Holy crap. When Walter Russell Mead wrote that Vladimir Putin has been working right out of the Hitler playbook, I found the point provocative but perhaps overstated. Although I have been cynical about diplomatic efforts to get Putin to back off Ukraine, because I don’t think Putin cares what anyone thinks of him, I didn’t expect him to be this bold and this blatant this quickly. He has declared that Crimea has always been a part of Russia and has just decided to annex it.
To quote Mead’s prescient essay:
Putin is no Hitler, and from the standpoint of power he isn’t even a Brezhnev. Still, his actions in Ukraine have been following Adolf’s playbook pretty closely. Adolf wanted to tear up the Treaty of Versailles. Putin is attempting to rip up the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and Central Asia. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia is much weaker than its opponents, so it can’t achieve its goal through a direct military challenge against its primary enemies. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia must be clever until it grows strong, and it must play on its enemies’ hesitations, divisions and weaknesses until and unless it is ready to take them on head to head.
“Keep them guessing” is rule number one. Nobody was better than Hitler at playing with his enemies’ minds. For every warlike speech, there was an invitation to a peace conference. For every uncompromising demand, there was a promise of lasting tranquillity once that last little troublesome problem had been negotiated safely away. He was so successful at it (and Stalin, too was good at this game) in part because his opponents so desperately wanted peace.
Furthermore, as Mead notes:
Putin is using another one of Hitler’s favorite methods in Ukraine: turn your ethnic minorities in other countries into a Trojan horse— whether or not that is what those people actually want. Hitler did this with the Sudeten Germans in what is now the Czech Republic. The FT again:
- Russia said on Saturday it was looking at requests for help from civilians in Ukraine, a statement which appeared to resemble those made two weeks ago in justification of its military incursion into Crimea.
“Russia is receiving numerous requests for protecting civilians. These requests will be given consideration,” the foreign ministry said. It added a string of claims that Ukrainian militants and mercenaries were threatening civilians, which could not immediately be verified.
There is nothing here that couldn’t have been taken directly out of Adolf’s Guide for Aspiring Hegemons.
Indeed, there is nothing here that couldn’t have been taken out of the old KGB playbook, for that matter.
In the post Cold war era, Putin has been working hard to cement his power and get Russia to a place of stability. Now that he has it, there is every reason to believe he will want to, slowly but surely, reconstruct the old Soviet Empire, minus the Communist ideology. And if that’s what he wants to do, who’s to stop him? The rich oil and natural gas reserves of Kazakhstan are right there, and while Dr. Galymzhan Kirbassov may think Kazakhstan leaders have little reason to lose sleep, he may be overoptimistic; his views seem predicated on the assumption that because Kazakhstan has remained neutral in the balance of power between Russia, NATO, and the European Union, and has stayed friendly with Russia, this means Putin will not seize on any pretext to take full control of their country he has.
Putin is a patient man who has spent many years building his power base, and yet now is still a fairly young man; at age 61, he is in the prime of life for a political leader and if he stays in good health has another 10 years at least to stay vibrant and ready.
Obama got my support in 2012 mostly for foreign policiy reasons, although not for the dovish reasons of naifs. It was because of his handling of the wind-down in Iraq and his refusal to do a rush job bugging out of that place. And for his relatively strong stance against Ghadafi (although it could have been stronger in my opinion). That said, I believe he and his current Secretary of State to be naively working as if, because they want peace and the Europeans want peace, everyone wants peace.
Doves tend to think “everyone wants peace” and therefore everyone will work in good faith for peace. But dictators, by and large, will only work for peace when they feel they are in personal danger, and even when they’re in danger they generally don’t care about peace, they care about whatever it takes to save their own power. They otherwise have no particular interest in peace at all.
Putin honestly answers to no one but Putin, and this is one of many reasons why I want to tear my hair out when people draw moral equivalencies between the likes of him and the President of the United States; whatever you think of the current temporary occupant of the White House, he DOES have people he answers to, including ultimately the voters. Dictators are under no such obligation.
Which is a big part of why democracy is not a joke, and should not be shrugged off as just a philosophical difference. It is, in fact, a firm empirical difference that matters a lot.
Are we looking at World War 3? Possibly not. But we are increasingly looking like a world where Russia is once again a military and economic rival to the democratic world.