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.
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:
- Humiliated countries will seek to be less humiliated in whatever ways they can
- 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
- Both conditions lead to more aggressive leaders, who will be more likely to gamble and take high-risk decisions
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.