By now, the world is well-versed in the events that followed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s withdrawal from the November 2013 EaP Vilnius Summit (at which Ukraine was scheduled to sign a highly-anticipated EU association agreement along with several other countries) in favor of a $15 billion aid deal with Russia. Since the first public protests to this unilateral decision erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square, the West – in this context, demarcated by those countries possessing NATO and EU membership – has expressed unusually vocal criticism of Russia’s role in the crisis.
There is much to say about this conflict as it continues to unfold in real time before our very eyes. In this post, however, I would like to address one particular fallacy that, as of late, has featured repeatedly and prominently in the rhetoric of too many Western leaders. Hillary Clinton articulates this claim in the video clip below – to her credit, in relatively tempered terms – albeit this in an attempt to clarify earlier censorious remarks (also here).
This sentiment – namely, that Vladimir Putin is (or is acting) like Adolf Hitler – has been reiterated by no shortage of politicians and world leaders, including US Senator John McCain, former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (also here in 2008), and even a national Kazakh periodical. (A longer list of offenders can be found here.) That many Ukrainians have caught on to this trend is of little surprise, but the willingness of the international (Western) political community to propagate this name-calling strategy, rendered crude through the invocation of isolated parallels and a failure to explicate disparate historical contexts, is surprising indeed. Or perhaps it is not really surprising, but only disappointing.
I find this analogy to be problematic for two principal reasons:
- because it conflates past and present geopolitical realities that, in fact, are profoundly different, and consequently
- precludes a coherent assessment of and effective response to the current watershed.
Importantly, and contrary to the mainstream public reaction, my motive for this critique is not mere disapprobation of incendiary political rhetoric. Although this is a concern that I share, I take it to be a somewhat pedantic and unsophisticated lens through which to view the issue at hand. Comparing Putin with Hitler is not wrong merely because the analogy is unreasonably libelous or because it is premature, since we have no way of knowing how Putin will act in the future. Rather, it is wrong because it simplifies the unique and novel conditions of extant geopolitical relations in Europe, and thus limits our capacity to understand and address the tensions engendered by those very conditions. These are the most serious concerns.
Before I address each of the above points in turn, one point of clarity remains: note that the weaker form of the claim in question, as tendered for example by Clinton and Brzezinski, makes no direct comparison between Putin and Hitler, but merely suggests that the former’s actions are ‘reminiscent’ of the latter’s. While this version of the fallacy may seem more tenable because it acknowledges the obvious hyperbole of the stronger claim, the effect of the analogy is essentially the same: comparing actions instead of character still ignores relevant historical and geopolitical context, and inappropriately simplifies the current situation. For this reason, in the analysis that follows, I shall not differentiate between the variously nuanced forms of this fallacy.
On a superficial level, the similarities between Putin’s takeover of Crimea and Hitler’s revisionist foreign policy between 1936 and 1938 are striking, as are those used for their justification. But upon closer inspection, the analogy crumbles quickly. Perhaps most significant is the fact that Putin’s actions in Crimea were unpremeditated and reactive. Unlike Hitler, Putin does not have a megalomaniac vision of European domination. It is true that Putin, like Russian (Soviet) leaders before him, views the post-Soviet space as integral to Moscow’s sphere of influence, and has sought – openly or otherwise – to shape political developments in those countries to his own advantage. This proprietary stance is especially evident vis-à-vis Ukraine, whose capital is prized as the historical birthplace of the Russian nation. It is difficult to overstate the sentimental and nationalistic value of the Ukrainian lands to Russian people: Ukraine is to them what Kosovo is to the Serbs. As such, it should surprise nobody that the fate of Ukraine is of great significance to Moscow, and that the Kremlin places particularly high stakes on having a friendly government in Kiev. Indeed, in the months leading up to the Vilnius Summit, Putin made abundantly clear that he would do all he could to stop Ukraine from signing the AA and bring it instead into his own Russia-led customs union. Unfortunately, convinced of its universal appeal, the EU discounted these warnings. The chaos that erupted in the weeks following Yanukovych’s U-turn on Vilnius came as a surprise to everyone, including Putin himself, whose intention had merely been to secure Ukraine’s membership in the Eurasian Union (the scheme of which, while sufficiently coercive, is not driven by any sweeping ideology). The decision to invade Crimea – a region also deeply embedded in Russia’s psychological geography – was opportunistic, but born of emergency circumstances that were not (intentionally) manufactured by Moscow. It was not part of any grand plan for mass expansion or pursuit of Lebensraum. As this author aptly says, “whereas Hitler was an ideologue and a charismatic movement leader, Putin is an opportunist, a political mafioso who schemed his way to power and clings to it for its own sake.”
