern Mediterranean. The New Byzantium was to be ringed by Greek-speakers in the motherland, Asia Minor, the Aegean Islands, Cyprus, and northern Egypt.
Yet, like most irredentists, the Greeks never had the manpower or material wherewithal to reestablish such a modern Byzantine Empire. The restored 15th century image rested entirely on the opportunistic implosion of the Ottoman Empire, the 1918 defeat of the Central Powers, especially in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and the Balkans, the international chaos following World War I—and the pledges of the victorious allies.
But soon a new Turkish secular government emerged to undermine the quixotic Greek effort. The Great Idea’s British sponsors betrayed the project. It ended tragically with thousands of stranded Greeks savagely butchered throughout Asian Minor.
Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had wilder dreams in the 1920s and ’30s of recreating the Roman Empire. In his irredentist fantasies, anywhere Italian was spoken—or where Latin once had been—there would follow the new Italian empire. Mussolini discounted the wide-scale poverty in southern Italy and Sicily and endlessly harangued about the fetters of British Suez and Gibraltar that unfairly had boxed in the new Rome.
Mussolini’s Mare Nostrum—“Our Sea”—would at least remake the Mediterranean into an Italian lake. A reborn Rome would be flanked by an Italian-speaking southern Europe, an Italian North and East Africa, an Italian Aegean, and an Italian Dalmatia and Balkans.
Mussolini could only achieve his dreams through a host of “ifs”—if France and Britain appeased him, if their Mediterranean navies disappeared or would not fight, if Nazi Germany threatened Mussolini’s common enemies, if the so-called international community, like the League of Nations, failed to deter him, and if ultimately Germany won World War II.
So, Mussolini sequentially grabbed Ethiopia, expanded out from his Libyan colonies, invaded Egypt, Albania, and Greece—until finally Britain and America destroyed Mussolini and his fascist fantasies.
Adolf Hitler was the 20th century’s most ambitious and most barbaric irredentist. He came to power by screaming about a drawn-and-quartered German Reich, carved up by the Versailles Treaty, with millions of German speakers and lands scattered and lost to his native Austria, to Poland, to France, and to Czechoslovakia. In Hitler’s mind, these were all “unredeemed” lands that he alone in his genius would reclaim for the German Volk. He even included the ancient Volga Germans in the distant domains of the Soviet Union as legitimate claimants on a new Third Reich.
Unlike Italy, Hitler had the military, the economy, and the population for a brief moment to bully his way into reclaiming almost every German-speaking minority in Europe and blowing up the borders of the continent. Finally, Hitler engulfed the world in a war that cost 70 million dead, by invading all of Europe, the Soviet Union, North Africa and encouraging Japan to do the same in Asia and the Pacific. By 1941, the expanded Third Reich numbered over 80 million Germans. It had obliterated Poland and Czechoslovakia. And Berlin ruled over an area larger in population and territory than the current European Union. Only Britain was left to be destroyed.
But in truth Germany had already overreached, drunk on easy victories and blind to the resources and manpower of his new enemies, the Soviet Union, and the United States. By 1944, the United States alone had produced a military larger than all the Axis militaries combined, a GDP larger than those of all the combatants, friend and foe put together, and a navy larger than all the aggregate navies of the world.
When the wreckage of the war cleared, Hitler’s dream was a satanic irony, as millions of Germans were dead, and millions more expelled from once annexed nations and forced to walk back into a vastly shrunken Germany.
With the 1990s breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević dreamed of a new Greater Serbia. He sought to force neighboring Montenegro, Northern Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina into a new version of the 14th century Serbian Empire. Serbia’s near decade-long modern Balkan Wars cost 140,000 dead, earned global denunciation of Serbia, made Milošević a hated pariah, and ended with the independence of all his would-be new conquests.
A Woke West?
Putin is history’s most recent and first nuclear irredentist. He believes any group of Russian speakers anywhere, or former residents of imperial Russia or the Soviet Union, or Russian orthodox worshipers, all belong to Putin’s new Russian Empire. Even if Russian speakers are independent or happy as minorities in other countries, Putin has a grandiose plan toforce them into his new mother Russia.
Only that way can a huge new Russia of 270-300 million people, with a vast area comparable to the old Soviet Union, become again a player on the superpower stage to rival China and the United States.
