When Vladimir Putin first embarked on the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he sought to disguise the attack as an act of self-defense while claiming Russia had no interest in occupying Ukrainian territory. “We do not plan to impose ourselves on anyone,” he declared.

Buoyed by a very visible recent weakening in Western resolve, the Russian dictator is now openly embracing the language of imperialism and referring to Russian “conquests” in Ukraine.

Speaking at a Jan. 16 meeting of municipal authorities in the Moscow region, Putin dismissed Ukraine’s Peace Formula and expressed his unwillingness to discuss the status of the Ukrainian regions currently under Russian occupation. “As for the negotiation process, this is an attempt to encourage us to abandon the conquests we have made over the past one-and-a-half years. Everyone understands that this is impossible,” he commented.

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Putin’s revealing reference to conquered Ukrainian lands underlines the imperialistic ambitions at the heart of Russia’s Ukraine invasion

It also further discredits Russian efforts to blame the invasion on imaginary Nazis and a non-existent NATO threat.

On the eve of the invasion, Putin made much of NATO’s post-1991 enlargement and was highly critical of the alliance’s decision to accept former Warsaw Pact countries as members. While Ukraine itself had no realistic prospects of joining the alliance in 2022, Putin claimed the prospect of deepening cooperation between NATO and Kyiv posed an intolerable security threat to Russia.

Putin’s protestations were undermined by his own subsequent lack of concern over Finnish NATO membership. When the Finns responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by abandoning decades of neutrality and joining the alliance, Putin reacted by demilitarizing Russia’s entire 1300-kilometer border with Finland. “If we were a threat, they would certainly not have moved their troops away, even in a situation where they are engaged somewhere else,” commented Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen in August 2023.

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The minister of strategic industries has disclosed that Ukrainian defense industry capabilities are several times larger than the funding available to support it,“so right now we have to cherry-pick.”

While Russia’s NATO claims do not stand up to scrutiny, Moscow’s entire anti-Nazi narrative is even less convincing. During Putin’s reign, the Kremlin has revived and dramatically amplified lingering Soviet propaganda labeling Ukrainians as Nazis. This has helped to dehumanize Ukrainians in the eyes of the Russian population and generate grassroots support for the current war.

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Putin himself has been at the heart of this process, regularly equating expressions of Ukrainian identity with Nazism while insisting Ukrainians are actually Russians (“one people”). Unsurprisingly, when Putin announced his invasion in February 2022, he declared the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine as his main war aim. This was widely understood to mean the eradication of a separate Ukrainian national identity and the imposition of a Russian imperial identity.

The Kremlin’s attempts to portray Ukraine as some kind of fascist threat have played well within the Russian information bubble but have failed to convince international audiences, due largely to the absence of any actual Ukrainian Nazis. Indeed, Ukraine’s far right parties are so unpopular that they actually formed a coalition ahead of the country’s last parliamentary elections in 2019 in a bid to end decades of ballot box failure, but still only managed to secure 2.16 percent of the vote.

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Russian propagandists have also been unable to explain how “Nazi” Ukraine could be led by Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. When quizzed about this obvious inconsistency on Italian TV in May 2022, a clearly flustered Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Zelenskyy’s Jewishness was irrelevant as “Hitler also had Jewish blood.” This shameful episode highlighted the absurdity of Russia’s attempts to portray democratic Ukraine as a hotbed of Nazism.

It should now be clear to any objective observer that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has always been an exercise in old-fashioned imperialism

Putin’s most recent statement about Russian “conquests” in Ukraine is not the first time he has adopted the swagger of the conqueror. In summer 2022, he compared his invasion to the eighteenth-century imperial conquests of Russian Czar Peter the Great. He has repeatedly claimed to be fighting for “historic Russian lands,” while denying Ukraine’s right to exist.

Putin’s increasingly open imperialism raises serious doubts over the possibility of reaching any kind of compromise agreement to end the war. Recent reports in the international media have suggested that he is “quietly signaling” his readiness for a ceasefire, but it is difficult to see how this could work without legitimizing a land grab that would have profound negative connotations for European stability and international security.

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The most obvious question is how far Putin’s imperial ambitions extend. The man himself has proclaimed much of unoccupied Ukraine to be historically Russian, including the country’s main Black Sea port city, Odesa, and the entire southern coastline. This alone is reason enough to believe that any ceasefire along the current front lines of the conflict would merely provide Russia with a pause to rearm and regroup before renewing hostilities.

There are also mounting concerns that if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will go further. He has repeatedly stated that the entire Soviet Union was “historical Russia,” while the borders of the old Russian Empire stretched even further. If Putin chooses to apply his weaponized version of Russian imperial history in its broadest sense, the list of potential targets would include Finland, Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Alaska, and the whole of Central Asia.

Putin’s use of unambiguously imperialistic language is an indication of his growing confidence amid mounting signs of Western weakness. With vital Ukrainian aid packages currently held up in both the US and EU, Putin clearly believes he can outlast the democratic world and achieve his goals in Ukraine. If he is proved right, Ukrainians are highly unlikely to be the last victims of Russian imperial aggression.

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Peter Dickinson is editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert service.

This article is reprinted from the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert.  See the original here.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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Comments (3)

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Imokru2
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Putin sees the West as having weak leadership, particularly the USA, the driving force of democracy.
Fortunately, this situation is changing with European countries, and a year from now the USA will once again have a strong leader.
Dictatorships thrive and become aggressive when they see weakness and apathy.

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dirk Westen
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I have more than a natural doubt that this 87 % man is really Putin and is not a look a like. I thought the real Putin was before the war started terminal. Keeping a look a like in power would keep the whole Kremlin in power, asking no difficult questions would keep all this people in power. The real Putin was clumsy and not very handy. He would have done a lot of stupid things but he would never have done what the 87 % man has done. He has also had a long carrier where he had the advances of his dictatorship. The 87 % man had never had many years as a dictator. The real dictator had never ruined his land like this. He would not have used his country as this guy who thought only at his carrier.

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Serge
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The Putin-centric narrative of the article is misleading. If only somehow we got rid of the man, then Russia will become a land of the free. Not at all. He will simply be replaced by someone exactly like him, as Peskov said. That man (or woman) will press even harder.

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