Putin compares Ukraine war to Peter the Great's conquests

Russian leader claims he is 'returning strength' to the country

A woman takes a selfie in front of a poster of Peter the Great in St Petersburg, on the 350th anniversary of the tsar's birth. AFP
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Vladimir Putin has compared the Ukraine war to the conquests of Peter the Great, the Russian emperor who ruled for more than four decades and propelled the country into a major European power.

On the 350th anniversary of Peter's birth, the Russian president paid tribute the tsar, who was crowned aged just 10 in 1682, drawing a parallel between what he portrayed as their twin historic quests to win back Russian lands.

“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia's],” Putin said, after a visiting an exhibition dedicated to the tsar on Thursday.

In televised comments, he compared Peter's campaign with the task facing Russia today.

“Apparently, it also fell to us to return [what is Russia's] and strengthen [the country]. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.”

On the ground, Ukraine said on Friday it had struck Russian military positions in the southern Kherson region where Kyiv's army is fighting to reclaim territory captured by Moscow's troops early in their invasion.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin listens to explanations as he visits an exhibition opened to mark the 350th birth anniversary of Russian tsar and the first Russian Emperor Peter the Great in Moscow. Reuters

“Our aircraft carried out a series of strikes on enemy bases, places of accumulation of equipment and personnel, and field depots around five different settlements in the Kherson region,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

Kherson, just north of the Crimean peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014, was among the first regions to come under Russian control following the February 24 invasion.

Ukraine has launched an offensive to recapture territory there and the presidency said in a Friday morning briefing that the military situation there remained “tense”.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds into its fourth month, officials in Kyiv have expressed fears that the spectre of “war fatigue” could erode the West’s resolve to help the country push back Moscow’s aggression.

The US and its allies have given billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine. Europe has taken in millions of people displaced by the war. And there has been unprecedented unity in post-Second World War Europe in imposing sanctions on Mr Putin and his country.

But as the shock of the February 24 invasion subsides, analysts say the Kremlin could exploit a dragged-out, entrenched conflict and possible waning interest among western powers that might lead to Ukraine being pressured into a settlement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already chafed at western suggestions he should accept some sort of compromise. Ukraine, he said, would decide its own terms for peace.

“The fatigue is growing, people want some kind of outcome [that is beneficial] for themselves, and we want [another] outcome for ourselves,” he said.

People watch a reconstruction of a battle between Russian and Sweden sailors during festivities marking the 350th birthday of Russian Tsar Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. AP

In response to Mr Putin's comments, a senior adviser to Mr Zelenskyy dismissed what he called any attempt to legalise the theft of land.

“The West must draw a clear red line so the Kremlin understands the price of each next bloody step … we will brutally liberate our territories,” Mykhailo Podolyak said in an online post.

Mr Putin has repeatedly sought to justify Russia's actions in Ukraine, where his forces have devastated cities, killed thousands and forced millions of people to flee, by propounding a view of history that asserts Ukraine has no real national identity or tradition of statehood.

Peter the Great, an autocratic moderniser admired by liberal and conservative Russians alike, gave his name to a new capital, St Petersburg — Putin's home town — that he ordered to be built on land he conquered from Sweden.

Prior to Mr Putin's visit to the exhibition, state television aired a documentary praising Peter the Great as a tough military leader, greatly expanding territory at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire.

In recent years, Mr Putin's interest in Russian history has loomed ever larger in his public appearances.

In April 2020, as Russia entered its first coronavirus lockdown, he compared the pandemic to ninth century Turkic nomadic invasions of medieval Russia.

In July 2021, the Kremlin published a long essay by Mr Putin in which he argued that Russia and Ukraine were one nation, artificially divided. It laid the groundwork for his deployment of troops to Ukraine.

Moscow says it acted to disarm and “de-nazify” its neighbour. Ukraine and its allies say Putin has launched an unprovoked war of aggression.

In the run up to what Russia calls its “special military operation”, Mr Putin blamed Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the former Soviet Union, for creating Ukraine on what Mr Putin said was historically Russian territory.

By contrast, he offered cautious praise for Josef Stalin for creating “a tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state”, even as he acknowledged the Soviet dictator's record of “totalitarian” repression.

Mr Putin has a history of praising leaders sharing his own conservative views.

Meanwhile, leaders seen as antithetical to a strong, unitary Russian state, including Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev, have seen their contributions played down.

“Putin likes leaders he sees as tough, strong managers,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Updated: June 10, 2022, 9:11 AM