Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What We Can Learn about Russian Strategy from Ivan III
What We Can Learn about Russian Strategy from Ivan III

What We Can Learn about Russian Strategy from Ivan III

Orbis Winter 2022

Editor’s note: In the Winter 2022 issue of Orbis¸ Jakub Grygiel authored a review of John P. LeDonne’s Forging a Unitary State: Russia’s Management of the Eurasian Space, 1650–1850 (Issue 66:1). This commentary takes us back another two centuries to look at the strategic legacy of Ivan III.

Russia’s general invasion of Ukraine has begun. NATO, Europe, and the world are understandably on edge. What is Russia’s strategy? Why attack Ukraine at all?

Russia has offered an array of justifications. Hours before the offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced “a special military operation” against Ukraine. He claimed that this was necessary to protect the people of Ukraine’s Donbas region, demilitarize the country, and prevent Ukraine from obtaining nuclear weapons. Putin also claimed that Ukraine’s existence is a mistake made by the leadership of the Soviet Union. This adds to Putin’s announcement last summer that Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians are one people, bound by shared history and culture. Fratricidal counter-proliferation to correct history notwithstanding, studying a medieval Russian prince, Ivan III of Moscow, may offer insight into the Kremlin’s views and intentions for Ukraine.


Ivan III ascended the throne of the Grand Principality of Moscow in 1462. Over the next forty-three years, Ivan culminated the “gathering of the Russian lands” initiated by his forebears, forming a core Russian heartland under Moscow’s rule. This heartland, in turn, enabled Ivan III to achieve the watershed moment of Russian independence in 1480. However, Ivan III’s particular political project not only enabled Russian independence but formed the Russian State’s relationship with its Eastern Europe neighbors.

Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia all trace their national identities to the medieval state of Rus. Formed from East Slavic tribes in the ninth century and centered in modern Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, the Rus spanned Eastern Europe—from the Baltic and White Seas in the north to Crimea and the Black Sea in the south. The Mongol invasions of the 1230s and 40s led to the collapse of the Rus and the fragmentation of Rus lands into small, competing principalities. Moscow emerged in 1263 as one such principality, beholden to the Mongols—later Tatars—of the Golden Horde.

Ivan III asserted an ambitious political program—that he was Grand Prince “of all Rus,” not just Moscow. In 1462, Moscow was a contender with fellow Russian principalities Yaroslavl and Tver, as well as the commercially prosperous Republic of Novgorod, for preeminence within medieval Russia—to say nothing of the Golden Horde. Ivan’s claim also put him in competition with Eastern Europe’s predominant military power, the Grand Principality of Lithuania. Lithuania’s fourteenth-century rulers had moved quickly to conquer the Rus territories devastated by the Mongols and, by the late fifteenth century, had ruled a vast realm comprised of modern Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and large portions of western Russia. Lithuanian rulers also claimed to be “Grand Prince of all Rus.”

Yet Ivan III prevailed. Leveraging Moscow’s military and economic strength, he gradually overcame and annexed his Russian rivals, particularly Novgorod, before breaking the Golden Horde’s hegemony at the Great Stand on the Ugra in 1480. Ivan and Moscow’s subsequent prestige from independence lent credence to his declared title—as did the growth of Russian territory under Muscovite rule.

Ivan III’s greatest challenge, however, was for control of the lands of Rus with his strategic competitor, Lithuania. Ivan’s claims were supported by Russian control of the former northern and eastern regions of Rus. By the 1490s, though, Lithuania mounted a credible challenge by its possession of the western, central, and southern portions of Rus. Russia and Lithuania’s rival political claims posed a mutual, irreconcilable, existential threat.

Ivan III’s military successes against Lithuania cemented Russia’s self-image as the heir to Rus. Citing persecution of Orthodox Slavs by Lithuania’s Catholic rulers, Ivan III declared war in 1492 and in 1500, gaining the western Russian cities of Vyazma and Bryansk as well as the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. Although Ivan’s territorial gains were approximately a third of Lithuania’s antebellum territory, his greatest prize was Lithuanian recognition of his claim to “all Rus.” Lithuania rapidly declined in the aftermath and became increasingly reliant on Poland, later resulting in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ever since Ivan III, the Russian State has laid claim to the legacy of Kyivan Rus, with follow-on claims to its former territory and people.


Ivan III’s reign offers several observations into both Russian State behavior and perspective.

First, Ivan III’s political project was a veritable revolution in Russian affairs, with lasting implications. He formed a new Moscow-centered heartland within which the Russian state could generate sufficient power to achieve independent statehood. His assertions of independence and the self-declared title “Grand Prince of all Rus” expanded his political heartland beyond Moscow to the entirety of old Rus. Ivan’s—and the Russian State’s—legitimacy have been tied by these claims, with follow-on self-appointed rights and responsibilities over all the territory of old Rus.

Second, the legacy of the Rus, as interpreted since Ivan III, has helped define Russia’s political identity. Russian leaders stake their legitimacy on a heritage not exclusive to Russia—Ukraine and Belarus also have legitimate claims to this legacy, as well as national self-determination. Historically, Russian leaders have sought resolution to this challenge through political incorporation of both into Russia, by exercise of military power as needed.

Put within the historical record, Russia’s invasion and Putin’s claims are the latest in a 500-year-old argument between Russians and Ukrainians that Vladimir Lenin once called “Great Russian chauvinism.” Lenin’s Bolsheviks rejected this Russian narrative and promoted Ukrainian statehood within the Soviet Union—and Putin himself has decried Lenin’s nationality policy. While a medieval prince’s politics may seem irrelevant in the twenty-first century, the Russian State’s actions and messaging aligns with the sixteenth-century policies of Ivan III. This doesn’t make Russia’s invasion just, reasonable, or even popular, but it is a policy as old as the Russian State itself.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.


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