“The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” President Vladimir Putin made that statement in his 2005 annual address to the Russian parliament.
Certainly, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragic moment for Russia, particularly for Putin. It was in East Germany where he personally witnessed the crumbling of the Soviet empire as a KGB officer. The glory of his nation was tarnished publicly.
No Russian can forget US president Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” which had separated West and East Berlin since 1961.
It marked the end of the USSR as a superpower. For America and its allies, it was the end of the Cold War, but for Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Putin, it was the start of a colder war.
While the world was preparing to welcome the dawn of the 21st century, the future of Russia was undergoing a tectonic shift. President Boris Yeltsin had decided to transfer his duties to his little-known prime minister, Vladimir Putin. To the rest of the world but particularly the West, it was a complete surprise.
Yeltsin was the father of Russian democracy and a perfect cheerleader of the Western interest in the former Soviet bloc. But all of a sudden, things changed. Putin’s first promise to the Russian people was strength. In his first address to the nation as acting president in 2000, he categorically said, “I assure you there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute.” The rest is history.
In the two decades since then, Russia has never appeared weak. Over the years, Putin has cultivated an image of reformer and a savior of Russia among Russians and as an international leader. He crafted his image over the years very carefully by laying out the path and vision for Russia.
But even before Putin’s designation as president-elect of the Russian Federation, it was clear that he had very different views of his country and its future from his predecessor and patron, Boris Yeltsin. His KGB background and his early military actions in Chechnya suggested that he was not going to compromise an inch in Russia’s core interests.
Within span of a year, Putin revived the Soviet-era national anthem, which once praised the atheist Communist Party and Josef Stalin. He set his vision for the nation very clearly.
Behind Putin’s vision for Russia is a resentment built on a lifetime belief that his country had been humiliated by the United States. With the invasion of Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin made a statement. But with the current Ukrainian crisis, the US has made the mistake of ignoring the warning of one of its key figures, George Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War containment strategy.
In 1997, Kennan predicted that any eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would inflame Russia’s nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies and would be the most fateful error of American policy of the post-Cold War era. The current crisis has provided Putin an excellent chance to maximize the benefit of Western policy mistakes and revive his agenda of restoring Russian glory.
But it’s quite rare in history that an empire that once collapsed was reconstituted under any conceivable terms.
Neither the Roman Empire nor the Persian nor the Alexandrian Empire was able to do so; exceptions were the reconstitution of former czarist territories under Soviet rule after 1920 under Lenin, and reassembling of territories ruled by Qing China under Mao Zedong in 1949. Ironically, both were communist states and they had very large and well-led armies at their disposal.
If Putin wins in Ukraine, then certainly it will increase the status and power of Russia in the region. More important, he will not be likely to stop there. In 2012, Russian officials admitted that they had been planning the 2008 war with Georgia since 2006.
Beyond this fact, Russia has undertaken an enormous and ongoing buildup of its military forces in the Caucasus to ensure its hegemony.
The current action in Ukraine follows a similar pattern of a pre-planned attack. Ukraine is also a threat to Putin’s domestic image and regime. He seeks to resolve the so-called “Ukraine problem” as soon as possible to boost his domestic image.
More so, the US response has been only rhetorical in the form of economic sanctions. The sanctions are unlikely to alter the shape of the Russian president’s aggression and ambition. Ukraine is a very important linchpin in his grand ambition as Putin is now focusing on building his legacy.
Restoring Soviet glory will be Putin’s legacy
Every leader is fascinated by his nation’s history and its past glory. Putin is no exception. He wants to see Soviet glory restored in his lifetime. His actions in Ukraine exactly show that.
More so, there is no better time than this. The dramatic events in Afghanistan proved that the US no longer enjoys the same respect and power in the world as it did two decades back. If the world’s greatest power bows down in front of a non-state actor like the Taliban, then certainly there is a void as far as leadership and order in the world are concerned. Putin wants to fill that void.
In the power game, perception plays an important role. Putin is playing with people’s perceptions both at home and in the world at large. He wants to showcase to the world that only Russia has the experience and power to handle world affairs better than America.
The open threat to other countries not to interfere in the Ukraine war and continually warning of the nuclear threat is just testimony of this. In politics and war, timing plays a crucial role. There is no better time than right now for Putin to restore his country’s glory – the West is divided and America is currently under the oldest leadership in its history.
Putin has waited for this moment for two decades and he will certainly not miss the opportunity. In the coming days, we will see a more aggressive Putin with an expansionism mindset to increase their country’s sphere of influence.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the end of the Soviet era, and the war in Ukraine will be its revival.