Get PolitiFact in your inbox.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the uprising in Ukraine is not surprising if you look at telling comments he made years ago, says former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations turned conservative television pundit John Bolton.
A Fox News host asked Bolton if he agreed with Ukraine’s prime minister who said the country is "on the brink of disaster." Bolton, who served at the U.N. during George W. Bush’s time in the White House, said it seemed pretty accurate.
"I think Putin knows that he has the high cards, militarily, economically and politically, and he’s prepared to use them," Bolton said. "He gave us notice of his strategy seven or eight years ago when he said, in what is now one of the most frequently repeated quotes from his leadership in Russia, when he said, ‘The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.’
"It’s clear he wants to re-establish Russian hegemony within the space of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is the biggest prize, that’s what he’s after. The occupation of the Crimea is a step in that direction."
We wanted to know if Bolton correctly characterized Putin’s comments. We reached out to Bolton through his political action committee and the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a senior fellow, but did not hear back.
Putin’s 2005 speech to Russians
Putin, a veteran of the Soviet spy agency called the KGB, made the comments Bolton cites in an April 2005 state of the nation address to the country’s top politicians and parliament. A version is available in English from the Kremlin archives. Putin’s words vary depending on the translation, but the idea remains the same.
From the Kremlin:
"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."
The Associated Press translation is a little differently, subbing "catastrophe" for "disaster," and calling the breakup the "greateast geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
That language is a little more in line with what Bolton said. Whatever the word choice, it’s clear Putin believed there were problems created by the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Putin, who had revived some Soviet iconography as president, focused the rest of his speech on developing Russia as a free and democratic country, though he promised to be tough on popular uprisings inspired by surrounding countries. His speech came as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered public skepticism of the country’s "managed democracy," leading Putin to declare Russia would "independently determine" its definition of democracy.
Still, it was his lament for the dissolved Soviet Union that dominated news coverage.
The remark was alarming to westerners, illustrating a deep contrast in perspectives of an event that many consider a glorious moment in time, said Dina Spechler, an Indiana University associate professor of political science who teaches Soviet and Russian foreign policy.
Spechler said she did not find a problem with Bolton’s characterization, though she added Putin does not want a return of Soviet-era economic centralization.
"I think it’s quite legitimate and fair, and it’s been true for some time now that Putin wants to re-establish Russian hegemony," Spechler said. "He calls it an area of primary Russian interest -- making sure that these countries remain loyal."
Spechler does not predict a full-scale escalation of force by Russia in Ukraine, she said, but she would not rule it out given the crisis between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Ukraine is a large country with strong cultural links to Russia looked upon as a Slavic brother, she said.
"What we’re seeing today is the most significant step Russia has taken, and it is likely to take a while, to fulfill the agenda that was heralded when he called the breakup a tragedy," she said.
The "upshot" of the speech was that if the greatest geopolitical tragedy was the breakup of the USSR, the greatest geopolitical achievement should be the reformulation of a Russian superstate, said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.
He wasn’t pining for a new USSR
That’s not the only view of Putin’s remarks, however. Other scholars we consulted say there is more nuance in the meaning of Putin’s words.
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."
Gaddy elaborated in an interview with PunditFact, saying Putin is not eager to re-establish the USSR, partly because it would be costly for Russia, which subsidized many Soviet countries during that era. He does, however, want to make sure surrounding countries are not used against Russia.
Gaddy said Putin does not see Ukraine as a prize, as Bolton suggested, but as a potential liability and realm for anti-Russian activity.
"His nightmare has long been that Ukrainian instability would be used to sap Russia’s attention and strength, or worse — that it would be used to entrap Russia into intervening militarily and getting bogged down," Gaddy said. "The nightmare is coming real."
Lance Janda, chairman of Cameron University’s history and government department, challenged Bolton’s assertion that Putin’s remarks in years past foreshadowed the modern events in Ukraine. It’s more complicated, he said.
Yes, Russia moved aggressively into Chechnya, South Ossetia and Crimea, but it was not on a whim -- it was to prevent instability along the border after years of NATO expansions, Janda said. Plus, Russia would not have worked in recent years to stabilize its dealings and cooperation with Western countries if it had planned to invade Ukraine all along, he said.
"All Putin meant when he said in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe was that it launched protests and uprisings and sectarian violence, which is true," Janda said. "Those of us in the West are okay with that because we saw in those uprisings the birth of new nations and greater freedom, but that doesn’t mean it came without cost or that the Russians were thrilled by it."
Bolton told a Fox News host that Putin once said, "The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century."
Putin did say those words, or at least words close to that, in a 2005 address to Russian political leaders.
Bolton went on to tell a Fox News host those words are evidence Putin wants to expand Russia’s influence to where it was in the Soviet days.
The record there is not as clear. We found some experts who agree with Bolton’s interpretation, while others who say Bolton is extracting a quote that does not quite mean what he says it does.
Bolton’s statement is accurate but needs clarification. We rate it Mostly True.
Associated Press via NBC News, "Putin: Soviet collapse a ‘genuine tragedy,’" April 25, 2005
National Public Radio, "Russian President Vladimir Putin's state-of-the-nation address," April 25, 2005 (accessed via Nexis)
Kremlin archive, addresses to the Federal Assembly, April 25, 2005
The Guardian, "Putin bangs drum for Russia's civilising mission," April 25, 2005
National Post (Canada), "Mysterious and ‘arrogant’ Vladimir Putin seeks Russia’s return to status of world superpower," March 3, 2014
Interview with Dina Spechler, Indiana University associate professor of political science, March 3, 2014
Email interview with Mark Beissinger, Princeton University politics professor, March 5, 2014
Email interview with Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe and senior fellow in the foreign policy program, March 5, 2014
Interview with Ariel Cohen, Heritage Foundation senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasia studies, March 4, 2014
Email interview with Clifford Gaddy, Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, March 5, 2014
Email interview with Lance Janda, Cameron University Department of History and Government chairman, March 5, 2014
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.