Putin’s career roadmap goes back to the emperors Peter and Catherine

Putin enjoyed early greatness.
Putin enjoyed early greatness.
Image: Pool
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To decipher what president Vladimir Putin wants, a strong hint comes in his frequent allusion to Russia’s past—he seems to be seeking to reprise what he sees as his country’s glorious history. But what does that suggest in practice?

So far it has meant the annexation of Crimea; the impression that he is strongly considering—or has already made plans for—a similar annexation (paywall) for much or all of eastern Ukraine; and protecting ethnic Russians everywhere. Taking that historical sentimentality to its logical extreme, Putin would like to emulate Russia’s greatest political heroes—Peter the Great and Catherine the Great—and expand the country through attacks on its neighbors.

These great czars had other legacies, to be sure; both of them turned Russia’s gaze westwards and borrowed heavily from European culture and customs. But that is where Putin departs from them. Before he leaves office or dies, he would like to recreate a Russian empire with a decided turn back East and the reabsorption of choice bits of the former Soviet states around him.

But what bits would those be? The New Republic has a roundup of how Putin’s new policies are seen in 14 former Soviet states plus Poland, but he seems especially keen on eastern Ukraine’s industrial belt. One could add Kazakhstan’s north, home to the giant Karachaganak natural gas field and much in the way of metals and minerals; and also the whole of Belarus. The writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while a fierce critic of the Soviet Union that jailed and then exiled him, was an ardent advocate of a Greater Russia, who fancied just that combination. It would be Putin’s Eurasian Union, only officially Russian.

There is no telling the horizons of Putin’s vision of territorial greatness. Some say it includes parts of the Baltics. Andrei Illarionov, his former economic adviser, says Putin won’t stop until Russia possesses both the Baltics and Finland. That sounds implausible; they are all EU members, and the Baltics are in NATO, so he would be messing with a lot of other countries.

But a few short weeks ago, that Putin would take Crimea seemed not much less far-fetched, and the idea that he might set his sights on the rest of eastern Ukraine–as he now seems to be doing–felt absurd.