Vladimir Putin has compared himself to the czar Peter the Great. But to travel through Eastern Europe is to see how much he has instead caused Russian influence to shrink.
I’ve been on a road trip through Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — and it’s clear that Putin has managed to unite nearly everyone against Russia. Even Russian speakers who often used to feel loyalty to Moscow are now fundraising for Ukraine.
One of my first memories is of a trip to Poland in the 1960s to visit my grandparents (Kristof is short for Krzysztofowicz). What I remember is that communist Poland seemed endlessly bleak and depressing. Later, when I began to travel around Eastern Europe as a law student and aspiring journalist, my main impression was that in the communist bloc, you didn’t need color film.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the NATO summit, told me that when he first visited the country in 1979, he had the same impression: “It looked like everything had been whitewashed with gray paint. It was drab and lifeless.” Flash-forward, and today these countries are almost unrecognizable: vibrant, colorful and far wealthier than Russia. Poland has become a sophisticated manufacturing base for Europe, and Intel just announced that it would build a $4.6 billion chip plant near Wroclaw.
“Poland has been able to serve as a model for countries to the east,” Mark Brzezinski, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, told me. And Russia has been a model of a different kind.
“Putin’s actions since February 2022 have proven the thesis that Russia under Putin is interested in leadership by terror and authoritarianism,” Brzezinski added. “For other countries of the former Soviet bloc, if they ever were wobbly about joining the West, they certainly have had a clarifying experience.” The improvements in the Baltics have been as pronounced as those in Poland. Estonia is now a jewel of Europe, the global model of a high-tech and prosperous “e-state.” It has nurtured countless high-tech startups, including Skype, and as I walked through Tallinn, the capital, I shared a sidewalk with a robot delivering a takeout dinner to a nearby home.
In contrast, Russia and the places that have remained in its orbit like Belarus and Transnistria remain dismal and oppressive. A glimpse of that side of the chasm: One of the world’s bravest journalists, Elena Milashina, who has reported on human rights in Russia, was attacked recently in Chechnya; thugs beat her, shaved her head, poured dye on her and left her with a brain injury.
Putin claims to be a champion of the rights of Russian speakers, whose families often moved to neighboring nations when they were all under Soviet rule. And historically many were allied with Moscow and had grievances against the post-communist pro-Western governments. Now Putin has upended that. His invasion and behavior embarrasses many Russian speakers and makes them rethink their allegiance.
In Lviv, Ukraine, Oleksandra Kabanova told me that she and her husband are native Russian speakers who always spoke to each other in Russian. But after her husband joined the Ukrainian army last year to fight the Russian invaders, they switched to Ukrainian, even if she sometimes struggles to find the right word.
“It was way too toxic to continue speaking Russian,” she said.
Putin’s invasion paradoxically strengthened the Baltic countries, which until last year faced fundamental challenges. Each had a seemingly indigestible Russian minority, plus NATO’s real-life commitment to protect these countries was uncertain — especially during the presidency of Donald Trump. (A nightmare for leaders in the region is that Trump is reelected in 2024, possibly wrecking NATO, cutting off aid to Ukraine and rescuing Putin from himself.) Putin also revived NATO. It has added Finland and is moving to include Sweden, and there is renewed commitment to Article 5, which would lead all NATO countries to rush in to fight off any Russian incursion. As for the Russian speakers, they are finally being digested.
“The majority of our Russian-speaking people are with us,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told me. “They clearly see that life here is so much better than life in Russia.” The mood in the Baltics is reflected by a huge poster in Riga, Latvia, showing Putin’s face as that of a skull-like monster.
The fundamental truth is that Putin has weakened Russia. It appears to be in a long-term economic and demographic decline that Putin has accelerated. Russia’s only claim to relevance is its nuclear arsenal; as a saying goes, it is “Burkina Faso with nukes.” Driving through the countries that Moscow once ruled, through societies now united against him, I’m ready to bet that Putin will not be remembered as a modern Peter the Great. Rather, he will go down in history as the leader who broke his country: Vladimir the Lilliputian. — The New York Times