Restless Powers: How Russian and Armenian Irredentism Is Destabilizing Eurasia

Restless Powers: How Russian and Armenian Irredentism Is Destabilizing Eurasia

Two restless powers in Eurasia—Russia and Armenia—are united by their inability to accept that their “imagined communities” are coterminous with their former Soviet republics.


For most of the post-war era, the principle of the territorial integrity of states was sacrosanct. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United Nations’ (UN) definition of the right to self-determination was only applied to colonies of European empires. Separatist drives were only successful in two cases: Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 and Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991. Irredentism surfaced in the mid-1970s when Morocco invaded Western Sahara, and Indonesia invaded East Timor.

In the post-Cold War era, the Russian Federation threatened the principle of the territorial integrity of states when it manufactured frozen conflicts in Moldova’s Transnistria, Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Ukraine’s Crimea. These territories do not fall under the UN definition of the right to self-determination because they are part of existing states. Separatist drives, such as Biafra from Nigeria in 1967 to 1970, have never been supported by the United Nations.


The West’s support for Kosovo’s independence in 2008 changed this precedent. Russia used the Kosovo precedent to support the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and Crimea’s “self-determination” in 2014.  Although the Kremlin failed to incite pro-Russian uprisings in eastern and southern Ukraine in 2014 as part of its “New Russia” project, three-quarters of Ukrainians believe Russia and Ukraine are at war in the Donbas region. But Russia’s disinformation campaigns claim that a Ukrainian “civil war” not a Russo-Ukrainian war is taking place—the Kremlin claims there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Armenia believes Nagorno-Karabakh has the same right to “self-determination” as Crimea, and Yerevan, the seat of Armenia’s national government, has sided with Moscow against the seven UN votes denouncing Russia’s occupation of Crimea since 2014.

Thirteen of the Soviet republics that became independent states in 1991 had no territorial aspirations for their neighbors’ land and supported the principle of the territorial integrity of states. In these thirteen states, irredentism is confined to marginal nationalist groups despite the fact that there are three times more Azerbaijanis living in Iran than in Azerbaijan and three million more Tajiks living in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Ukraine benefitted from Soviet territorial constructions, the Kuban region of the North Caucasus and adjacent regions of eastern Ukraine were included in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR) in the 1920s, and Ukraine left the Soviet Union with 200,000 square kilometers less territory than when it joined.

Russia and Armenia are the two post-Soviet exceptions to respecting territorial integrity. In both cases, their “imagined communities,”—to use the phrase coined by theorist of nationalism Benedict Andersen—have always been perceived as stretching beyond state borders. Andersen wrote that “imagined communities” are socially constructed in the modern era by people who see themselves as part of a larger nation that is grounded in ancient myths: in Russia’s case, for example, an eastern Slavic obshcherusskiy narod (pan-Russian people) originating from the medieval Kievan Rus or, in Armenia’s case, an ancient Greater or United Armenia.

Russian and Armenian “imagined communities” that exceed the respective borders of the Russian Federation and Armenia have widespread support among ruling elites, state bodies, and populations who harbor nostalgia for “lost territories.” In 2005, Putin said the disintegration of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”  Armenian nationalists support a Greater Armenia, which includes fifteen provinces from what Armenian nationalists call (Tsarist Russian) Eastern Armenia and (Ottoman Turkish) Western Armenia, on the basis of the unimplemented 1920 Treaty of  Sevres. But Russia and Armenia are not alone: Hungary’s ruling populist nationalists routinely denounce the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which reduced their country’s territory by seventy percent.  Respectively, Hungary and Turkey view the Treaties of Trianon and Sevres as humiliating because external powers carved up their territories when they were weak.

Irredentism has a deep history in Russia. Well-known historian Richard Pipes explained that Russia became an empire before it emerged as a nation-state, which has led to confusion about the boundaries between them. In contrast, England and France became nation-states before they built empires. Russians viewed “Russia” and the Soviet Union as one. The Russian SFSR alone was never viewed as the entirety of Russia’s “imagined community.” In Belgrade and Prague, there were federal and republican institutions that reflected separate Serb and Czech identities to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, respectively. But in Moscow, there was no separate Russian SFSR Communist Party, Komsomol (Communist Youth League), Academy of Sciences, Cabinet of Ministers, or other republican institution.

