Restoring the empire is Putin’s end game

(CNN) – Reading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thoughts is rarely an easy task, but the Kremlin leader sometimes makes it easy.

That was the case on Thursday, when Putin met with a group of young Russian businessmen. Anyone looking for clues about what Putin’s final game for Ukraine might be like should read the text posted here in English helpfully.

Putin’s words speak for themselves: What he wants in Ukraine is the restoration of Russia as an imperial power.

Many observers were quick to recognize one of Putin’s most provocative lines, as he compared himself to Peter the Great, the modernized Tsar of Russia and founder of Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg, who took power in the late 17th century.

“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years,” Putin said, relieved and seemingly complacent. “At first glance, she was at war with Sweden and took something from her… She wasn’t taking anything from her, she was coming back. That’s how it was.”

Putin added that it does not matter that European countries did not recognize Peter the Great’s forcible seizure of territory.

“When he founded the new capital, no European country recognized this region as part of Russia; “everyone knows it as part of Sweden,” said Putin. “However, from time immemorial, the Slavs lived there with the Finno-Ugric peoples, and this region was under the control of Russia. . The same is true of the western direction, Narva and its first campaigns. Why do I go there? It was coming back and reinforcing, that’s what I was doing.”

Referring directly to his invasion of Ukraine, Putin added: “We were obviously lucky to come back and reinforce as well.”

The comments were quickly denounced by the Ukrainians, who saw them as a frank acknowledgment of Putin’s imperial ambitions.

“Putin’s confession about the confiscation of land and his comparison with Peter the Great proves it: there was no ‘conflict’, only the bloody seizure of the country under the artificial pretext of the popular genocide,” said Mikhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s presidential adviser, on Twitter. We shouldn’t talk about ‘saving face’ [de Rusia]’, but from its immediate de-imperialism.”

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There is a lot to unpack here, both in terms of history and current affairs. Podolak was alluding to speaking in international capitals about offering Putin a face-saving way to reduce or stop the fighting in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron led the charge, saying last weekend that the world “must not humiliate Russia” in pursuit of a diplomatic solution.

These arguments may have made more sense before February 24. In the run-up to the invasion, Putin put forward a series of grievances in defense of the war, from NATO’s eastward expansion to the delivery of Western military aid to Ukraine.

But read the transcript of Putin’s Thursday remarks closely, and the facade of rational geopolitical negotiations is crumbling.

“To demand some kind of leadership, I am not even talking about global leadership, I mean that leadership in any region, any country, any people, any ethnic group must guarantee its sovereignty,” Putin said. “For there is no middle ground, no intermediate state: either the state is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the name of the colonies may be.”

In other words, there are two categories of state: ruler and occupier. In Putin’s imperial vision, Ukraine should fall into the latter category.

Putin has long argued that Ukrainians do not have a legitimate national identity and that their state is essentially a puppet of the West. In other words, he believes that Ukrainians have no agency and are submissive people.

By invoking the memory of Peter the Great, it is also clear that Putin’s goals are motivated by some sense of historical destiny. Putin’s imperial reform project could, in theory, extend to other regions that previously belonged to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, something that should sound alarm bells in all countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Earlier this week, a lawmaker from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party submitted a bill to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, repealing a Soviet resolution recognizing Lithuania’s independence. Lithuania may now be a member of NATO and part of the European Union, but in Putin’s Russia, this kind of neo-colonial attitude is the surest display of loyalty to the president.

This does not bode well for Russia’s future. If Russia’s imperial past, whether in the Soviet or Tsarist form, is not taken into account, there is less chance that Russia without Putin will abandon the pattern of subjugating its neighbors or become a more democratic country.

Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has claimed that Russia can give up its imperial habits only if it is willing to give up its claims to Ukraine.

“It cannot be emphasized enough that without Ukraine, Russia is no longer an empire, but with Ukraine bribed and then subjugated, Russia automatically becomes an empire,” he wrote in 1994.
However, Putin is counting on the opposite: for Russia to survive, he argues, it must remain an empire, regardless of the human cost.

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