Putin has history on his side

Putin has history on his side. By Dominic Sandbrook.

Go to Putin’s official government website, and you can read his 5,000-word essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published last summer. Did he really write it himself? It hardly matters. The important thing is that he clearly believes it.

Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, Putin says, are one people, “descendants of Ancient Rus”. He admits that they later became fragmented, but insists that “Moscow became the centre of reunification, continuing the tradition of ancient Russian statehood”. The idea of the “Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians”, he says, has “no historical basis” …

There’s plenty to disagree with in Putin’s essay. Britain’s Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has even published a long historical rebuttal of his own, pointing out that “Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united”. But the revealing thing is that the Kremlin’s top man bothered publishing it at all. …

Historically, Putin is normal while we are odd:

Today it’s very common to regard Putin as a kind of anomaly. We think of the Western-dominated, rules-based international system as the norm. The West represents order, and Putin represents disorder. We stand for continuity; he represents change and chaos.

But as unpalatable as it might be to admit it, a very long view suggests that it’s Putin who looks normal, and we who look peculiar. After all, if you walk around most European cities you can see plenty of statues of people who were very like Vladimir Putin — pragmatic, ruthless, authoritarian rulers who governed with an iron hand at home and believed might made right abroad. The emperors who sat in Rome, Constantinople or indeed St Petersburg, the kings and commanders who shaped so much European history, would have scoffed at our belief in progress, our disapproval of violence, our idealistic faith in human nature and disdain for our own ancestors.

To take an obvious example, Peter the Great, often seen in the West as a beacon of enlightened leadership, ruled with a savagery that would horrify us today. When the Streltsy army units mutinied in Moscow in 1698, he had some of them whipped to death, others stretched until their limbs snapped, still others roasted alive or torn apart with red-hot pincers. The victor of Poltava fought war after war after war, against the Swedes, the Poles, the Turks, the Kazakhs, the Persians. And it worked. He won. When Peter died in 1725, he ruled the strongest, richest, largest and most stable regime the Russian people had ever known.

In a way, you can tell the story of the last four centuries as an attempt to cope with Peter’s legacy. In the West we’ve become accustomed to seeing Germany as the great “problem” of European history, to quote A. J. P. Taylor. But for most of the last 400 years, it was Russia that was the real problem. It was Russia, not France or Germany, that haunted the nightmares of Victorian Britain’s politicians and generals — Russia, expanding every year into Central Asia, coming ever closer to India, too dynamic to hold back, too big to hold down. It was fear of Russia, the fastest industrialising country in the world, building factories and railways at a breakneck pace, that pushed Germany into the First World War. Fear of Russia lay at the heart of Nazism; it was fear of Russia, too, that persuaded Harry Truman and Clement Attlee to set up NATO and commit so many American and British troops to the defence of Europe. …

Putin has three previous conquests by military force, and they were all very successful:

Nations have competing interests; we can’t all be friends, and it’s sheer naivety to pretend otherwise. We didn’t “lose” Russia in the Nineties, because Russia was never ours to win. The Russians are an intensely proud and patriotic people, with their own ambitions. They were never going to join NATO any more than they were ever going to line up to become meek, dutiful members of the democratic West. …

As repressive and autocratic as [Putin] is, he’s the product of centuries of history. And when he denies that Ukraine is really a country — as he infamously told George W. Bush in 2008 — the plain fact is that millions of Russians agree with him.

None of this, by the way, means we should abandon Ukraine. Quite the reverse. But perhaps it might make us think a bit more carefully about the kind of world we live in — competitive, dangerous, potentially very violent — and the kind of people we choose to lead us through it. …

In polite society, people frown awkwardly when you point that out; but as the historian Margaret MacMillan observed in 2018, “war is an integral part of human experience”.

Peter the Great would have agreed with her, and almost certainly Vladimir Putin does too. After all, he established himself in power with Russia’s crushing victory in the Second Chechen War … Faced with a Georgian bid to join NATO in 2008, he sent in his tanks and won that war too. Then, six years later, his “little green men” went into Crimea. Another war. Another victory.

And all the time we in the West stayed at home, and congratulated ourselves on our principles.

hat-tip Stephen Neil