Historical analogizing is a risky business, but in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s strike on Ukraine, it’s also a growth industry.
The mother of all analogies, of course, is the Hitler analogy. No less an authority than former secretary of state (and possible future presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton has reportedly likened the Russian president’s excuse for invading Ukraine — the “defense” of ethnic Russians — to Hitler’s claim that he needed to protect ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia.
Superficially plausible though the Hitler-Putin comparison may be, just how precisely does it fit?
In some respects, alarmingly so. As young men, both Hitler and Mr. Putin zealously served their countries on the front lines of international conflict, one as a German soldier on the Western Front in World War I, the other as a Soviet KGB officer in East Germany during the Cold War.
Each was cast adrift when the empire upon which he had staked his future collapsed. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler wrote that “everything went black before my eyes” when he heard of Germany’s capitulation in 1918; his heart filled with “hatred for the originators of this dastardly crime.” Mr. Putin has recalled the dramatic moment when he felt obliged to hide his Soviet Communist Party membership card in a desk drawer; he has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “a genuine tragedy” for the Russian people.
Each considered his nation no more culpable than any other for the global conflict that precipitated its downfall — its humiliation therefore not only undeserved but also inexplicable, except as the product of weakness, betrayal and conspiracy. For each man, post-imperial chaos in their respective countries bred profound contempt for Western-style freedom and democracy.
For both, agreements codifying their respective countries’ defeats — the Treaty of Versailles for Hitler, NATO’s eastward expansion for Mr. Putin — represented not international law but victor’s justice, which trampled legitimate national interests and stranded millions of their respective ethnic brethren in new nations that outside powers had set up, hypocritically, in the name of self-determination.
Having attained power in their respective societies, Hitler and Mr. Putin both set their sights on economic and military renewal and on reversing their respective nations’ unjust humiliation, by force if necessary.
The latter co-opted some former Soviet republics and militarily occupied others, just as Hitler marched the Wehrmacht into the Rhineland in 1936, took Czechoslovakia in 1938 — and, well, you get the idea.
It’s at this point, however, that the analogy begins to break down. Whereas Hitler was an ideologue and a charismatic movement leader, Mr. Russian grievance, or his hostility toward Muslims or gays, may be, Mr. Putin is not driven by the kind of all-encompassing racism that led Hitler to perpetrate the Holocaust, or by anything like the crazed notion of Lebensraum that motivated Hitler’s attempted conquests in the East.
Even his proposed Eurasian Union is not a sweeping ideological concept like Nazism or Communism. His designs are aggressive but, in terms of Russian history and geography, traditional. They probably do not extend beyond the “near abroad.” Hitler (and, to some extent, Stalin) had ambitions in the West as well.
Unlike Hitler, Mr. Putin must temper his adventurism with due regard for a West that, however war-weary, fractious and self-absorbed it may be, is still powerful enough to cripple his economy — and still headed by a United States that possesses a nuclear deterrent and is formally committed to defend its NATO allies. (Of course, unlike Hitler, Mr. Putin has nukes, too.)
In short, Mr. Putin’s capabilities and intentions, in the context of the power arrayed against him, make him more capable of rational calculation and more containable than Hitler — but still plenty dangerous.
At the moment, Western leaders are reportedly contemplating a diplomatic “off-ramp” for Mr. Putin in Ukraine, with which he could end his invasion without losing face. Mr. Putin’s price would probably be Western acquiescence in his continued influence over Ukraine, especially its strategic Crimean Peninsula, with or without directly occupying it.
If such a deal did restore Ukraine as a buffer state and proved acceptable over the long term to NATO, Russia and Ukrainians, perhaps it would bring peace in our time, unlike the Western powers’ ill-fated sacrifice of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938.
The nightmare scenario, though, is that recent events have permanently destabilized Ukraine and that the resulting shock waves will slowly radiate to the Baltic states, former Soviet republics with large Russian minorities. As NATO members, they enjoy a guarantee of Western help against external aggression — as Poland did in 1939.
Charles Lane is a columnist and member of The Washington Post editorial board.