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Two men, one balding, sit in white chairs across from each other during an interview.
In this photo released by Sputnik news agency on Feb. 9, 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Vladimir Putin justifies his imperial aims in Tucker Carlson interview

During his much-publicized recent interview with American right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson, Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his perception of Russian history as the second anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine approaches.

His comments build on his 2021 essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” that claimed Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and that the concept of Ukraine as a state was invented by the Bolsheviks.

During his interview with Carlson, Putin traced Russian history to the ninth century. In his view, southern Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire when Catherine II — known more commonly as Catherine the Great — captured it from the Ottoman Empire.

Read more: How Catherine the Great may have inspired Putin's Ukraine invasion

Western historians treated Putin’s remarks with disdain, accusing him of being a bad historian. But his assertions reflect an important Russian claim — namely, that it has a legitimate right to occupy Ukraine.

Putin: Russia saved Europe from Nazis

Russia’s identity today is closely connected to the Second World War, or to use Russian parlance, the Great Patriotic War. In the Carlson interview, Putin once again blamed its outbreak in 1939 on Poland for not satisfying German demands and its 1934 non-aggression pact with Germany.

As for the Soviet Union’s own pact with the Nazis in August 1939, which carved up Poland, Putin argued it was a matter of expediency and distrust of the West.

Today, the Putin regime uses the Second World War as the basis of modern Russian identity. It points out that Russians, under the Soviet Union, suffered the brunt of the conflict and ended the war in 1945.

The fact that 4.5 million Ukrainians fought in the Red Army is largely ignored as Russia argues it alone saved Europe from the Nazis.

Two balding men shake the hands of elderly people in military uniforms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko greet a group of Second World War veterans during an opening ceremony of the monument to Red Army soldiers in 2020. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Neo-Nazi takeover?

Russian mainstream and social media today are devoted to the task of bolstering this version of Second World War history. News outlets link the war to the invasion of Ukraine, alleging the country was taken over by neo-Nazis in 2014. At the behest of the West, so goes the allegation, Ukrainian protesters overthrew the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, and installed a neo-Nazi regime.

These alleged “Nazis” in Kyiv are the ideological descendants of Moscow’s past enemies: followers of Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, supposed traitors still feted in cities that include Edmonton.

It seems hard to imagine how educated Russians would believe modern-day Ukraine is a Nazi haven. But one has to understand the Moscow environment, where figures like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky propagate the official narrative.

A dark haired man in a suit stands in front of an ornate curtain.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers a speech in Moscow during an event marking the 10th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine on Feb. 15, 2024. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)

‘Cleansing’ Ukraine

Lavrov recently claimed the Russian invasion of Ukraine has “cleansed” Ukrainian society of those “who do not feel they belong to Russia history and culture.”

Medinsky, who authored the Grade 10 history textbook for Russian high school students, has advanced a new interpretation of the Second World War that focuses on the “genocide of the Soviet people.” New graves of Russian victims have suddenly been discovered and excavated, and Soviet losses continue to be counted.

As for the Holocaust in neighbouring Belarus — a subject several western scholars are studying — Jews and other minorities are now subsumed under the term “Soviet people.”

Just as history is continually being rewritten and propagated in Russian schools, it’s happening in Belarus, too. The two countries will soon produce a common textbook featuring new theories about the “genocide of the Belarusian people.” The memory of the Second World War is alive and well in both nations.

Schoolchildren stand in front of a giant red and yellow flag and emblem.
Belarusian schoolchildren at an official ceremony marking Flag Day in Minsk, Belarus, in 2012. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Justifying authoritarianism

Why is there such a Russian focus on a war that ended almost 80 years ago?

Because it’s used to justify authoritarian states, the rule of dictators like Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, and — above all else — the realignment of the territorial agreements made after the end of the Second World war in 1945.

Those western analysts who never saw beyond NATO’s expansion as the cause of the invasion of Ukraine — and the alleged promises made in 1990 to Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand the alliance — need a rethink.

Read more: The Ukraine-Russia standoff is a troubling watershed moment for NATO

Contrary to some assessments, the current war is not about NATO, which doesn’t truly threaten Russia. If it did, why did Putin refrain from denouncing Sweden and Finland when they joined the alliance?

Nor do the origins of the war on Ukraine lie in politics in Kyiv, or the Euromaidan protests or Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union.

They lie in the past, in a narrow, distorted perception of Russian history and Russia’s claims to lands it once ruled.

Read more: The legacy of the Euromaidan Revolution lives on in the Ukrainian-Russian war

A return to colonialism?

Carlson provided Putin with a forum to outline his imperialist dreams.

If those watching were to accept Putin’s version of Second World War history as valid, it means they’d be amenable to the world not only returning to the period of colonial empires once prevalent prior to the 20th century — they’d also be giving a green light for Putin to make similar claims to other states once part of the Soviet Union, like Georgia, Moldova and other sovereign nations.

Carlson failed to call out the facile nature of Putin’s claims during the interview.

But the former leader of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, poked fun at the Russian president by unveiling a map of Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire on social media that showed a territory vastly larger than Russia while noting: “Don’t worry. We are a peaceful and free nation.”

Mongolia may be. But Putin’s Russia is not.

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