Nobody can read the mind of Vladimir Putin. But we can read the book that predicts the imperialist foreign policy of the Russian leader. Mikhail Yuriev’s 2006 utopian novel, The Third Empire: Russia as it should beanticipates with astonishing precision Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy and recent military campaigns: the 2008 war with Georgia, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the incursion into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the same year, and Russia’s current assault on Ukraine.
Yuriev’s book, like Putin’s war with Ukraine, is an expression of post-Soviet neo-medievalism, a far-right, anti-Western and anti-democratic ideology that assigns “Russian Orthodox civilization” a dominant role over Europe and America. Yuriev, a businessman and former State Duma deputy speaker who died in 2019, was a member of the political council of the Eurasia Party, which envisions an essentially feudal social order overseen by a political class that rules by fear. Putin and Yuriev knew each other. The Third Empire is rumored to be popular and very influential in the Russian ruler’s circle; a Russian publication described it as “the Kremlin’s favorite book”.
The narrator of the novel, which is set in the year 2054, is a Brazilian historian who describes the origins of the Russian resurgence begun by Vladimir II the Restorer and completed by his successor, Gavriil the Great. (The first empire mentioned in the title of the book was that of the tsars; the second was the Soviet Union.) The Third Empire, Joseph Stalin is Iosif the Great, whom Yuriev praises for conquering new lands, destroying worthless elites and “Russia’s internal enemies” during the purges of the 1930s, and deporting entire peoples during and after World War II. worldwide – which resulted in deaths. Over the past 20 years, the Kremlin has carried out re-Stalinization projects in Russia, rebranding the former dictator as an effective manager and tough but fair ruler. Putin is also using Stalin’s tactics in the current war. Mariupol authorities report that Russian forces are forcibly evicting residents of the besieged city.
In the beginning The Third Empire, a pro-Russian uprising, sponsored by the Kremlin, occurs in Ukraine. Its goals include “reunification with Russia and the abandonment of unintended integration into Europe, as well as the rejection of the anti-Russian NATO bloc”. This uprising leads to an undeclared war, with Russian troops entering Ukraine. Soon, nine regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, including Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and other areas now under Russian occupation, announced their “non-recognition of Ukrainian authorities and statehood Ukrainian” and proclaim a pro-Russian “Donetsk-Black Sea Republic”. .” In the subsequent referendum, “82% of the population [vote] in favor of joining Russia. And in Russia, 93% vote for “the admission of Eastern Ukraine into Russia”. Perhaps not coincidentally, during Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and his incursion into Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian forces also took control of Ukrainian territory under the guise of a homegrown initiative.
Since 2008, Putin has repeatedly asserted that Ukraine is “not even a state”. His reasoning resembles that of Emperor Gavriil of Yuriev, who “categorically denied Ukrainians…and Belarusians the status of separate nations”. In Gavriil’s eyes, “attempts to consider them as separate ethnicities from Russians” are “part of the age-old Western plot to destroy Russia.”
Although Yuriev did not anticipate the barrage of sanctions and unified front presented by the West, he foresaw Russia’s willingness to indulge in nuclear blackmail. In The Third Empire, Russia wins World War III because the West fears nuclear war. “American leaders hesitated to order an assault,” writes Yuriev, “while the Russians clearly showed their willingness to go through with it.” Today, Putin is counting on the accuracy of Yuriev’s prognosis. In recent years, the Russian president has threatened the world with nuclear weapons. For example, in 2018 he said that in the event of nuclear Armageddon, “Russians would be victims and martyrs and go to heaven”; the West would “just croak” and “wouldn’t even have time to repent.” Few other governments treat their own people with such frank contempt.
Yuriev also imagined, with uncanny precision, how Europe’s reliance on Russian energy exports limited how far it would go to punish Russia. Declarations of Vladimir II in The Third Empire are almost indistinguishable from Putin’s contemporary speeches. “You don’t like us? the emperor mocks a French television interviewer. “Very well, go to war with us and conquer us…Or refuse to buy our energy products, oil and gas, so that we starve to death.” The narrator notes that the loss of Russian oil would have driven up prices and “brought down the European economy”.
Putin made a similar point in 2014 about the prospect of Europe going without Russian oil and gas. “It will just kill their ability to compete,” he said. Putin is right. Resisting international pressure to ban Russian energy imports, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz continues to explain the “essential importance” of Russian oil and gas to the European (read: German) economy. Above all, Yuriev’s fantasy is disconcerting because he anticipated the pusillanimity of the West.
In 2006, Yuriev predicted that the West would react to the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine by appeasing the aggressor. Indeed, the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 were light. More alarmingly, Yuriev also expected that Russia would not stop at the partial annexation of Ukraine. The invasion that began last month proved that prediction to be just as accurate. Today, alarmed by Russian aggression, the West may seek to stop the war by pressuring the Zelensky administration to accept at least some of Russia’s terms. Yuriev revels in Russia’s ability to take advantage of Western diplomacy. He writes:
Although Russia’s annexation of eastern Ukraine has not been officially recognized… the demarcation line [that] the parties agreed not to violate … was fixed. It was stipulated that Russia renounce all encroachment on the territory west of this demarcation. It was pure communication on the part of the United States because they knew perfectly well that Russia had no such thing in mind.
Yuriev’s roadmap for Putin’s foreign policy makes clear the futility of Western attempts at a diplomatic solution without regime change in Russia. Under Putin, Russia will attack again.
In The Third Empire, Russian geopolitical ambitions force the United States and the European Union to declare war. Yuriev imagines that Russia has a secret weapon that makes the country invincible to nuclear attack. (Putin is trying to alter the logic of nuclear deterrence in a somewhat different way, via the hypersonic missile system which he described in December 2018 as “invulnerable to a potential enemy’s air defense and missile defense systems. and “a wonderful, excellent gift to our country for the New Year.”) In the end, the Americans and Europeans surrender. The world comes under Russian rule. The climax of the novel is a parade in Red Square Forced participants include
representatives of the American elite: president [George] Bush III and former presidents Bill Clinton, Bush Junior and Hillary Clinton; current and former members of the Cabinet, House and Senate; bankers and industrialists; newspaper commentators and television presenters; famous lawyers and top models; pop singers and Hollywood actresses. All of them crossed Red Square in chains and with nameplates around their necks. … The Russian government was letting its own citizens and the world know that Russia had fought and defeated not only the American military, but American civilization.
With such scenes, Yuriev offers important insight into the mentality of the Kremlin, how Putin and his entourage think of the West and their attitudes towards neighboring countries. Maybe Putin doesn’t really expect to drag the chained Clintons through Red Square. But when Volodymyr Zelensky warns that if Ukraine falls, the war will spread further into Europe, you have to believe him.
Even if Russia’s recent setbacks result in a military defeat in Ukraine, Putin could attack one of the Baltic countries to undermine NATO. Western nations might decide not to risk World War III for, say, Estonia. If NATO does not respond militarily to Russia’s aggression against one of its members, the de facto disintegration of the alliance could outweigh the military disaster in Ukraine, saving Putin’s regime.
Yuriev’s novel is fiction, of course, but should still help the West calculate the risks of appeasement from Putin’s aggression. Understanding Russia’s expansionist vision should play an important role in Western decisions regarding the war in Ukraine: Ukraine is not Putin’s only target.