‘Tsar Vladimir’ launches a new cold war

Role model: Could Peter the Great (left) be the inspiration for President Putin (right)?

While the world is distracted by Syria and the US election, Vladimir Putin has been quietly tightening his grip on world power. Some are now comparing him to Russia’s first great tsar.

In 1721 Russia won the great northern war. It had captured swathes of land on the Baltic coast. Tsar Peter the Great declared the birth of a Russian empire.

Three centuries later Russia’s leader has turned his attention to the same region. In recent weeks Vladimir Putin’s aircraft have twice buzzed US warships there and his submarines have entered Swedish waters.

And he is not stopping there. Commentator Roger Boyes says Putin is launching an “Arctic cold war” to take advantage of melting sea ice and make Russia wealthier. Russia’s military presence in the Arctic will soon be bigger than all other powers combined.

In a recent strategy paper, Putin said Western powers wanted to overthrow “legitimate political regimes”. Since 2007, when he said the USA had “imposed itself on other states”, his forces have attacked Georgia and seized control of Crimea.

These conflicts have raised concerns that he is asserting Russian nationalism at home. He has cultivated a close relationship with the highly traditional Russian orthodox church, and in 2009 a poll suggested the Russian people were largely hostile to Western society.

Putin is also an authoritarian who has extended his own term of office, increased the penalties for taking part in unsanctioned protests and cracked down on opposition. Some say he has developed “state capitalism”.

His behaviour has drawn comparisons with Russia’s tsars, particularly Peter. “For Putin,” says Boyes, “Peter must seem the very model of a modernising megalomaniac.”

Peter assumed control of an introspective Russia — a rural country with an identity based on orthodox religion and suspicion of foreigners. He sought to change this by fighting Turkey and Sweden, building the Westernised city of St Petersburg and industrialising the economy. Later Catherine the Great studied European philosophy, encouraged the growth of the arts and extended Russia’s influence to the south and west.

In 2000 Putin said: “I cannot imagine my country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world.” But do his actions reflect the principles of the reforming tsars or isolationist, traditional Russia?

Emperor or ideologue?

Boyes says Putin considers Peter his “favourite tsar”. Like Peter, he wants to enrich his nation and create new opportunities for his people. His willingness to build up the military and his attempts at expansion are symptomatic of an outward-looking leader.

Others say his main concern is at home. He wants to strengthen the traditional identity of the Russian people. He is more like Alexander III — a reactionary strongman who thought liberal ideas, such as democracy, had caused his father’s death — than Peter or Catherine. His opposition to the West is ideological.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried by Vladimir Putin’s actions?
  2. Does Putin care more about expanding Russian influence abroad or strengthening its traditional identity at home?


  1. Write a list of five things you learnt about Russia, or Vladimir Putin, from this article — and five questions you would like to know the answers to. Then compare them with a partner. Can you answer any of each other’s questions?
  2. The foreign secretary of your country wants to know what Putin is doing, why he is doing it and what he might do next. Write a one-page briefing explaining these things.

Some People Say...

“People are inevitably prisoners of history.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in Russia, the Baltic or the Arctic. Will this affect me?
The suspicion between Putin and Western countries could be dangerous for the world. If conflict broke out between Putin and a country in the NATO alliance (Latvia, for example), the other members of NATO would find themselves fighting against Russia. NATO includes countries such as the USA and the UK — and both Putin and NATO have nuclear weapons.
But a war between the West and Russia isn’t very likely, is it?
A lot would need to go wrong before it got that far. But the military build-up has other implications. If countries spend more money on their military, there will be less money to spend on other things you use. Putin’s actions could also make some countries richer and others poorer, and harm the environment.

Word Watch

Russia took control of Estonia, Livonia, Ingria and southeastern Finland.
Flew dangerously close to the ships.
It is estimated that 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil is in the Arctic.
Putin’s forces are undertaking military exercises, building a fleet of icebreakers and rebuilding infrastructure in the Arctic.
The USA, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland are also Arctic states.
60% of respondents said Western society was not a good model for Russia. Only 7.2% said they thought it would be a strongly positive one.
Several prominent opposition politicians have been assassinated or imprisoned.
Rulers of Russia from 1547 to 1917.
Russia’s geography (as a huge country with a poor climate), strong orthodox church (which viewed outside influences as heretical) and history of subjugation by the Tartars (which prevented a Renaissance) encouraged an isolationist mentality.
Alexander’s father, Alexander II, was assassinated by a revolutionary group called People’s Will.


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