Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Putin’s Warped Idea of Russian History
Putin’s Warped Idea of Russian History

Putin’s Warped Idea of Russian History

Bottom Line

  • February 24 marked two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the start of a bloody war that changed the borders of Europe for the first time since World War II.

  • Over the past two years, both sides have lost more than half a million people killed and wounded.

  • To understand how this war will end, one needs to take a closer look at its root cause—the way Vladimir Putin understands Russian history.

The total wartime losses of Russia and Ukraine are difficult to estimate. Neither country publishes accurate data, exaggerating the enemy’s losses and downplaying their own. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, Ukraine allegedly lost 406,000 people killed and wounded, while Russia’s official losses were last reported at the end of September 2022 at about 6,000. Ukrainian authorities put Russian losses at about 404,000 people, while the losses of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are classified. However, on February 25, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 31,000 Ukrainians were killed in the two years of war.

Independent assessments vary. According to US officials, by December 2023, Russia’s total losses amounted to about 315,000 people, which is about 85 percent of the Russian army as it stood at the start of the war. Ukrainian losses had been estimated at 200,000. Journalists from the Mediazona project and the BBC track social media to collect data on Russian military funerals and have been able to verify the identities of about 45,000 military personnel, but, according to their estimates, the actual death rate is at least twice as high.

Ukraine’s civilian population has suffered immensely from the war. According to the United Nations, by the end of 2023, deaths among Ukrainian civilians exceeded 10,000 people, with about 19,000 people injured. The number of Ukrainian refugees stood at 10 million, of which 6.3 million fled the country, while the rest were internally displaced.

The economic losses are no less catastrophic. The United Nations reports that the Ukrainian economy lost about 30 percent of its gross domestic product in 2022 alone. The World Bank estimates that the restoration of Ukraine’s economy would require $486 billion. The Russian economy, on the other hand, contracted by 2.1 percent in 2022, but bounced back in 2023 by 3.6 percent (most of the growth was driven by increased defense spending). Another loss for Russia was the flight of approximately one million skilled workers who left the country as a result of the war.

After two years, the war has seemingly turned into a frustrating stalemate, grinding away lives and resources in both countries. While many experts and observers have done a tremendous job monitoring and analyzing the war, the question that often gets lost in the details is what does Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man who has personally ordered this brutal war, really want to gain from it?

Putin’s View of the World

Observers have noted that following the annexation of Crimea, which sent the Russian public into an unprecedented patriotic fervor, Putin increasingly acted like someone with an inflated sense of himself as a historic figure. This is not surprising: History is the Russian president’s favorite subject. There is nothing wrong with such a hobby, if only Russia’s political system were not so closely interwoven with Putin’s personal preferences and his worldview. Having been at the helm of a large and complex country for almost a quarter of a century, at some point Putin may have ceased to distinguish between his personal interests and those of the country. Perhaps he sincerely believes that his vision of Russia and his political choices are simply the right ones. Perhaps he really thinks that he is working for the good of the country, “like a slave on the galleys,” trying to secure Russia’s right place (and likely his own) in history.

Putin’s rhetoric has become steeped in historical narratives that are as convoluted as they are false, according to Russian historians. His recent interview with Tucker Carlson, during which the Russian president delivered a thirty-minute lecture on Russian history, is the latest example. But the interview was dismissed as boring and worthy of a chuckle. After all, this is not the first time that Putin has forayed into his favorite subject and preached his interpretation of history to the public.

The willingness to dismiss another litany of Putin’s grievances is understandable, especially when the Russian president rambles on about events that happened in Europe a thousand years ago. However, listening closely to what Putin says about the subject he clearly thinks a lot about can reveal the structure of his belief system and increase the predictive value of his policies. 

Today, the West’s strategy essentially comes down to containing Putin and weakening Russia by arming Ukraine, as the war depletes both countries’ resources. The best bet seems to be that Putin will leave office sooner or later and Russia will be free, or at least so weak that it will be unable to wage aggressive wars. This may even seem like a reasonable expectation, given that many Western nations are wary of allocating funds for a continuous, costly war that also risks provoking Russia into an even more belligerent foreign policy. However, even if Putin is gone or replaced, it is likely that his successor will pursue similar policies, especially if the Russian political system is not fundamentally reformed.



