Putin’s Expansionist Dream

On February 10, 2007, at the annual Security Conference in Munich, Vladimir Putin declared before Angela Merkel, Javier Solana and other heads of state and heads of international organizations that he was seeking to regain the territory lost after the end of the Cold War. He also introduced a dream of his in his speech: from Vladivostok to Lisbon, Russia should share more than just security with Europe. Political scientists and Kremlinologists interpreted his words as a wish that one day the Russian empire would extend from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Throughout his presidential career, Putin has been taking steps towards the achievement of this dream: he invaded several countries and provoked armed conflicts in Chechnya, the Republic of Georgia, Crimea (Ukraine) and Syria, topping it all off with the current invasion of Ukraine.

The fact is that “Putin does what he says; if he declares that he has nuclear weapons, he will use them, to a greater or lesser extent,” says Fiona Hill, one of the Russian president’s biographers. Moreover, the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev who, like Hill, met Putin personally, describes him as a cunning and astute cynic who, in the isolation of the coronavirus era, lost his sense of reality and has become a fanatic: “His talk about Russia being a victim of the treachery of the Ukrainian Nazis is so exaggerated that it is self-defeating and no one in the West can believe it. In his discourse there are no Ukrainians: only Russians and anti-Russians.”

In the Putin narrative, as in Italian opera, the key words are “betrayal” and “deceit.” According to its president, Russia was deceived and betrayed by the West and by the former Soviet republics, several of them now independent and some integrated into the European Union and NATO. Ukraine, according to him, is the great betrayer of Russia because it is moving closer to the West, the arch enemy. Putin is a man trained in the secret services where treason was punished by death. That is why, in his vision, Ukraine must pay for its crime with the punishment it deserves. Exterminating Ukrainians is part of his strategy.

Other code words which Putin and his circle often use for those whom they consider their enemies are “Nazi” and “neo-Nazi.” Besides Ukraine, Japan is neo-Nazi (because it does not consider the Azov Battalion, that prop of the Ukrainian Army, to be a terrorist organization); the president of the German CDU, Friedrich Merz, is Nazi (because he considers the crimes committed by the Russian Army in Syria to be savagery); the OCCRP organization was compared to the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany (which allowed the expropriation of Jewish property) because it investigates and denounces the corruption of Putin and his supporters; Sweden “behaves like the Nazis” (for imposing a blockade on Russian ships); Latvia is neo-Nazi for commemorating Ukrainian victims of Russian aggression; Estonia, which removed a Soviet monument from the center of Tallinn, “expresses Nazi ideology”; and, according to Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, the Ukrainian soccer team, by exclaiming “Glory to Ukraine! “, echoes the Nazi war cry.

Putin, since coming to power, repeats again and again that the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed does not mean that World War II is over. For him, the Cold War was a continuation of that conflict and its end represented a pause, but not its end. For Putin, the war he is waging against Ukraine is nothing but the revival of the open hostilities of World War II. In line with that view, he now tries to justify it by claiming that Russia could do nothing but defend itself against the Nazis as it did in the forties of the last century. In his mind the Ukrainians have taken up the torch of Hitler’s army which during World War II the Russians defeated at Stalingrad and thus helped to defeat Germany, losing 27 million people in the war, eight million of whom were Ukrainians; but Putin does not take them into account. Perhaps he imagined that, in 2022, Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers in their tanks, as did the nations of Eastern Europe, liberated by Russia from the domination of Hitler’s army. Then he, the president, would reunify Russia with Ukraine just as Stalin attached several satellites of central and eastern Europe to his empire, just as Germany was reunified while Putin was working as a KGB spy in Dresden. And when presidential elections are held in 2024, Putin, after two decades as president and with the addition of Ukraine, would prove that he deserves to hold the presidency for the 16 remaining years allowed by the Russian Constitution.

And while Russia is sowing destruction in Ukraine and putting its own population in jeopardy, his dream from 2007 has not been forgotten. Three weeks ago, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev again cried out on his Telegram account, in unison with Putin: “Russia will spread from Vladivostok to Lisbon!”

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)