From Nazis to 9/11: Analogies in the Russia-Ukraine war

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February and the subsequent military conflict that continued since have captured the attention of the entire world. Numerous reporters are deployed throughout Ukraine and its neighboring states and cover the events on a nearly minute-by-minute basis. Images of the physical destruction and the heartbreaking human tragedy generated by the actions of the Russian forces fill all possible news outlets as well as any social media platform.

It appears to be quite clear that President Vladimir Putin’s plan to decisively take over Ukraine within a couple of days has completely failed. Putin apparently overestimated the effectiveness of the Russian military and underestimated the potential of the Ukrainian army as well as the degree of civilian defiance and resistance.

The Kremlin’s blunder was also evident in its inability to anticipate the nearly universal condemnation of Russia’s actions and the swift and crippling sanctions imposed by the international community to severely punish Putin and those who support him politically and financially. The backlash was so overwhelming that even neutral Switzerland adopted all the sanctions that the European Union has imposed on Russian people and companies. Furthermore, in addition to sending arms shipments to Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are also mulling over the idea of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

One question scholars and analysts will certainly ask once the fog of war dissipates has to do with the causes for Putin’s pre-invasion miscalculations. Indeed, it might take considerable time until we gain access to the records of the internal deliberations where an invasion of Ukrainian was discussed and eventually decided upon, if at all. Still what can be easily observed already is the extensive use of historical analogies by all parties involved in the conflict.

Generally speaking, historical analogies serve two main purposes; first, they provide policymakers with “cognitive shortcuts” that help them deal with crises situations characterized by urgency and high risk. As a policy guide, the analogy ostensibly offers a similar historical precedent that answers several critical questions such as the nature of the event, how to address it and what are the chances for success if certain actions are made. Although we do not know what was said behind closed doors in the Kremlin during the days leading to the invasion, and it is exceedingly difficult to evaluate Putin’s thought process, it would be sensible to assume he heavily relied on analogical reasoning before giving the final order.

One needs only to recall several relatively recent military campaigns Putin initiated and were quite successful, from his standpoint, and thus provided additional validation to his Ukrainian strategy: The 1999-2000 Second Chechen War, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War as well as the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. There were two instrumental lessons Putin extracted from these events; first, the overall local resistance to Russia’s military campaign was insignificant and did not prevent the achievement of the Kremlin’s principal goals. Second, the international community’s response was underwhelming and did not inflict an unbearable cost on the Russian government or the general public.

Putin unquestionably considered two other formative events that did not directly involve Russian military forces yet were of great interest from the Kremlin’s point of view. First, in August 2012 US President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria constitutes “a red line” that, if crossed, will justify American military intervention. When news of a chemical attack against Syrian civilians in Eastern Ghouta and Moudamiyat al-Cham broke a year later, Obama balked and no military action was taken. The Biden Administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the hasty or bungled way it was executed, only exacerbated the Kremlin’s impression from the Syrian “red line” episode. The lesson here for the Russian leadership was that the US government and the American people have become reluctant to get militarily involved in another armed conflict in a distant region. The Kremlin concluded the leadership and public in the US have been truly experiencing what Secretary of State John Kerry called at the time “an enormous Iraq hangover”, namely that the American leadership and public have been truly traumatized by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and therefore would oppose placing boots on the ground regardless of the particular details. In the Ukrainian context, this means Putin was fairly confident the US’ response would not include military intervention.

Historical analogies can also perform a more “ornamental” role in leaders’ rhetoric, a way to frame the situation for a designated audience and evoke a positive response that builds on a shared understanding of the comparison between the past and the present situation. Both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used a variety of historical analogies on multiple occasions to make their case in front of different target audiences; Putin declared in a televised speech that, in addition to the demilitarization of Ukraine, another goal of the Russian offensive was to “denazify” the country. As multiple observers rightfully noted, this rhetorical trope was used to exploit the traumatic experiences of millions of Soviets (now Russians) during the Second World War to justify the military campaign and garner domestic political support.

For his part, Zelenskyy employed the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, during a speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress. The response was overwhelmingly supportive among the American legislators and within hours the Biden Administration approved $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine in addition to the $200 million already provided three days earlier.

More recently, in an address to the Israeli parliament, Zelenskyy employed several analogies comparing Russia, Putin, the German Nazi regime, and the Holocaust. This messaging is especially powerful given the Ukrainian President is Jewish and many of his relatives were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust. In his speech, Zelenskyy told Israeli lawmakers and cabinet members that “The Russians use the terminology of the Nazi party, want to destroy everything. The Nazis called this ‘the final solution to the Jewish question. And now… in Moscow… they’re using those words, ‘the final solution.’ But now it’s directed against us and the Ukrainian question.”

The challenge of analogical reasoning is that no two cases are identical and that the surrounding circumstances hardly ever replicate themselves perfectly. As German philosopher Friedrich Hegel remarked, “We learn from history that man can never learn from anything from history.” Still, the case of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine suggests he was attempting to apply several historical lessons confirming British historian E.H. Carr’s assertion that “it is a presupposition of history that man is capable of profiting (not that he necessarily profits) by the experience of his predecessors.”

The Russian army’s faltering advance into Ukraine, the military and civilian resistance it has been facing, and the fierce sanctions swiftly imposed on Russia by numerous countries, suggest Putin’s analogical reasoning backfired and resulted in a major strategic blunder. This is not to say he will not achieve some of his goals, but rather that his reliance on Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea as precedents to anticipate the outcomes of the invasion of Ukrainian proved to be misguided as were his hopes that the international community’s response would either be symbolic or lukewarm.

Historical analogies offer clues into the unknown future based on what we do know about the past. Still, Putin’s decision-making indicates he used the wrong analogy, extracted the wrong insights or lessons, and applied the wrong policies to achieve his goals in Ukraine. We should not be tempted, however, to extract lessons from the Russian debacle about Putin’s future behavior or the prospects for restoring peace and stability in Europe. Let us use historical analogies more carefully despite their tempting allure.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.