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How I know that V. V. Putin isn’t Hitler

Hitler made war in order to grab territory, Putin grabbed territory in order to keep what he has

‘This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.’  

Stirring words, eh? When Old Man Bush dropped that line the Soviet Union was in the process of going to bits and for once it was possible to step in and crush a superpower’s client. So we did.

I hear some rumblings about the American President, suggesting that he should do something similar: Stand up to the Russian President. A little coercion, they say, would not go amiss.

I notice that my friends, Baltic friends in particular, are concerned that the recent annexation of the Crimea to Russia is the first step in a process of Russian Imperial revanche.

Russian President V. V. Putin talks with his hands
‘I’m only going to take this much of Ukraine’ (photo credit: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The comparison turns (inevitably turns, according to Mike Godwin) to Hitler. It is a commonplace that if Britain and France had made war on Germany over Czechoslovakia in 1938 the Wehrmacht could have been defeated briskly and comparatively painlessly. Hitler would have been overthrown and Germany put back in the firm, dry hands of the Weimar Republic where they would remain to this day. The Holocaust would never have happened, and this website’s competition would still be called the Palestine Post.


.אױב די באָבע װאָלט געהאַט רעדער, װאָלט זי געװען אַ װאָגן.

If my grandmother had had wheels, as the Yiddish saying goes, she would have been a tea trolley.

Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler in 1938, betting that the British and French armies could prepare for war faster and better than the Germans could. Hitler already had a plan by that point: ‘Neither western nor eastern orientation should be the future goal of our foreign policy, but an eastern policy signifying the acquisition of the necessary soil for our German people.’ Hitler wrote that in the great rambling screed Mein Kampf in which he laid out his aims for Germany.

Hitler and Chamberlain shake hands
Neville Chamberlain is greeted by Adolf Hitler, 24 September, 1938 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-063-32 / CC-BY-SA)

Hitler wanted to create a pan-European superstate for the imaginary Aryan race. Every foreign policy move he made in 1938, 1939 and 1940 was designed to take the Third Reich closer to that nirvana. He gobbled up Austria to unify the German-speaking nations of Europe. He dismantled Czechoslovakia because it was a Slavic bulwark separating German Prussia from German Austria. He invaded Poland to regain East Prussia but also to turn one of Europe’s most populous and resource-rich states into a German asset instead of a barrier between him and his aims.

Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg to get to France. He invaded France so that it could not attack him while he grabbed the land he wanted in the East. Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark to turn the Baltic Sea into a German lake, securing his northern flank against the Royal Navy. All of this was in aid of his one aim: that pan-European superstate for the imaginary Aryan race. Hitler took territory in order to take territory.

The wheels only started to fall off Hitler’s vehicle when he allowed himself to be distracted from his aims. What the British, French and Red Armies couldn’t do to him in 1941 he did himself. He allowed Mussolini to draw him into Greece and North Africa. He allowed Himmler’s pet project of colonising the Ukraine with sturdy German farmers to draw his attention away from Moscow. He allowed his conviction that a rotten Judaeo-Bolshevik Soviet Union could never survive a fight with Aryan supermen to remove his focus.

And a good thing too.

I do not have a window into V. V. Putin’s soul. If I put myself into his head, however, and try to pen a concise foreign policy manifesto, it would read something like this:

‘In 1989 Comrade Gorbachev and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost their nerve and permitted a fatal disintegration of the power of the Motherland. This was shown inter alia in the USSR’s inability to support its client in Iraq in 1990, and in the devastating blows dealt to Russian arms in Chechenya in 1994 and 1995.

‘During the Yeltsin era, Russia gravely damaged her own security by permitting her bulwarks against potential German aggression to be pared away. Losing the Warsaw Pact as a set of puppets and buffers was bad, but far worse was the American success in the Clinton years: The Warsaw Pact states and the Baltic states were converted into a prickly hedge of NATO allies dangerously close to the Motherland.

‘The independence of the central Asian ‘stans freed Russia from some of the threat of Islamism, and of the burden of policing and directly controlling great tracts of steppe. However, it permitted some parts of the Russian Federation (Chechnya, Dagestan) to view themselves as the next set of ‘stans to go their own way.

‘NATO courted Georgia and Ukraine, encouraging them to develop action plans for joining NATO. While they did this, the British and Americans encircled the Motherland in the south, moving armies into Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘In the beginning of the Arab Spring, NATO imposed on the good will of the Russian Federation by performing an ugly bait-and-switch. Russia, with China, agreed to stand by while Libyan insurgents were protected, on the condition that NATO would not depose the Ghaddafi regime. Russia was sensitive to the chaos that could be caused by the well-intentioned Western impulse toward regime change.

Ghaddafi suffers from an extreme case of regime change

‘The Americans, British and French, with their NATO allies, blithely deposed Ghaddafi. They also made it clear that they were ready to do the same to Bashar Assad, Russia’s longstanding ally in the region and protector of Russia’s sole remaining naval port on the Mediterranean Sea. Under the guise of protecting Arabs’ human rights, NATO has come within an ace of pushing Russia out of the Middle East altogether.

‘The Germans, Americans and allies have for 15 years marched closer to Moscow while treating Russia like a stray dog. Supporting the Ukrainian opposition and talking up the secession of the historically Polish and Romanian provinces around Lviv was just one more blow to Russia.

‘Threatening to pull Ukraine into NATO would put one more NATO state onto the Russian Federation’s border. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, in the West; the United States in the East; and now Ukraine, a dagger pointed straight at Moscow. Not content with depriving Russia of Tartous in the Mediterranean, NATO would also absorb Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet’s main port. The Western-oriented Viktor Yuschenko, when he was President of Ukraine, even tried to stop Russian vessels from using Sevastopol during Russia’s war to retain South Ossetia in 2009.

‘Russia has had to draw a line somewhere, and say (as a certain Stalinist said in Spain) ¡No Pasarán! ‘

Do you see the difference?

Hitler grabbed territory and made war and committed genocide in order to grab territory. Putin has grabbed territory in order to keep what he has. Putin has fought to hold on to South Ossetia, Dagestan and the Russian naval port of Sevastopol because neither he nor anyone else in Russia can see where the continuous slicing away of Russian influence will end.

Russia thinks this way in no small part because they were on the receiving end of Hitler’s Drang nach Osten.

Russia, depicted as an octopus, throws its tentacles in all directions including towards Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Persia in this comical map from 1877
Russian Expansionism: Feared in 1877 by anti-imperialists like the Germans, the French, the Belgians and of course the British. (Image: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID 2003677957)

So this is not the first step of Russian Imperial revanche. I do not expect Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to be next, so long as they and Poland do not threaten Russia’s corridor to Kaliningrad. I do not expect anyone to try too hard to coerce Russia and make them leave the Crimea alone.

Perhaps the stroke of an apparatchik’s pen that assigned the heavily Russified Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR has been corrected this week. Perhaps, on the other hand, a great crime has been committed against the idea of sovereignty and against democratic Ukraine’s sovereignty in particular.

Putin may treat gay people as badly as they’re treated in Alabama, and he may be an autocratic White Tsar. He’s no Yeltsin, but he surely isn’t Hitler.

Correction:  This post originally suggested that Stalin transferred the Crimean Autonomous SSR from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR.  In fact Stalin was dead in 1954 when that transfer took place.  I am indebted to Nolan Pompis Klein for the correction.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.