Putin’s War and the Hitler Thing

As a historian there’s nothing I dislike more than history’s misuse in bad analogies with current events. The subspecies that most needs to go away is the Forever Munich crowd — mostly neocons with quite a few neolibs; it’s always neo-something — for whom October 1938 is frozen in time eternally and the West is falling into “appeasement” to some nasty dictator somewhere. The more that said dictator can be portrayed as vaguely Hitlerian the better, but facts don’t always matter with the Forever Munich brigade. Their perennial point is that the West must “get tough” or something very bad will happen to someone, somewhere.

My loathing of the bad Hitler analogy notwithstanding, you have to be pretty ignorant of the history of Europe in the 1930s not to be more than a little creeped out by the similarities between what Adolf Hitler sought in Central Europe then and what Vladimir Putin is seeking in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, now. In both cases, you’ve got a kinda-elected dictator who has successfully stoked powerful ethno-nationalism to remain popular, while bringing the economy back from the dead after a huge national defeat, and focusing attention on the fate of your co-nationals who have been cruelly left outside your borders by the last war. To fix that, you employ diplomacy, espionage, military power, threats, intimidation, and by far your best weapon is the unwillingness of your (actually far more powerful) adversaries to confront you in any sort of serious way. They fear conflict; you do not.

Hitler thereby managed to pull multiple diplomatic-cum-military rabbits from the hat in the latter half of the 1930s, remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936, occupying both Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 without bloodshed, then taking over the rest of the Czech lands in March 1939, meeting no resistance, after having promised London and Paris that was exactly what he would not do. Only following that humiliation did Britain and France begin to take the German threat altogether seriously, and when Hitler finally pushed too far and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, at last encountering a victim who fought back, London and Paris had no choice but to declare war on Germany. Not that they lifted a finger to save their ally Poland, mind you.

In a not dissimilar vein, ever since his fiery speech in Munich in October 2007, where Putin informed the world how much he lamented the death of the Soviet Union while harshly accusing the United States of undermining global stability, plenty of Westerners have averted eyes from what the Kremlin has actually been doing. Georgia was invaded in August 2008, in a punishment expedition that allowed Moscow to demonstrate its continuing power, and the West did, well … nothing really. Estonia was subjected to a serious cyber-attack that caused real pain and, yet again, this allowed the Kremlin to show it’s still there and will not be ignored. Again, the West didn’t do very much. The Obama administration tried its vaunted “reset,” an exercise in wishful thinking masquerading as strategy which history will judge harshly as the wrong policy at the wrong time, implemented by the wrong people.

That said, many Europeans were even more in the thrall of wishful thinking about the Kremlin than Washington DC, and the West did not really begin to pay attention to Moscow’s not-very-concealed agenda in the former Soviet space until this year, with naked Russian aggression in the seizure of Crimea. I, among others, then issued clear warnings about what Putin really wanted and what needed to be done, without delay, to deter further Kremlin adventurism. Instead, the West — broadly meaning NATO and the European Union and its friends — has implemented waves of sanctions which, while they may prove damaging to Russia, have done nothing to actually prevent more of what I call the Kremlin’s Special War against Ukraine.

Now that war is becoming hotter by the day. Russian proxies are nearing defeat in eastern Ukraine, which would constitute a serious political blow to the Kremlin, so Putin must decide very soon if he wants to intervene across the border, perhaps under a “humanitarian” cloak, or allow his “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk to go down to defeat. After stoking nationalist fires at home about Russians facing “genocide” at the hands of “Nazis” in Kyiv, it’s difficult to see how the Kremlin can simply wash its hands of eastern Ukraine and walk away. A loss to Ukraine would constitute a huge psychic blow to this Kremlin. The trajectory of this war will be clear soon.

Regardless, since this piece is about historical analogy, what I want to highlight is Western reactions to aggression in the 1930s and today. There are remarkable similarities in “enlightened” reactions to both Hitler and Putin in the Western media, among the great and the good. Educated, broadly liberal opinion, the sort of people who craft widely read op-eds and advise our top politicos, viewed both dictators similarly: as distasteful but basically rational men who could not possibly actually want war; as with all decent people, anything would be done to avoid a real conflict, and they don’t really mean all that embarrassing reactionary nationalist talk, it’s all a pose. Unfortunately, the West’s “best and brightest” were wrong then — are they wrong now?

Back in the late 1930s, elite Western opinion-makers, the Tom Friedmans of the day if you like, countered worries about Hitler, and his increasingly obvious aggression, with three essential points; you will recognize them being employed more recently as well, with only a few names changed.

1. Germany has legitimate interests in the fate of Germans outside its borders; we must not be unfair, Germany was badly treated after defeat in the last war.

2. Hitler is a risk-taker, he likes playing va banque, but he does not seriously intend to start a real war, not least because his military is not yet ready.

3. The German economy, still not fully recovered from years of devastation, is wholly unprepared for major war, which would bring significant hardship for the German people and undermine the country.

Let it be said that there was a good deal of truth to all three points in the late 1930s. The Tom Friedmans of the day were far from altogether wrong. In the first place, it was difficult to defend how badly the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination had been applied to the Germans of Central Europe. The victorious Allies prevented Austria and the Sudetenland, nearly 100 percent ethnically German, from joining Germany in 1919, even though that was the preferred option of every major political party, from far-left to far-right, in both those places. Instead, the Allies created the vaguely farcical Czechoslovakia, which actually had more Germans than Slovaks, and Prague excelled at progressive talk for Western consumption while refusing to extend to Germans the minority rights they were promised. In short, Hitler did not invent the issue of restless German minorities — the Allies did that — he simply exploited it, to the hilt, employing it as cover for aggression.

