Peter the Great and Putin the Mediocre


In a recent speech to young entrepreneurs in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared himself to Tsar Peter the Great. In the speech, celebrating the 350th anniversary of his birth, he justified the military invasion of Ukraine with Russia’s right to seize land previously conquered by the 18th-century tsar. Putin has repeatedly stated that Ukraine is not a real nation, that it has historically been Russian and that its identity is uniquely Russian.

“What was (Pierre) doing? Putin asked in his June 9 speech. “Take back and strengthen. That’s what he did. And it seems like it behooves us to pick up and strengthen as well.

One wonders if the timing of the invasion of Ukraine was taken with this special 350th anniversary in mind. Putin could have believed that on that date he would not only control Ukraine, but also Belarus and Moldova to recreate the Russian Empire. Previous Russian justifications for military intervention – preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, ridding kyiv of its “Nazi” regime – have been replaced by the real geopolitical rationale: the re-establishment of an imperial empire by Tsar Putin.

The concept of creating, recreating or defending the Russian Empire has been used by Soviet and Russian leaders over the past century. Vladimir Lenin justified the suppression of opposition and dissent in the newly formed Soviet Union by claiming that he was protecting the “proletarian gains” of the Bolshevik Revolution. Joseph Stalin created and dominated a bloc of socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe after World War II, and stifled any nationalist or democratic movement in the name of “socialist unity”. Nikita Khrushchev prevented any ideological departure from the new “socialist community” by using military force to overthrow a reformist government in Hungary in 1956. Under Leonard Brezhnev, the Warsaw Pact countries invaded fellow ally Czechoslovakia in 1968 to prevent the adoption of the policy by this government. socialism with a human face. The belief was that countries under Soviet rule had “limited sovereignty” and that the loss of one country or republic could undermine the entire “socialist community”.

After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Putin adopted a similar strategy with his military invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Both countries leaned more towards the West and democratic norms, with interests to join NATO or the European Union. Putin justified his military actions by claiming that Russian speakers in these former Soviet republics were persecuted by their new governments. He punished them by seizing territories, creating “frozen conflicts” or puppet regimes in these regions. In 2022, Putin’s focus on Ukraine has gone beyond limiting that country’s sovereignty to eliminating its sovereignty.

Putin’s comments in St. Petersburg therefore reveal his fundamental reason for invading Ukraine: as a step towards the ultimate recreation of the Russian Empire. Given this reasoning, he is not interested in an “exit” from the conflict or worried about the national “humiliation” that French President Emmanuel Macron has proclaimed. The diplomatic solution that the “realist” Henry Kissinger suggested at Davos – that both countries accept the borders that existed before February 24 – is no longer realistic. Putin also need not worry about domestic opposition to his “special military operation”. Its total control over the media and public information, its violent repression of demonstrations, the muzzling or imprisonment of the opposition, give it the possibility of saying what it wants, of using all the propaganda necessary to justify his actions. Given these tools, Putin does not have to justify why the current government in kyiv is still in power, the poor performance of the Russian military, the limited territorial gains in Ukraine, the large number of soldiers killed and injured or the fierce resistance from the Ukrainians. We now know what the Russian leader’s goals are, and the United States, NATO and other allies must ensure that Ukraine receives the military, financial and intelligence-sharing assistance it needs to defend and prevent Putin from pursuing his imperial dreams.

Peter the Great admired the West, where he had traveled extensively to learn about reforms that he believed could turn Russia into a great power. He wanted to open Russia to Europe and he made St. Petersburg his country’s window to the West. Who knew that 350 years later, a native of this same city, Vladimir Putin, would attempt to recreate the Russian Empire? But this time, what Putin the Mediocre is recreating is not the empire of Peter the Great, but the Soviet Union 2.0 – ideologically further removed from the West, militarily contested, economically weakened, suffocated on the domestically and diplomatically isolated.

Joanna M. Gwozdziowski, PhD, a Stamford resident, is Senior Program Advisor for the 20/20 Network. She was a board member of the World Affairs Forum for over 10 years, including as Chair of Programs. She holds a PhD in International Relations from Oxford University, specializing in Russian and Central and Eastern European Affairs.


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