How Far Do Putin’s Imperial Ambitions Go?

The Russian president and his inner circle speak openly about retaking the vast lands that Moscow once controlled. As the war continues in Ukraine, Russia’s neighbors are taking the threats seriously.

By Yaroslav Trofimov (WSJ)

Saturday Essay June 24, 2022

At a ceremony honoring young geographers in 2016, President Vladimir Putin asked one boy about the capital of Burkina Faso and then quizzed another about where Russia’s borders end.

“At the Bering Strait with the United States,” the 9-year-old boy ventured hesitantly. Mr. Putin, who chairs the board of the Russian Geographic Society, contradicted the boy to triumphant applause. “The borders of Russia,” he pronounced, “never end.”

The scene, years before Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed the biggest war in Europe since World War II and triggered a breakdown between Russia and the West, illuminates a conviction deeply held by many in Moscow’s establishment: that Russia has the natural right, and the existential need, for territorial expansion.

Until recently, this imperial belief was often couched in language that is more acceptable in the 21st century, such as security concerns about NATO’s expansion or apprehension about alleged discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities. Since the war began, however, calls for seizing new lands have become much more explicit.

Earlier this month, Mr. Putin said that he views Ukraine as just the first step, with many other territories potential targets. On June 9, he held court in front of a sign proclaiming “Peter the Great, the Birth of the Empire” at an exhibition honoring the 350th anniversary of Russia’s first emperor. With a smile, Mr. Putin explained that when Peter conquered from Sweden the area of today’s St. Petersburg and the city of Narva, currently in Estonia, “he was merely returning what is ours, and strengthening it,” even though nobody else at the time recognized the legality of Russia’s land grab.

“It seems like it is our destiny too, to return and to strengthen,” Mr. Putin added, suggesting that—like the wars of Peter the Great—the current conflict could last more than two decades. His senior adviser Vladimir Medinsky was even more explicit. He lamented at the same conference that Russia’s territory has greatly diminished from the time when Moscow controlled one-sixth of the planet’s surface, including Finland, Poland, and 14 other currently independent nations. That unfortunate territorial retreat “is not forever,” he said.

Much of this revanchist [irredentist] rhetoric is driven by decades of resentment over the Soviet Union’s collapse, a defining moment in the lives of Mr. Putin and most of Russia’s ruling class. Described by Mr. Putin as the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union deprived Russia of nearly half the population and lands that had been amassed by czars over the centuries. It also turned a global superpower into a rump, bankrupt nation beset by poverty, corruption and internal revolts.

Moscow’s fresh threats against neighbors such as Estonia and Lithuania (members of NATO and the European Union) or Moldova (recently invoked as a target by a senior Russian general) might seem outlandish given the difficulties that Russia’s military has encountered this year in Ukraine. Russian troops had to retreat from the capital Kyiv and other northern cities in late March because of fierce Ukrainian resistance and since then have been bogged down in a slow, grinding advance through parts of the eastern Donbas region, suffering heavy losses along the way.

“Putin doesn’t have the military capacity. He is completely tied up and performing quite poorly in Ukraine. For him to move beyond that would be insane,” said Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland, which applied to join NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

‘Who told you that Ukraine will remain on the map of the world in two years’ time?’ asked Dmitry Medvedev, head of the ruling United Russia party.

Yet it is precisely the embarrassing setbacks in Ukraine that may push Mr. Putin to expand the conflict, cautioned Marat Gelman, an opposition politician who once advised the Russian president and served as a senior executive for Russian state TV. “There is a threat to his ratings inside the country. He cannot explain to Russian citizens why the great army that he has been expanding and financing all this time cannot deal with the Ukrainian resistance,” Mr. Gelman said. “So he needs to turn everything into a new dimension, where he is at war not with Ukraine but with the entire world. Therefore, there is a danger that he will choose another victim.” A broader conflict, Mr. Gelman said, could justify mobilizing civilians into the military and removing the few civil liberties that still exist in Russia.

Just in recent days, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, threatened Lithuania with “actions to defend our national interests” after the Baltic nation barred the railway transit of goods sanctioned by the EU to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Prominent lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin, incensed by the refusal of Kazakhstan’s president to recognize Russian-run statelets in Donbas, pointed out that many parts of the Central Asian nation are populated by ethnic Russians and warned that it may meet the same fate as Ukraine.

