Russia’s President Vladimir Putin likened himself to Russian monarch Peter the Great, the tsar who led a conquest of the Baltic coast during his 18th-century war against Sweden.
Putin also spoke of his country’s need to “take back” territory and “defend itself” as the Kremlin’s forces continued a grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.
After visiting an exhibition in Moscow dedicated to the 350th birthday of the tsar, Putin drew parallels between Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg and modern-day Russia’s ambitions.
He told a group of young entrepreneurs “you get the impression that by fighting Sweden [Peter] was grabbing something. He wasn’t taking anything, he was taking it back”.
When Peter the Great founded St Petersburg and declared it the Russian capital “none of the countries in Europe recognised this territory as belonging to Russia”, Putin said.
“Everyone considered it to be part of Sweden. But from time immemorial, Slavs had lived there alongside Finno-Ugric peoples,” he added.
“It is our responsibility also to take back and strengthen,” Putin said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.
“Yes, there have been times in our country’s history when we have been forced to retreat, but only to regain our strength and move forward,” he said.
‘Sovereign or a colony’
The defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) made Russia the leading power in the Baltic Sea and an important player in European affairs.
But with Russia’s ties with the West currently shattered by the Ukraine invasion, Moscow authorities are downplaying Peter’s affinity for Europe and focusing on his role in expanding Russian territories.
Putin appeared to leave the door open for further territorial expansion, while asserting Russia’s sovereignty.
“There is no state in between. A country is either sovereign or a colony,” he said.
“It’s impossible – do you understand – impossible to build a fence around a country like Russia. And we do not intend to build that fence,” Putin added.
Peter I reigned first as tsar and then as emperor from 1682 until his death in 1725.