Analogies comparing Putin to Hitler miss the mark and conveniently omit the West’s hand in creating the current state of affairs.
History, Karl Marx said, repeats — first as tragedy, then as farce. With the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine bringing the West and Russia closer to conflict than they’ve been at any time since the end of the Cold War, pundits have been playing fast and loose with historical analogies, painting Moscow in the harshest possible light.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, critics say, is a new Hitler who is using the fate of those ethnic Russians who found themselves citizens of new countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union similarly to how the German Führer used the Rhineland, Sudetenland and Polish Germans as an excuse to build his 1,000-year Reich. If the West backs down now, they say, then Putin, like Hitler after Munich, will only grow hungrier in the eating. These critics, conveniently, offer no real plan on how the West could “win” without causing a Third World War.
All this is disconcerting, but as with most analogies, it is filled with convenient myths and misremembered facts that make for good political rhetoric but otherwise offer little in the way of a sound and sober analysis. Most importantly, it leaves aside deeper historical truths that, in a more detailed light, paint the West as being just as responsible for the current state of affairs as Putin.
The Nazi analogy
Where, if anywhere, does the “Putin-is-Hitler” analogy get it right? Most obviously in the minds of many is the degree to which both are dictators on the march, but this is a stretchy comparison at best. Hitler, for instance, was a certifiable madman who ran a totalitarian, ethno-nationalist, far-right fascist regime premised on a mystical, utterly racist and pseudo-scientific interpretation of German nationalism that viewed industrial-scale genocide and the literal enslavement of entire peoples as sound policy options.
Even at his worst, Putin is none of these things. He is surely a gangster, but as any objective observer of international politics will tell you, gangsterism is par for the course and the difference between emperors and robbers is only one of scale. Putin has never called for the wholesale elimination of entire peoples, nor has he penned, like Hitler did, a master plan of imperial conquest aimed at establishing the perpetual racial hegemony of Russian Slavs over others.
Putin did pen a plan in graduate school, but it was mostly about using Russia’s natural resources — primarily, oil and gas — as a mechanism to rebuild Russian power. It was definitely not about fantastical plans to empower Russian Übermenschen through a systematic campaign of world conquest. If an analogy has to be made with Nazi Germany, Putin is much more like the vast number of conservative Germans who wanted to see German power and prestige rebuilt after the humiliation suffered at the end of the First World War, than the goose-stepping Nazis American neocons think he resembles.
Indeed, the closest thing post-Soviet Russia has to Hitler and the Nazis is Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his ironically-named Liberal Democratic Party. Like Hitler, Zhirinovsky is a charismatic, confrontational leader who runs an ultra-nationalist party that trucks in racism and anti-Western and anti-capitalist jeremiads. But whereas Hitler was able to outfox and crush his opponents on the conservative, nationalist right in 1930s Germany, the exact opposite has occurred in Russia. Putin is a Russian conservative –not a fascist ultra-nationalist — and one who, at least until very recently, was warming the cockles of American social conservatives for his stand against gay rights.
Then, of course, there is the convenient forgetting of just how first Putin’s Russia — and later, its new aggressiveness — came to be. Putin, we should all recall, did not appear ready-made out of whole cloth. He came to power at the very end of disastrous term of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically-elected, post-independent president, and the West and the United States have played huge roles in both Putin’s rise to power and his military adventurism.
Once a hero who stood on a tank and stared down an attempted KGB coup out of sheer force of will, Yeltsin had by 1999 become a drunk largely incapable of running the country. As he grew feebler, Russia became increasingly ungovernable amid organized crime, unaccountable oligarchs who robbed the country blind due to botched, Western-advised mass privatizations, and the rebellions of breakaway majority-Muslim territories in the Russian Caucasus threatening independence.
