Is Putin Hitler?
Boris Nemtsov, three days before his murder, allegedly said to a reporter: “Putin has brought Nazism into politics.” This raises the question of comparison between Putin and Hitler, and between their respective programmes, strategies and tactics. Is such comparison meaningful, valid, useful?
The only way to find out is to make it.
Let us start with their CVs. Hitler in his youth was a relatively uneducated and unsuccessful outsider. He only came into his own, and began to have success, when he entered politics, noisily fighting his way to the centre of power from the outside, and to its top from its bottom. Putin in his youth was a relatively educated, moderately successful insider: a product of the KGB. His elevation to the top by Yeltsin’s designation must have come as the result of striving on his part, but that striving, unlike Hitler’s, was kept quiet. Putin was relatively unknown when he came to power, and, initially, was able to fool the likes of George W. Bush, and others, into thinking they could do business with him.
Before reaching power, Hitler had published his programme in Mein Kampf. Only failure to read it, or wilful refusal to understand what it said, could have prevented the appeasers of the 1930s from realising what they were up against. Hitler’s whole programme of totalitarian takeover of Germany, elimination of internal opposition, Anschluss of Austria, territorial expansion in Central Europe, domination over France and Britain, war against Russia, and extermination of the Jews, was all there in writing, more or less implicit or explicit, for anyone to read, understand, and react to.
Putin, in contrast, has only gradually, since reaching power, revealed his programme in practice: totalitarian control of the Russian state and of civil society, involving the so far successful use of propaganda techniques developed and refined both by Nazis and Soviets; elimination of internal opposition, whether by incarceration on trumped-up charges, or by assassination; attempted reconstitution of the Russian empire and its sphere of influence; maintenance of oligarchic kleptocracy inside Russia, and alliance with other kleptocracies, near and far; designation of the West as the enemy, and resistance against any attempt by coveted nations, such as Georgia and Ukraine, to align with the West; indirect attacks and subversion undermining the West, through compliant allies and proxies, whether of right or left, in Europe and beyond.
Despite the difference in their personal CVs, Hitler’s and Putin’s programmes, in theory and practice, and the global circumstances surrounding them, are similar in some ways, different in others.
Among similarities in theory are that both espouse forms of authoritarian modernity. In practice, this is manifested: politically, as autocracy; economically, as kleptocracy. Both seek to recover great power status for their nations after a defeat. Both are revanchist in the strict sense of the word, seeking revenge for perceived humiliations to their notion of their nation and themselves. Both use nationalist propaganda involving the Big Lie. Both are by temperament and choice enemies of liberal modernity, identified by both with roughly the same set of nations: then the Allies, now the West.
Among theoretical differences are Putin’s lack of an enemy racially defined, and the absence of explicit racism from his propaganda, though implicit racism forms part of its subtext. Like Hitler, however, Putin attacks, both in word and deed, alternative lifestyles, such as homosexuality. Unlike Hitler, Putin does not overtly propose a programme of military conquest and world domination. Rather, Putin seeks to achieve his more limited aims indirectly, by deceit and stealth, through proxies. In this respect Putin, unlike Hitler, is to some extent restrained by circumstance.
Among differences between Hitler’s and Putin’s circumstances are that an erstwhile ally of Hitler, Japan, is now a member of the Western alliance. Putin has gained no ally of compensating value. Today’s West is more avowedly aware of Putin’s programme than the appeasers were of Hitler’s, and, though not without backsliding, it seems more apparently determined to resist him. Another difference is that, unlike in the case of Hitler, America now takes the lead in opposing Putin, while Europe, though more directly threatened by him, perhaps for that very reason is less steadfast in its opposition to him.
The most important circumstantial difference, however, is that unlike Hitler, Putin heads a nuclear power facing other nuclear powers. As a result of this, Putin, unlike Hitler in 1939, cannot risk war with America, Britain, or France, nor yet with China. That may be why he has not yet tried it.
Thus while comparison between Putin and Hitler is illuminating with respect to motives, aims, and methods, it is less so with respect to strategy. Hitler’s war could have been won by him. It could have gone either way, until America, to paraphrase Churchill, having tried everything else, finally did the right thing. Now, with the Cold War’s Mutual Assured Destruction still in place, Russia would be foolish to follow Hitler’s example, and, say, invade Poland. It may invade Ukraine, and get away with it, because Ukraine is not a part of NATO, but most of the ex-Warsaw Pact states to its West are now in NATO. So Putin’s strategic position versus his enemies is much weaker than Hitler’s versus his.
Perhaps, since he has rekindled the Cold War, a more useful comparison than that between Putin and Hitler is that between Putin and his Soviet predecessors: Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and Gorbachev, who suffered the same constraint. The most important difference in this case is that Putin lacks the ideological support of Communism. its erstwhile following in certain quarters, inside and outside the Soviet Union, helped delay that country’s eventual implosion.
