Vladimir Putin has compared himself to Russian tyrant Peter the Great as he bragged about ‘reclaiming’ land in Sweden in a chilling new threat to European security.
Putin, speaking on the 350th anniversary of Tsar Peter’s birth, referenced the Great Northern war which saw an anti-Sweden coalition – led by Moscow – smash the Swedish empire and establish Russia as a new imperial power in Europe.
‘It seemed [Peter] was fighting with Sweden and seizing territories,’ Putin told his audience, a smirk on his face, as he spoke about the founding of St Petersburg on land once held by Sweden. ‘He wasn’t seizing anything! He was taking them back!’
Referencing the Battle of Narva, the opening battle of the war which took place in modern-day Estonia, he continued: ‘Why did he go there? He went there to take it back and to strengthen it, that’s what he was doing
‘It has fallen to us to take back and strengthen. And if we take these values as fundamental to our existence, we will prevail in the issues we are facing.’
Putin’s veiled threat comes amid fears that he will launch war in the Baltics – Estonia, Sweden and Finland included – once he is finished in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin was speaking on the eve of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where he told his young audience: ‘During the war with Sweden, Peter the Great didn’t conquer anything, he took back what had always belonged to us, even though all of Europe recognised it as Sweden’s.’
That fear has prompted Sweden and Finland to apply to join NATO, hoping to gain protection from the alliance’s mutual defence pledge in the event Putin invades.
The pair had been hoping for fast-tracked entry into the alliance but they have been left in a precarious position after Turkey’s President Erdogan held up their bids, leaving them vulnerable to Russian retaliation.
As Putin spoke, Russian warships began training exercises in the Baltic Sea while Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto was due to meet with Sweden’s King Carl Gustav XVI and Queen Silvia on the lightly-defended island of Åland.
Niinisto – a close friend of Putin’s who was warned by the Russian leader he was making a ‘mistake’ by applying to NATO – abruptly cancelled the meeting and flew home with his wife.
Helsinki denied the move had anything to do with Putin’s comments or the Russian military drills, but it will do little to calm the nerves of Baltic nations who fear they are next on Putin’s hit-list once the war in Ukraine is over.
The Åland islands are a Swedish-speaking part of Finland that sit at the mouth of the Bay of Bothnia, which separates the two countries.
They have been demilitarised since the Åland War in the 1850s between Britain and France on one side and Russia the other, which took place against the larger backdrop of the Crimean War in the Black Sea.
It would be – along with the Swedish island of Gotland – a key strategic battleground in the Baltic Sea should Russia decide to take preemptive action against its Scandinavian neighbours over their bids to join NATO.
Putin’s reference to the various wars in with Sweden in which Peter the Great successfully fought the Swedish Empire off the mainland will send shivers down Scandinavian spines.
With word that the Russia Baltic Fleet had deployed out of Kaliningrad earlier in the day, it is thought that the proximity of Russian forces to the heads of state of Finland and Sweden on an undefended island might have prompted their hasty departures.
Russian Baltic Fleet Zubr-class Landing Craft Air Cushions – hovercrafts – and some corvettes had been spotted heading out from the heavily militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, located between Poland and Lithuania.
Although the guests at the 100th anniversary celebratory dinner for Åland’s autonomy were forewarned that their Finnish host may have to leave suddenly, they had been originally expected to stay for the gala concert at the end of the evening.
Sources in Sweden downplayed the suddenness of the king’s exit, saying the departure time was pre-planned.
King Carl Gustaf of Sweden (L) and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (R) on the Aland Islands in Finland as the province celebrates one hundred years of autonomy
The Åland islands are a demilitarised region of Finland that sits at the mouth of the Bay of Bothnia, which separates the country from its Swedish neighbour. It would be – along with the Swedish island of Gotland – a key strategic battleground in the Baltic Sea should Russia decide to take preemptive action against its Scandinavian neighbours over their bids to join NATO
The Baltic has been transformed into a hub of military activity in recent weeks, with two Finnish F/A-18 Hornet jets taking part in operations of the Joint Expeditionary Force training event with a pair of British Typhoons over Helsinki today.
And while a hot war rages a thousand miles to the south in the Donbas region of Ukraine, the Baltic is also a hair-trigger situation that could escalate.
Last month Boris Johnson agreed a major new military pact with Sweden and Finland that would see the UK come to their aid militarily should they be attacked by Putin’s forces while they apply to join NATO.
Asked whether British troops could be sent to Finland in the event of a Russian invasion, the PM had said: ‘Yes, we will come to each other’s assistance including with military assistance.’
Putin’s comments about retaking land ‘that belongs to Russia’ has undermined much of the Kremlin’s apparent justification for launching a bloody war of invasion, which they have termed a ‘special military operation’.
While they officially-stated reasons are to ‘de-nazify’ and demilitarise Ukraine, a country which they accuse of abuses against Russian-speaking populations in the east of the country, it seems that Putin has inadvertently revealed that the invasion is little more than a war of conquest.
Putin has stated in the past that he views Ukraine as an historical part of Russia and Ukrainians as ‘little Russians’. It appears that he is loathe to let them tread a path that veers away from Russian domination.
Such thinking is rooted in a 19th century, imperialistic view of the world, in which Great Powers expand their power and conquer their neighbours.
With the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the United Nations Charter, respect for national sovereignty and self-determination was supposed to preclude bigger powers from conquering and gobbling up lesser powers, as was seen most recently in 1940.