Continuing the aforementioned analogy, Yeltsin, then, was equivalent to Weimar Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg, a similarly enfeebled and weak leader who doddered on in senility as his country’s first experiment in liberal democracy came to a crashing halt. In Yeltsin’s case, it became increasingly apparent that the corrupt deal between the oligarchs that had fleeced Russia under Yeltsin — who not only sponsored the rigged privatization schemes that enriched the oligarchs but also dissolved and had the army fire upon the Russian parliament when it had the temerity to dispute privatization in 1993 — was in danger of unraveling due to outrage over Yeltsin’s corrupt incompetence.
A charismatic ideologue
Putin — a security apparatchik who burnished his credentials with a stint of study and political and administrative leg work in St. Petersburg — was brought in to steady the ship. He then rose quickly through the ranks, more like a young Napoleon who impressed his sponsors with efficient achievement than an overeager Hitler plotting half-baked putsch’s in Munich beer halls.
In any respect, rather than face defeat at the polls and the possibility that the new president might be an opposition figure hell-bent on prosecuting Yeltsin and anyone associated with him for looting the country, the powers that be set the stage by making the able, relatively unknown and thus seemingly clean Putin the prime minister. By then adroitly handling separatist terrorism that some say was engineered by his shadowy supporters in the intelligence services, Putin unsurprisingly became extremely popular.
So popular, in fact, that a switcheroo was pulled. Yeltsin retired, exit stage left and free from the fear of prosecution, while Putin — now the incumbent of an office constitutionally strengthened after Yeltsin’s artillery-laden run-in with Russia’s elected representatives — won the 2000 election handily. Faced with too much chaos, poverty, humiliation and incompetence during the tumultuous Yeltsin years, the Russian people yearned for stability, so they chose the steady, effective devil they knew rather than the one they didn’t.
The oligarchs, however, apparently did not know the devil well enough. Shortly after winning the Russian presidency on his own, Putin used the enhanced powers of his office to consolidate power and systematically crush and co-opt his political opposition. Those who recognized the new order and were willing to take a piece of the pie in exchange for their loyalty fell into line. Those that didn’t, however, ended up hounded by the tax police, exiled to foreign countries, imprisoned, poisoned with polonium, or otherwise bumped off by shadowy thugs who never seemed to get caught, and their property was also confiscated.
So, the oligarchs who had lorded it over Russia like the Boyars of old were, like the capitalists Lenin quipped about, so eager to protect and expand their ill-gotten gains that they sold Yeltsin the rope that Putin then used to strangle them. Having emptied the law of content and power so the devil could make war on their enemies, they found that the devil was now quite free to turn on them — and he did.
The Russian people mostly looked on and cheered. After corrupting capitalism and turning democracy into a dirty word, it’s little wonder that the Russian people shed few tears over the destruction of the independent oligarchs. Wisely, in their view, they chose the autocrat who at least made them proud to be Russian and who made sure to channel Russia’s oil riches into social welfare programs over the cruel joke that passed for post-Soviet Russian democracy.
Cold War remnants
The West, of course, was not without blame during all of this. Like the victorious Allies who pompously sat back in comfort and did little as economic catastrophe in the form of war reparations, hyperinflation and global depression drove average Germans to the Nazis before World War II, the post-Cold War West, distracted by dot-com madness and petty sex scandals in Washington, blithely ignored the gutting and collapse of post-Soviet Russia’s experiment in democracy.
In fact, we not only provided no aid to the Russians as they suffered through their hard and ultimately doomed transition to democracy, we also, in our own vast and incomprehensible stupidity, actively assisted the destruction by foisting upon the Russians economic experts who advised Moscow to adopt policies that could only backfire in the worst of ways. Privatize everything, they said, ignoring the absence of a legal system capable of handling such transactions or even the cultural knowledge needed to survive, let alone prosper, in a fully capitalist system. Shock therapy was in vogue, and the commies, boy, were they going to get it.
The result, of course, was that Russian companies were bought up by gangsters, stripped of assets or otherwise looted, and their old workers were often left dazed, confused and dead — Russia’s life expectancy during this time collapsed — as everything they had known disappeared overnight. Even the trusty rouble, which had at least been able to purchase those goods that were available during Soviet times, quite often disappeared. It got so bad that for a time many Russian firms were reduced to conducting their business affairs via a bartering system and ended up paying their workers in all but useless commodities like vodka bottles.