Second, Hitler was indeed a risk-taker who grew more confident with each bloodless victory. His growing contempt for British and French risk-avoidance only fueled the Führer’desire for more conquest. Many top Wehrmacht generals blanched at the thought of taking on Czechoslovakia in fall 1938, which had strong border defenses and (it seemed) solid French backing. But Hitler’s devil-may-care gamble paid off, as they all would until the disastrous invasion of Russia in June 1941, the one dice-roll too many that ultimately doomed the Third Reich. Furthermore, by any rational analysis, the German military really was unready for a major war in late 1939. Hitler’s ambitious rearmament program was in mid-stride when Poland was invaded and the Wehrmacht entered the Second World War as a far less modern force than Blitzkrieg-happy propaganda, both German and Allied, portrayed it. Deficiencies in armor, aircraft, and above all motor transport were manageable in 1939-40 but would prove fatal once the Soviet Union was invaded. Any reality-based analyst would have informed Hitler in September 1939 that starting a European war was deeply unwise until Germany had completed its rearmament, which was still a couple years off, at least. Hitler indeed received similar counsel from Wehrmacht technocrats: he ignored it, and until his frozen panzers stalled in the snows around Moscow in late 1941, he seemed to have been right.

Third, Germany’s economy, despite its impressive rebound under Hitler, particularly in the realm of employment, was fragile in 1939, and the autarchy that the Second World War brought to completion did huge damage to Germany’s war economy. Yet, as Adam Tooze demonstrated in his fine book The Wages of Destruction, although Western commentators were right that a European war would seriously damage Germany’s economy and living standards, thus undermining the very prosperity that Hitler took power to achieve, it all looked different in Berlin. Hitler actually saw war as the lone way out of Germany’s dire economic predicament in 1939: only by invading neighbors and achieving Lebensraum could the Third Reich avoid the stark economic limitations it faced. While this argument was ultimately madcap, it possessed fierce internal logic, particularly for those who accepted the National Socialist racialist worldview. Economic “facts” of the sort so often triumphed by Western experts, then and now, as if they were immutable laws, carried no weight with Hitler, who created his own logic, at least for a time.

What does all this mean today? The three points that Western opinion-makers cited in the late 1930s to explain, if not excuse, Hitler’s aggression have direct counterparts now. Many are the Western journalists (by no means all Useful Idiots to use the proper Soviet phrase) who have noted that the breakup of the Soviet Union stranded millions of Russians outside the Russian Federation. The unhappiness of certain Russians in Ukraine has been much commented on, by no means inaccurately. Whether this justifies war, special or other, against Ukraine is another question altogether. No less, despite impressive reforms since 2008, the Russian military is far from ready for any major war; as I’ve noted, even pacifying Ukraine may be beyond its capabilities, barring a mass mobilization that would hardly be popular with much of the Russian public. Last, Russia’s Putin-era prosperity, though real, is fragile and based on a few sectors of the economy — resource extraction and armaments, mostly — that would be upended by a major war. It is difficult to argue that any extended conflict would benefit Russia, much less average Russians, in any material way.

But it may look very different in the Kremlin right now. To date, Moscow shows no signs of moderating its stance towards Ukraine, indeed the contrary. Putin still has time to de-escalate the crisis he has created, he is the sole person who can do that, and all reasonable people will hope he does. Yet we do not know how Vladimir Putin thinks about this. It’s apparent that he has become increasingly isolated in his decision-making, and may be surrounded by sycophants and yes-men who will not risk careers to say the necessary about foolhardy plans in the Kremlin. History eventually will tell us.

One big difference between now and 1939, of course, is the existence of nuclear weapons, which Russia possesses in abundance. Given this reality, flirting with major war is a far risker and more terrifying proposition than anything on the table seventy-five years ago. Indeed, nuclear weapons make the notion of major war nearly unthinkable to many Westerners, which perhaps explains why they refuse to think about it. Yet here, as in so many areas, Russian views are different, even radically so, from Western perceptions, as my colleague Tom Nichols has explained lucidly. Given their conventional weaknesses compared to NATO, Russian strategists are far more comfortable contemplating nuclear release than most Westerners are, while Russian violations of the landmark 1987 INF Treaty cannot but cause discomfort among those who desire peace.

The notion that Putin may actually seek a major war, an all-out confrontation with a West he considers decadent and dying, is terrifying but cannot be excluded out of hand. We know that the Kremlin wants to fracture NATO, humiliate the EU, and thereby restore Russian greatness. Given some of his statements, a certain messianic religious aspect to Putin’s motivations, which will not aid strategic analysis, cannot be ruled out either. Seeking a direct confrontation with the West would be the most obvious way for Moscow to achieve its rather clear strategic aims.

If Moscow invades Ukraine yet confines its aggression to the country’s Southeast, where its ailing proxies are, the war may be contained and wrapped up rather quickly by the Kremlin. However, if Putin pushes his forces beyond that and attempts to create “Novorossiya” by force across southern Ukraine, a full-scale war will result that will take years, not months, to resolve; casualties will mount and passions will rise among militaries and civilians alike. Containing an all-out war for Ukraine might prove impossible. In that scenario, Putin may get a European war whether he actively is seeking one or not.

What will happen in Ukraine will become clear soon. In the meantime, it is wise to choose proper historical analogies that add to understanding of complex problems, rather than confusing issues further. Above all, it is imperative that educated Westerners, particularly the postmodern denizens of the WEIRD contingent, understand that things they cannot contemplate because they find them unpalatable or even ridiculous may seem quite plausible to others. What you find utterly unthinkable may prove quite thinkable, even reasonable, to your enemies.



60 comments on “Putin’s War and the Hitler Thing”
  1. ektrit kris manushi says:

    John, this is nothing that Ben Rhodes and Valerie Jarrett can’t solve, based on their extensive field experience spanning centuries.

