Putin's motive? The radical ideology of a holy Russian nation

Historians Beatrice de Graaf and Niels Drost interpret Putin's references to the past

President Vladimir Poetin in 2021. Bron: Wikimedia/kremlin.ru
President Vladimir Poetin in 2020. Source: Wikimedia/kremlin.ru

What exactly drives Putin to invade Ukraine and what else can we expect from him in this war? For many Europeans, Putin's motives are difficult to grasp: it is often said that what he is doing is "not rational". Historian and radicalisation expert Prof Beatrice de Graaf emphasises that Putin's actions do have logic within his own world view: "Putin is fighting for a holy Russian nation and is acting consistently and intrinsically logically in this." Under her guidance, alumnus Niels Drost wrote a master's thesis on Putin's strategic use of history and his increasingly radical ideology of a Greater Russian Empire. Drost has been working as a junior researcher at the Clingendael Institute since 15 February, where he published his findings.

Many analyses have recently pointed to Putin's propagandistic references to the Second World War and the Soviet era. De Graaf and Drost see a crucial source for his radical ideology even further back in the past: in the Russian empire of the nineteenth century, in which all Slavic peoples were incorporated and in which there was no separation between church and state. Putin's use of the double eagle symbol also refers to this: it traditionally symbolised how church and world converged in one body, in one ruler, De Graaf explained in a podcast on Dutch radio (EO, 26 February). "Putin's ideological goal is to reunite the Slavic peoples into the holy Russian nation, of which he sees himself as the embodiment and Kyiv as the cradle."

Shared history

Portret van tsaar van Rusland Peter de Grote (1672-1725). Bron: Wikimedia/Arkhangelskoye Palace
Portrait of Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). Source: Wikimedia/Arkhangelskoye Palace

Drost's thesis research shows that Putin has always used references to Russian history in his rhetoric, but that his ideas have become increasingly radicalised. Drost analysed over 500 speeches by Putin from the entire period of his presidency (2000-2008 and 2012-present). This shows that Putin initially used history in a positive way to seek rapprochement with Europe and to emphasise shared values. He referred, for example, to Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), who believed in the Enlightenment and who opened the windows to Europe for the Russians. During his first two terms as president, Putin also emphasised the connection between the Russian and Ukrainian people based on a shared religious (Orthodox-Christian) history.

Since 2012, Putin has increasingly used references to the Russian empire - accurate or not - to legitimise his own power, and his pro-European stance eroded.


But when Putin came back to power in 2012, and especially from the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he became increasingly insistent that Ukrainians and Russians are one people and that Crimea has always belonged to Russia (in fact, the area was not annexed by Russia for the first time until 1783). Putin increasingly used - accurate or not - references to the former Russian empire to legitimise his own power, and his pro-European stance became less and less. He also started quoting other czars, such as the absolutist Catherine the Great (1729-1796) who drastically expanded the Russian empire by occupying Crimea and the Caucasus, and Alexander II (1818-1881) who annexed Poland and Ukraine and implemented 'Russification' by suppressing minority languages, for example.

Rational irrationality

De Graaf describes Putin's ideology of a sacred Russian nation as an example of 'rational irrationality', a term she borrows from the American economist Bryan Caplan. "What Putin does is for him a logical, rational consequence of a worldview that is rather mythical, and based on beliefs rather than facts," De Graaf told RTL News.