What do the crisis in Ukraine and the rise of the border-straddling of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) militant group have in common? The answer is that both situations represent the crumbling of imperial borders between fragments of what used to be a larger whole. The Second World War dealt a death-blow to the European colonial system, and the break-up of the former Soviet Union completed the decolonisation of global politics. Imperial boundaries in the former Soviet Union (FSU), Africa and Middle East have long become “lines in the sand” in many places, since the powers that created and maintained them have retreated or vanished. However unstable postcolonial states have usually been prone to break up internally, rather than disintegrate with the setting up of new cross-border “states” that we have seen in the Levant and Eastern Europe. Are the boundaries created by European imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries finally becoming geopolitically irrelevant?
For four hundred years Iraq and Syria were part of the Ottoman Empire, before it was dismembered by predatory European powers after World War I. The resulting postcolonial states of Iraq and Syria have always had odd borders that do not reflect the preferences of many who reside inside them. In Iraq the military successes of ISIS have effectively abolished the border between Damascus and Bagdad, raising the distant possibly of a unified Sunni Arab area emerging from bits of both. The break-up of central authority in Iraq and Syria have also allowed the “Syrian” and “Iraqi” Kurds the freedom to form their own autonomous zones which might move towards political union one day. In neither of these cases does the putative state follow anything like the preexisting colonial borders. Rather they reflect the brutal ethnic or communal balance of power on the ground.
Ukraine and the modern Russian Federation used to be part of the same Soviet Union. That empire was Russian-dominated at its top, but by 1989 was only 50.8% Russian in ethnicity. Its break up along the internal administrative boundaries of its fifteen constituent republics created many curious territorial anomalies. Unlike the Western European nations whose homelands were left untouched by the end of their empires, the lands seceded by then-President Yeltsin dangerously included certain historically Russian spaces. Today the Kremlin has forcibly bolted the Crimean peninsula back onto itself and may break off more chunks of Ukraine to secure a corridor to that strategic peninsula.
European states have reacted negatively to both geopolitical developments. Absent from their discussion over Iraq and Ukraine is whether these conflicts constitute special cases or not. The separatism of ethnic nationalism caused the break-up of the 20th century’s multinational empires into weak political units, from which other communities have split off in their turn (for example Eritrea broke off from Ethiopia in 1993). Few have been the cases of armed conflict where groups have been fighting to join a state or amalgamate together to make a new one. Irredentism has long been unusual; why has it therefore seemingly reemerged recently?
The collapse of European empires tended to lead to most ethnic groups getting a state of their own somewhere they formed a majority. In power and inside a complex economically interdependent international system that also valued sovereignty, most titular nationalities in postcolonial states have adapted more-or-less peacefully to the presence of minorities in “their” state and vice versa. The modern-day Republic of Armenia is extremely unlikely to go to war with Turkey to reclaim “Western Armenia”.
Where post-independence states have already fragmented once, further splits are unlikely. Even when a second split has occurred however, violence has still usually been about further secession rather than cross-border amalgamation. For example since independence from Serbia, Kosovo has not merged with Albania, despite being an ethnically Albanian majority state in its own right and having close linguistic and clan ties with northern Albanians. Modern irredentism mostly seems to flourish where the borders are still unreformed between units of a former empire.
In the 21st century substantial support for it therefore comes from within two groups; firstly it can come from members of the formerly dominant power, if their community is split by a boundary with a newly independent state. Examples such as Serbs in northern Kosovo or ethnic Russians in the FSU come to mind. In Ukraine the absorption of the Crimean peninsula by the Kremlin was popular amongst ordinary Russians and not unpopular among ethnic Russians in Crimea. Popular support for the internationally unrecognized and self-declared ‘Novorossiya Confederacy’ in southeastern Ukraine is weaker, but strong enough to sustain a Kremlin-backed low-level insurgency by ethnic Russians and Russian nationalist volunteers.
Alternatively irredentism can be from members of groups which are stateless and oppressed. The Armenians were a classic case in the 20th century; the Kurds are a modern-day example. Sunnis in Iraq did not attempt to forcibly merge with their co-religionists across the Syrian border when they were in power, despite having tribal ties in common. The idea has only gained popularity since the Sunni-dominated uprising began in Syria and with the failure of Sunnis to gain mainstream representation in the new Iraqi politics under the regime of Shi’a strongman Nuri al-Maliki. The formation of a Sunni Arab confessional state in the Levant has only come to seem attractive as a result of the simultaneous disenfranchisement of Sunnis on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot borders.
I predict that the current Iraq crisis will end with the defeat of Sunni Arab jihadism by a strong international coalition mobilizing against it. However it has given the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds the chance to defacto break away from central authority in both Syria and Iraq. The emergence of a Kurdish state or states may be regarded as inevitable from now on. Likewise Russia will keep the territories from Georgia and Ukraine that it has added on to itself and may try to add other small parts of the FSU onto itself in the future. But Russia remains more vulnerable to separatism and neo-imperialism than either Europe or America. I predict the story of Russia in the 21st century will be a continuing struggle to hold on to what it already has rather than a Russian “re-colonisation” of the FSU. Irredentism remains the exception, not the rule in today’s post-imperial world.