Opinion |

Vladimir Putin Is Not Adolf Hitler, but the Echoes Are Getting Louder

The excuses Putin uses to justify his wars, his toolbox of threats, coercive diplomacy, deception and Russian military force, are far too reminiscent of Hitler’s tactics and rhetoric. Ukraine is the latest, but most extreme, example

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.Petersburg, Russia, January 27, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.Petersburg, Russia, January 27, 2022. Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler. Even the worst and cruelest dictators of the post war era cannot be compared to the Nazi dictator. Yet some of the measures taken by the Russian president, in his decision to invade Ukraine, are reminiscent of the tactics employed by the Nazi leader prior to September 1, 1939.

It’s called “salami slicing.” Using a toolbox of threats, coercive diplomacy, military force and occasionally seduction, Putin, like Hitler, wants to change the European status quo.

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Hitler was determined to cancel the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which humiliated Germany and tore off significant chunks of its territory. Putin seeks to change the balance of power that was consolidated after the collapse of communism in 1991. He has been consistent, in words and in deed, in endeavoring to return to the bipolarity of the Cold War, when two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – ruled the world, dividing it into spheres of influence.

The United States and the European Union took advantage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the weakness of the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin. NATO absorbed former communist bloc countries and expanded its presence near the Russian borders.

Yet the inclusion of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was motivated not by a Western expansionist whim and a desire for diplomatic, military and economic influence, but rather by the genuine desire of the people in eastern and central Europe and the Baltic region to be independent, free democracies and part of Western values.

A pro-Ukraine demonstration in Prague yesterday, with a protester holding a placard brandishing Russian President Vladimir Putin a "killer."Credit: MICHAL CIZEK - AFP

Putin’s grand strategy to return Russia to its glorious imperial and Soviet Union days and reestablish it as a superpower began more than a decade ago, after he brutally suppressed the Chechen rebellion, with his typical immoral cynicism. Thus, he reversed the trend. It was the first time since the downfall of communism that a military force put an end to people’s will and hopes for independence within the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Then Putin began systematically to consolidate his power and his personality cult, to stabilize the nation and to rebuild the economy. He has done it by sending his political rivals and dissidents to jail or exile or murdering them, preferably with poison. He got rid of oligarchs with political ambitions, such as Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner Leonid Nevzlin, who threatened his power.

In their place Putin anointed lackeys and favored oligarchs, such Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, Igor Sechin and the Rotenberg family, one of whose members is Putin’s former judo partner.

Putin has a special talent for spotting the weaknesses of world leaders. In 2008 his army invaded Georgia and conquered the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin gambled that his aggression would be tolerated, and he was right. U.S. President George W. Bush, who was preoccupied with his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with the rest of the West, let it go.

Six years later, Putin sensed the softness of a different U.S. administration – this time of President Barack Obama. The Russian leader invaded Ukraine for the first time, conquering the Crimean Peninsula, and the separatist region of Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk).

    A protester holds a picture depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler during a rally against Russia's invasion of Ukraine at Beyazid district in Istanbul on SaturdayCredit: OZAN KOSE - AFP

Later, in 2015, he sent troops to Syria, reduced American influence and reshaped the Middle East. Putin did so after realizing that the U.S. president’s declarations of “red lines” and threats to use military force if the Syrian dictator continued to use chemical weapons were just hollow talk.

Since 2015 Israel has found itself challenged by the new reality of Russian troops and fighter planes on its Golan Heights border. This is one of the main reasons, albeit not morally justified, why Israel under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successor Naftali Bennett is so cautious in its response to Putin’s new belligerence in Ukraine.

Obama and his vice president Joe Biden, as well as the EU, did impose sanctions on Moscow after 2014, but they were mild and had practically no effect on Russia’s economy. In their weak, almost submissive response, the U.S. and the West sowed the seeds of Putin’s blatant aggression today.

The excuses the Russian leader has used to justify his wars against Georgia and Ukraine are reminiscent of Hitler’s fallacious rhetoric. Putin has talked about Russian irredenta and the need to defend oppressed Russian minorities in Georgia and Ukraine. He demands the creation of security zones along Russian borders in Europe and uses military provocations in the disputed areas to accuse his enemies.

Just a reminder: Hitler dressed his troops in Polish uniforms in order to cause violent clashes along the border as a justification to use military force to achieve his strategic goals. He was not deterred by the bloodshed and suffering inflicted on other nations and on his own people. Each time the world opposed his whims, the Nazi dictator promised that his new demand would be the last, only to rush to make new ones. In 1936, he unilaterally violated the Treaty of Versailles by deploying his Wehrmacht troops in the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland.

Pro-Ukraine protesters demonstrating against Putin's invasion. Credit: Francisco Seco/AP

The West did nothing, and Hitler’s appetite grew. In 1938 he declared the Austrian Anschluss, that country’s annexation to the Third Reich, and the world was silent. Six months later, threatening to unleash his army again, Hitler convened the Munich Summit. In their naivety and fear of war, the British and French Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, respectively, were quick to appease Hitler. They gave him the Sudetenland without consulting with Czechoslovakia, to which the region belonged. Chamberlain declared “peace in our times,” only to realize that Hitler had lied to him. Within one year he conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia, and on September 1, 1939 he invaded Poland, launching World War II.

Kyiv is not Munich. But by means of appeasing diplomacy in the Chamberlain style, Biden and the Western leaders will only strengthen Putin’s lust for territorial gains. Russian ethnic minorities are also in the Baltic states, which Putin would like to use as a launching pad for his further conquests. Appeasing dictators is not the solution to a problem. It is the problem.

There are indeed signs that at last Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and even the reluctant German Chancellor Olaf Scholz understand this.

One can only hope that the sanctions already imposed and the ones still to come will be sufficiently crippling and paralyzing to stop Putin from further adventures that endanger the world.

It is not inconceivable that a determined and focused response from world leaders will cause Putin, who like many dictators is isolated in his palace and detached from reality, to realize that he has gone one bridge too far, and that in invading Ukraine he made a historic miscalculation.

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