Vladimir Putin is very open about his goals. He wants the Soviet Union back. And even more: he demands a Russian dominion, like the tsarist empire had.
This includes the Baltic States, Finland and most of Poland. It’s not just about Ukraine, he says unequivocally.
The warring chief of the Kremlin used the 350th birthday of Peter the Great on June 9 to make this announcement: “Apparently it’s our lot too: to bring it back and strengthen it.”
He referred to the conquests in the Baltic region from the Swedes by Tsar Peter the Great in the Great Northern War. At that time, the Russian Empire secured access to the Baltic Sea.
Even then, no European state recognized the area as Russian, said the Kremlin chief. “In addition to the Finno-Ugric tribes, Slavs have also lived there for centuries”.
Wherever Russians once lived or ruled, Moscow should be in charge again. That is Putin’s worldview. He speaks of a repatriation of Russian soil.
This seems unreal to most Germans, somewhere between unrealistic and absurd. For many of their allies in the geographic area between Germany and Russia, on the other hand, it sounds like a very serious threat.
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Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns and Poles were the victims of this imperialist thinking until the fall of the Tsarist Empire as a result of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. And they were – with the exception of the Finns – again soon after: as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Second World War and the East-West division of the continent.
After 1945 it also hit Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians – and not to forget the GDR citizens. To this day, of course, they react differently to Putin, often with a glorification of the Soviet Union, to the great astonishment of their former comrades in the same fate in the Eastern bloc. More on why that is in a moment.
In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, another group of victims has been added. Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics are now internationally recognized as sovereign states. But many of their citizens also see Putin and the Russian claims to power as a threat to their national independence. And have a completely different view of history than he does.
Putin has repeatedly formulated the claim to restore the dominion of the Tsarist Empire. It is not an anecdotal aberration on the occasion of Peter the Great’s 350th birthday.
Putin also spoke about this goal in the twisted history lesson lasting more than an hour that justified the attack on Ukraine in February.
His threats set off alarm bells in Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw and other Central European capitals. In Germany people tend to roll their eyes when Putin says things that seem out of date.
And if in doubt, raise your moral index finger: Please don’t compare Putin to Hitler. And better not with other German and Russian rulers who made their Slavic neighbors subjects by force.
But Poland’s President Duda can certainly compare Putin with Hitler from a Polish historical perspective. Germans don’t do that better. Descendants of Holocaust victims will reject the comparison for other reasons: because they focus on the singularity of the Shoah. And not because they doubt that Putin denies the national identity of neighboring peoples in a similar way as Hitler did.
Why do many Germans take Putin’s announcements less seriously than their allies living between Germany and Russia? Historically, Germans and Russians were the perpetrators of the oppression of the smaller peoples in “between Europe”. And they often made deals with each other.
This applies to the partition of Poland between 1772 and 1918 as well as to the Hitler-Stalin pact. The Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and others, on the other hand, were the victims of both German and Russian imperialism.
It makes a huge difference in the historical picture whether you were a perpetrator or a victim. The Germans never want to be as evil again as they were in the Third Reich. The Balts, Finns, Poles, but also Israelis have learned a lesson from their history: we never want to be defenseless again.
The Germans have drawn the consequences from the catastrophe into which their imperialism has led them. Putin, but also many Russian citizens, continue to live in the imperial mindset of the 19th century or the imperial mindset of the Soviet Union, in which the Russian people were also the colonial masters.
The respective national historical experiences form the sounding board for the perceived dangers of the present. But one thing should be undisputed in Europe: Putin’s words should be taken seriously. He acts as he speaks. The Europeans must stop it together.