Unlike Ukrainian and Baltic oppositionists, Russian nationalists never sought independence for the Russian SFSR; instead, they sought to transform the Soviet Union into a new empire.  The Russian SFSR never declared independence from the Soviet Union, and annual Russia Day celebrations are based on the June 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty. In the fall of 1991 after the failed putsch by hardliners, the Russian SFSR co-opted the Soviet institutions based in Moscow.

As British historian Vera Tolz has convincingly shown, a civic Russian identity viewing the Russian Federation alone as Russia’s “imagined community” had limited support in the 1990s. Russians, who lived for seven decades with the feeling that the Soviet Union was their “imagined community,”  believed “Russia” to be bigger than the Russian Federation. Since 1991, Russia has pursued the twin goals of “gathering Russian [i.e. eastern Slavic] lands” and integrating and reunifying Eurasia as a Union of Sovereign States, revived Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), integration within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russian World, CIS Customs Union, or Eurasian Economic Union. A Russian-Belarusian union that was initially proposed in 1996 during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency and significantly reduces Belarusian sovereignty will be signed next month.

Presidents Yeltsin and Putin insisted that Russia, as the great power successor to the Soviet Union,  has the right to a sphere of influence in Eurasia, which should be recognized by the West through a ‘Yalta-2’ summit. Former Soviet republics should accept that they are part of a Russian sphere of influence or if they attempt to integrate into the West like Georgia and Ukraine, face Russian-backed separatism. In Eurasia, Russia believes only it has “true sovereignty,” while other former Soviet republics do not. Russia believes they are colonies of the West, which uses them to promote Russophobia and divisions among Eurasian states. The two most common themes in Russian disinformation about Ukraine are that is an “artificial state”  and U.S. “puppet.” Russia's vision for its hegemonic sphere of influence, or what former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev calls its“privileged interests,” perceives color revolutions as U.S.- and European Union-inspired conspiracies and does not include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European Union enlargement, and the introduction of UN and Western peacekeepers. Russia has always demanded exclusive responsibility for “peacekeeping” in the conflicts it has itself manufactured.

The eight to ten million-strong Armenian diaspora is the largest in proportion to the size of an ethnic group (three million), and its greatest influence is in the United States and France. Armenians are the most powerful of all the diasporas from the former Soviet Union; the three Baltic Republics come in second and the Ukrainians come in third.  The Armenian diaspora’s influence is important in many ways because, as a British Foreign Office document explained, its sentiments “will remain a significant obstacle to achieving compromise-based solution over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and Armenia’s relations with Turkey.” With a powerful and influential diaspora, “Yerevan’s scope for manoeuvre” is limited, the British Foreign Office believes.

A U.S. diplomatic cable noted the Armenian-American diaspora “tend to be nationalistic in nature” and “has shown limited interest in the promotion of democracy, electoral reform, and civil society development in Armenia.” At the same time, the Armenian-American diaspora “are quick to mobilize their supporters against the [government of Armenia; GOAM] if the Diaspora groups believe the GOAM is not acting in Armenia's best interests. Many groups oppose the GOAM's regional reconciliation efforts on the grounds that such reconciliation does not include resolution of the simmering conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh or recognition that the Ottoman Empire engaged in genocide in 1915.”

Throughout its twentieth-century existence, the most influential Armenian political force was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun; ARF) which has always supported a Greater Armenia. The ARF is the dominant party in the most influential diaspora organization in the United States, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). The ARF dominated the 1918 Armenian Republic which signed the Treaty of Sevres.

During the Cold War, the Armenian diaspora pursued international recognition of 1915 as a genocide, which they linked to territorial claims to what they call Western Armenia (Eastern Turkey). The terrorist organization the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) supported a Greater Armenia and international recognition of 1915 as genocide. The Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG) and Armenian Revolutionary Army (ARA) were two smaller terrorist organizations with the same goals. From 1975 to 1991, ASALA, with Soviet KGB logistical support provided through Palestinian terrorist proxies, perpetrated fifty bombings and assassinations that resulted in the deaths of forty-six people and 299 wounded. Their targets were NATO-member Turkey’s diplomats and state officials. No other diaspora formerly in the USSR—including Ukrainians who also had a powerful nationalist diaspora and campaigned for recognition of the 1933 Holodomor as a genocide—adopted terrorism.