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Joe Biden's speech in Poland has attracted much attention due to some of his off-cuff remarks (see, e.g., the discussion here). I found another curious passage:

A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty. Brutality will never grind down their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia — for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.

Essentially, President Biden taps here into a popular belief that Putin is aiming at restoring the Soviet empire (although he leaves it deniable, as words empire, dictator do not appear in the same sentence with Russia).

To my knowledge there is little factual support for this belief. One often cites Putin's quotes about the USSR, such as

The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.

or

Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.

None of them however directly suggests that he wants to restore the USSR, and none of them is an official policy statement. They are more the talk of a politician, appealing to the population in a country, where many people have positive memories of the USSR - indeed many Russians were plunged into poverty and lost livelihood after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the 90s nearly a half of them used to support the Communist party, which literally promised the restoration of the Soviet Union (and many still vote for it).

So, what is the claim about the desire of Putin to restore the USSR based upon? (This subjective desire itself is unprovable, but the question is only about the basis for the claim in the headline.)

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    You note this in the body of the question, but Biden doesn't mention the restoration of the USSR, just a Russian Empire. And it's kind of hard to argue with that, based on the list of former Soviet countries that have been invaded by Russia (Chechnia, Georgia, Ukraine, possibly Moldova). Do you need more than that?
    – divibisan
    Apr 1 at 15:53
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    The premise of this question is just wrong. Nothing to me suggests that Biden is saying Putin wants to rebuild the USSR, and I haven't heard other notable people claiming that either. Biden is suggesting Putin wants to rebuild "an empire" - what it consists of is not clearly defined.
    – eis
    Apr 2 at 8:42
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    Since we're getting similar questions on a nearly daily basis now, it's worth remembering that nobody in the world right now properly understands what's going on in Putin's head. All you're going to get are educated guesses.
    – J...
    Apr 3 at 17:44
  • @J... The question is not about what happens in Putin's head - it is about the facts behind the American assessment of Russian policy. Apr 3 at 19:37
  • 1
    The problem with news reporting is they don't report the truth, they actually report whatever they want people to believe.
    – Owl
    Apr 4 at 20:36

8 Answers 8

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The question isn't really answerable at present, but it doesn't look as if the answer is "yes."

  • Putin has not said that he wants to restore the USSR. If that were his objective, he would be very unlikely to say so publicly, because that would set most of the former states of the USSR on a course of re-arming and seeking allies against a re-conquest. The Eastern European states that were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact grouping wanted to join NATO as protection against this, and have mostly done so.

  • Nor has he said that he doesn't want to restore the USSR. That would cost him some popular support within Russia, where many older people look back on the USSR as a better time.

By saying neither, he has more freedom of action. His actions say many things, because he understands the Russian tradition of disinformation, but some things are clear:

  • He's made himself the effective ruler of Russia. While he still has to stand for election as president, he's used a puppet president and a dubious interpretation of the constitution to prolong his time in power, and later changed the constitution to allow himself more terms.

  • There were protests about election-fixing in 2011, and there was blatant fixing in the 2019 regional elections.

  • He has suppressed political opponents and media organisations that didn't support him.

  • Under his rule, Russia has been exploiting the presence of Russian-speaking groups in neighbouring countries to fragment and weaken those countries.

  • Russia demanded, in the pre-invasion ultimatum, the removal of all NATO military presence back to the 1997 line. That would amount to restoring the Eastern Bloc (apart from Eastern Germany, which could never be a realistic demand).

  • Russia has also been exploiting the Internet to affect politics in countries that it sees as threatening. They assisted Donald J Trump in the 2016 US election (without colluding with his campaign), and provided substantial funding for the Brexit side in the UK's EU referendum. Trump was quite pro-Putin during his presidency, and detaching the UK from the EU weakens the EU.

  • Russia appears to have also been spreading conspiracy theories in the West on a long-term basis. Again, this is to weaken and divide nations that aren't his allies. It's really interesting that so many pushers of anti-vax and COVID-19 conspiracy theories came out in favour of the invasion of Ukraine within a day or so of it starting. It makes them look like paid shills, and if Russia has been spreading disease and suffering by means of propaganda, that will not be readily forgiven.

Putin would not want to restore the state atheism of the USSR, since he has quite a bit of support from the Russian Orthodox Church. Nor would he want to restore the Soviet economic system, since the current one is far more profitable for him and his supporters. He has pretty much achieved a one-party state, although he's currently maintaining a thicker tissue of democracy than the USSR had. Nonetheless, it only convinces those who want to be convinced.

