The Irish Times view on Vladimir Putin: in search of a lost empire

By placing troops in breakaway regions of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Putin is retaining a Russian blocking stake in states that want to join the EU and Nato.

By placing troops in breakaway regions of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Vladimir Putin is retaining a Russian blocking stake in states that want to join the EU and Nato. Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty

By placing troops in breakaway regions of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Vladimir Putin is retaining a Russian blocking stake in states that want to join the EU and Nato. Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty

 

Vladimir Putin rose to power amid the ruins of the Kremlin’s empire, a decade after eastern Europe ditched communism and raced towards the European Union and Nato, and then the 15 Soviet republics all went their own way. When historians study his rule, now at the 22-year mark, they are likely to see a man shaped by the Cold War trying, with growing desperation, to claw back pieces of empire in the face of dwindling Russian power, a rapidly rising China, and a West that again views Moscow as a source of danger and instability.

Putin famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, but last month he described it as “the disintegration of historical Russia” when “we turned into a completely different country. And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost.” The tone of aggrieved post-imperial power was telling, and revealed much about Putin’s attitude towards Russia’s neighbours and their independence, statehood and their right to choose their own allies and direction.

By placing troops in breakaway regions of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Putin is retaining a Russian blocking stake in states that want to join the EU and Nato. But while slowing their integration with the West, he is doing nothing to make their people see Moscow as an attractive partner for the future. In Belarus, Putin is backing dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crushing of calls for democracy and reform – but they will not be silenced forever. Russian soldiers are in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, providing muscle to stabilise autocratic regimes and to monitor the Afghan border, while China inexorably becomes the region’s dominant economic power.

At the age of 69, Putin is surely thinking of his legacy. If he believes an all-out invasion of Ukraine will secure his place in the Russian pantheon as a restorer of imperial glory, then he has learned nothing from his eight-year campaign of deadly aggression against the country – which has only served to unite Ukrainians and propel them towards the West.

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