At a ceremony honoring young geographers in 2016, President Vladimir Putin asked one boy about the capital of Burkina Faso and then quizzed another about where Russia’s borders end.
“At the Bering Strait with the United States,” the 9-year-old boy ventured hesitantly. Mr. Putin, who chairs the board of the Russian Geographic Society, contradicted the boy to triumphant applause. “The borders of Russia,” he pronounced, “never end.”
The scene, years before Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed the biggest war in Europe since World War II and triggered a breakdown between Russia and the West, illuminates a conviction deeply held by many in Moscow’s establishment: that Russia has the natural right, and the existential need, for territorial expansion.
Until recently, this imperial belief was often couched in language that is more acceptable in the 21st century, such as security concerns about NATO’s expansion or apprehension about alleged discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities. Since the war began, however, calls for seizing new lands have become much more explicit.
Earlier this month, Mr. Putin said that he views Ukraine as just the first step, with many other territories potential targets. On June 9, he held court in front of a sign proclaiming “Peter the Great, the Birth of the Empire” at an exhibition honoring the 350th anniversary of Russia’s first emperor. With a smile, Mr. Putin explained that when Peter conquered from Sweden the area of today’s St. Petersburg and the city of Narva, currently in Estonia, “he was merely returning what is ours, and strengthening it,” even though nobody else at the time recognized the legality of Russia’s land grab.
“It seems like it is our destiny too, to return and to strengthen,” Mr. Putin added, suggesting that—like the wars of Peter the Great—the current conflict could last more than two decades. His senior adviser Vladimir Medinsky was even more explicit. He lamented at the same conference that Russia’s territory has greatly diminished from the time when Moscow controlled one-sixth of the planet’s surface, including Finland, Poland, and 14 other currently independent nations. That unfortunate territorial retreat “is not forever,” he said. [Continue reading…]