Overall, this looks like empire-building. Not restoring the USSR, nor the empire of the Tsars, but a new empire, based on modern-day political methods.

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    Many of the points are questionable, but I agree with the general reasoning.
    – alamar
    Apr 1 at 16:56
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    The key point of restoring a greater Russia v. USSR is that Putin does not want to return to a formally Marxist-Stalinist-Leninist economic system and system of governmental organization. For example, he definitely doesn't want to restore the established state atheism of the USSR or the five year planning process. Although he does seem to favor a dominant party system verging upon a one party state.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 1 at 20:48
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    Another point that likely belongs to the list is the demand, in the pre-invasion ultimatum, to remove all NATO military presence back to the 1997 line. This amounts to restoring the Eastern Bloc (sans Eastern Germany).
    – kkm
    Apr 3 at 10:27
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    The idea of Russia significantly helping Trump in the election is basically fake news. Sep 20 at 14:54
  • @JonathanReez Whereas Ukraine and Biden's sons dealings and laptop that appeared after election were declared fake news and now is moot news.
    – paulj
    Sep 22 at 12:17
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No, President Putin has never explicitly mentioned that his goal is to restore the USSR specifically.

This quote about Putin: "A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire..." refers to an empire, and given the context, it can be interpreted in multiple ways (including, but not limited to the USSR).

Various other Putin's words, texts and apparent intentions could be interpreted as plans of restoring the Greater Russia, that is "Russian world" ("Russkiy mir", in Russian), or the Russian sphere of influence, bigger than it is at present. The USSR is not part of the plan now.

For Putin's plans:

  • It is not strictly necessary to restore the Soviet economic system with central planning and near-total absence of capitalism. The current Russian system with substantial state control of major industries, oligarchs that are subject to state control, and some free market is also acceptable.

  • It is not strictly necessary to restore the Soviet complete control of the media. Some pseudo-free media, under substantial but not complete control of the state, is also acceptable.

  • It is not strictly necessary to do Anschluss of the entire Belarus and make it "BSSR". A Russian-friendly and similar regime (Lukashenko, for instance), with a tight military alliance with Russia, is also acceptable.

  • It is not strictly necessary to militarily occupy the entire Ukraine and make it "USSR" (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). A handicapped, "denazified", demilitarized Ukraine under a Russian-friendly regime (Yanukovich, for instance), with DPR and LPR as separate "states", and Russian-occupied Crimea, is also acceptable.

  • It is not strictly necessary to militarily occupy the entire Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia, etc. Again, de-NATO-ified, demilitarized and Russia-friendly regimes there are also acceptable.

Putin views himself as a great leader, and not as a clone of some of the relatively weak Soviet leaders such as Brezhnev and Chernenko, and most certainly not Gorbachev. Therefore, he is not bound by the need to restore anything specific, but desires for a greater place in history through expanded Russia.

Which final borders does he envision in his grand scheme? Are these the borders of the Tsarist empire or of the Soviet Union or of the Warsaw pact? We do not know yet. I suspect that we may only find this out in his autobiography, or the memoirs of his close colleagues - if such texts will ever be written. It is a fascinating question!

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    So some kind of Russian greatness and glory of the past, but nobody knows exactly which epoch Putin refers to.
    – Trilarion
    Apr 1 at 17:44
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    Dare we say, "Make Russia Great Again"?
    – coblr
    Apr 2 at 0:06
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    he condemns ussr in his speeches. what he wants to restore is the russian empire
    – Faito Dayo
    Apr 2 at 6:04
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    Great leader, not weak Soviet rulers. As in, Stalin, by any chance? Apr 2 at 7:39
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    @Nuclear03020704 The cult of Stalin has been having a revival in Russia for at least a decade. That is nothing new. Apr 3 at 20:47
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I'll add a few elements I'm not seeing in the other answers. I won't insist on the internal organization of Russia under Putin here because that has been covered a lot before; I'll focus here on the external affairs, given the "empire" focus of the quote that motivated the question.

  • Putin has actually said the USSR leaders made a big mistake in constituting Ukraine; he expounded on this at length in some speeches. Simultaneously Russian TV was airing maps of Novorossiya under the tsars. The 2022 conquest of the eastern portion of Ukraine's coast creating a landbridge between Crimea and Donetsk can be easily interpreted as a step in that direction.