In Putin’s mind, he has already forced Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine back into the Russian fold. Many of the old Soviet Republics are already his de facto satellites or puppets. If he can get back all of Ukraine, the crown jewel of the old Soviet Union and Mother Russia—41 million people, 230,000 square miles of territory, the best farmland in Europe, rich in oil and minerals—Putin feels he would achieve his irredentist goal. The remaining few lost Russian territories then will either be easily absorbed, or their puppet governments will obey Russian orders. Then, he believes, the former Warsaw Pact nations, in terror, will supposedly shed their NATO alliance or at least become no-fly-zones.
Putin may have initially underestimated the Ukrainian heroic resistance. He foolishly discounted any chance of NATO defiance. He had no idea how much the supposedly decadent West still controls the levers and wheels of the international financial and commercial system now directed at Russia. He was clueless that new weapons such as cheap drone planes and improved model Javelins and Stingers put into the hands of relative amateur shooters could allow them to blow up multimillion-dollar tanks, and huge trucks full of soldiers—all with a good chance of the shooter escaping with his life, and the destruction videoed for global social media consumption.
Now shamed by prior inaction, emboldened by the unexpected Ukrainian resistance, and egged on by the Churchillian emergence of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, European Union countries like Germany have suddenly all but apologized for their former appeasement, nihilist cutbacks of oil and gas production, and virtual disarmament.
In the United States, the public is ebullient at the scenes of defiant Ukrainians and hopeful that Putin has at last met his irredentist Waterloo. The point is not that Putin is stopped for good but that in theory he could be stopped. And that is something, given the odds against the Ukrainians and the declinist postmodern West.
In truth, Ukraine is vastly outnumbered, out equipped, and outmanned. It was armed by the West far too late. It should have received tens of thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles months ago. Last summer, the United States should have increased daily oil and gas output, not cut it back. The EastMed pipeline into Italy should have had the full support of the Biden Administration. Joe Biden should have stopped with the gratuitous “killer” and “bully” Corn Pop rhetoric, spoken softly, and instead upped targeted defense spending and stopped the commissariatization of the Pentagon. Ukraine should have kept out of U.S. politics and impeachment psychodramas—and especially kept clear of the toxic Biden family grifting syndicate.
But for now, all those “shoulds” and “coulds” must be considered after Putin is stopped. He believes he can and will eventually swallow Ukraine, regardless of the costs in Russian blood and treasure or the barbaric killing of innocent Ukrainian civilians. He has pivoted from the failed “easy” Georgia-Crimea model to the messy Chechnya fallback plan—and thus is going medieval in Ukraine.
Worse still, Putin thinks he still can win ugly—maybe even the uglier the better. Then months from now a supposedly galvanized West will fear him even more and remember even less the fate of Ukraine. He assumes Europeans will pivot back and only recall that by hook or crook the Napoleonic Putin had swallowed Ukraine—and in the future could do the same anywhere he wished in his neighborhood.
The leaders of the European Union and NATO are now giving Churchillian speeches. They promise to retract their prior green nihilism. They pledge to pump oil and extract more natural gas. They claim they are through with the appeasing Nord Stream 2 pipeline. They say they will now welcome a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli EastMed pipeline into southern Europe. They soar in rhetoric about a new NATO armed to the teeth by Europeans, shocked by the fate of Ukraine.
Let us pray this is all true.
Quieter with a Bigger Stick
Yet Putin, our century’s first irredentist, smiles at all this. He is not yet deterred even by catastrophic financial losses inflicted by the sanctions of the Western world. He ignores his military casualties and the brutal savagery he inflicts on others. He rants about using nuclear weapons and spreading ruin worldwide to any who defy him. He attacks nuclear power plants.
In other words, he is a typical 20th-century irredentist.
Remember, all of these irredentists of the last 100 years have failed—and imploded in suicidal fashion. History suggests that Putin will not find a happy solution either. The West woke up and discovered that Europe and the United States are slowly learning a new paradigm to check aggressions like Putin’s: crippling new global financial and commercial sanctions; a new confidence in sophisticated asymmetrical weapons that can nullify tanks, planes, and helicopters; a new attitude that the United States and Europe can remain closer than they had thought; and a new ability to inflict international psychological and cultural ostracism that can range from the loss of oligarchic yachts to the use of ATMs.
