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Ideas

1939 v. 2022: Putin Like Hitler, The West Without A Churchill

The Russian leader's invasion is a both a pursuit of his Hitlerian obsession to rectify his nation's humiliation, and a bet that the West's decline is permanent.

photo of protesters holding signs, including one of putin as hitler

Protests in support of Ukraine on Saturday in Barcelona, Spain

Matthias Oesterle/ZUMA
Dominique Moïsi

Since the start of the 21st century, the pace of history has accelerated.

The 9/11 attacks marked the first sign of the United States’ vulnerability, and the financial and economic crisis that began in 2007 confirmed the fragility of the capitalist West. Encouraged by these negative signals, authoritarian regimes gained momentum: In a symbolic way for China with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and in a concrete way, the same year, for Russia with its first successful “bluff” in Georgia. Tangled up in internal contradictions and divisions and distracted by external adventures, the Western world witnessed — almost as though in absentia — the spectacle of its decline.


In the early hours of Thursday, history did not speed up, it tipped — as it had done twice in the 20th century, in 1914 and 1939.

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Like Hitler before him, Putin had told us exactly what he was going to do. You had to be very naive or complacent not to hear it and understand it. Yes, the massive invasion of Ukraine with simultaneous attacks on three fronts was predictable.

Kremlin obsession

Putin's strategy is that of a fait accompli — to prevent Ukrainian resistance to organize itself, to make Westerners face their limits. Who else do you want to help? Just as Louis XIV said “I am the State,” Putin is telling us: “I am Ukraine.”

The recognition of the “independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk” was only a first step towards the submission of the whole of Ukraine.

“Absolute security for one side must mean absolute insecurity for all other sides,” wrote Henry Kissinger, speaking of the Soviet Union. His formula perfectly sums up the current behavior of Putin's Russia. The new tsar's stated obsession with security and interests of the Russian people barely hides an absolute desire for revenge, backed by unfailing determination.

Fatal distraction

Hitler wanted to evacuate the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. Putin wants to wipe out Russia’s humiliation in the aftermath of the Cold War. In just two years, between 1989 and 1991, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced the equivalent of what France experienced between the French Revolution and the loss of its colonial empire — but that was over a period spanning almost two centuries.

Hitler's obsession with revenge was clouded by his anti-Semitic fixation. His inability to choose between his two war objectives — the conquest of Europe or the elimination of the Jews — precipitated his downfall. It is not so with Putin: his nationalist obsession knows no fatal distraction. For him, offensive ambition and defensive ambition go hand-in-hand. He knows that by rebuilding his empire, he consolidates his power.

His obsession with Ukraine — an “artificial” country, a “puppet regime,” to use the terms he employs — is shared by a majority of Russians. When we, imprudently and against all strategic logic, raised the possibility of Ukraine's entry into NATO, we provided Putin with the perfect argument and pretext. By choosing Ukraine as his (first?) target, he was gambling without risk.

If Putin took action, it was not so much because he felt comforted by his privileged alliance with Xi Jinping's China. It is above all because he is convinced that the Western world is fundamentally "Munichois," ready to cede like Britain and allies did to Hitler at the Munich agreement of 1938. To use French philosopher Raymond Aron’s formula that “abilities form the intentions,” we could say today that the incapacities of some (the Westerners) initiate or boost the intentions of others (the Russians and the Chinese).

UK's Neville Chamberlain at the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938

commons.wikimedia.org

Europeans will grow tired

Putin has never wanted a Finlandized Ukraine, but a subjugated Ukraine. Is the master of the Kremlin a 19th-century man lost in the 21st century? Or — and this is a much more tragic hypothesis — by being the reincarnation of the past, could he be foreshadowing our future? A Hobbesian world dominated solely by power relations?

Either way, Putin thinks that time is on his side. He knows that what is at stake with Ukraine is more important for Russia than for the majority of European countries, with the exception of Poland and the Baltic countries.

Threats of economic sanctions couldn’t stop Putin — quite the opposite. He cares neither for the happiness nor for the well-being of his people. And he is convinced that Europeans will get tired of paying more for heating and bread, when, at the very same time, they will have to welcome Ukrainian refugees in ever greater numbers.

As for the United States, wasn't the Ukrainian crisis — at least initially— a distraction for them? Its priority was in Asia. It served Washington's interest that Russia was no longer seen as a primary threat, even if that's not the case now.

In the bubble that he had gradually locked himself in, Putin only thought of imperial Russia’s greatness and power. His dream has become our nightmare.

Protests in Poland

Photo of protesters holding sign that says: Hitler 39, Putin 22

Protesters in Krakow, Poland

Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images via ZUMA

Failure of deterrence 

Faced with a revisionist and revengeful Russia, the Western world has neither Chamberlain nor Churchill in power. (No offense to Boris Johnson.) And this, when for the first time since 1945, war — the real kind — returns to Europe, as if the madness of men could not be contained for more than 76 years?

What can we do? Beyond the most severe economic sanctions, we must massively increase our military aid to Poland and the Baltic countries. For Ukraine, it is probably too late.

We must also make Russians understand that “if they liked Afghanistan, they'll love Ukraine.” The country is vast, larger than France. Conquering it is simple, controlling it will be infinitely less so.

From 1947 to 1989, the Western world had successfully contained the Soviet Union. A victim of its contradictions, the Communist regime ultimately collapsed. In 2022, Russia's massive invasion of Ukraine is the first major failure of deterrence. The West no longer provokes fear. And, what's even more serious: nuclear weapons don't either.

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