The Advantages and Limits of Seeing Putin As Hitler

If you’ve done your job right as a world leader, someone has, at one point, compared you to Hitler.  The comparison is super lazy; mostly, opposition groups mean to slander somebody by saying they are the Most Evil Ever, and since nearly all of us agree Hitler was bad throwing his moustache on a photo is a pretty effective way to do it.  Few leaders ever actually behave like Hitler, and to make the Hitler slur even harder to stick, no leader has ever been caught dead with that moustache since the war.  (Well, except this guy).

But every once in a while, the comparison gets more traction because a leader is acting the dick on the world stage and ends up making us think of the last time someone went land grabbing.  With Russia now in de facto control of Crimea, and with Ukraine pulling out, calling Putin a 21st century Hitler feels closer to the mark than just a few years ago.  But first, some basics.

There’s got to be a whole industry of people who make these kind of signs.

History does not repeat itself, except when it does

Okay, okay.  That does sound all zen and shit, but it makes perfect sense.

2014 will not be 1938 because, well, it’s 2014.  That means next year Putin will not follow Hitler’s timeline, find his Poland, and start World War III.  Moreover, it also means that Crimea isn’t even Putin’s Sudentanland.  You’ve got to draw a line between comparisons and understand that standing in a different time and a different place does mean your analogy that Putin = Hitler is nonsense.  Nobody but Hitler is Hitler and drawing a funny picture of a modern day leader with a swatstika on his arm just isn’t accurate.

But you can use history to understand human behavior and establish certain principles.  If the environment makes a man hungry, he will seek to eat.  This is true today, was true in 1938, and will be true in 2114.  But a man in 1938 may have chosen to eat his whole family; that doesn’t mean in 2014 the same circumstances will push a similar man to make the same choice.  Rather, the hungry man of 2014 will, if anything, look at the cannibal of 1938 and use those past decisions to inform his own.  Later on, the hungry man of 2114 will look back at 2014 and see if he too can make a better call.  It doesn’t change the underlying rule that a hungry man will seek to eat.

From history we can pull some simple lessons from the idiosyncratic decisions made in the past to apply to what’s happening today.  From Hitler’s story, we got these:

  1. Humiliated countries will seek to be less humiliated in whatever ways they can
  2. Bad economies make people more willing to take big, dumb risks, including starting wars or giving power to crazy leaders, if they think it’ll improve their situation
  3. Both conditions lead to more aggressive leaders, who will be more likely to gamble and take high-risk decisions
  4. Failure of other powers that are equal or greater in stature to counter those high-risk decisions encourage these aggressive asses to keep on being aggressive
  5. Eventually, their aggression crosses some international red line and an alliance must either destroy them or put them into a more manageable geopolitical position

These are the conditions we must be looking at when we start to say, “Putin is Hitler!”  And this is where history is useful.

Condition #1 is satisfied

Russia in the 1990s was prostrate and in tears over the loss of the Soviet Union.  It stumbled through a badly-led war in Chechnya and lost control of the republic for a few years.  Its economy crumbled and its enemies grew stronger as NATO pushed eastward.  One of its few European allies, Serbia, begged for help against NATO back then but got all of dick from a Russia that could not afford to support it.  That was a low point.

It was made worse during Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Once upon a time Saddam looked to Russia for protection.  In 2003, he got all the support Russia could muster – a UN veto.  The United States ignored it and invaded anyway.  Saddam ended up being dragged from a hole, put on trial, and executed.  To what remained of Russia’s allies, Russian protection was not terribly reassuring.

Reflected in all of this was a collapse in Russian society.  Crime shot up, birth rates dropped like a rock, and people died left and right from alcoholism, violence, and other dumb causes.

Condition #2 too is complete

Russia’s economy was in the shitter in the 1990s.  Boris Yelstein drank his way through government while the ruble crumbled.  As NATO grew in stature, Russian standards of living dropped while a handful of ex-communists got rich as fuck.  It was inevitable that Russians would elect someone who promised to reverse the country’s fortunes.  That man was Vladimir Putin.

