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Putin Is No Peter the Great
By Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

Russian Czar Peter the Great not only sought more power and territory, but also wanted his country to become more advanced and progressive. President Vladimir Putin is achieving the opposite of his idol by isolating Russia and reducing it to a pariah state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine is explainable only as an attempt to fulfill an imperialist fantasy – namely, of celebrating the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth by emulating the czar’s territorial conquests. But Peter did not become “Great” through military success alone. He also introduced modernizing reforms and built St. Petersburg, “a window to Europe” on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Peter sought more power and territory, but at the same time wanted his country to become more advanced and progressive. Sadly, Putin, who sees himself as an uncrowned czar, is achieving the opposite of his idol by isolating Russia and reducing it to a pariah state.

True, the Russian army’s scorched earth policy in Ukraine – in flagrant contravention of the United Nations Charter and international law – directly echoes what Peter did to that country during his war with King Charles XII of Sweden. But Putin’s repression of freedom of thought and speech in Russia represents a frightening rebirth of the totalitarian methods that characterized the Soviet Union.

The war is devastating Ukraine, disrupting global energy and food markets, and destabilizing countries around the world. Putin has brought us to a historic turning point. Do we try to improve the world order that we have, or instead march backward to the beat of vain, violent, and cynical leaders? Putin-style revisionism, with its obsessive focus on righting long-ago wrongs, is a clear threat to every country.

Putin and his fellow authoritarians represent a world of regress, not progress. In their system, poverty and even famine increase, because economies perform poorly when might makes right. Collective paranoia manifests itself in a maniacal quest for greatness that undermines global stability.

The outlandish accusations that Russia has leveled against Ukraine to justify its February 24 invasion are merely the latest and most extreme expression of Putin’s refusal to accept the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of seizing the opportunity to convert Russia into a free, democratic, and normal nation-state – a process that many other post-imperial states have successfully completed – Putin has devoted his energies to revanchist attacks aimed at recovering the country’s lost empire.

That is why it is alarming to hear, for example, a deputy of the Russian Duma proposing to declare null and void the Soviet Union’s 1991 recognition of Lithuania’s independence. In the wake of the Ukraine war, no one can take such threats lightly.

Russia’s aggressive attitude toward territories that it once occupied or annexed is a real menace to every state on its geographic periphery. In this respect, Russia’s czarist, Soviet, and Putin regimes form a continuum. And beyond immediate territorial claims is the demand for a sphere of influence, which in reality means a sphere of control. In Putin’s repeatedly stated view, Russia feels so threatened by potential aggression from outside, especially from the West, that it must be surrounded by a ring of vassal states.

Ukraine is being attacked because it defiantly rejected that subservient status – and did so without the protective cover of either NATO or the European Union. The former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, in contrast, are members of both. But Russia has laid what I call cuckoo’s eggs in all countries that are part of its supposed ring of vassals. These are intended to hatch into agents of internal friction or – better still from the Kremlin’s perspective – into frozen conflicts that cannot be peacefully resolved.

We have seen this before, in the Soviet Union’s long-term strategy of occupying as many territories as possible surrounding its central Russian core. In each of these, Soviet leaders would plant a time bomb that could explode at a conveniently chosen moment, or that could be encouraged to detonate through the creation of animosity or conflicts within and between neighboring states. Putin’s continuation of this strategy is largely responsible for the current arc of frozen conflicts just beyond Russia’s borders.

For example, Moldova theoretically inherited the heavily industrialized and Russified region of Transnistria after the Soviet Union disintegrated. For all practical purposes, this region quickly became a Russian-governed exclave. Likewise, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia deprived that country of nearly one-fifth of its territory, and the breakaway regions are now firmly under the Kremlin’s control.

In Ukraine, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, and its troops effectively took over much of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And only after a 2020 war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region did Azerbaijan legitimately regain territory that Russian-backed Armenia had occupied for decades.

Goodwill is the basis of civil cohabitation between regions, countries, and individuals. Shortly after I was elected president of Latvia in 1999, I received separate letters from a sister and a brother who had inherited a house from their parents following property restitution. They simply could not agree on how to divide their inheritance. Each said that they could not live together under the same roof. Exasperated, the brother threatened to saw the wooden house in half, and the sister wailed about how the property was going to be destroyed.

Sometimes, even people within the same family cannot agree to live together, so we should not be surprised when conflicts happen on a wider scale. But when they do, no leader must be permitted to saw the house in half.

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia (1999-2007), is Co-Chair of the Nizami Ganjavi International Center in Baku.
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Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point