  2. Luigi says:

    Isn’t it the case that at the ‘end’ of the Cold War, America never stopped fighting; rubbing a beaten and bankrupt powers noses in defeat, bringing former Soviet republics in to NATO, and generally threatening and humiliating Russia for little other reason than America could?
    Wouldn’t this result, sooner or later, in a backlash led by some Russian – if not Putin then someone else – against this, to the cheers of the Russian population?
    Assuming the West had something to do with the street mobs which deposed the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, was there ever any chance this revolution would be accepted by Russia?

    1. 20committee says:


    2. WJM says:

      Putin would say: ‘Being paranoid^2 doesn’t mean they aren’t after you^10.’

      Or: do you really think any previous leniency of the West, in approaching Russia, would have prevented them/him from becoming an increasingly fascist dictator?
      (he only really started becoming one after nearly loosing his election in 2011, btw)

    3. Dr. Malcolm Davis says:

      Far from it – the West simply ignored Russia. Over the last twenty-five years, the West has made two very incorrect assumptions which guided their policy towards Russia. Firstly, they assumed Russia was ‘beaten’ with the end of the Cold War, and would never be able to emerge as a threat again; and secondly, they assumed that because Russia flirted with democracy under Yeltsin, and engaged with NATO diplomatically at a limited level, that it was now a loyal ‘strategic partner’ to NATO which would not seek to challenge Western, and specifically, US global leadership or strategic interests, but would instead observe an international rules-based order, and be a responsible member of a democratic society of states. The West was wrong on both counts. Not only was Russia not beaten, but as history shows with Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, ‘beaten states’ have a tendency to rise again. It would never do so in chaotic days of Yeltsin, but with a return to an authoritarian leadership, it was only a matter of time. Secondly, Russia under Putin has utter contempt for the Western approaches to International Relations, such as a ‘rules-based international system’ and a ‘democratic society of states’. It exploits such approaches for its own needs, but was never going to accept such a system for itself, and was always going to seek to shape its own destiny. Putin was not kidding when he said the disillusion of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century.

      So history rhymes. I think John’s original post has made some pretty chilling parallels between Putin and Hitler, and more specifically, between the events of the 1920s-30s, and the events now. People constantly compare the current international situation to the lead up to 1914, with a ‘Thucydides Trap’ emerging between China and the US in Asia. That may be correct – but I’d also argue that parallel and simultaneously to what’s going on in Asia, there are unhealthy parallels with the 1930s in Europe, and so for NATO, its more like 1936 or 1938, than 1914.

      The point is, on both occasions – in the 1930s with Hitler, and now with Putin – I think that whilst events were driven by the aggressor, events could have been different had the international community responded more decisively and rapidly. If Britain and France had invaded Germany in 1936, Hitler would have been rapidly defeated. Now, as nuclear weapons are a factor, its much more difficult to use military force decisively but NATO can still deter Russia. Its not really doing that yet, and relying on ineffectual sanctions and somewhat limp political warnings. That will not stop Putin. What is needed is a strong military deterrent that is highly visible and clearly communicated to Russia, and backed by a strong, unified resolve not to back down if Russia tests western resolve. The problem is that I don’t know if the US or Europe right now, are ready for that, because their mindset is still about preserving a post-Cold War international order that is well and truly dead.

    4. dd says:

      “Bringing into NATO” what were they supposed to do, turn down the requests of democratic governments? This fantasy that somehow Russia deserves a sphere of influence and a veto over the lives of 100 million Eastern and Central Europeans is based on what exactly, a 19th century perspective?
      To Putin the insults arent the fact that Slovaks are richer than Russians, the insult is that people keep trying to get him to leave his very lucrative spot. And by trying to leave I mean, promoting concepts like rule of law and free press that are fundamentally at odds with Putinist world view.

      1. Ed says:

        Let’s indulge in a bit of counterfactual thinking to see the situation from another angle. It’s 1970 or so. There is a people’s revolution in Mexico and a communist Mexican government comes to power. It wants to join the Warsaw Pact. Russia agrees and gets ready to position intermediate ballistic missiles in Mexico. What does the US do? Invade Mexico? Gasp! Don’t the people of Mexico have a right to chose Russia? Or how about going back to the 1990s and seeing the Chiapas revolt grow, overthrow the Chiapas state government, with help of Russian little green men, and ask for fraternal aid from Russia? Does America just let it happen because the people of Mexico made their choice? And what about Hawaii deciding to restore monarchy and become independent, with China’s help and brotherly advice and then decides, once more with China’s kind help, to host the PLAN warships? Do we sit that one out too, because the Hawaiian people made their sovereign choice to join the camp of our enemy? Since when? How about we get real?
        If Ukraine has a right to be democratic and part of NATO, so does Hawaii have a right to restore its king and become a sovereign power and join China. Of course, we would not agree with that. But if we have geopolitical interests, why can’t Russia? Ultimately we would say that there is no moral equivalence because our way is so obviously better than Russian oppression but that’s a normative rather than positive issue. The realist perspective teaches that states have power interests and will balance any perceived attempts at expansion or fight incursions into their spheres of geopolitical influence.

      2. Alexandre Charron-Trudel says:

        “This fantasy that somehow Russia deserves a sphere of influence and a veto over the lives of 100 million Eastern and Central Europeans is based on what exactly, a 19th century perspective?”

        This. I couldn’t have put it any better myself.

      3. listeningpost says:

        Ed’s point is worthwhile. For accuracy’s sake, The Kingdom of Hawai‘i was a democratic republic at the time of the 1893 US-backed coup and subsequent (illegal) annexation.
        The Cuban missile crises is also being raised as a salient comparison.

      4. EJ says:

        “If Ukraine has a right to be democratic and part of NATO, so does Hawaii have a right to restore its king and become a sovereign power and join China”

        It’s encouraging to know that you see no difference between a desire to join a wealthy and democratic block and a desire to establish an autocratic rule or join a dictatorship.