Communism was, or pretended to be, an international ideology. Russian nationalism can, by definition, not appeal much beyond Russia’s borders. Putin may seek to extend those borders to include all Russian speakers, but even so, unless he lays claim to London, New York or Tel-Aviv, they are likely to remain close to Russia itself. Putin’s attempts to replace Communism with the Russian Orthodox Church are likewise unlikely to gain support abroad, except in Eastern Orthodox countries, such as some in the Balkans, including Greece. Yet even most of these are currently in NATO.
Among nuclear powers outside the Western alliance, India, long a tepid ally of the Soviet Union, and enemy of China, seems on its way to becoming an equally tepid ally of the West. Pakistan, because of enmity with India, is an ally of China. Israel, though full of Russian speakers, is allied with the West. So no nuclear power outside the Western alliance looks like a natural ally of Russia.
Putin’s only natural allies are other kleptocrats, and the Russian people. One may legitimately make the leap from ally of Russia to ally of Putin by virtue of the fact that Russia now, even more than under the Soviet Union after Stalin, is an autocracy, as well as a kleptocracy.
As long as China remains a kleptocracy, it will remain a natural ally of Russia in such international debates as involve matters of principle potentially affecting the untrammelled exercise of kleptocracy. But there are many other potential points of conflict between China and Russia over different matters, such as China’s huge population and Russia’s empty spaces, that may trump this.
Other kleptocrats, like Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev and Belarus’s Lukashenko, are not all that vital for Putin. He would like to keep them in the fold, and is, as we see, prepared to go to considerable lengths to try to bring Ukraine back into his club of crony kleptocracies. But ultimately, the only ally that really matters to Putin is the Russian people. As long as he controls their hearts and minds, as, for the majority, he does, he can continue practicing kleptocracy at home, and expansionism abroad.
Why does Putin want or need expansionism abroad? Why is not the love of his people enough?
Here lies the crux of the matter, bringing us back to the comparison with Hitler.
The reason Putin needs expansionism abroad, whether he really wants it or not – and it seems that he really does want it, sincerely – is that he has predicated his own grip on power, the love of his people, on revanchist nationalism. Whether driven by desire or necessity, he has built his huge internal popularity on a narrative of encirclement and victimisation of Russia by the West, abuse of Russians outside Russia by their neighbours, and a wicked plot to undermine Russian cultural, if not ethnic, purity with filthy foreign ways. The logical consequence of this narrative is that Russia must fight back. This is exactly the same narrative that Hitler built his power on.
Why has Putin chosen to build his power on this narrative, rather than on any other?
An alternative possibility would have been to give the Russian people a real share in their country’s wealth, gradually dismantling the oligarchy that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union, by introducing some form of free-market capitalism under the rule of law. This, however, goes against Putin’s deepest instincts. Unlike Hitler’s, these are not nationalist, revanchist, or Anti-Semitic, but kleptocratic. It also goes against the trend of Russian history, which has formed the Russian people. The Russian people are conditioned by centuries of autocracy and kleptocracy. That is why most of them are so easy to fool. Putin is a Russian, but no fool. Rather, he is one who fools other Russians.
He is a relatively, but only relatively, educated product of his own culture. He is conditioned by a technocratic education in the KGB, lacking any humanist component. Despite, or perhaps because of his acquaintance, as a KGB officer, with Communist East Germany, he lacks deep experience or sympathetic understanding of any country or culture espousing liberal modernity. So Putin’s only way to imagine and instrumentalise his accession to autocratic power was through kleptocracy. This is because that is how power in Russia has always been exercised, by everyone from the top down. It is such a deeply ingrained cultural trait that most Russians do not even notice it. The minority who do, and protest, are quickly labelled traitors. This makes the spread of Putin’s narrative much easier.
Thus there seems to be a sense in which Putin could not have done otherwise. It is not only a question of what he thinks, but of who he is. This brings us back to Hitler.
Hitler’s failure was far from inevitable. Had a few things, Enigma, Pearl Harbour, Stalingrad, gone otherwise, we might today be living in a Thousand Year Reich. Hitler’s fall was greatly aided by Hitler himself, because he believed his own narrative. As his generals often complained, rational calculation of national self-interest was entirely subordinate to his paranoid obsessions. This was a significant handicap, contributing greatly to the balance of events leading to the final disaster.
Does Putin believe his own narrative? Is he really a revanchist Russian nationalist, wishing to bring every Russian speaker in the world under his protective chokehold, and vent his accumulated rage against the West? Or is he merely a consummate kleptocrat? If he believes, or comes to believe, his own narrative, that is a weakness which, like Hitler’s obsession with the Jews, and belief in his own strategic genius, may contribute to Putin’s fall. If he is merely a kleptocrat, then he may be susceptible to rational calculations of personal self-interest. Were he a statesman, he would care about his nation’s interests. This would lead him to espouse a very different programme from that which he has adopted. But, given his record so far, that is much too much to hope for.
So how should the West deal with Putin? Certainly not like the appeasers dealt with Hitler. That would only make him bolder. More like the West dealt with his Soviet predecessors: with containment, gradually sapping the basis of his power: economic, diplomatic, military and cultural. Of these the cultural, changing the Russian peoples’ heart and mind, is most important. Without this, even if we get rid of Putin, they may spawn another just like him, or worse.