Staunton, May 12 – Vladimir Putin rose to the presidency because he restarted the Chechen war and argued that only by fighting and suppressing Chechnya could Russia retain its territorial integrity, but now he is suggesting that he feared Russia in 2000 was at risk of disintegration not just in the North Caucasus but everywhere.
In an interview on Russia-1 two days ago, the Kremlin leader said the threat of disintegration at that time came “not just from the Caucasus. It was also in the North. It was in the Northwest. It was in the Center. It was in the Urals. It was in fact everywhere” (finanz.ru/novosti/aktsii/putin-zayavil-o-spasenii-rossii-ot-raspada-1029192681).
In the constitutions of the non-Russian republics two decades ago, Putin continues, there were all kinds of things. The only thing that they did not make clear is that these territories are “part of the Russian Federation.” That represented a challenge that had to be met if Russia was to survive, and Putin says he met it.
According to the Russian president, his “number one task” on taking office was to maintain the territorial integrity of the Russian state,” and this task, Putin says, he fully has fulfilled. “Our country today is absolutely reliably protected from any encroachment from the outside.” Russia’s enemies still want to divide and rule Russia; but they have been checked.
Three aspects of these remarks are important. First, they suggest that Putin believed or at least believes now that almost every part of the Russian Federation was about to flee unless he took a strong hand. That many did is beyond question. That this was true “everywhere” as Putin suggests is to slip into paranoia on the one hand or wishful thinking on the other.
Second, by suggesting that this was his “number one task,” Putin shows that the defense of territory rather than the promotion of the lives of the peoples who live on it was and remains his central preoccupation.
And third, on this occasion as he so often has indicated in the past, Putin displayed his fundamental contempt for the peoples of the Russian Federation. He discounts any possibility that any of them could actually on their own want greater autonomy or independence. Only the actions of external enemies can explain their moves.
Taken together, and given that these words came as the country was marking Victory Day, Putin’s remarks on this point underscore just how little the current Kremlin ruler understands his own country and how little his views have changed from the KGB officer he once was.