Vladimir the Horrible’s vision of Russian glory
Putin wants to humble Western civilization and refute its ideals
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine did not come as a bolt from the blue. Vladimir Putin’s seizure of territory in Georgia, his “annexation” of the Crimean Peninsula, and his instigation of war in the eastern regions of Ukraine are old news. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence, breaking with tradition, was broadcast hour by hour as Putin positioned a massive invasion force on the Russian border with Ukraine. By the time the Russian forces crossed the border in strength, Putin had announced they were coming.
The story is still unfolding, but the meaning of the tale is abundantly clear. Putin is the avowed enemy of Western civilization and the champion of lost Russian glory. His weapons may be hypermodern (including cyberwarfare), but his mind is medieval. Resentments have been boiling within him for decades, and his hatred of the West goes back to his years with the dreaded Soviet KGB. He said long ago that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a disaster of epic proportions. He demands nothing less than the restoration of Russian glory through the rebuilding of what he sees as the nation’s rightful sphere of influence. He will invade his neighbors and seize their territory, intimidate their people, undermine their government, and squash all opposition. Putin is attempting, as every Russian tyrant has attempted, to build an empire in the “near abroad” to protect Mother Russia and burnish her glory.
Putin combines a medieval Russian mind with a vast array of weaponry that includes a massive nuclear arsenal. The image of Mother Russia seethes within him. In his mind, Russia is a nation that requires an empire for survival. For much of its territory, Russia lacks natural defensive assets like oceans and mountain ranges. That partly explains why it has been fueled throughout history by an impulse to push its borders—particularly in Europe—constantly westward. This time, Russia invaded Ukraine. But Putin will never be satisfied with Ukraine—he said as much in his long speech before the invasion. Ukraine will be the new border, and Poland and the Baltic states are next in line.
As for the medieval roots of Russian rage and remembered glory, just think of the fact that the great rulers of the nation celebrated in the Russian mind are figures starting with Ivan the Terrible, who in the 16th century became the first of the Muscovy princes to declare himself “Tsar of the Russias.” Putin’s mind, drawing on deep cultural roots, fixes on autocrats and tyrants and the dream of empire. The same culture celebrates rulers like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great who were understood to have projected Russian power and glory through empire, ostentatious wealth, military might, and ruthless rule.
In Putin’s mind, the Soviet Union was the modern incarnation of Russian imperial glory, and the Soviet bloc was its protection. Don’t make the mistake of confusing him with ideological communism. Putin, like so many others, was only too glad to embrace crony capitalism when he saw the opportunity. But do not fail to see the dark similarities between Putin and Joseph Stalin. Like Stalin, Putin is less an ideologue than an opportunist and a tyrant. He loves to give his speeches while sitting in the cavernous gilded spaces created by the Romanovs or the Soviet ruling class. He sits alone because he rules alone. At the top of his world, a collective of oligarchs and lesser tyrants share in the corruption that is the Russian economy.
A democratic Ukraine inclined to the West was simply unacceptable to the dictator. But Putin has a very long list of the unacceptable that yet waits. Ukraine is not the end. Like Russian despots of old, he sees Western civilization as weak, morally inferior, and temporary. He does not merely flaunt Western ideals, he hates them.
Like the Russian leaders of old, and in contrast to the atheistic Soviets, Putin also cloaks himself in the protection of the Russian Orthodox Church—a church that historically has made pacts for power with the Russian throne. Putin has arranged for a national media monopoly that adores him and a bureaucracy that glorifies him. His Orthodox religious friends sanctify him, and he is ecstatic when his enemies fear him.
Cultures define nations, and Russia is defined by its long cultural legacy. Vladimir Putin is quite satisfied to be seen in the West as Vladimir the Horrible, heir to Ivan the Terrible. He wants to destroy Western unity and defeat Western ideals. His armies show that he is willing to do just about anything to defeat the West and its pretensions of liberty. The real question is whether the modern societies of the West, and their leaders, will be equally determined to defend them.
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