Cruelly, retirees — including war veterans that had fought off actual Nazis on the horrific Eastern Front — could often be found hawking what little they owned on street corners and in makeshift markets, while Russian women were hustled off into lives a sexual slavery overseas. All this was unfolding, mind you, while Russia’s new wealthy, mafia-connected elite enjoyed the plundered assets that they had all once collectively, if inefficiently, owned. The backlash was inevitable.
That the West and its leaders thought something good could have come of all this was, in hindsight, completely and utterly mad. Only people so full of their own ideological righteousness or those deeply ignorant of both history and human nature could have believed it. As if this sin were not enough, though, the West compounded the terrible mistakes it had already made by not ending the Cold War. Instead, so it seemed to the Russians, the West landed a series of low blows by kicking Russia while it was down.
Oh, sure, it seemed at the time that the Cold War was over — especially when everyone was still high off the fumes of Reagan-Gorbachev goodwill and used to the careful, pragmatic statesmanship of George Bush, Sr. — but those in charge of Post-Cold War America very soon let it be known that they didn’t quite trust this new, ostensibly democratic Russia that they themselves had helped create.
Another Cold War
The West — particularly, the United States — began hedging its bets by incorporating former members of the Warsaw Pact into the European Union and NATO. This brought these once captive nations under Washington’s security umbrella, and — this was a crucial point to the Russians — it brought the Western military juggernaut that had twice in one century invaded Russia in an effort to murder and enslave its people, much closer to the borders of a much weaker Russia. This was bad enough, but it was a push too far when the U.S. and NATO began flouting the United Nations — and Russia’s veto and influence there — by intervening in the Balkan Wars of the late 1990s on the side of the enemies of Russia’s allies.
The push went further by eventually dismantling Serbia, Russia’s longtime ally, through an air war in 1999 that reinforced the notion that the West wasn’t interested in negotiating with a weakened Russia, while the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the West’s attack on Libya in 2011 confirmed this. When democratic color revolutions pushed by the West began popping up in actual post-Soviet territories that Russia considered its own final cordon sanitaire against the West, Russia, fortified by rising oil prices and led by a steely Vladimir Putin, was now ready to fight back.
The Russians may have been fooled once, possibly twice, but they were damned if they were going to let Washington lord it over them again and steal what was rightfully Russia’s. Now, with each push from the West came a Russian counter-push, the first sign of which was Russia’s brief invasion of Western-backed Georgia, then continued in the military and political posturing over the civil war in Syria. As we all know, the situation with Russia has gotten steadily worse.
This is why, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the much-ballyhooed End of History, we find ourselves right damn back where we started. The only difference is that we’re a thousand or so miles to the east this time around and there’s a rising Asian juggernaut to contend with, too. Post-Soviet Russia was never going to easily nor quickly transition into a friendly liberal democracy, of course, and in many respects the experiment to liberalize was bound to fail in all sorts of ways. But — and this is the key point — our own feckless idiocy, stretching back over several U.S. administrations, did Russia a terrible disservice, too.
There was, for a time, a real opportunity to help Russia and make a lasting friend out of what had been for so long been a bitter, dangerous enemy. We could have been generous and offered significant economic assistance and an offered to bury the hatchet of geopolitical competition. In other words, we could have treated Russia like a partner and not a beggar or a pariah. We could have treated Russia how we would have wished to have been treated under similar circumstances.
Unfortunately, like wastrel aristocrats blinded by their own arrogance, we’ve decided to gamble away for a pittance that geopolitical inheritance left to us after so much cost in blood and treasure. What, exactly, have we gained from treating Russia so shabbily for all these years? The addition of a few dinky countries to the Western camp? The certainty that our ideology is superior to all others, no matter the costs associated with pushing free markets and democracy into places that have no history of either?
If admitting it all — especially our own role in it — didn’t hurt so much, one could laugh at the hubristic comedy of errors that has created this mess. History repeats, but the farce is just as hard to swallow as any tragedy.