  • The USSR relied on the Warsaw Pact not just against external threats but also to keep in line any states that departed from Moscow's policies, e.g. Hungary '56, Czechoslovakia '68 etc. While less dramatic as it didn't involve a change of government, the recent intervention in Kazakhstan of CSTO troops (the largest contingent of which were Russian) in support of quelling unrest appears to be step in that same direction. Likewise Putin offered to send internal security troops to Belarus after (very likely fraudulent) election there, but in the end he only sent journalist teams that replaced the Belarusian journalists that had resigned.

  • Subsequently. Belarus has recently changed its constitution to allow deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on its territory. During the Soviet era, there were plans to deploy such weapons in Czechoslovakia.

  • While Russia doesn't try to export the same kind of (Marxists) ideological baggage of the USSR, Stalin is increasingly praised in Russia. And the countries that constitute the Russian sphere of influence today have rather authoritarian regimes. In the Eurasian Economic Union, the Freedom House rankings for its members are: Armenia 114, Belarus 180, Russia 166, Kazakhstan 159, Kyrgyzstan 152. (Armenia's ranking is closest to Ukraine's 109, but the rest of EAEU clearly are seen as much less free, in the West.) The CSTO also includes Tajikistan (Freedom's ranking 187) besides the EAEU countries. So it's not unreasonable to conclude these countries are run by similar enough regimes, albeit more "pragmatic dictatorships" than the Comecon + Warsaw Pact were.

  • The Soviet Union was trying to foment Marxist-Leninist movements and armed struggle abroad. Russia has more limited ideological appeal on the armed struggle level, having only managed it among Russian-speaking populations of neighboring countries. On a transnational ideological level, the "illiberal democracy" model (for lack of a better term) that Russia had been seemingly trying to promote abroad wasn't incredibly successful in creating a clear Russian sphere. Parties friendly to Russia in the EU were generally the right-wing populist ones, but for the most part they were not exclusively in power for long, except in Hungary. And even in these parties, the "tankies" (i.e. those who'd support Russia's military actions) don't seem to have the upper hand, although neutralization (or at least reduction) of support for Russia's target of the day may be all that Russia is realistically seeking (on a political level) in such gas-fueled deals.

  • In Syria, an ally since the times of the USSR, Russia intervened in an overt and decisive military fashion that wasn't even done by the Soviets in the Middle East region. And according to Western sources, Russia has more covertly intervened with sizeable contingents of private mercenaries in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Mali. While not trying to export Marxist-Leninism there anymore, it is allegedly done to create more client states in Africa, on a new basis.

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  • N.B. Russia tried perhaps still tries to secure a naval base in Sudan, similar to what they have in Syria.
    – Fizz
    Apr 2 at 12:22
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    It is quite possible that nuclear weapons were actually deployed in Czechoslovakia in 1970s, but a lot remains secret. The storage facilities certainly existed. Apr 2 at 13:28
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It isn't that he wants the USSR back. He wants the Greater Pan-Russian Nation back, like the Russian Empire and the USSR historically had.

A lot of this talk you're hearing is based on a comment he made in a Kremlin speech back in 20051. It was in Russian, but here's the official English translation of it from the Kremlin2:

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

A careful reading of this shows its not pining for the Communist Soviet Union specifically, but rather calls to Russian nationalism. That "N" word gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, this is a brand of right-wing nationalism that assumes all of a particular ethnicity should be (if not are) part of some notional "Nation", and there should be one country, run by that ethnicity, that holds every member of that nation, and that prioritizes preserving and promoting their culture.

If you're noticing there's no notion here of accommodating the existence of people of other ethnicities who may be living within those same borders (and there are millions of them) ... yeah. Good noticing.

Politifact has a surprisingly good article on this, fronted as a check on John Bolton's version of the above quote. I'd suggest reading it.

He wasn’t pining for a new USSR

...

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, a 2013 book by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, addresses the "often misquoted line" about the demise of the USSR:

"Most references to this line have suggested that Putin was bemoaning the loss of the communist economic and political system," the book reads, "but Putin has since frequently underscored that he was talking about the collapse of the Russian state itself."


1 - It should be noted that public and published statements from professional politicains should not be taken as incontravertable proof of their beliefs, but rather as what they would like their audience to believe. That can be the same thing, but isn't always.

2 - Link may be down due to the ongoing conflict. Originally pulled from the Politifact article linked elsewhere in this answer.

