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Putin Compares Himself to Peter the Great, the Famous Czar

Among President Vladimir V. Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine, his view of himself as being on a historic mission to rebuild the Russian Empire has always loomed large. On Thursday, Mr. Putin went further, comparing himself directly to Peter the Great.

It was a new, if carefully staged, glimpse into Mr. Putin’s sense of his own grandeur.

Mr. Putin on Thursday marked the 350th anniversary of Peter’s birth by visiting a new multimedia exhibit about the czar in Moscow. He then held a town-hall-style meeting with young Russian entrepreneurs and opened it by reflecting on Peter’s conquest of the Baltic coast during his 18th-century war with Sweden.

Mr. Putin described the land Peter conquered as rightfully Russian.

“He was returning it and strengthening it,” Mr. Putin said, leaning back in his armchair, before hinting with a smile that he was now doing the same thing in his war in Ukraine. “Well, apparently, it has also fallen to us to return and to strengthen.”

Mr. Putin said that when Peter founded the city of St. Petersburg on the captured land, “none of the countries of Europe recognized it as Russian.” That remark seemed to be a clear reference to the present day, when no Western country has recognized Moscow’s claim to Crimea, much less to the parts of eastern and southern Ukraine Russia has seized in the last three months.

Mr. Putin seemed to suggest that the West, as it did centuries ago, would eventually come around and recognize those regions as Russian.

Peter, Russia’s first emperor, has always been an object of fascination for Mr. Putin, who himself comes from St. Petersburg. The Russian president keeps a bronze statue of the czar by his ceremonial desk.

But in recent days, Russian officials have been promoting the comparison between Mr. Putin and Peter with special energy; the governor of St. Petersburg on Thursday said that he felt the same pride for today’s Russian soldiers in Ukraine “as we take pride in the memory of Peter’s warriors.”

There is at least one historical problem with the official Putin-Peter comparisons.

The czar is known for opening Russia’s “window to Europe,” building St. Petersburg in a European mold and bringing Western technology and culture to Russia. Mr. Putin’s Ukraine invasion, many Russians fear, has slammed that window shut.

Last week a Russian journalist asked the Kremlin’s news, Dmitri S. Peskov, whether the window to Europe was closing. He responded: “No one is planning to close anything.”

On Thursday, Mr. Putin repeated that message in his meeting with entrepreneurs, insisting that Russia would not close itself off from the rest of the world as the Soviet Union did. Even if the United States and the Europe Union do not want to do business with Russia, he said, countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa will.

“Our economy will be open — whoever isn’t interested will be robbing themselves,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s impossible to fence off a country like Russia, and we are not planning to put up a fence like that around us ourselves.”

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