*The World Putin Wants* (I/II), Fiona Hill & Angela Stent
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, June 2022
Contributor / Getty Images
Vladimir Putin is determined to shape the future to look like his version of the past. Russia’s president invaded Ukraine not because he felt threatened by NATO expansion or by Western “provocations.” He ordered his “special military operation” because he believes that it is Russia’s divine right to rule Ukraine, to wipe out the country’s national identity, and to integrate its people into a Greater Russia.
He laid out this mission in a 5,000-word treatise, published in July 2021, entitled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” In it, Putin insisted that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are all descendants of the Rus, an ancient people who settled the lands between the Black and Baltic Seas. He asserted that they are bound together by a common territory and language and the Orthodox Christian faith. In his version of history, Ukraine has never been sovereign, except for a few historical interludes when it tried—and failed—to become an independent state. Putin wrote that “Russia was robbed” of core territory when the Bolsheviks created the Soviet Union in 1922 and established a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In his telling, since the Soviet collapse, the West has used Ukraine as a platform to threaten Russia, and it has supported the rise of “neo-Nazis” there. Putin’s essay, which every soldier sent to Ukraine is supposed to carry, ends by asserting that Ukraine can only be sovereign in partnership with Russia. “We are one people,” Putin declares.
This treatise, and similar public statements, make clear that Putin wants a world where Russia presides over a new Slavic union composed of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and perhaps the northern part of Kazakhstan (which is heavily Slavic)—and where all the other post-Soviet states recognize Russia’s suzerainty. He also wants the West and the global South to accept Russia’s predominant regional role in Eurasia. This is more than a sphere of influence; it is a sphere of control, with a mixture of outright territorial reintegration of some places and dominance in the security, political, and economic spheres of others.
Putin is serious about achieving these goals by military and nonmilitary means. He has been at war in Ukraine since early 2014, when Russian forces, wearing green combat uniforms stripped of their insignia, took control of Crimea in a stealth operation. This attack was swiftly followed by covert operations to stir up civil disorder in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions close to the Russian border. Russia succeeded in fomenting revolt in the Donbas region and sparking an armed conflict that resulted in 14,000 deaths over the next eight years. All these regions have been targeted for assault and conquest since February 2022. Similarly, in Belarus, Putin took advantage of internal crises and large-scale protests in 2020 and 2021 to constrain its leader’s room for maneuver. Belarus, which has a so-called union arrangement with Russia, was then used as the staging ground for the “special military operation” against Ukraine.
The Russian president has made it clear that his country is a revisionist power. In a March 2014 speech marking Crimea’s annexation, Putin put the West on notice that Russia was on the offensive in staking out its regional claims. To make this task easier, Putin later took steps that he believed would sanction-proof the Russian economy by reducing its exposure to the United States and Europe, including pushing for the domestic production of critical goods. He stepped up repression, conducting targeted assassinations and imprisoning opponents. He carried out disinformation operations and engaged in efforts to bribe and blackmail politicians abroad. Putin has constantly adapted his tactics to mitigate Western responses—to the point that on the eve of his invasion, as Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders, he bragged to some European interlocutors that he had “bought the West.” There was nothing, he thought, that the United States or Europe could do to constrain him.
So far, the West’s reaction to the invasion has generally been united and robust. Russia’s aggressive attack on Ukraine was a wake-up call for the United States and its allies. But the West must understand that it is dealing with a leader who is trying to change the historical narrative of the last hundred years—not just of the period since the end of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin wants to make Ukraine, Europe, and indeed the whole world conform to his own version of history. Understanding his objectives is central to crafting the right response.
WHO CONTROLS THE PAST?
In Vladimir Putin’s mind, history matters—that is, history as he sees it. Putin’s conception of the past may be very different from what is generally accepted, but his narratives are a potent political weapon, and they underpin his legitimacy. Well before the full invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Putin had been making intellectual forays into obscure periods of the past and manipulating key events to set up the domestic and international justification for his war. In 2010, at the annual meeting of the Kremlin-sponsored Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin’s press spokesman told the audience that the Russian president reads books on Russian history “all the time.” He makes frequent pronouncements about Russian history, including about his own place in it. Putin has put Kyiv at the center of his drive to “correct” what he says is a historical injustice: the separation of Ukraine from Russia during the 1922 formation of the Soviet Union.
The president’s obsession with Russia’s imperial past runs deep. In his Kremlin chambers, Putin has strategically placed statues of the Russian monarchs Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, who conquered what are today Ukrainian territories in wars with the Swedish and Ottoman empires. He has also usurped Ukraine’s history and appropriated some of its most prominent figures. In November 2016, for example, right outside the Kremlin gates, Putin erected a statue of Vladimir the Great, the tenth-century grand prince of the principality of Kyiv. In Putin’s version of history, Grand Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity on behalf of all of ancient Rus in 988, making him the holy saint of Orthodox Christianity and a Russian, not a Ukrainian, Figure. The conversion means that there is no Ukrainian nation separate from Russia. The grand prince belongs to Moscow, not to Kyiv.