“I feel pretty fucking cool. Do you guys feel cool, too? Let’s get our wives pregnant and reverse Russia’s demographic decline.”

And thus you got condition #3

One of Putin’s first acts was to invade Chechnya and put it back in its place.  The war was fought badly and ruthlessly, but the end result was the Russian tricolor back in Grozny and a whole lot of dead civilians.  Russian military pride was salved.  As for ordinary Russians, they could at least take solace knowing the terrorists who in the early 2000s were bombing Moscow with horrific regularity were either on the run or dead.  Putin became the aggressive leader willing to tie his reputation to military success.  This all culminated in 2008 when Georgia attacked the breakaway region of Ossetia.  What should have been a civil war almost immediately turned into an international one as Putin threw down the gauntlet and invaded Georgia.  His army won and the West did nothing.

Which leads us now to condition #4

Putin got away with his assault on Georgia and thus knew that he could avoid direct confrontation with Western powers under certain circumstances.  When he ordered forces into Crimea last month, no doubt the lessons of Georgia were all part of the discussion.  “We did it once; we can do it again,” must have been the consensus.  This time around, however, he’s taking a further step to test the limits of Western patience by actually taking over territory.

And which points us towards condition #5

In the 1930s, Europe was prepared to live with an enlarged Germany.  The red line was the conquest of Poland, which would have put Germany into an unassailable geopolitical position as the most powerful nation in Europe.  What, now, is NATO and America’s red line?  That’s up for debate.  Perhaps the alliance itself doesn’t know.

But the game is quite different from 1938 because, well, the world has nukes

In 1938, a conventional war was a disaster but not necessarily annihilation.  Today, war between NATO and Russia is just that.  Nobody has forgotten Mutually Assured Destruction.  Instead of World War III, the doomsday scenario is Cold War II.

Putin doesn’t want such a thing.  Russia has too many investments and economic stakes in Europe to get cut off in another long fight.  A second Cold War would close its access to just about every market it needs for its energy exports and leave it with only Belarus and Central Asia.  If Cold War I couldn’t have been won by a much stronger, larger, and economically competitive Soviet Union, then the reduced, energy-export-reliant Russian Federation has no chance in fuck of winning Cold War II.  If I can read Forbes, so can Putin.

Moreover, Putin has an authoritarian democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. He’s not Der Fuerher with absolute power; witness Pussy Riot and the anti-war protests last week.   Putin’s United Russia can still technically lose elections, and thus he can’t march Russia into stupid oblivion unchallenged as Hitler once did.

For Putin, disaster is condition #5 coming to fruition.  He’s read his history, too, and so he must find ways to divide both the EU and NATO against itself.  Invading and conquering all of Ukraine will cause his enemies to immediately close ranks, strengthen NATO, and start Cold War II that he’ll eventually lose.  So he’ll stop short of that.  The fact that the Crimean conquest has been bloodless helps here.  Having new killing fields in Europe once more increases the likelihood that an anti-Putin alliance forms and defeats him.

And I’m spent. If Russia tries to match America’s defense bucks, it will lose.

What’s next?  Well, more of condition #4 until condition #5 comes along

Russia has won Crimea and everyone suddenly loves Putin again.  Break this down into your local situation – if you have a friend who wants your candy bar and then throws a fit to get it, your response is key.  If you give them the bar, you encourage them to throw a fit again later on.  Putin’s been rewarded by the one thing that, for him, matters – the Russian public.  What the rest of the world does is irrelevant so long as it doesn’t start Cold War II.  You can bet that Putin will find another crisis in the next few years to exploit or, failing that, he’ll create one.  Meanwhile, he will continue to stand up for Assad to show off how strong he is and push for Russia to remain key in both North Korea and Iran’s nuclear talks.  All of this is about prestige building and will continue until he finally finds the still-unknown red line for NATO.

