It’s rarely easy to read Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinking, but on rare occasions, the Kremlin leader makes it simple.
On Thursday, Putin met with a group of young Russian entrepreneurs, anyone interested in learning more about Putin’s plans for Ukraine can read the transcript, which has been made available in English.
Putin’s comments speak for themselves: the restoration of Russia as an imperial power is his goal in Ukraine.
Many people picked up on one of Putin’s most inflammatory comments, in which he compared himself to Peter the Great, Russia’s reforming ruler and the founder of St. Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace, who rose to power in the late 17th century.
“Peter the Great fought the Great Northern War for 21 years,” Putin continued, calm and self-satisfied. “On the surface, he appeared to be at odds with Sweden, attempting to wrest something from them… He wasn’t taking anything away; instead, he was returning. That was the situation.”
Putin went on to say that it didn’t matter if European countries didn’t acknowledge Peter the Great’s forcible conquest of territory.
“None of the European countries acknowledged this land as part of Russia when he created the new capital; everyone recognised it as part of Sweden,” Putin remarked. “Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples have lived there since time immemorial, and the land has always been under Russian sovereignty. The same may be said for Narva and his early campaigns in the west. Why would he go there in the first place? That’s what he was doing, returning and reinforcing.”
Alluding directly to his own invasion of Ukraine, Putin added: “Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.”
Those remarks were swiftly condemned by Ukrainians, who saw them as a naked admission of Putin’s imperial ambitions.
“Putin’s confession of land seizures and comparing himself with Peter the Great prove: there was no ‘conflict,’ only the country’s bloody seizure under contrived pretexts of people’s genocide,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “We should not talk about ‘saving [Russia’s] face,’ but about its immediate de-imperialization.”
Soviet or tsarist guise — there is less chance that a Russia without Putin would abandon a pattern of subjugating its neighbors, or become a more democratic state.
Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski famously asserted that Russia could only part ways with its imperial habits if it were willing to surrender its claims to Ukraine.
“It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire,” he wrote in 1994.
Putin, however, is counting on something of the opposite: For Russia to survive, he argues, it must remain an empire, regardless of the human cost.