Putin’s Favorite Narratives

What are Putin’s favorite historical narratives that can explain his political behavior?

One is that throughout Russia’s thousand-year history it has been constantly surrounded by enemies. The country has been attacked both from East and West, but despite everything, Russia has always emerged victorious and strong.

Putin’s other favorite narrative is the historical justification for the centralized Russian state. In a 2012 article, Putin discussed the so-called national question. He argued that nationalism has come to the forefront in the West and that multiculturalism failed. He contrasts Western multiculturalism with Russia’s imperial model, also a multicultural state, but hinging on the basis of the Russian people and Russian culture that are presented as somewhat superior to ethnic minorities living in Russia.

Putin’s third favorite narrative is the holy sacrifice of the Russian (or Soviet) people in World War II, which he usually contrasts to the treachery and hypocrisy of the West. Here his ideas about Russia’s greatness interplay with his narrative about the country’s being a “besieged fortress.”

These beliefs form a system that allows analysts to better understand why Putin denies Ukraine sovereignty and independence. He outlined his views in a 2021 article on what he sees as the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples and argued that essentially Ukraine does not deserve statehood. Appealing to the ideas of the Russian historian and philosopher Ivan Ilyin about the nations that lead and nations that are led, Putin assigns Ukraine the latter status. Why? Because such an order of things aligns with his personal view of Russia’s greatness. Finally, his belief that Russia is encircled by enemies is emboldened due to Ukraine’s willingness to escape Russia’s influence and move closer to Europe and United States, which Putin sees as a conspiracy crafted by the insidious West.

No Good Solutions

What can be inferred from Putin’s beliefs about Russia and the world?

The war, from Putin’s point of view, is absolutely justified. He sees it as a civilizational war between Russia and the West, whereas Ukraine is given the role of a sacrificial victim. If Putin does see himself as a historical figure on par with Peter the Great, thinking in terms of centuries, then he would go many lengths to preserve such a delusion. On the one hand, he is unlikely to risk everything and make a mistake, going down in history as a failed ruler. On the other hand, there is little he would not do to assert his right to superiority, and Russia’s nuclear arsenal offers him excellent leverage to do so.

What does this mean for policy? Today, after two years of full-scale war in Ukraine (although the Russian invasion of this country began in 2014), after hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded, millions of refugees, and multibillion-dollar damages, the West faces three basic scenarios. One is to ramp up military aid to Ukraine to a level that will allow it to fight Russia more effectively and, ideally, take back all the occupied territories. Two is to maintain a war of attrition, grinding away lives and resources and hoping that over time the balance of power will change in Ukraine’s favor. Three is to force both sides to the negotiating table.

The second scenario has emerged as the most realistic. Western nations are not ready to risk their own security just to restore justice or express gratitude to Ukraine for holding back the Russian offensive, even if they would like to do so. The third scenario is much less realistic and the first one is virtually impossible. Policymakers who still hope that an agreement can be reached with Putin, since he is supposedly a pragmatist, should read his historical essays and update their own beliefs. Putin’s track record reveals a serious commitment problem, whereas his twisted view of history highlights a sense of superiority that is difficult to reason with. As for Zelensky, he seems to understand his dilemma perfectly: Until a significant part of the Ukrainian people signal willingness to negotiate, he will push for his 10-points peace plan that implies Russia’s full withdrawal from the country and various security guarantees.

Perhaps an unexpected factor can break the current monotonous grind of the war—a turn of events that will change the balance of power within Russia itself. One would like to hope that Russian civil society and the remaining opposition groups will become such a factor, especially given the shock caused by the death of Alexei Navalny. It may be a thin hope, but hope always dies last.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: IMAGO/Andreas Stroh via Reuters Connect