Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the 8th anniversary of Crimea's reunification with Russia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on March 18. In a speech to students, he compared himself to Peter the Great in relation to the Ukrainian invasion. Photo by Sergei Guneyev/EPA-EFE
June 10 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to publicly contradict Russia's reasoning for attacking Ukraine on Thursday, telling students in a speech that the invasion was about expanding Russian territory.
Putin compared himself to the late Russian conqueror Peter the Great, the country's first emperor who is credited with making Russia an European power, capturing land through a series of long, successful wars.
The Russian president said in February that Russia invaded Ukraine to prevent genocide in the Donbas region and to "denazify" Ukraine. Putin also charged that the expansion of NATO threatened Russian security.
In a 21-year war with Sweden in the late 17th century, Peter the Great captured the territory of Azov from Crimean Tatars, while taking territory on the Caspian Sea from Persia in 1723.
"On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it," Putin said of Peter, according to the Business Insider. "He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing."
A top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Putin's comments to the students amounted to a confession that his real goal was to take land and wipe Ukraine out of existence.
"Putin's confession of land seizures and comparing himself with Peter the Great prove: there was no 'conflict,' only the country's bloody seizure under contrived pretexts of people's genocide," Podolyak said, according to The Guardian. "We should not talk about [Russia] 'saving face.' but about its immediate de-imperialization."
Peter the Great ruled Russia for 43 years, with one of its most influential cities, St. Petersburg, named for him. Putin has been in power for 23 years and with recent rule changes could extend that to more than three decades.