Since the war, Putin has doubled down on his historical arguments. He deputized his former culture minister and close Kremlin aide, Vladimir Medinsky, to lead the Russian delegation in early talks with Ukraine. According to a well-informed Russian academic, Medinsky was one of the ghostwriters of a series of essays by Putin on Ukraine and its supposed fusion with Russia. As quickly became clear, Medinsky’s brief was to press Russia’s historical claims to Ukraine and defend Putin’s distorted narratives, not just to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
Putin’s assertions, of course, are historical miasmas, infused with a brew of temporal and factual contradictions. They ignore, for example, the fact that in 988, the idea of a united Russian state and empire was centuries off in the future. Indeed, the first reference to Moscow as a place of any importance was not recorded until 1147.
BLAMING THE BOLSHEVIKS
On the eve of the invasion, Putin gave a speech accusing Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin of destroying the Russian empire by launching a revolution during World War I and then “separating, severing what is historically Russian land.” As Putin put it, “Bolshevik, Communist Russia” created “a country that had never existed before”—Ukraine—by wedging Russian territories such as the Donbas region, a center of heavy industry, into a new Ukrainian socialist republic. In fact, Lenin and the Bolsheviks essentially recreated the Russian empire and just called it something else. They established separate Soviet Socialist Republics for Ukraine and other regions to contrast themselves with the imperial tsars, who reigned over a united, Russified state and oppressed ethnic minorities. But for Putin, the Bolsheviks’ decision was illegitimate, robbing Russia of its patrimony and stirring “zealous nationalists” in Ukraine, who then developed dangerous ideas of independence. Putin claims he is reversing these century-old “strategic mistakes.”
Narratives about NATO have also played a special role in Putin’s version of history. Putin argues that NATO is a tool of U.S. imperialism and a means for the United States to continue its supposed Cold War occupation and domination of Europe. He claims that NATO compelled eastern European member countries to join the organization and accuses it of unilaterally expanding into Russia’s sphere of influence. In reality, those countries, still fearful after decades of Soviet domination, clamored to become members.
But according to Putin, these purported actions by the United States and NATO have forced Russia to defend itself against military encroachment; Moscow had “no other choice,” he claims, but to invade Ukraine to forestall it from joining NATO, even though the organization was not going to admit the country. On July 7, 2022, Putin told Russian parliamentary leaders that the war in Ukraine was unleashed by “the collective West,” which was trying to contain Russia and “impose its new world order on the rest of the world.”
The more that Russia tries to erase the Ukrainian national identity, the stronger it becomes.
But Putin also plays up Russia’s imperial role. At a June 9, 2022, Moscow conference, Putin told young Russian entrepreneurs that Ukraine is a “colony,” not a sovereign country. He likened himself to Peter the Great, who waged “the Great Northern War” for 21 years against Sweden—“returning and reinforcing” control over land that was part of Russia. This explanation also echoes what Putin told U.S. President George Bush at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest: “Ukraine is not a real country.”
The United States was, of course, once a colony of Great Britain. So were Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, and numerous other states that have been independent and sovereign for decades. That does not make them British or give the United Kingdom a contemporary claim to exert control over their destinies, even though many of these countries have English as their first or second language. Yet Putin insists that Ukraine’s Russian speakers are all Moscow’s subjects and that, globally, all Russian speakers are part of the “Russian world,” with special ties to the motherland.
In Ukraine, however, his push has backfired. Since February 24, 2022, Putin’s insistence that Ukrainians who speak Russian are Russians has, on the contrary, helped to forge a new national identity in Ukraine centered on the Ukrainian language. The more that Putin tries to erase the Ukrainian national identity with bombs and artillery shells, the stronger it becomes.
Ukraine and Ukrainians have a complicated history. Empires have come and gone, and borders have changed for centuries, so the people living on modern Ukrainian territory have fluid, compound identities. But Ukraine has been an independent state since 1991, and Putin is genuinely aggrieved that Ukrainians insist on their own statehood and civic identity.
Take Putin’s frequent references to World War II. Since 2011, Putin has enshrined the “Great Fatherland War” as the seminal event for modern Russia. He has strictly enforced official narratives about the conflict. He has also portrayed his current operation as its successor; in Putin’s telling, the invasion of Ukraine is designed to liberate the country from Nazis. But for Putin, Ukrainians are Nazis not because they follow the precepts of Adolf Hitler or espouse national socialism. They are Nazis because they are “zealous nationalists”—akin to the controversial World War II–era Ukrainian partisan Stepan Bandera, who fought with the Germans against Soviet forces. They are Nazis because they refuse to admit they are Russians.
Putin’s conjuring of Ukrainian Nazis has gained ...