It is entirely possible that Putin retires from politics an old man and that he never does reach condition #5.  Truly successful leaders have done that time and time again.  Putin doesn’t have to be an idiot, but powerful forces within Russia are propelling him to be so.  George Friedman of Startfor believes that Russia won’t be able to help itself in starting a second Cold War that it eventually loses.

Geopolitics is not destiny, but it points in certain directions.  Gird yourself, kids – the 2010s just fell victim to that old Chinese curse.


  1. Your logic seems solid. Hopefully Putin-Russia will stop short of moving into eastern Ukraine which would certainly make these times incredibly interesting. Of course Putin sees the US military as weakened and spent after 2 Bush wars and the Tea Partiers ‘lesson’ to big government that has imposed deep cuts in defense spending. But as you said maybe Putin has read Forbes and knows when to enjoy his profits and not be too aggressive. Anyway Ruble doesn’t have an ‘o’ in it and some of us oldsters prefer less color in our language.

    Terry in Phoenix

  2. While your analysis has some merits, it does not take the previous moves by the US, NATO and the EU fully into account.

    Putin and Russia can point to legitimate grievances by highlighting the active support that the groups overthrowing the Ukraine government received by the West. Then there is also the incursion of NATO into Poland, the Baltic states and so forth. There is also the issue of the dozens of US bases which are basically encircling Russia up to the Chinese borders.

    Many people in Europe see that situation and understand the perspective promoted by Putin: Russia sees its vital interests threatened in a big way. There is also the issue that cutting trade ties will likely hurt European economies much harder than Russia. In addition, China is more than willing to pick up the trade pieces, for a price of course.

    In sum, Putin is not perceived as an aggressor but as defending Russia’s interests and influence. That is a very big difference to the slant of your article.

    Whether Putin will launch further aggressions into Ukraine is very much dependent on the tendency towards an accommodating stance by the US and the EU. A confrontational positioning might indeed lead to more violence.

    1. Thanks for the input! Those are solid points about why Putin himself feels he can and should behave as he does.

      In general, however, my slant is towards nations invariably attempting to dominate one another to establish as secure a position as possible. Whether or not they are provoked doesn’t change the underlying, long-term calculation that a state seeks more and more security at the expense of others. The United States has a done a very good job of this over the past 70+ years since World War II and seeks to continue that situation; Russia, naturally, seeks to counter that as much as possible.

      Even if the confrontation moves away from military means (as I think is likely so long as nukes remain in play), there will still be a subtler tug of war for influence in Europe between the U.S. and Russia, both of them seeing it as a middle ground that could save or doom them if it falls to other. I see this as a natural result of the nation-state system that can’t be avoided or mitigated.

      But you’re right that I should attempt to eliminate as much slant as possible in my language; that’s not the point of this website.

      1. Thanks for your reply.

        Your general view on power struggles between nations has quite some overlap with the offensive realism theory proposed by Mearsheimer. My take is that it currently the best model we have available to understand the actions of nation states.

        So yes, I am right with you that the US has played the game quite well so far, and neither Russia, China or any other nation state would acted in a very different manner if they had been in that position.

        As I am German, I am not too pleased that Europe is in the center of that tug of war. If Europe does not find a unified voice to distance itself from both Russia and the US it is us who will get screwed. Oh well, hope dies last.

        Prior to the Ukraine crisis exploding into everybody’s consciousness; I was considering the simmering the China-US standoff to be most likely source of conflict.

        Interesting times.

      2. As they said during the Cold War, the Americans would fight World War III to the last German. Europe’s middle position is unfortunate, but I don’t think it has to be a disaster. History has shown it’s possible to end long-running conflicts (such as between France and Britain or France and Germany), but that often happens only when one side loses badly.

        I might prefer a world where there are no nation-states, but that’s both incredibly difficult to pull of and makes many people assume the only replacement has to be a Big Brother dystopia.

        Thanks again for the comments. :)

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