In Ukraine, despite Moscow’s military problems, the war isn’t anywhere near over. Russia continues to advance in Donbas as it braces for years of conflict, and its original goal of annexing the Ukrainian state hasn’t changed. As former president Dmitry Medvedev, who heads the ruling United Russia party and serves as deputy head of Mr. Putin’s national security council, wondered earlier this month: “Who told you that Ukraine will remain on the map of the world in two years’ time?”

To some European leaders, this discourse means that a potential cease-fire leaving Russia with a large chunk of Ukraine and a capacity to regroup, to rebuild its depleted military and to prepare for new offensives would end up putting other European nations in Mr. Putin’s crosshairs.

“He is also after the Baltic countries if he succeeds in Ukraine, and this is why we have to do everything so that he doesn’t succeed in Ukraine, because otherwise his appetite will only grow,” Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, said in an interview. “If he gets away with this, nobody can feel safe.”

While Estonia and the two other Baltic states are theoretically protected by their membership in NATO, the small military forces that the alliance currently deploys in the region and in other parts of Eastern Europe wouldn’t be sufficient to militarily repel a full-blown Russian invasion. Not even Poland, the biggest nation in Eastern Europe, has a military as strong and battle-hardened as Ukraine’s.

Russian forces would be able to take over Estonia’s capital Tallinn within as little as one day, some Western military experts say. Poland’s military would be completely defeated by Russia in five days, a 2021 Polish defense ministry war game concluded.

America’s nuclear arsenal would not necessarily deter a rapid Russian advance on a NATO ally. The U.S. has long maintained a strategy of deliberate ambiguity about the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons to stop a conventional attack. According to America’s latest nuclear posture policy, Washington would only consider deploying nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances” and would first try to end the conflict “at the lowest level of damage possible.”

That is one reason why Russia’s neighbors are now pushing for large and permanent NATO bases on their soil. At the NATO summit in Madrid on June 28-30, Ms. Kallas said that she would ask the alliance to shift from its current “tripwire” deployment, with a relatively small contingent of forces, to a beefed-up forward defense along Russian borders, “so that we don’t have to be liberated afterwards but are able to push back the aggression immediately.” Other Baltic states and Poland share the same view.

‘‘All his ideas... come from the past. He wants to move the country to the 19th century, to a time when empires were possible.”— Marat Gelman, former Putin adviser

The fear isn’t limited to Russia’s immediate neighborhood. According to a European Council on Foreign Relations opinion poll conducted in May, a possible Russian invasion of their nation is seen as one of the top three threats by 53% of Swedes, 54% of Romanians and 40% of Germans.

“Even a weak Russian military can do an awful lot of damage if it wants to,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs think tank and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “We should take Putin at his word. Even if we assess that he doesn’t really have the military capacity to act upon his grandiose vision, the reality is that he has the intention and the will, and there is so far domestically no opposition sufficient to change that.”

As it stands now, a Russian military invasion of a NATO member would certainly meet with a swift response from the U.S., Mr. Daalder said. Unlike in Ukraine, Russia would see its air force battered within days, and its land forces would be highly vulnerable to superior NATO air power. Things could be different, however, should a more isolationist administration come to power in Washington.

Russian officials often cite President Donald Trump’s 2018 remarks questioning why Americans should die to defend Montenegro, now a NATO member, and say that they hope pressure on Moscow will diminish after this year’s U.S. midterm elections.

Mr. Putin’s imperial ambitions have grown over time because his previous acts of territorial aggression went largely unchallenged. The 2008 invasion of Georgia wasn’t sanctioned in any serious way and was followed by President Barack Obama’s attempt at a “reset” with Moscow. The 2014 intervention in Donbas and annexation of Crimea during Mr. Obama’s second term prompted only halfhearted sanctions. Until last February, Germany pushed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that would have allowed Russia’s gas exports to bypass Ukraine. Up until April, the U.S. and its allies refused to provide Kyiv with the heavy weapons that could have deterred this year’s war.

