Letter From the Editors
If you are wondering how Vladimir Putin views his own place in history, then look no further than the following pages. While his June 9 appearance took place at VDNKh, Stalin’s shrine to Soviet industrialization, the Russian president spoke chiefly about Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great, and how the 18th century Northern War echoes in the current Ukraine conflict.
“Almost nothing has changed. . . . Peter the Great waged the Northern War for 21 years. It would appear that he was fighting against Sweden, that he was seizing something – He wasn’t! . . . This applies to Narva and his first campaigns. . . . He was reclaiming and strengthening. . . . It seems it has also fallen to us to reclaim and strengthen,” Putin said.
Before exploring the political implications of this comparison, let’s examine what it means from a military standpoint. First, anyone who hopes that the Russian side will tire itself out by this fall should note how, using the Northern War as a benchmark, Putin has now set a deadline of decades to achieve his aims. Second, rather than highlighting the strategic victories at Poltava and Azov (which are closer to the current theater of action), Putin mentioned the Battle of Narva, the most catastrophic tactical setback of Peter’s reign.
One suspects the Russian president chose this as a flattering comparison: On that one day in 1700, the Russian Army lost more generals and a far larger share of its artillery pieces than it did over three months of 2022, despite what you may have heard about tractors hauling away deserted equipment, or about drones cutting down waves of the vaunted Airborne Forces over Gostomel and Chernobayevka. Putin’s Poltava will have to wait, and that is the closest thing we are likely to see of an admission that his special operation has not gone completely “according to plan.”
We can see Putin’s intentions of “reclaiming and strengthening” in the Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. Izvestia’s sources in the Russian government say that “Kherson and Zaporozhye Provinces will not be included in a new agreement between Russia and Kiev” – putting them on par with the Kremlin-recognized Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. United Russia’s Andrei Turchak went to Kherson to assure locals that “Russia is here forever,” while domestic policy point man Sergei Kiriyenko made similar assurances in Melitopol, after which the town’s recently appointed mayor alluded to a future “referendum.”
And it makes little difference to the Kremlin whether these referendums result in four (or more) people’s republics or a single Novorossia Province within Russia, as Putin makes clear later in his VDNKh remarks: “A country is either sovereign or a colony. . . . And a colony has no historical prospects: no chances of surviving in such a harsh geopolitical struggle.” In keeping with previous semiofficial pronouncements, this pronouncement suggests a belief that, yes, these statelets are Russian colonies, but the rest of Ukraine has become an American colony, so its sovereignty is a moot point.
This line of thinking has seeped into many areas of Russia’s foreign policy. When several Balkan states closed their airspace to Lavrov, he wondered whether this was due to “an order or a desire to curry favor” with the West. Security official Rashid Nurgaliyev claimed: “Washington’s long-term goal is to split the CIS, the CSTO [and] the EaEU . . . turning them, like Ukraine, into puppets and colonial regimes.” Meanwhile, the push for CSTO integration continues. The chair of the Duma’s defense committee clarified the organization’s role in the Ukraine conflict: “As long as the special military operation continues, no peacekeepers will appear there. . . . [But] at the post-conflict settlement stage, various options are possible.”
Considering this attitude, Vladislav Inozemtsev compared Putin to a different historical figure: “Munich showed that a dictator raving with dreams of world domination or the restoration of a long-dead empire cannot be appeased.”