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Looking back at two decades of the Russian President’s speeches and essays, it’s hard not to feel as though we should have listened more carefully

Photo illustration: Bryan Gee/The Globe and Mail (images: iStockphoto, Reuters)

One day in 1994, British academic and author Timothy Garton Ash was sitting “half asleep” at a conference in St. Petersburg “when a short, thickset man with a rather ratlike face” spoke up. He complained that Russia had lost huge stretches of territory when the Soviet Union fell apart, leaving millions of Russians outside its borders. The world, he said, should remember that Russia was still a “great nation,” not to be trifled with.

The man who interrupted his semi-slumber was Vladimir Putin, then a mere deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Mr. Garton Ash told the story in The New York Times in 2014, after Mr. Putin had seized Crimea and fomented a violent rebellion in eastern Ukraine. When people say such things, he concluded, we should probably listen.

In Mr. Putin’s case, the warning went largely unheeded. The world was taken by surprise when the Russian President sent his tanks rumbling across the border to invade Ukraine last month. It shouldn’t have been. Like a certain Austrian painter before him, Mr. Putin had been clear about the grievances behind his brutal assault.

In a series of interviews, speeches and essays over two decades, he has laid out his distorted world view for all to see. Everything he has said over the past few weeks to justify the unjustifiable attack – that Ukraine is not a real, distinct country; that only a partnership with Mother Russia could guarantee its future; that the United States and its allies have conspired against Moscow by encroaching on its sphere of influence – he has said before.

If he has been devious about his tactics and timing, he has left little doubt about his strategy: to restore Russian greatness and get back at the West for all the slights he believes his country has suffered. Combing through his words now reveals a man more and more indignant about Russia’s treatment by the United States and its allies, more and more obsessed with Russian history and Ukraine’s central place in it and more and more impatient to set matters straight.

Mr. Putin shakes hands in 1999 with outgoing Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.Reuters; EPA/ITAR-TASS/AFP/Getty Images

When Mr. Putin came to power in 1999, he was all but unknown to the outside world. A former KGB officer, he had climbed the slippery pole to become a top aide in the Kremlin, then head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor as Moscow’s spy service, then prime minister.

He didn’t wait long to tell Russians where he stood. On Dec. 29, 1999, just a couple of days before his patron Boris Yeltsin resigned as president and named Mr. Putin to take his place, an essay called “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium” appeared on the Kremlin website. In it, Mr. Putin set out in stark terms how far the country had fallen. Living standards had crashed and the size of the economy was only a tenth of that of the United States. To restore its status, Russia would have to bring in wide economic and political reforms. That would require a law-based democracy, for “history proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient.”

But even then, at the dawn of a rule that has now stretched for 22 long years, he insisted that Russia would not revive itself merely by aping the West, becoming a “second edition” of the United States or the United Kingdom. Russia needed a strong state “and must have it,” he wrote. “To put it mildly, it is too early to bury Russia as a great power.”

In April, 2005, during his second term as President, Mr. Putin took a harder stand. In a state-of-the-nation address, he uttered a line that has haunted the world ever since. The collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

That is not exactly how the Eastern Europeans or other victims of Soviet rule saw it. But Mr. Putin said that for the Russian people, tens of millions of whom had found themselves beyond Russia’s post-Soviet borders, it was “a genuine tragedy.” The “epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself,” he said – a reference to separatist movements, like that in Chechnya, that he put down with such notable ruthlessness.

At top, a Russian soldier warms himself by a fire in Grozny in 1995, during a war with Chechen separatists; at bottom, Romanian soldiers hold NATO member states' flags at a 2004 ceremony welcoming Romania to the alliance.Shakh Aivazov and Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press

If Mr. Putin was feeling besieged at home, he was feeling ignored abroad. The United States had invaded Iraq in 2003. NATO had admitted seven new members in 2004. His objections didn’t seem to register with his international counterparts.

In 2007, Mr. Putin came to the annual Munich Security Conference to express his displeasure. Warning that he would “avoid excessive politeness,” he condemned NATO expansion as a “serious provocation” that brought the alliance’s “front line forces” right up to Russia’s borders. He lambasted the United States, which had “overstepped its national borders in every way,” imposing itself on other countries. “Well, who likes this?” he demanded. “Who is happy about this?”

The next year, 2008, Mr. Putin delivered a menacing speech to a NATO summit in Bucharest. The alliance, he suggested, should think very carefully before it even considered offering membership to Ukraine, an idea then-U.S. president George W. Bush was backing.

Ukraine, he said, was “a very complicated” entity, created in Soviet times from fragments of other countries. A third of its people were ethnic Russians. If it were to join NATO, Ukraine could find itself “on the verge of its existence.” He reportedly told Mr. Bush, bluntly: “‘You have to understand, George. Ukraine is not even a country.”

This, remember, was 14 years ago. Mr. Putin’s recent remark that free, democratic, internationally recognized Ukraine has no legitimate right to statehood, so shocking to much of the world, is nothing new. One way or another, he has said it over and over.

After a flurry over the Bucharest speech, the alarm eased. As British historian Robert Service puts it in his book on Mr. Putin’s rule, Kremlin Winter, “It was as though Western politicians wanted to forget the unpleasantness and get on with other business.”

