Such was the case on Thursday, when Putin met with a group of young Russian entrepreneurs. Anyone looking for clues as to what Putin’s endgame for Ukraine might be should read the transcript, helpfully released here in English.
Putin’s words speak for themselves: What he is aiming for in Ukraine is the restoration of Russia as an imperial power.
Many observers quickly picked up on one of Putin’s more provocative lines, in which he compared himself to Peter the Great, Russia’s modernizing tsar and the founder of St. Petersburg — Putin’s own birthplace — who came to power in the late 17th century.
“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years,” a relaxed and apparently self-satisfied Putin said. “On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it… He was not taking away anything, he was returning. This is how it was.”
It didn’t matter that European countries didn’t recognize Peter the Great’s seizure of territory by force, Putin added.
“When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognized this territory as part of Russia; everyone recognized it as part of Sweden,” Putin said. “However, from time immemorial, the Slavs lived there along with the Finno-Ugric peoples, and this territory was under Russia’s control. The same is true of the western direction, Narva and his first campaigns. Why would he go there? He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing.”
Alluding directly to his own invasion of Ukraine, Putin added: “Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.”
Those remarks were swiftly condemned by Ukrainians, who saw them as a naked admission of Putin’s imperial ambitions.
“Putin’s confession of land seizures and comparing himself with Peter the Great prove: there was no ‘conflict,’ only the country’s bloody seizure under contrived pretexts of people’s genocide,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “We should not talk about ‘saving [Russia’s] face,’ but about its immediate de-imperialization.”