Putin, de Gaulle and national greatness

“France cannot be France without greatness,” wrote Charles de Gaulle in the opening of his memoirs. His nation, he insisted, must always be in “the first rank”.

Vladimir Putin feels the same way about Russia. Back when I was still able to visit that country, Fyodor Lukyanov — a foreign policy thinker close to Putin — told me that the Russian president was driven by the fear that his nation might permanently lose its status as a great power.

That fear and paranoia reached its tragic apogee with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But instead of restoring Russian national grandeur, Putin’s war has disgraced and isolated his nation.

Unlike Putin, de Gaulle’s belief in national greatness did not depend on the subordination of a neighbour. He ended France’s war in Algeria and accepted Algerian independence in 1962. By contrast, even after 30 years of Ukrainian independence, Putin could not accept Ukraine’s right to shape its own destiny.

The dilemmas faced by Putin and de Gaulle were similar in some ways. The French leader was intent on rebuilding national grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the second world war. Putin regarded the break-up of the Soviet Union after 1991 as a humiliation for Russia and a “geopolitical tragedy”. Both leaders’ writings display a preoccupation with their nation’s history — and their own destiny in shaping it.

The difference lies in the way that de Gaulle and Putin defined “national greatness”. Unlike Putin, de Gaulle was a genuine war hero who was wounded several times fighting for his country. While Putin cowered at the end of a long desk to avoid Covid-19, de Gaulle walked through Paris under fire during the city’s liberation in 1944.

When he returned to power as president of France in 1958, many on the French reactionary right assumed and hoped that de Gaulle would redouble the fight to keep Algeria. Instead, he made peace and accepted independence. In doing so, he freed his fellow countrymen of the burden of a dishonourable war.

De Gaulle was wise enough to realise that fighting a losing colonial conflict would destroy French greatness rather than rebuild it. As the academic Frederick Starr has written: “De Gaulle succeeded because he envisioned a better future for France without Algeria than with it.”

Freed of its colonial burden in Algeria, France was able to forge a new future. Modern France is not a superpower, but it remains a leader in Europe. It is a global player in culture, diplomacy, business, sport and military affairs. France retains some of the badges of great-power status, such as nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the UN security council. But its grandeur today rests on culture and the global respect it inspires, rather than on raw power or territory.

Putin, by contrast, was unable to imagine Russia as a post-imperial power. He still defines Russian greatness through his country’s ability to control territory and inspire fear. It was de Gaulle who was born in the 19th century, but it is Putin who clings to a 19th-century imperialistic view of national grandeur.

In the 21st century, however, the bloodbath that Putin has unleashed in Ukraine has inspired disgust rather than admiration in the rest of Europe, isolating Russia from its neighbours and reducing its influence in the wider world. Just 17 African leaders travelled to St Petersburg for the recent Russia-Africa summit, compared with 43 who attended the same event in 2019. Putin is unable to travel to this month’s Brics summit in South Africa for fear of arrest. So much for national greatness.

In the past, Russia and France fought for control of Europe — with French troops briefly occupying Moscow in 1812 and Russian troops entering Paris two years later.

That intertwined history still creates a kind of mutual regard. Much to the irritation of many in east and central Europe, modern France has always seen Russia as a great power that deserves respect and a vital place in the continental order. Successive French presidents — including de Gaulle and Emmanuel Macron — reached out to the Kremlin. It was de Gaulle who coined the phrase that Europe extended “from the Atlantic to the Urals”. Macron launched an ill-fated effort at rapprochement with Putin, shortly before the 2022 Ukraine invasion.

Yet, in the end, de Gaulle and his heirs have chosen profoundly different paths from Putin. Perhaps the greatest contrast is that de Gaulle understood that French grandeur was inseparable from the way it treated its own people and from political liberty.

While de Gaulle was often accused of being an instinctive authoritarian, he ran for power in genuine elections — and accepted the rules and culture of democracy. In 1968, France was shaken by street uprisings. (Some things never change.) A year later, de Gaulle lost a referendum, stepped down as president and retired.

By contrast, Putin has been unable to separate his vision of national grandeur from his personal power and wealth. He clings on in the Kremlin. Those who disagree with his policies are beaten up in the streets, imprisoned, driven into exile or die in suspicious circumstances. Russia needed its own de Gaulle. Instead, it has ended up with a pale imitation of Ivan the Terrible.

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