        Have you asked yourself the reason why Mexico did not actually ever want to invite the Soviets in? Or do you only specialize in counterfactual history?

      5. WJM says:

        “Have you asked yourself the reason why Mexico did not actually ever want to invite the Soviets in? Or do you only specialize in counterfactual history?”


        Btw, similar utterly wrong & distorted analogy being China & Tibet….

  3. Dr. Malcolm Davis says:

    “One big difference between now and 1939, of course, is the existence of nuclear weapons, which Russia possesses in abundance. Given this reality, flirting with major war is a far risker and more terrifying proposition than anything on the table seventy-five years ago. Indeed, nuclear weapons make the notion of major war nearly unthinkable to many Westerners, which perhaps explains why they refuse to think about it. Yet here, as in so many areas, Russian views are different, even radically so, from Western perceptions, as my colleague Tom Nichols has explained lucidly. Given their conventional weaknesses compared to NATO, Russian strategists are far more comfortable contemplating nuclear release than most Westerners are, while Russian violations of the landmark 1987 INF Treaty cannot but cause discomfort among those who desire peace.”

    Just had to quote that excellent paragraph to give my comment some context. I agree – the Russians do think very differently to the West on the role and utility of nuclear weapons. That gives them a degree of advantage – they can issue nuclear threats, whereas it seems highly unlikely that NATO would do the same. But there is also an added dimension. Russia can use the spectre of nuclear war as a shield behind which it can launch conventional aggression, with the threat of nuclear war imposing strategic paralysis on NATO. They don’t have to actually use the weapons operationally – they can just flourish some Tochkas and Iskanders near the Baltic states, and conduct exercises in which they simulate nuclear strikes on Warsaw. It seems quite possible that NATO would take Russian nuclear threats seriously – and back down very quickly, especially given that Ukraine is not a NATO member. I’d also suggest that absent strong US leadership, and with a divided Europe that is in part becoming a supplicant to Russian energy and financial support, that even in the event of a follow-on operation against a NATO state – say Estonia – that the West would blink first in the face of a nuclear threat. At that point, Putin has achieved one of his goals – the collapse of the NATO alliance.

    So the nuclear dimension has relevance even in a conflict outside of NATO as far as Moscow is concerned. Russia can use nuclear weapons operationally in terms of war fighting, but they can also use the threat of nuclear weapons to coerce their opponent and reduce the risk of NATO military intervention. That’s why I think Russia’s violation of the 1987 INF Treaty is very ominous. They can choose to withdraw, and very quickly redeploy intermediate nuclear forces against NATO – if they have not done so already. The focus is on Iskander-K (R-500) Ground-launched Cruise Missiles, but their RS-26 ballistic missile has also been tested at Intermediate Range as well (its been characterised as an ICBM for arms control purposes, but such a move is a dangerous obfuscation of the truth). That’s the new ‘SS-20’. How confident will NATO be to stand up to Russian aggression if its cities are targeted by nuclear-armed RS-26s? Absent our own INF, our only option is resort to strategic nuclear forces against Russian targets. Putin may be gambling that we’d not be prepared to risk nuclear armageddon over Ukraine, or for that matter, even the Baltic States or Poland.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for your detailed feedback. I fully concur that Moscow moves of late WRT the INF Treaty are indeed ominous.

      1. 4MK says:

        I disagree with some points in the above,Russia has no early warning system and only one missile tracking ship,The we will use our nuclear weapons is a weak and very risky threat,possibly putting Russia under a first sand second preemptive strike that Russia has no warning of and no defense against,is designed to put the fear into the general public as above,However its seen as a bluff in the uk and usa and a pathetic one at that,it is Russia who is risking total destruction and not the west,as for the treaties breaches well the INF only scrapes the surface,However ominous they are thats all they are a\re threats,it is Russia who is the vulnerable party not the west and yes the cowards and appeasers will try all they can to spread panic and fear,Its not working,and no ones scared we all even look forward to a day when Russia does not exist

    2. Alexandre Charron-Trudel says:

      “Russia can use the spectre of nuclear war as a shield behind which it can launch conventional aggression, with the threat of nuclear war imposing strategic paralysis on NATO.”

      Aren’t they already doing this now to some extent, Malcolm?

      “the collapse of the NATO alliance…”

      which would in turn call the U.S’ pacific alliances into question, leaving the road open for PRC revanchism there as well.

      1. Dr. Malcolm Davis says:

        I think I’d agree with both of your points. The reason NATO did not rush to Ukraine’s defence when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea was because NATO was not prepared to risk a war with Russia that could quickly go nuclear. That sent a strong signal to Moscow that it can use the implicit (or explicit) threat of nuclear retaliation for NATO conventional forces to prevent the Alliance from acting in the future.

        I also think that a collapse of NATO would have to undermine confidence in US resolve in Asia vis a vis China. If the US cannot lead NATO in its most important task – collective defence under Article V – its credibility as a superpower would definitely be called into question. Japan would doubt US commitment under the Mutual-Security Treaty, and RoK would probably look nervously north to the DMZ, waiting for DPRK Army units to flood through the Uijongbu corridor. Both states would very quickly have to get their own nuclear deterrent capabilities.

        I think such a development would embolden China to grab what they can before states ‘bandwagoned’ against them, and before Japan could get nuclear weapons. A short, sharp war in the East China Sea and South China Sea could follow.

        From my perspective here in Australia, we’d utterly lose confidence in ANZUS and US Extended Nuclear Deterrence security guarantees that have been a cornerstone of our defence strategy since the 1970s. Our defence spending is way too low right now – 1.56% GDP, and there is debate over whether it should rise to 2%GDP. I think without the US, we’d need to look at much more substantial defence spending – 3-5%, and bandwagon with our key partners in Southeast Asia (most notably Indonesia), and Northeast Asia (Japan), as well as South Asia (India). But building up the ADF to replace lost US support would take time – time that maybe Asia might not have if China decides to exploit what would have to be a very serious power vacuum.