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When the Soviet Union under Stalin invaded Poland, Finland, The Baltic states and Bessarabia in 1939/40 they were going back in the borders and area of influence of the old Tsarist empire. They further expanded in Hungary and Czechoslovakia because they grabbed the opportunity that the outcome of WWII offered them. Beyond the formal policies applied to their citizens the Soviet Empire was nothing more than the continuation of the Russian expansionism that begun centuries earlier.

Now, for what matters the attitude towards private property and social policies Putin is not doing anything to restore the situation that was present in the age of the Soviet empire. So it would be more correct to ask whether Putin want to restore the old Russian expansionism. You can bet that this is what the elites in Moscow would like. But it depends on how much can they afford it. According to the source I found online (1, 2, 3) military spending begun to rise after the Russian federation recovered from the crisis of the '90s, but it peaked in 2016. And in terms of percentage of GDP it is way less than what it was during the Soviet Union. So although the attitude in Moscow might have change little over the centuries what they actually can do is a lot more limited.

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  • I think the nature of USSR changed a lot from Lenin to Stalin. While both were dictators, Lenin or Trotsky were much less Russian nationalists (despite Stalin being a Georgian!) and allowed, for example, culture in many languages of the union (including Ukrainian), provided it supported the communist ideology. Culture in other languages was severely restricted before and after. Apr 2 at 13:23
  • @VladimirFГероямслава While Lenin was alive the Bolsheviks where fighting to restore a centralised power, they could not think about any expansion because they didn't have the power nor the resources. I do not think it is possible to make any comparison because both of the leader behaviours depended also on the circumstances.
    – FluidCode
    Apr 2 at 13:31
  • I was referring to the nationalism within the borders of USSR at the time. Lenin was, of course, very keen on expansion of the communism into the world and certainly liked the doomed Soviet republics of Hungary, Slovakia or Bavaria, despite not having any power to help them. The whole situation in the West was very unclear ening with the piece of Riga after some wars. Apr 2 at 13:35
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    Or in other words, under Lenin might have indeed honestly planed Soviet union to be an internationalist project. With the dictatorship of the proletariat, but not necesarilly a new Russian empire. That quickly changed under Stalin. Apr 3 at 20:46
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At any rate there does not seem any evidence of some definite plan. I believe the current foreign policy of Russia can be described as extreme political opportunism. Russia seems to be simply trying to extend its sphere of influence to as many countries across the world as possible (declaring any obstacles to such extension national security threats).

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Putin, I believe, is on record for stating he didn't want to revive the old Soviet Union but it seems he wants Russia's wishes to be respected. Whereas the USA, since the downfall of the USSR is intent on humiliating Russia.

For example, Sachs, a liberal economist has said that the time of the downfall of the Russian Empire, he was able to secure a multi-billion package aid deal for Poland. But when he attempted the same for Russia, he was told curtly by the White House that kind of deal wasn't simply on the table. The economists advising the White House recommended shock therapy. And that is what Russia got as it attempted to transition to a market economy. This resulted in the economy nose-diving and a massive rise in mortality. A little of which I believe that the USA is seeing recently goven its massive inequalities of wealth and little or no opportunities for the working classes to advance themselves as traditional escape routes such as education have been shut down with massive personal debt.

So the USA instead of reaching out towards Gorbachev's olive branch, merely pushed him aside. This is why Gorbachev's name is reviled in Russia. What he asked for, he didn't get. He told the USA that Russias redlines was that NATO was not to expand Eastward. This was reiterated by the last Ambassador to the USSR, Senator Jack Matlock who stated that in his opinion and of many others that NATO should be set aside because it would send all the wrong signals and a new security architecture encompassing the whole of Eurasia and the USA should be contemplated. He also stated that he expected Georgia and the Ukraine yo be future flashpoints. And so it has proven. He testified to this in front of Congress.

However, this was not the path that was chosen. NATO did expamd eastward until it seemed the Russian bear could take it no longer. It was a historic opportunity squandered because the USA could not see past the old, no longer valid, cold war rhetoric and was bent on pursuing its advantage.

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"USSR" stands for "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics", so if we take it literally the answer must be no, as modern Russia has nothing to do with socialism or communism and is sometimes a more capitalistic country than some Western ones. The only ones who have explicitly declared they want to restore the USSR are the Communist Party of Russia, which has no political power and has not much to do with Putin and vice versa.

Asking if Putin wants to create some new union or empire on the whole or part of the therritory of USSR would be a diferent question. There is a Union State of Russia and Belarus or the Eurasian Economic Union, but not shure if this Unions can be seen as an atemp to restore USSR.

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