Putin’s words speak for themselves: what he is aiming for in Ukraine is the restoration of Russia as an imperial power.
Many observers were quick to pick up on one of Putin’s most provocative lines, in which he compared himself to Peter the Great, Russia’s modernizing czar and founder of St. Petersburg – Putin’s own birthplace – which came to power at the end of the 17th century.
“Peter the Great fought the Great Northern War for 21 years,” Putin said relaxed and seemingly self-satisfied. “At first glance he was at war with Sweden, taking something away from them… He wasn’t taking anything away from them, he was coming back. That was how it was.”
It didn’t matter that European countries did not recognize Peter the Great’s seizure of territory by force, Putin added.
“When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognized this territory as part of Russia; everyone recognized it as part of Sweden,” Putin said. “However, from time immemorial the Slavs lived there together with the Finno-Ugric peoples, and this territory was under the control of Russia. The same is true of the western direction, Narva and its first campaigns. Why would he go there? He was coming back and strengthening, that’s what he was doing.”
Directly alluding to his own invasion of Ukraine, Putin added: “Obviously it was also our job to come back and strengthen ourselves.”
These remarks were quickly condemned by the Ukrainians, who saw in them a simple admission of imperial ambitions of Putin.
“Putin’s confessions of land seizures and his comparison with Peter the Great prove that there was no ‘conflict’, only the bloody seizure of the country under contrived pretexts of popular genocide,” said on Twitter Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. “We shouldn’t talk about ‘saving [Russia’s] face”, but of its immediate de-imperialization. »
These arguments might have seemed more reasonable before February 24. In the run-up to the invasion, Putin presented a range of grievances to argue for war, from NATO’s eastward expansion to the West’s provision of military assistance to the Ukraine.
But read the transcript of Putin’s remarks on Thursday more closely, and the facade of rational geopolitical haggling falls away.
“In order to claim some kind of leadership – I don’t even mean global leadership, I mean leadership in any field – any country, any people, any ethnic group should ensure its sovereignty,” Putin said. “Because there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign or it is a colony, whatever the colonies are called.”
In other words, there are two categories of state: the sovereign and the conquered. From Putin’s imperial perspective, Ukraine should fall into the latter category.
By invoking the memory of Peter the Great, it also becomes clear that Putin’s goals are guided by some sense of historical destiny. And Putin’s imperial restoration project could – in theory – extend to other territories that belonged to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, which should sound the alarm in all the countries that emerged from the collapse of the USSR.
And that doesn’t bode well for Russia’s future. If there is no consideration of Russia’s imperial past – whether in Soviet or Tsarist form – there is less chance that a Russia without Putin will abandon a pattern of subjugating its neighbors. , or become a more democratic state.
Putin, however, is counting on something to the contrary: for Russia to survive, he argues, it must remain an empire, whatever the human cost.
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