Putin’s Imperial Ambitions: A Historical Perspective on Russian Aggression

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History has always acted as an ideological battleground, but few monarchs in the modern era have weaponized history quite as ruthlessly as Vladimir Putin. For more than two years, the Russian autocrat has sought to explain Europe’s largest invasion since World War II by showing it as a sacred task to reclaim “historically Russian lands.” Putin’s obsession with history has become increasingly apparent as his reign has advanced and is closely connected to his deep-seated resentment over the scented historical injustice of the 1991 Soviet collapse. As early as 2005, Putin was grieving the breakup of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

This feeling of injustice has fueled Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, a neighbouring country that many Russians yet regard as a core component of their own nation’s historical heartlands. The presence of an autonomous Ukraine has long been resented by Putin as a sign of modern Russia’s withdrawal from the empire. Since the earlier years of his reign, he has created the conquest of Ukraine as one of his foreign policy preferences. 

During the initial phases of the Kremlin movement to reassert Russian authority over autonomous Ukraine, considerable action was taken to damage the historical legitimacy of the Ukrainian state among Russian audiences and inside Ukraine itself. As Russian attack against Ukraine escalated, the Kremlin’s fight on Ukrainian history also developed, with Ukrainians demonized as “Nazis” and ignored as an “artificial nation.”

Years of increasingly aggressive rhetoric paved the course for military attacks. When Putin launched the aggression on Ukraine in the spring of 2014 with the takeover of Crimea, he started referring to southern and eastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”). His determination to revive long-forgotten imperial vocabulary from the Czarist era was the most obvious indication yet that Putin planned to extinguish Ukrainian statehood and change more than a century of European history.

Putin standardised his denial of Ukrainian statehood in a contentious history essay publicised in July 2021. Entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” this amazing document laid out Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s right to exist while discussing at length that Ukrainians are Russians (“one people”). Putin’s report laid the ideological groundwork for the full-scale attack that began months later. Over the past two years, the past has remained a key act in the struggle to explain the Russian invasion of Ukraine. During the first summer of the battle, Putin directly likened himself to Peter the Great and compared the invasion of Ukraine to the eighteenth-century Russian Czar’s battles of imperial conquest.

A year later, Putin demanded the launch of new history textbooks for Russian schoolchildren along with curriculum adaptations with the apparent purpose of legitimizing the continued military campaign to eliminate the Ukrainian state and nation. This was characteristic of a broader tendency within Russia to bring the country’s official chronological narrative into line with Putin’s increasingly extreme brand of revisionism.

Strikingly, Putin decided to use his high-profile February 2024 discussion with US media personality Tucker Carlson as a medium to frame the war in Ukraine as an investigation for historical justice. While Carlson liked Putin to blame NATO and the US for the attack, Putin himself chose to embark on a rambling half-hour history lesson explaining the ancient origins of Russia’s claim to Ukraine.

With the full-scale Russian aggression on Ukraine now in its third year, Putin’s documented motivations are becoming more and more obvious. He regularly states that major Ukrainian cities such as Odesa and entire parts of Ukraine are “historically Russian,” suggesting that his imperial ambitions are yet far from satisfied. He has often voiced his belief that the Soviet Union was the Russian Empire under a separate name. If Putin takes his campaign to reclaim “historically Russian lands” further and extends the definition to include all of the ex-Czarist domains, this would position more than a dozen additional nations at risk of suffering the same uncertainty as Ukraine.

Putin has weaponized a narrative to justify the genocidal attack on Ukraine and degrade the entire Ukrainian country. Unless he is prevented in Ukraine, the Russian dictator will utilise the same bogus historical statements to launch new imperial adventures.

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