In 1697 Tsar Peter the Great set out on a great journey across western Europe, seeking the support of European monarchs in his confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Unsuccessful in securing alliances, he returned instead laden with ideas acquired in his travels through Britain and Holland, which he promptly put into action in modernising Russia. The most visible symbol of this new nation was Saint Petersburg, the intended new capital of his empire. By 1858, an English visitor to the city described it as ‘one of the handsomest cities in Europe’, with a street of residences ‘so large that 50 extend over an English mile.’
And so it was that Russia progressed from a country dominated by the palaces of a wealthy few and an underclass of slaves, to a modern European country dominated by the palaces of a wealthy few with an underclass of serfs, progressing to Communism – a system dominated by the state-owned palaces of a wealthy few with a large and state-mandated underclass – and then finally to Putinism, a system dominated by the stately houses of Oligarchs and… well, you get the picture.
Despite the best efforts of Peter and his successors, Russia has never been quite like the rest of the West. And despite the best efforts of Putin and his regime, western leaders have not quite grasped this point.
Up until the moment Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s borders, a loud contingent insisted that Putin was simply bluffing. A day after President Biden told the world that Putin had already decided to invade, Vice-President Harris remarked with a degree of incredulity that ‘we’re talking about the potential for war in Europe’, pinning hopes on a ‘narrowing’ window for a diplomatic resolution. Paris decried ‘alarmism in Washington and London’, insisting there was ‘no immediate likelihood of Russian military action’, while President Macron touted ‘an assurance that there would be no deterioration or escalation’; the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service was so caught off guard that he was actually in Kyiv when Putin launched his invasion. Even Ukrainian president Zelenskyy insisted there was no ‘higher escalation than the one which existed last year.’
Putin had told us time and time again what his ambitions were. In 2005, he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century’ which stranded ‘millions of our citizens and compatriots… outside of the borders of Russian territory’, and stated his dedication to ‘the Russian nation’s mission to bring further civilisation to the Euro-Asian continent.’ In 2007, addressing the Munich Security Conference, he laid out his grievances with ‘a unipolar world’ with ‘one master, one sovereign’ which was ‘not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world’ – and his particular distaste for Nato’s Eastern expansion.
In 2008, he ordered his troops into Georgia over the merest suggestion that it might join the organisation in the future. Dmitry Medvedev, who served a term as President with Putin as Prime Minister, told Russian troops that if they ‘had faltered back in 2008, the geopolitical situation would be different now, and a number of countries which [Nato] tried to deliberately drag into the alliance, would have most likely already been part of it now.’
In 2014, Putin’s soldiers took the Crimean Peninsula, and set up separatist regimes in Donbas. In a speech delivered to the Russian parliament, Putin laid out his view of ‘our shared history and pride’, and of Crimea as ‘an inseparable part of Russia’ stolen by Bolsheviks after the revolution. Speaking to the Valdai Club in the same year, he described ‘the unipolar world’ as ‘a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries.’ And in 2021, Putin published an essay titled ‘on the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, setting out in detail his view that ‘modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era’, a puppet state controlled by the West, capable of true sovereignty ‘only in partnership with Russia’.
Putin does not see Russia as just another nation on Europe’s fringe, but a great power fallen from its height, robbed of its rightful place in the world, and shorn of its integral territory. His ambition is to right this. Viewing these actions through the framework of western values was doomed to produce the wrong result.
Doomed also is any attempt to shift Russian political culture that identifies the problem solely with Putin. We are rightly wary of suggestions that ‘national character’ dominate foreign affairs, but we should be open to the point that no matter what political systems we impose on a people, so long as there is cultural continuity there will be a strand of continuity in outcome. Putin clearly shares this view, describing a powerful and illiberal state as far from anomalous, but instead a ‘source and guarantor of order’, a role ‘laid down in Russia’s genetic code, its traditions, and the mentality of its peoples.’
Efforts to produce political change in Russia need to reckon with this dynamic. It is abundantly clear that the end of Putin will not be the end of Russian nationalism, and there is a risk that his successor may find themselves in greater debt to the country’s hardliners. Putin believes in the civic Russian identity, claiming pride in being ‘part of the powerful, strong, multi-ethnic people of Russia’, and expressing distaste for ‘attempts to preach the idea of a “national” or monoethnic Russian state’. His regime has made use of nationalist rhetoric when it has been useful, and side-lined it on other occasions. In any struggle to succeed it, more overtly nationalistic appeals may prove a powerful tool for those looking to build support. Repeating yet again the mistake that the overthrow of just one leader will see Russia finally join the West could prove extremely costly.