  4. peteybee says:

    I think your arguments that the current situation is a parallel to pre-WWII time are worth hearing.

    But Hitler’s name is associated with much more than just military aggression — namely the evils of the National Socialists (Nazis).

    That association is unavoidable, and it makes the comparison we’re talking about dishonest. If you’re going to accuse someone of ambitions for military conquest of Europe, Napoleon might be a cleaner way to do it — but of course it wouldn’t have the same shock value.

    Incidentally, the co-founder of Ukraine’s Social-National party, later renamed to the Svoboda (Freedom) party resigned today from his post as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.


  5. 4MK says:

    superb piece,exactly right,I fully agree were in uncharted waters here,A more forceful approach needs to be taken

  6. micky wanderer says:

    If Putin wanted to break NATO what about invading and then annexing the Baltics? He could then ask “What are you going to do about it?”

    1. 20committee says:

      Let’s hope he doesn’t.

  7. xtmar says:

    A few things:

    1. Re Czechoslovakia’s strong military versus the Germans, I thought this was an interesting piece, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy.


    2. How effective was Germany at the darker side of special war? While I’m not as well read on this as you or some of the others, my impression was that the German intelligence forces, especially the Abwehr, were to some extent hamstrung by their own internal rules, as well as political problems within the Nazi administration; and the Germans made up for this by gambling largely on the international level, without the prior ground work that Russia is currently laying down. Obviously, the SS was quite effective in some respects, but it seems like they trailed the Russians, and to some extent the western Allies at that time, in intelligence, counter-intelligence, and so on.

    3. Re this:
    ” a full-scale war will result that will take years, not months, to resolve; casualties will mount and passions will rise among militaries and civilians alike.”

    What if the west doesn’t react directly militarily? While I think it would be very unfortunate for the Ukraine, I think the likeliest reaction to such an action by Russia would be a crash re-armament program, and a flooding of available units to the western borders of the Ukraine, though studiously avoiding actually getting involved in the Ukrainian war itself.

    1. 20committee says:

      Read David Kahn’s Hitler’s Spies, good foundational work on German intel in WWII. Soviets beat the Germans in Special War handily.

      1. Maxwell Smart says:

        Only because the German mechanized divisions were not able to stand their ground through a Russian winter. I believe that was termed,”frozen in place”.

  8. Want2No says:

    “Yet we do not know how Vladimir Putin thinks about this…”

    Might many in the west have a hard time believing that, rightly or wrongly, Putin may see maintenance of Russian influence/control, at least in the Eastern Ukraine, as an existential issue for both Russia and for himself? And, if so, might it override his concern about any economic costs to Russia?

    From a historical standpoint, even if Hitler recognized Germany’s economic limitations, might he have felt that they could be more than compensated for by the systematic “removal” to Germany of much of the food, consumer and industrial production of the occupied nations and, until June of 1941, the massive and steady delivery of raw materials from the Soviet Union? A cynical calculation for sure, but wouldn’t it have fitted in with what we know of the Nazi world view?

    1. 20committee says:

      Plenty of evidence that Putin, and many Russians, view Ukraine as an existential issue for their country.

  9. rkka says:

    “Back in the late 1930s, elite Western opinion-makers, the Tom Friedmans of the day if you like, countered worries about Hitler, and his increasingly obvious aggression, with three essential points; you will recognize them being employed more recently as well, with only a few names changed.”

    You forgot the biggest one:

    4. Hitler is Europe’s bulwark against Bolshevism.

    That’s how none other than British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax greeted Hitler when he arrived in Germany for his visit in November 1937.

    And Munich wasn’t about ‘Peace in our time’

    “… Chamberlain now asked whether, if Soviet-Czech relations ‘were modified, so that Czechslovakia were no longer bound to go to the assistance of Russia if Russia were attacked, and on the other hand Czechoslovakia were debarred from giving asylum to Russian forces in her aerodromes or elsewhere; would that remove your difficulty?” – Telford Taylor “Munich-The Price of Peace” 1979, pg 741.

    This was a practical expression of Chamberlain’s policy of “Germany and England as two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism”.

    And before you start calling Telford Taylor a Soviet propagandist, recall that he was a US Army Brigadier General, JAG, and part of the US prosecution team at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials.

    1. 20committee says:

      Molotov & Ribbentrop….look it up.

    2. Will Ban says:

      That’s right. The UK thought Nazi Germany was a bulwark against the Soviet Bolshies. Today many, such as several who post on sites like The National Interest, continue to cling to the outdated and geostrategically vapid myth that somehow the West “needs” to find a way to again befriend Russia in order to use them as a bulwark against the Chicoms.

      Absurd in the extreme, both of these views.

  10. WJM says:

    “But Hitler’s devil-may-care gamble”

    As a Dutch reporter fluent in things Russia recently stated, this is all about Russki Avos:


    Pay also note to the very last alinea….
    (source being RT, reality is actually more like the opposite)

    RT.com / RT projects / Russiapedia / Of Russian origin / Avos
    Of Russian origin: Avos
    Vladimir Kremlev for RT Vladimir Kremlev for RT

    In Avos’ We Trust

    Russian Avos’ is one of the most crucial elements of the Russian mentality and national character; it is the habit of relying totally on chance, on good luck, on good fate in the hopes that everything will turn out well, even if there is no reason for that to happen. It is to hope that negative consequences will somehow be avoided and things will sort themselves out.

    In the Avos’ philosophy life as something unpredictable and predestined – and a person is unable to change anything no matter what he does.

    This concept is close to the idea of predetermination, or destiny – something also believed to be intrinsic to the Russian character.

    How to use

    As a particle, “Avos'” is close in meaning to “hopefully” or “let’s hope to God.” When used as a noun, “Avos’” means “hit or miss,” “hope against hope” or “something done under risk and in hopes of a good result.”