China is watching the fate of Ukraine. If it is crushed and Putin reasserts his power abroad, then Beijing sees a pathway to absorbing what would be left of a much smaller Taiwan. But if a larger Ukraine survives and Putin is permanently crippled, then Xi Jinping may worry that the Taiwanese could fight like Ukrainians, that China might be sanctioned and ostracized like Russia, that new deadly weapons will be airdropped into Taiwan. He may recall that unlike Russia and Ukraine there is a sea between China and Taiwan—and that a moonscaped Taiwan would not be worth the cost that Putin may pay for Ukraine.
Finally, despite U.S. lethargy last autumn, Putin can still at this 11th hour be stymied without a U.S. “no-fly zone,” without sending American A-10 Warthogs to Ukraine, and without using NATO “volunteers.”
How surreal the Left has become. From Hillary Clinton’s 2009 “reset” to Barack Obama’s hot mic buffoonery, to blankets for Ukraine and applause for Biden’s recent request that Russia pump more oil and hack only approved U.S. companies and institutions, the Left repeatedly has appeased Putin. Yet now the Left accuses its critics of pro-Putin pacifist sympathies! It is almost as if after spending a decade ensuring a Russian invasion of Ukraine and refusing to pump more oil and gas, the schizophrenic Left now wishes to risk a pre-midterm nuclear showdown.
It would be far wiser to quietly send far more weapons, to produce far more oil, to enact far more sanctions—and to stop the loud assassination and NATO interventionist tough talk.
10 thoughts on “Vladimir Putin: The Latest of the Failed Irredentists”
I so appreciate you, Professor Hanson. I’m a 73 yr old grandmother living in this insane world. I’m so thankful for your broad grasp of world history. I have read your “The Dying Citizen” and sent a copy to my 14 yr old grandson. God bless you and your service to our country and mankind.
Finally an up-to-date analysis of the current international crisis and without the usual harping on past errors and misdeeds.
I still have a hard time accepting much optimism for our chances to end this without a lot more suffering some of which inevitably will come to our shores one way or another.
We just do not have enough good people any more for this level of problem.
Nice short column too
Putin’s success or failure means far less to my future than the chance our intel agencies will succeed in rebuilding their credibility and either justify or somehow erase the fact they launched a coup against President Mean Tweets.
Those responsible have not somehow grown a conscience, and while I would love for them to come clean and seek redemption for bearing false witness, given the observation that their tactics seemed to have succeeded, it’s more likely they will pretend their actions were justified.
Which essentially makes them vermin.
Never let leftists/progressives at the levers of power. Things like this happen.
Great article. Very informative.
Thanks yet again Dr. Hanson, your clear and insightful thoughts on the Ukrainien war help me to get a better understanding. The left is truly and deeply evil. It’s like Thomas Sowell say they are abstractly moral and concretely amoral.
But I am thankful for you!
“How far that little candle throws his beams!” You Sir, are that candle.
I disagree with the analysis that Hitler’s wars were all irredentist.
I can accept the argument for Germany’s initial smaller wars on neighbours Czechoslovakia, Poland, and in part on France. Less so on the Benelux-countries. The invasion into the Soviet Union was not irredentist but had a different objective. Hitler layed this out in a speech early in 1939 in which he calls himself a “prophet”. He announced the result and goal of another world-war, meaning the invasion into the SU, as the “annihalition of the Jewish race in Europe”. It was killing for the sake of killing alone.
Your vast study of military history is only second to your ability to synthesize and share this insight in unpretentious easy to understand terms. thanks for keeping us interested and informed.
I think you have to supply ukraine as much as possible b/c the longer this drags on, the more russian resources are zapped, and the less aggressive china will be towards taiwan. In the mean time open up production here, reengage Venezuela and if necessarily intervene militarily to overthrow Maduro if he won’t cooperate. All options are on the table. Venezuela should be a US puppet state holding 20% of the world’s oil reserves
During the days of the former Soviet Union, we lived with a Ukraine bound to the communist regime. We did so because to dislodge it would have been more catastrophic. Besides it was a regional issue that was more of a family dispute than an international dilemma. Allowing Ukraine to be thus bound was a Hobson’s Choice, perhaps, but in this fallen world it was the best that could be achieved. We wished that it would be otherwise.
But that was a time when Western leaders and intellectuals were far less Utopian. Such people today have been raised to believe that the proper application of expertise and force can bring about an Earthly millennium. So the fact is that we are getting ourselves into this conflict for the same reason we promulgated and submitted to lockdowns and other COVID strictures: out of a believe that we can become exempt from the baleful consequences of plagues.