Russia and China Eying Neighboring Conquests

Revanchism and hurt feelings drive the desire to reassemble old empires

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Revanchism, from the French revanche or “revenge,” is the will to reverse territorial losses following war or social movement. The dismantling of the Soviet Union, to cite one example, has led to a Putinesque policy of irredentism, the reclamation of territory once within the Soviet orbit. In a strange way revanchism has become the 21st century foreign policy perspective.

Palestinians believe the land captured in the 1967 war against Israel is “occupied” territory, hence territory belonging to the Palestinians.

Chinese government officials agree Siberia is a province of China—a territory the Chinese once controlled.

Persians believe the Tigris Euphrates valleys are within their empire, notwithstanding the states with a present claim on this territory.

Revanchism accompanies claims around the globe as steadfast statism retreats before disruptive politics. As a term, revanchism originated in the 1870s in the aftermath of the Franco Prussian War among nationalists who wanted to avenge the French defeat and reclaim the lost territories of Alsace-Loraine. The movement draws its strength from patriotic and retributionist thought. It is inextricably linked to irredentism—that a part of the cultural and ethnic nation remains unredeemed outside the borders of the nation state.

Russian strategy relies on military intimidation and non-military means, like the manipulation of perspectives. To offset those strategies, the West requires a united front and the means to counter revanchist efforts through a variety of penalties.

The questions that always remain are what is fair and what is legitimate. Is it legitimate for Mexico to claim rights to the Southwestern states? Is it fair for Russia to say the sale of Alaska was inappropriate? When do the claims of revanchism end? Does history have limits or are the boundaries determined by the relative strength and power of the claimant? Recently the Hague International Court ruled the Philippine claim of the Spratly islands was legitimate. The Chinese government, however, chose to ignore the judgement.

History is replete with examples where false claims were backed by powerful armies. Japan invaded Manchuria prior to World War II, arguing it was once a Japanese province and should be united with Japan again. Absurd on its face, this claim was recognized until Japan was ultimately defeated.

China, based on its ancient history, contends that it is the Middle Kingdom and all nearby Asian states are peripheral and subject to the expanding concentric circle of Chinese influence.

Revanchism affects the law and is also hostage to extra-legal concerns. It is a plea for justice and a false justification for imperial aims. Unfortunately, global stability depends on the recommendations of competing interests. Where law is ignored, force prevails. If, for example, China decides to ignore decisions at the Hague, can one force China’s hand? Is it productive to do so over a few rocky islands in the middle of the China Sea? But if action isn’t taken, does that become a precedent in future controversies?

Putin’s portrayal of Russia besieged by implacable foes opposed to its irredentist position resonates with Russian memory and is popular domestically. Revanchism is a gift that keeps giving since a Russia suffering from economic hazards from within has claimed glories from without. Moreover, a Russia willing to fight has a distinct psychological advantage over European states in the grip of appeasement. Overt invasions may be a condition of the past, but revanchism provides a pretext for military operations and saber rattling which can be justified as crisis management. Imperial Russia resides in the mind set of revanchist thinking and the West had better get used to it.

Dr. Herbert I. London is the President of the London Center for Policy Research and is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written or contributed to 30 books and as a social critic, his work has been published in many prominent publications.

Russia and China Eying Neighboring Conquests