Importantly, even if Putin did entertain expansionist objectives, their execution would be both economically and militarily unfeasible. The enormous relative disparity in capabilities between Nazi Germany and the Russian Federation further invalidates this tired analogy: in 1938, the Wehrmacht was the most powerful military in the world; today, NATO’s defense expenditure is 11 times that of Russia’s. Not only is the Russian military aging, but the economy, kept afloat by waning energy exports, is under-modernized and stagnating. This is not the profile of a country on par with the 1930s German threat, especially if we also take into account the present strength of Europe and the US. As one author states, “Russia is cornered, and its ambitions have been scaled back from global domination to just being the toughest guy in the rundown backwater once known as the Soviet Union.”
Of course, Russia is still a nuclear power with a track record of unpredictable and aggressive behavior. That threat should not be minimized, but rather contextualized within the appropriate geopolitical setting, to avoid factual misrepresentation and panic. Hyperbolic analogies have fueled fears about the Kremlin’s prospective ‘plans’ for Poland, Finland, and the Baltics. These are absurd. The annexation of Crimea is not a stepping stone for the invasion of countries sheltered by EU and NATO membership. Politicians should realize that inflating the Russian threat fogs our ability to assess it dispassionately and respond proportionally (not that Western leaders are anywhere near a coherent response strategy).
More importantly, however, the Putler analogy draws black and white fault lines that, ideologically, destroy the possibility of compromise. Negotiating with Putin suddenly becomes no different from appeasing Hitler. But compromise is not appeasement. Neither is it a dirty word, contrary to what the American political establishment seems to believe. Of course, the international community should not stand back and watch Putin make an even larger land-grab in Ukraine or elsewhere, should opportunity arise. Developing a deterrence strategy for similar egregious breaches of international law should be a top Western priority. However, avoiding bloodshed and protracted conflict (now in eastern Ukraine) is more important than stubbornly denying Putin his Crimean trophy, or alienating him with ineffective sanctions and fingerpointing. In a choice between civil war and Putinesque autocracy, the latter is ultimately the lesser evil. The people of Crimea certainly think so: polls show that an indisputable majority of voters favors unification with Russia, and a delayed, internationally-approved referendum would have likely yielded the same result. Like all things, international politics evolve in shades of gray – to cast them as black and white eliminates perspective.
None of the above, of course, is meant to imply that Putin is trustworthy or benevolent. I believe that he is neither; that he aspires to create a Soviet Union lite, and is willing to use highly unscrupulous tactics to get his way. (These comments should be taken seriously.) As such, there is one comparison to 1938 that I am inclined to agree with: namely, the international community’s failure to respond effectively to German – and now Russian – belligerence. In 1939, the world bore witness to the tragic consequences of this acquiescence. To repeat this mistake in the present, particularly in light of Russia’s track record in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Transnistria, and now Crimea, would be inexcusable. Putin is no Hitler, but he does blithely violate the sovereignty of states in his near-abroad when it is to his advantage, and when the opportunity presents itself. It would be foolish to assume that under similar circumstances in the future, the Kremlin would exercise greater restraint in invading, if not outright annexing, the territory of its neighbors. Indeed, considering the response of the international community to his current antics, Putin has no reason change course. This is why the West urgently needs a creative strategy to engage Putin. It also needs a penal framework via which violations of international law may be decisively and consistently addressed. To this end, the EU enjoys a position of greater moral clout than does Washington, whose own policies have often fallen beyond the ballpark of international law (1, 2, 3). That said, equating Putin’s appropriation of Crimea with the 2003 invasion of Iraq is inaccurate and intellectually dishonest.
Insisting on adherence to international treaties and the rule of law – and abiding by both ourselves – is the only means through which we can avoid the quagmire of subjective historical interpretation and conflicting normative ideals that plagues relations with Russia. Passing value judgments alienates their intended targets, distorts objective facts, and blurs expectations and standards of conduct. It consequently destroys any possibility of substantive dialogue or cooperation. After all, Putin has used the very same analogy against the West as we have against him.