“Putin simply does what he can get away with, like a hooligan,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, a Russian opposition politician who served as Mr. Putin’s prime minister from 2000 to 2004. “If he is allowed to conquer some territories and Europe and the U.S. end up swallowing that fact, he will simply keep going forward.”

Russia’s top officials raised this record at a televised meeting on Feb. 21, assuring Mr. Putin that the West will eventually acquiesce to the Ukrainian war that he unleashed three days later. “The experience has shown that it will be difficult, but after a certain time, thanks to skillful managing of the situation, which we have learned under the president, this tension vibrating around our country will recede one way or another,” Mr. Medvedev told Mr. Putin that day. Western nations, he added, “will tire of this situation sooner or later.”

Unlike bygone European empires that gathered colonies overseas, such as France, Spain, Portugal or Great Britain, Russia’s imperialism blurs the distinction between what constitutes a colony and the home country. Over the centuries, Russia absorbed many of its immediate neighbors, often resorting to physical extermination rising to the level of genocide, and imposed its language and culture.

The Tatar cities and mosques on the Volga were dismantled in the 16th century, their bricks and tombstones used to build Russian churches and fortresses. Yerofey Khabarov, the explorer after whom the Siberian city of Khabarovsk is named, had his men butcher thousands of the native Daur people as he sailed down the Amur River in the 17th century. Russia’s 19th century conquests in the Caucasus and Central Asia were accompanied by wide-scale killings and displacement. One of Russia’s most famous paintings, by Vasily Vereshchagin, who served with Russian forces in Central Asia in the 1860s, depicts a mountain of sun-bleached skulls and is dedicated “to all the great conquerors—past, present and future.”

Moscow began its colonial expansion after freeing itself in 1480 from the Mongol Golden Horde. Muscovy served as the Mongols’ principal tax collector and agent in Russian lands in previous centuries. Once it gained independence, it adopted many of the methods of war and elements of statecraft that once allowed the Mongols, an impoverished nomadic people, to conquer much of the known (and exponentially wealthier and more technologically advanced) world. Turning cities that refused to submit into rubble, such as what happened this year in Ukraine’s Mariupol, was the Mongols’ trademark tactic.

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A powerful current of Russia’s political thought, the so-called Eurasianists, holds that the Russian state is a natural heir of the Mongol empire that is finally ending a three-century-long flirtation with Europe that began when Peter the Great launched a wholesale westernization of the Russian state and society. “Peter the Great opened the window to Europe. Putin closed it. We’ve aired enough,” goes one meme currently making the rounds on Russian social media.

One such Eurasianist is Russia’s defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, who hails from Tuva, a region on the Mongol border. A former speaker of the Tuva parliament has recently written a book extolling Mr. Shoigu as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan’s top commander Subedei, who may have also been an ethnic Tuvan.

Others currents of Russia’s neo-imperialist political thought hark back to more familiar Soviet times, idolizing the ruthless age of Joseph Stalin. One of the most vocal such representatives is former FSB intelligence officer Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, who ignited the war in Donbas after seizing the town of Slovyansk with a group of Russian military veterans in 2014. At the time, he signed execution orders citing Stalin’s World War II laws.

Unlike the critics of the Ukraine war, detained across Russia under new laws punishing the discreditation of the military, Mr. Girkin and like-minded hard-liners have been allowed to post daily diatribes labeling Mr. Shoigu and Russia’s top military commanders as traitors and idiots for mishandling the invasion. They argue instead for a nationwide mobilization and total war.

Mr. Putin himself isn’t necessarily a fan of the past Soviet leaders. He has repeatedly blamed the Soviet Union’s founder, Vladimir Lenin, for giving what he views as historically Russian land to Ukraine a century ago—and for acknowledging the idea of a separate Ukrainian nationality in the first place. But, like most other Russian nationalists, he is focused on a return to bygone glories.

“All his ideas about what a ruler is supposed to do, what is good and what is bad, come from the past,” Mr. Gelman said. “He wants to move the country to the 19th century, to a time when empires were possible.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

Appeared in the June 25, 2022, print edition as 'How Far Do Putin’s Imperial Ambitions Go? Putin’s Embrace of Russia’s Imperial Past'.