Putin now babbling about Peter the Great, says it's his destiny to take back former Russian territory

Six months ago this would have been frightening. Under the present circumstances it seems pathetic, practically hallucinatory.

Today is the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth, prompting a rare public appearance by Putin to visit a new multimedia exhibit in Moscow celebrating the tsar’s life. Peter is renowned for having expanded Russia’s borders — and for introducing European culture and technology to Russia, an irony unacknowledged by Putin today as his country endures punishing economic sanctions by the west. Naturally, the anniversary became an occasion for the new tsar to reflect on how chunks of land to the west are rightfully Russia’s and regaining them is a simple matter of determination.

This, as his army struggles to take the Donbas from a Ukrainian military that barely existed in any meaningful sense 10 years ago.

Ever seen “Aguirre, Wrath of God”? It’s about an expedition to South America by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century that … doesn’t go well. Not to spoil it, but it ends with the main character as the sole survivor, adrift on a river raft with troops dying around him and nothing but a horde of spider monkeys to keep him company. Driven mad by seeing his grand plans go up in smoke, he retreats into fantasy about conquering Trinidad, then Mexico, and on and on.

Big Aguirre energy here:

Comparing Peter the Great’s conquests against the Swedish Empire with his own war on Ukraine, Putin observed that Peter was both patient and resolved.

Putin railed that “when [Peter] founded the new capital [St. Petersburg], none of the European countries recognized this territory as Russia, everyone recognized it as Sweden.” Note the implicit reference to the international community’s refusal to recognize Crimea and the Donbas as Russian territories. The nature of Peter’s struggle against the Swedish Empire also appeals to Putin’s sense of destiny in light of Sweden’s present effort to join NATO.

Putin wasn’t done. Again referencing Peter’s campaigns, he continued, “The same is true in the western direction. This applies to Narva, [Peter’s] first campaigns.” Putin noted that when Peter launched his second attempt to seize Narva from the Swedish Empire, he did so “returned and strengthened — that’s what he did.” Narva is now part of NATO member Estonia’s territory. It sits on the Estonian-Russian border just 75 miles from St. Petersburg. Thus followed Putin’s crunch line threat: “Apparently,” Putin remarked, “it also fell to our lot to return and strengthen.”

Sweden and Estonia, huh? They’re next, I guess, as soon as the glorious special operation in Ukraine is complete.

And maybe Lithuania too? Some members of the Russian parliament have suddenly come to the conclusion that that country, which is also a member of NATO, never properly gained its independence from Russia:

The State Council of the USSR, chaired by its last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, eventually adopted Lithuania’s independence decree on September 6, 1991, by which time the Baltic republic’s new status had already been recognized by 50 countries.

But Fyodorov said this decree was “illegal” because it was adopted “by an unconstitutional body,” which was in violation of the USSR constitution.

He said that under article 67.1 of the Russian constitution, the Russian Federation is the legal successor of the USSR on its territory. Therefore, in his view, this meant that the recognition of Lithuania’s independence taken by the USSR State Council was subject to cancellation.

Might as well throw Lithuania onto the pile. The Lithuanians don’t seem frightened, for what it’s worth:

Wasn’t the war in Ukraine supposed to have been about NATO, incidentally? That’s what the paleocons and tankies claimed before Russia’s invasion, that NATO’s refusal to rule out membership for the Ukrainians had caused such anxiety in Moscow about its sphere of influence that it had little choice but to try to retake Ukraine before NATO got there first. Putin didn’t have much to say about NATO today. He seemed more preoccupied with imperial fantasies, implicitly asking eastern Europeans, “What are you doing on our land?”

Maybe NATO wasn’t the precipitating cause after all. Maybe, contra the realists, Russia’s leadership chose to cope with its declining power by submerging itself in irredentist daydreams of the past, when the country was more formidable culturally and militarily.

Gotta watch out for authoritarians who insist on making their country great again, particularly when there are few civil institutions around them capable of reining them in.

I’ll say this for Putin and his propaganda machine, though: They seem to be perfectly clear-eyed about what a Republican victory in the midterms would mean for the war.

That’s precisely what the America First-ers will say next year. The GOP hasn’t cared about federal spending since 2016 but they’ll regain their inner fiscal-hawk pretensions to appease the anti-anti-Putin wing of the party.

I’ll leave you with this glimpse into Vladimir Putin’s psyche.

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