    But usually, the word Avos’ is used as a part of an expression, such as “set all hopes upon Avos’,” “let’s hope we’ll be able to escape that” (while talking about something negative) or “let’s hope we’ll be lucky” (while talking about something positive).

    Divine origin

    As a particle Avos’ resembles a masculine name, in ancient Russia people started writing it with a capital A and seeing Avos’ as a pagan deity symbolizing a lucky chance – something which boosted its popularity.

    Pro and contra

    But while there are many who claim “Avos’ is all our hope,” skeptics warn “Avos’ will not lead to anything good” or “Avos’ – is a fool, he will give you away.”


    In “Cancer Ward,” a novel by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhentszin, a 16-year old patient, Dyoma, refuses an operation saying, “Hope it’ll be resolved on its own” with Avos’ in the original text. His more realistic friend opposes him claiming, “It’s stupid to think that you can build a bridge on Avos’.”

    Today’s status

    In today’s Russia the word Avos’ is not as popular as it used to be; people use it rarely and usually – with a nuance of a self-irony. Some say this is a sign that Russian society is becoming more realistic and more self-confident.

    Written by Maria Finoshina, RT correspondent

  11. WJM says:

    “In a not dissimilar vein, ever since his fiery speech in Munich in October 2007, where Putin informed the world how much he lamented the death of the Soviet Union while harshly accusing the United States of undermining global stability, plenty of Westerners have averted eyes from what the Kremlin has actually been doing.”

    Fast speed backwards, 1994:

    Putin’s Deadly Doctrine
    ‘Protecting’ Russians in Ukraine Has Fatal Consequences


    JULY 18, 2014

    OXFORD, England — SOMETIMES, just sometimes, you should pay attention to annoying things said by tiresome people at worthy conferences.

    In 1994, I was half asleep at a round table in St. Petersburg, Russia, when a short, thickset man with a rather ratlike face — apparently a sidekick of the city’s mayor — suddenly piped up. Russia, he said, had voluntarily given up “huge territories” to the former republics of the Soviet Union, including areas “which historically have always belonged to Russia.” He was thinking “not only about Crimea and northern Kazakhstan, but also for example about the Kaliningrad area.” Russia could not simply abandon to their fate those “25 million Russians” who now lived abroad. The world had to respect the interests of the Russian state “and of the Russian people as a great nation.”

    The name of this irritating little man was — you guessed it — Vladimir V. Putin, and I know exactly what he said back in 1994 because the organizers, the Körber Foundation of Hamburg, Germany, published a full transcript.

    And the latter link (free PDF), for those capable of German:


    Btw, anytime I need to post a link to that article, I simply search on ‘putin’ & ‘rat-like face’.

    #1 hit on Google, I kid you not.

    Btw2, that ‘Kaliningrad’ argument in his 1994 speech is really puzzling….surely, the man can’t be that dumb, historically, can he?
    (Kaliningrad is also currently interesting in the context of sanctions….*their* alternatives for blocked food products from both Poland and Lithuania will cost significantly more, logistically, than in mainland Russia itself)
    (I actually have been in Kaliningrad, once, in an oldtimer-rally convoy, and they had the worst roads of the entire 15k km trip, all the way between Hamburg and Shanghai (okay, missing manhole covers on streets, even at the corners of decent hotels in Omsk, is worse, and unmarked/non-fenced-off fresh hot tarmac on Siberian roads is even more nasty because you can only feel it (or see the truck in front of you swaggering like a ship on high sea, but still….that same manhole cover in Kaliningrad stuck out 10cm above the tarmac (still not sure if the road collapsed, or whether it was intended that way, planning more tarmac than was actually laid (typical Russian corruption))
    (was also the most impressive border crossing of all, with a surprising unnatural amount of high-ranking and especially high-class and high-heel female border guards, all flocking to the rare occassion of such a high-profile western convoy (45 vehicles))
    (and of course blatantly snapping pictures that no one is supposed to make at any non-western border crossing, even less a Russian one….8-))

    1. Maxwell Smart says:

      Look into RAS-PUTIN. Now that guy was a rat.

  12. WJM says:

    Btw, fascism in current Russia, a rather puzzling event, 2 days ago:


  13. AIM9 says:

    Some couple of (minorish detail) quibbles but in the main I suppose we agree far more than disagree. B+.

    Of course I’ll accept graciously your C- for me using such a construction as “minorish.”

  14. starsaredestinationnotdestiny says:

    Taking into account the Western sanctions for Russia and the Russian ‘countermeasures’ which work as sanctions as well, it is more and more clear that this state is going to a war. Inflation is predicted to go 8%-10% and GDP could be going up to -15% in the next 5 years, that’s a major recession and Russian nation doesn’t have much in their socks for that time. Ideologicaly misleaded and literally hungry people are willing to ‘march to the victory’ whatever that should mean.

    The most promising CI measure that I would point out for the current time is acknowledging Russian nation who stood behind Razan bombings, hunger in St. Petersburg and how FSB/GRU are controlling Russian nation with violence and disinformation. And – if it will be proven to be true – which plane Russians really wanted to destroy, i.e. it is suspected that they thought it was Russian plane what would trigger Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine.

    Also there are true Russian patriots who wish no harm to their nation – they are the hope for reasonable end of this madness.

  15. WJM says:

    As for conventional agression & re-annexation under the threat of nuclear weapons, and not having any (non-nuclear) tools against it:

    How do the NATO-experts here see the role of Turkey, in the context of blocking the Street of Kertz, the only access route for the Russian Black Sea fleet?
    In both military and political context?
    In the view of political/islamistic leadership vs military command, vs the Turkish public?
    (the latter also in the current sanctions situation, and Turkey possibly becoming one of the alternative suppliers for food)

    This tool/threat, of blocking the Street of Kertz, has been mentioned before in the early days of Crimea-annexation, then also in the context of an old alliance between Turkey and the similar islamic Tatars.
    (recent reports about the latter suggest enough worsening that Turkey could even unilaterally join the sanction pact?)

