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The Guardian of Peter the Great’s Legacy

The Guardian of Peter the Great’s Legacy

Monday, 13 June, 2022 - 10:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The strong ruler digs into history, searching for a spring, a sword, or a cover. Vladimir Putin is searching for a legitimate reason for the great coup he unleashed through the Ukrainian fire. It’s a coup against the unipolar world, its only superpower, its fleets… It’s a coup against its dollar - the biggest and most violent of its generals. It’s a coup against the Western model and its attractiveness… against color revolutions and civil society.

It was difficult for Putin to derive the legitimacy of his coup from Stalin or Lenin. He needed an ancestor that further embodies the Russian spirit and the dream of the empire, and he has found one. He is Peter the Great, the builder of the empire and the navy, who subjugated neighboring lands and nearby seas. The master of the Kremlin meddles with the legacy of the most prominent stars of Russian history. He uses the character of a warrior and the spirit of a tsar, disavowing his desire to learn from the West and to follow its path of progress.

The Russian war in Ukraine needs no proof of its exceptional gravity. It is a war waged by a superpower that, in addition to its formidable nuclear arsenal, has a permanent seat in the Security Council. It is also the country that was born from the ashes of the Soviet collapse and has been acting since with feelings of oppression and bitterness.

Moreover, it is a war taking place on European soil, in which the Russian weapon confronts the Atlantic coalition, which is trying to save the Ukrainian army from a crushing defeat that will force it to complete surrender. It’s a war that sees the use of energy and food as lethal weapons, threatening to starve millions of people and triggering a global economic crisis. Perhaps the most dangerous new element is news coming from Russia about Putin’s admiration for Peter the Great, his endeavor to implement his ancestor’s policies and to “restore the property” of the Russian Empire. This simply means that the war goes beyond seeking to uproot the Atlanticisit tendencies of the current Ukrainian spirit, to the extent of snatching parts of the Ukrainian map.

It also means that President Volodymyr Zelensky is not facing a border dispute or punishment from a powerful neighbor, but rather a confrontation with the spirit of the Russian Empire and the legacy of Peter the Great.

In any discussion of the Russian war in Ukraine, the responsibility of the West cannot be ignored. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the West, which was seized by the vanity of the victor, ignored Russian “facts” that should not have been overlooked.

This country, which is equivalent to the size of a continent, is ruled by a strong man who can moderate divisions and control national and ethnic sensitivities. Moreover, it is a country already affected by the siege complex, and feels that throughout history it has been targeted by the winds of invasions.

It has feelings of admiration towards European progress, mixed with fear for the identity. What also cannot be ignored is that the imperial legacy is rooted in the spirit of the people, who are always nostalgic for their great Russia.

The West misbehaved with a stiffening Russia. It failed to develop a vision that would lure Moscow into the European space. It did the opposite. It moved the pawns of the NATO alliance towards its borders. The West made another mistake; its leaders imagined that Putin would be content with restoring the army and protecting the Russian Federation from disintegration, and would go to modernizing the economy while recognizing the American leadership of the world.

The West failed to receive the signals sent by the “Soviet colonel” in the second decade of this century, mainly the punishment of Georgia, the restoration of Crimea, the military intervention in Syria, and the deployment of the Wagner Group’s in several countries.

As the West did not catch the warning signs, it was hard to imagine Russian forces fighting a street war in Ukrainian cities, and seeing millions of Ukrainians fleeing the new Tsar’s army.

For the first time, Putin spoke as if he was revealing his cards without fear. “It is amazing, as if nothing had changed (...) Peter the Great fought the Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, [that] he took something from them. He didn’t take things he took back.”

Perhaps this is what the master of the Kremlin meant when he considered Ukraine a mere artificial entity. His words were straightforward and clear.

He said: “When (the emperor) established a new capital in Saint Petersburg, none of the countries of Europe recognized these lands as belonging to Russia. The whole world considered it part of Sweden.”

He concluded: “He was going to restore and consolidate. It seems that we have to take back and consolidate.”

The common belief was that Putin came to carry out a mission engineered by the army and the KGB to restore Russia’s prestige. What appears now is more dangerous. The commandments of Peter the Great are more terrible than the desires of the military and security apparatus. It stresses the perpetuity of the Russian threat to Finland and Sweden, and the subjugation of the Caucasus, Crimea, Baltic regions and Ukraine.

Can the world tolerate a program of this magnitude? Can Putin withdraw from Ukraine, if it is just a leg on a larger and more dangerous march? Can the world economy sustain on the fire of the Russian-Western confrontation?

Poor Ukraine. No one will send his army to stop the Russian advancement. Western weapons will not be able to prevent Putin from scoring military victories.

Ukraine is the scene of the largest coup in the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fear spreads in European veins, and countries that were at ease are now testing their arsenals and demanding their military factories to produce at full capacity.

Removing Peter the Great’s mantle, the colonel ignored the emperor’s admiration for European progress and contented himself with his eagerness to expand the map. He launched a coup that would stir the appetites of other countries. The recent Chinese statements on Taiwan are the best evidence. Poor Zelensky, too. His countrymen entrusted him with an impossible role. They assigned him to wrestle with the guardian of Peter the Great’s “legacy.”

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