Putin Is Just Following the Manual

A utopian Russian novel predicted Putin’s war plan.

Illustration of Putin and a map of the world.
Getty; The Atlantic

No one can read Vladimir Putin’s mind. But we can read the book that foretells the Russian leader’s imperialist foreign policy. Mikhail Yuriev’s 2006 utopian novel, The Third Empire: Russia as It Ought to Be, anticipates—with astonishing precision—Russia’s strategy of hybrid war and its recent military campaigns: the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the incursion into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions 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 antidemocratic ideology that assigns “Russian Orthodox civilization” a dominant role over Europe and America. Yuriev, a businessman and former deputy speaker of the state Duma 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 through fear. Putin and Yuriev knew each other. The Third Empire is rumored to be popular and highly influential in the Russian leader’s circle; one Russian publication described it as “the Kremlin’s favorite book.”

The narrator of the novel, which unfolds in 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 referenced in the book’s title was that of the czars; the second was the Soviet Union.) In The Third Empire, Joseph Stalin is Iosif the Great, whom Yuriev lauds for conquering new lands, destroying worthless elites and the “internal enemies of Russia” during the purges of the 1930s, and deporting entire peoples during and after the Second World War—which resulted in mass death. Over the past 20 years, the Kremlin has carried out projects of re-Stalinization in Russia, rebranding the former dictator as an effective manager and a harsh but fair ruler. Putin is using Stalin’s tactics in the current war too. Authorities in Mariupol report that Russian forces are forcibly deporting the beleaguered city’s inhabitants.

Early in The Third Empire, a pro-Russian, Kremlin-sponsored uprising occurs in Ukraine. Its goals include “reunification with Russia and the abandonment of involuntary integration into Europe, as well as the rejection of the anti-Russian NATO bloc.” This uprising results in an undeclared war, with Russian troops marching into Ukraine. Soon, nine regions in eastern and southern Ukraine—including Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and other areas under Russian occupation today—announce their “non-recognition of Ukrainian authorities and Ukrainian statehood” and proclaim a pro-Russia “Donetsk–Black Sea Republic.” In the referendum that follows, “82 percent of the population [vote] in favor of joining Russia.” And in Russia, 93 percent vote for “the admission of Eastern Ukraine into Russia.” Perhaps not coincidentally, in Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian forces similarly took over Ukrainian territory under the guise of a locally driven initiative.

Since 2008, Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine is “not even a state.” His reasoning resembles that of Yuriev’s Emperor Gavriil, who “categorically refused Ukrainians … and Belarusians the status of separate nations.” In Gavriil’s eyes, “attempts to consider them as ethnicities separate from the Russian” are “part of the centuries-old Western plot to destroy Russia.”

Although Yuriev did not anticipate the barrage of sanctions and the unified front presented by the West, he did foresee Russia’s willingness to engage 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,” Yuriev writes, “while the Russians clearly showed their willingness to go to the end.” Today, Putin is counting on the accuracy of Yuriev’s prognosis. In recent years, Russia’s president has been threatening the world with nuclear weapons. For example, in 2018, he said that, in the case 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 disdain.

Yuriev also imagined, with disturbing accuracy, how Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports limited how far it would go to punish Russia. Statements by Vladimir II in The Third Empire are nearly indiscernible from contemporary speeches by Putin. “You don’t like us?” the emperor mocks a French-television interviewer. “All right then, 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 raised prices and “brought down the European economy.”

Putin made a similar point in 2014 about the prospect of Europe doing without Russian oil and gas. “It’ll simply kill their ability to compete,” he said. Putin is right. Resisting the international pressure to ban Russian energy imports, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz keeps explaining the “essential importance” of Russian oil and gas to the European (read: German) economy. Above all, Yuriev’s fantasy is disconcerting because it has 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 mild. More alarming is that Yuriev also expected that Russia would not stop with the partial annexation of Ukraine. The invasion that began last month proved this forecast to be equally 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 was not officially recognized … the demarcation line [that] the parties undertook not to violate … was fixed. It was stipulated that Russia renounced any encroachment on the territory to the west of that demarcation. This was pure PR on the part of the United States because they knew perfectly well that Russia had no such thing in mind.

Yuriev’s road map 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 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.”) Ultimately, the Americans and Europeans surrender. The world comes under Russian domination. The high point of the novel is a parade on Red Square. Among the forced participants are

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, the House, and the Senate; bankers and industrialists; newspaper commentators and television anchors; famous attorneys and top models; pop singers and Hollywood actresses. All of them passed through Red Square in shackles and with nameplates around their necks. … The Russian government was letting its own citizens and the whole world know that Russia had fought with and vanquished not only the American army but the American civilization.

With such scenes, Yuriev offers important insights into the mentality of the Kremlin, the way Putin and his circle think about the West, and their attitudes toward neighboring countries. Perhaps Putin doesn’t really expect to haul the Clintons in chains through Red Square. But when Volodymyr Zelensky warns that if Ukraine falls, war will move farther into Europe, he should be believed.

Even if Russia’s recent setbacks result in a military defeat in Ukraine, Putin may attack one of the Baltic countries to undermine NATO. Western nations may decide not to risk World War III for the sake of, say, Estonia. If NATO does not respond militarily to Russia’s aggression on one of its members, the de facto disintegration of the alliance might counterbalance the military disaster in Ukraine, thereby saving Putin’s regime.

Yuriev’s novel is fiction, of course, but should still help the West calculate the risks of appeasing 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.