    On the other hand, it’s Turkey that allowed the influx of ISIS into Syria….even Assad saw and probably sees Turkey (and the Gulf-states) as a greater threat and destabilizing force than the USA.
    So as a NATO-hegemony to build on, it definitely has its flaws also….

    Even technically/legally in the formal sense, the ruling book on the Street of Kertz is quite clear what Turkey is entitled to do against any official enemy….which Russia would become, if it ran over any other NATO-state, no matter how small.

    And blocking the Street would make the entire Black Sea fleet completely useless….quite a risk for just invading a Baltic state….

  16. carl says:

    It scares me that so many knowledgable people are scared about what is happening. What scares me more is the West will do little sans American leadership. We will do nothing until at least Jan 2017 and then only depending upon the outcome of the election. The character of our President precludes any effective action anywhere during his term of office. That’s almost 2 1/2 years of passivity in the face aggression. By then God alone knows how bad things will be. That scares me. I don’t know what we are going to do. The only thing I can think of is Congress somehow forcing the President to act, but that may have constitutional implications. I don’t know what we are going to do.

  17. Don Rosenman says:


    Wonderful article, and very clearly stated. Gems like this are why I continue to follow JRL.

    Question – I don’t disagree with your analysis, but I’m curious as to your suggested solution(s). What should the west currently be doing?

    Tks for your further insights

    Don R.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for your kind feedback. I continue to think that deterrence works. If you saw my piece a little while ago on defending NATO’s Eastern frontier — that is still my position.

  18. Alexandre Charron-Trudel says:

    meanwhile, in Russia



    One wonders what Snowden must think given that Russia’s domestic espionage is now more draconian than that of the U.S, which he attempted to expose.

    And from the second article listed:

    “That belief, the Russian commentator says, is based on Putin’s assumption that the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which prevented a major war between Russia and the West has broken down because of divisions within the West about how to respond to Russian use of a limited nuclear strike.

    Piontkovsky does not provide direct evidence for this, but his argument is both suggestive and disturbing because if he has read Putin correctly, the world is in a far more dangerous situation than most have thought and the risks to Russia’s neighbors, the West and Russia itself are far greater.

    According to the commentator, “even the most modest practical realization of [Putin’s] idea of ‘assembling the Russian lands’ requires changes of state borders at least of two NATO member countries, Latvia and Estonia.” Because of the Western alliance’s Article 5 in which an attack on one is an attack on all, that would seem impossible given MAD.”

    My thoughts on this can be summed up in one sentence: “Collision alert.”

    1. WJM says:

      Here 2 more ‘internal’ disturbing new regulations in Russia:
      (both German, sorry)

      (about the new dual-nationality rulings; heavy fines for not obeying/applying, no authority knowing how to handle applications, or even which application to use (recommendation: ‘Use free-form application’)

      (Russian officials are no longer allowed to travel abroad….not just the higher echelons, but down to ordinary street/traffic police….with stories of entire police brigades that had to hand over their passports, ‘until further notice’)
      (odd: especially restricted to countries that have extradition-agreements with the USA, yet the USA itself is *not* restricted, apparently)

      The latter is also much stronger than the policies that both Russia and China have applied to ‘The Naked Official’, to stop corruption.

      Not that Russia itself isn’t a nice tourist destination….if not for those darn gazillions of mosquito’s, and always those drunks….

  19. prapa smutkojon says:

    Across the globe what you see is the US, dragging along a relunctant European sidekick, to exert power, wage wars, round up resources & market to shore up its battered economy. What the US needs is a pragmatic Gorbachev type leader who .knows the end has come, accept it graciously & softland the nation.

  20. TSB says:

    The other big difference between Hitler and Putin is that the latter has nukes.


    Missile defence in Eastern Europe would have defeated Russia’s limited use doctrine. Obama’s decision to cancel it may well go down as the worst foreign policy blunder of the 21st Century.

    1. 20committee says:

      Yeah, I pointed the nuke thing out 🙂

      1. thesurlybeaver says:

        Yeah, I read your post yesterday then forgot about that hit when I posted this morning.

  21. J. Daniel says:

    +1 for the Tom Friedman references. It’s funny because it’s true.

  22. Ed says:

    An important article about the state of Ukrainian Army for those who believe the nonsense that Ukraine can stand up to Russian divisions. https://medium.com/war-is-boring/ukraines-army-slogs-through-the-merciless-donbass-9634b9a371d1

  23. WJM says:

    A more metaphysical approach, deeper & longer-term soul-searching, between Ukrainians and Russians, and the definition of freedom, Putemkin-style:


  24. Alexandre Charron-Trudel says:

    and so it begins:



    The subtitle of both these articles is:

    “Russia sends ‘aid convoy’ to Ukraine”

    from the second article:

    “Claims That Russia Deploying Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missiles On Border
    21:29 (GMT)

    There are a lot of new pictures being spread on social media today which reportedly show more Russian vehicles moving toward the border. The worrying thing is that some of them appear to show advanced anti-aircraft weapons.

    For instance this picture was posted by the journalist Saviik Shuster and appears to show an Osa SA-8 missile system”

    last I checked, advanced anti-aircraft systems weren’t needed when the rebels have no aircraft.

    Welcome to 1938/1939, ladies and gentlemen.

    1. WJM says:

      Btw, what I have missed thusfar in the scenario of invasion under the cover of humanitarian aid, in the context of the Red Cross, is that *abusing* such a cover by transporting weapons, of any kind (other than personal defence?), constitutes a blatant war crime.

      Not that Putemkin would care that much, but still….there are definitely more complex ways to become the ultimate paria of the world.