Mr. Putin spekas at 2012's Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square.Reuters

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, was only becoming more entrenched in his views, both about Ukraine and what he saw as the West’s attempts to isolate and humiliate Russia. The many attempts by U.S. presidents and other Western leaders to reassure him seemed to do nothing to soothe his resentment.

His reading of Russian history deepened his convictions. “For Putin, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history is a crucial matter. History was his favourite subject in school, and he remains an avid reader today,” the international affairs scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy wrote in The Atlantic in 2012.

Russia, Mr. Putin began to argue, was not just a country, but a civilization – and Ukraine was part of it. The two had been closely integrated since Kyiv became the capital of the state of Rus’ in the ninth century and its grand prince, Vladimir, accepted Christianity in the late 10th century. “We are one people,” Mr. Putin said in a 2013 television interview, months before seizing Crimea from Ukraine. Historian Serhii Plokhy includes a telling excerpt from the interview in his book Lost Kingdom: Russia and Ukraine “have a common religion, a common faith. We have a very similar culture, languages, traditions and mentality” – though he felt moved to add that, “by the way … the Ukrainian language, dances and music: they are wonderful.”

The way Mr. Putin framed it, the rise of a proudly independent, nationalistic Ukraine – and one that was leaning more and more to the West – was an affront to the very essence of his country. Russia had always been a “multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state,” Mr. Putin said in a 2013 discussion forum. Therefore, any nationalist or separatist movement could undermine its “genetic code.” Essentially, he said, “we are beginning to destroy ourselves.”

The survival of the Russian idea was critical, not just for Russians but for the world. Russia stood as a lone defender of the “traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years,” Mr. Putin stated in his presidential address in 2013. The West’s attempt to impose its “supposedly more progressive development models” could only mean a descent into “chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”

So this, in his mind, was more than a clash over territory or global influence or systems of government. It was a clash of civilizations, and for Russia, the clash was existential. When, in a venomous speech this week, he said that Western countries were trying to “dismember” Russia and make it a “weak dependent country,” he was just sharpening a narrative that he has been developing for years: Russia Besieged.

Sevastopol, 2014: At top, pro-Russian forces walk through the naval headquarters in Sevastopol on March 19 during the invasion of Crimea; at bottom, a Russian flag is raised on a Ukrainian navy ship on March 20.Baz Ratner/Reuters; The Associated Press

His rhetoric grew fiercer when Russia seized and annexed Crimea after Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution of February, 2014. On March 18, 2014, he gave a speech to Russia’s political leaders in the gilded St. George’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. He said that taking Crimea back had undone a great injustice. Soviet authorities had transferred the Black Sea peninsula to Ukraine in the 1950s as if it were no more than a sack of potatoes. Russia woke up after the Soviet Union collapsed to find “it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.” As a result, the “big country was gone,” leaving a diminished nation.

In the same speech, Mr. Putin bitterly condemned Western countries for disregarding Moscow’s concerns about its security. “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs,” he said. When they moved to expand NATO and bring the defensive alliance closer to Russia, “They kept telling us the same thing: ‘Well, this does not concern you.’ ” In Ukraine, meanwhile, they were stirring up anti-Russian, nationalist forces. As he put it in St. George’s Hall, “our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly.”

Again, the West looked the other way, half asleep. For years, the war in eastern Ukraine dragged on. The world’s attention moved on to other things: the rise of China, the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump, a worldwide pandemic. The tensions between Moscow and Kyiv receded into the background.

Another torrent of fiery words from Mr. Putin should have given the game away. On July 12 of last year, the Kremlin released a sprawling 6,000-word Putin essay titled: “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” He dove deep into their joint history, expounding on Ukraine’s place in “the lands of historical Russia” and touching on such matters as the Treaty of Perpetual Peace of 1686, in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth agreed that Kyiv, among other territories, belonged to the Tsardom of Russia. One passage of his essay began: “I would like to dwell on the destiny of Carpathian Ruthenia” – a historic, amorphous slice of land nestled in or near no less than five present-day Eastern European countries.

The thrust was that any effort to reunite Ukrainian lands with Russia would only be righting a historical wrong. Ukraine had come under the influence of radical nationalists who hated Russia, he wrote. Ukraine was becoming a militarized country, aided by Western military and security forces. Ukraine was aiming to be “an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia,” a development comparable “to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.” He concluded: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

Without actually announcing a plan to attack Ukraine, he could not have been more explicit. Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Anne Applebaum immediately recognized the document for what it was. “It’s essentially a call to arms, laying the groundwork for a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” she exclaimed on Twitter just two weeks after the Putin essay was published.

But as it had so often before, the initial alarm passed. Only when tens of thousands of Russian troops started gathering on Ukraine’s borders and Washington warned of an imminent Russian attack did the world wake up to the danger.

Whether paying more attention to Mr. Putin’s words would have changed what has happened is hard to say. His all-out attack on a sovereign European country has left even veteran Putin watchers open-mouthed in astonishment and horror. But looking at all that he has said over the years – loudly, repeatedly, unashamedly – it is hard not to feel that we ought to have listened a little more closely.

Photo illustration by Bryan Gee/The Globe and Mail (photos: Reuters, iStockphoto)


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