This is no longer a man the West can do business with
It was 5.40am in Moscow when Vladimir Putin appeared on the state-owned TV channel Russia-24 to effectively declare war on Ukraine. Reminding the world that “today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states”, he laced his speech with historical references, revealing a dangerous and increasingly unhinged view of the past.
Putin spoke of the US as an “empire of lies” whose ”satellites not only humbly and obediently say yes to and parrot it at the slightest pretext but also imitate its behaviour”. To the Russian president, Nato is an imperialist venture through which American ambitions to destroy Russia will be achieved via allied states in Europe. In Putin’s eyes, the weakness of Russia was proven when its Soviet Empire collapsed in the Eighties; it encouraged the West “to put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us”.
Eastern and northern European states have voluntarily joined Nato because they feel threatened by Russian ambitions. Still, that falls on deaf ears in the face of a worldview that sees the ‘territories adjacent to Russia’ as its ‘historical land’. The idea of Pan-Slavism behind such claims is of course older than the 20th century but it was compounded by the events of the Second World War, the commemoration of which is emotionally central to Russia’s self-perception.
In his speech this morning, Putin reiterated that “the outcomes of World War Two and the sacrifices our people had to make to defeat Nazism are sacred”. This is a direct echoing of Joseph Stalin who argued that the loss of over 20 million Soviet citizens in the war must be given meaning. Never again must Russia be exposed to Western aggression. A ‘sphere of influence’, or rather a wall of Soviet satellite buffer states, was to be erected between Western Europe and the Motherland.
Nearly eight decades later, Putin argued that “we have been hearing an increasing number of statements coming from the West that there is no need any more to abide by the documents setting forth the outcomes of World War Two”. In this way, Putin tries to portray the invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to reinstall a world order the West had once agreed to.
World War Two also allowed Putin to argue that the West is capable of unprovoked attacks on Russia. Practically equating the US and its allies with Nazi Germany, his speech said that Stalin had tried to appease Hitler “ahead of the Great Patriotic War [which] proved to be a mistake — it came at a high cost for our people… We will not make this mistake the second time.” This twisted view of a history in which the US and Russia worked together to defeat Nazi Germany now serves as justification of war.
But the biggest concern in Putin’s distorted worldview is the emotionality with which the Russian sacrifice in World War Two is evoked. The desperate existential struggle against Nazi Germany pushed Russia to its limits in every way imaginable. The country had been bled dry literally as well as economically. In this context, Putin’s acknowledgement that the West has “considerable financial, scientific, technological, and military capabilities” and that he has “no illusions in this regard” appears particularly dangerous and sinister. He is implying that Russia is willing to pay an enormous price when it comes to economic sanctions but, more worryingly, also those that would be incurred in potential military conflict.
Western leaders need to take heed of Putin’s worldview. For too long the attitude has prevailed that Russia is a rational, if somewhat difficult, country that can be included in international security structures and contained in diplomatic agreements. Putin’s actions and his public explanations of them over the last few days paint a different picture.