      Today I also read a intriguing comparison between Hamas & Putin….the first having tried a similar disguised aid transport, by ship….


      (sorry, again German only….;))
      (short: similar voluntary slaughter, casus belli, or at least propaganda war)

  25. lauren g (@lginiger) says:

    If Putin has certain “messianic religious motivations” which defy strategic analysis, then maybe Putin’s best analogy is GWB, and Ukraine is his Iraq. GWB wanted to restore American greatness, he fractured Iraq, and he definitely didn’t care much for Europe. (Does Putin have Daddy issues, then the analogy could really hold.)

    Of course the there may be a healthy Russian appetite for both breaking it and buying it. But as John analyzed, a nuclear arsenal in the hands of an adventurous strongman is a terrifying prospect. GWB’s hawks and neocons often made me feel unsafe, but the Kremlin’s aggression doesn’t conform to democratic, legal, and international structures which nominally contain American risk-taking.

    I love this, btw: “postmodern denizens of WEIRD,” to help think through why Hamas may be playing a long war of Algerian-type “colonial resistance” (2000 casualties not so bad, cause 25,000 lost in one day in Algeria!) and also to imagine how negotiators have to incorporate a purported Arabic norm of “shame and honor” into a truce or cease fire.

    Also, as far as bad historical analogies go, apparently Gaza, in Britain, is now seen as the Guernica of our time. So I guess that means what. Bibi is Franco? Norman Finkelstein is George Orwell. Ali Abuminah is Hemingway, Rhania Khalek is Gellhorn, and Hamas are anti-fascist partisans. Just don’t come and tell me that Abu Mazen is Chamberlain and Khaled Mashaal is Churchill.

    It might be WEIRD at work to arrive at this contorted conclusion, what else but postmodern relativism could position Hamas as the equivalent to those who allied in a global existential struggle against fascism. Someone with more knowledge than me will, I hope, deconstruct Gaza-as-Guernica. I find it so troubling, and historically inapt.

    1. Maxwell Smart says:

      What you might find even more troubling and inept is Hamas sacrificing life and buildings in Gaza merely to test the Israeli missile defence system known as ,Iron Dome.

  26. Dr. Malcolm Davis says:

    And whilst we are on the issue of Russian attitude to the use of nuclear weapons, this item in ‘The Interpreter’ appeared on Putin’s game-plan for defeating NATO in war. http://www.interpretermag.com/putin-believes-he-can-win-a-war-with-nato-piontkovsky-says/ Basically suggests that Putin would use nuclear weapons on a very limited level to divide NATO and fracture its resolve – a ‘de-escalation’ strike (as the Russians call it). I felt that the article was probably reaching a bit where it said at one point that Putin would wipe out a European city and expect not to receive any NATO retaliation – or that Putin would actively consider a strategic nuclear war with the US (i.e. ‘MAD’) and take the rest of the world with Russia. Putin is a rational actor, so he’s not suicidal, and nuking a European city would be suicidal. NATO would have to respond.

    Having said that….. a demonstration strike using a tactical nuclear weapon away from heavily populated areas (difficult to find in Europe) or at sea, could potentially divide NATO. Imagine the scenario of a Russian ‘special warfare’ campaign against Estonia. Russia can make nuclear threats, but if NATO calls its bluff, it could launch a single nuclear weapon against a target that causes minimal loss of life but sends a political message. NATO then has to decide – does it retaliate and risk nuclear war with Russia? I’m not convinced they would.

    1. WJM says:

      One of his earlier articles is also worth reading, although it seems a bit conflicting:
      (meaning that either Putin changed, or the author’s vision)


      Not sure either whether to agree on his point that corruption in Russia defies the regular definition, that between businessman and official (‘in Russia, businessman and official are one and the same’).
      Because (in case that was his point), the same goes for China.
      (from days long gone, I have a strong memory that China was run by ‘the Gang of Four’, being 4 family clans that ran more than half of China’s large enterprises, all 4 four based on political/military leadership….but whatever I search currently, I only get hits on the earlier political gang of four, from the early Mao day’s)

    2. Alexandre Charron-Trudel says:

      I’m very much a political leftist, and I believe in NATO and the U.S alliance system, but even I have to admit that I don’t see NATO challenging Russia following a nuclear demonstration–at least not unless its more western members are openly invaded. After all, who wants to risk several hundred million lives over the fate of “people over ‘there’ ” ?

      The problem is, of course, that such an argument can be used to justify or ignore creeping expansionism in a “better red than dead” argument…

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  29. WJM says:

    Btw, seeing the mentioning of ‘Cossacks’ increasing, in the reports of Ukrainian military, being among the fallen or destroyed terrorists/seperatists (apparently ‘units’, more than just individual men), and having seen a few somewhat disturbing documentaries in the last decade about the rise of the Cossacks in Russia (mostly German docu’s, IIRC), I wonder if they too deserve a distinct place in this Putin/Hitler analysis.
    Seeing them as SS-troops is probably wrong in many more ways than one, but tempting it is….being a somewhat cultural spearhead of ‘proper’ & ‘disciplined’ Russia.

    And what at the same time is clearly left out of the comparison is the creation, rise *and* sickening influence of the Putin-Jugend (‘Navalry’, IIRC), also for nearly a decade by now.

    Putemkin has been cloning himself as Hitler for quite some time now….

    Btw2, to do justice to the other side, currently: the seperatists claim several Latvians among the fallen….as such not surprising, Latvia having both a strong current anti-Russian sentiment as well as an old WWII axe to grind.
    (and I also have see reports of right-wing Swedes leaving all behind and become mercenaries in the ATO)
    (at the same time, modern Russia’s complaints against Latvia honoring their local SS-troops of WWII is a bit skewed….since SS was the only way foreign soldiers could fight for Germany, or, in Latvia’s case, against the Russians)

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