Time To Hitlarize Putin?
It has become as close to an ironclad rule as there is in American politics: Do not make references to Hitler. Do not compare your opponent to Hitler. Do not compare policies to those carried out by Hitler. Do not even mention the name if possible.
But that is a rule for American politics. On the world stage, perhaps President Obama himself should consider some Hitler references in regard to the recent behavior by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He wouldn’t have to be the first – commentators from Charles Krauthammer on the right to Hillary Clinton on the left already have noted similarities in Hitler’s aggression before World War II and Putin’s today.
And making a muscular case that Putin’s moves in Georgia, the Crimea and now Ukraine bear striking similarities to those of Hitler in Central Europe in the late-1930s – the subjugation of small countries, the move to “defend” people in other sovereign countries because they spoke the language of the aggressor, the claims that this one aggressive act will “do it” when more clearly are planned – could turn world opinion against Putin and delay, if not destroy, his plans.
Americans view Hitler as a terrible man, a killer of Jews, Gypsies, millions of his own countrymen and others. But ultimately, we see him as an adversary vanquished. Our men returned as heroes. Our women entered the workforce for the first time. Our cities grew. Our prosperity spread. Our place atop the world leadership structure was assured.
The Russians have a different take on Hitler and World War II. We lost 155,000 men in the fighting; they lost 22 million. Their economy was crushed. Their industrial capacity was shattered. Many of their cities lay in ruin. We were left confident and ascendant; they were left ravaged.
On top of that, we viewed as heroes the leaders who took us to these heights. One of our top generals became president and served for eight years. In Josef Stalin, the Russians had a leader whose failed five-year plans left the economy in tatters and whose brutal suppression of dissent led to the deaths of 29 million of his countrymen, including 7 million Ukranians at Holodomor. To keep his people in line, he had to make sure the Russian public knew little of his atrocities and economic failures but every detail of Hitler’s aggression. To this day, Hitler is Russia’s worst enemy, and the historic reckoning of Stalin’s genocide has barely begun.
We cannot and need not allow Putin to operate as Stalin did. His recent actions suggest he will if unchecked. Nearly 100 journalists are known to have died under mysterious circumstances since he came to power in 2000. He has seized parts of Georgia and now the Crimea, and Ukraine is widely expected to be next. He has called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical calamity of the 20th century.
Like Germans in the 1930s, Russians see Putin as taking them back to their place atop the geopolitical power struggle, of re-asserting the greatness lost by that breakup. He manages big projects, such as the Olympics. He stands down the American president and asserts his country’s will with its neighbors. His popularity has soared to 80 percent since the Crimea takeover.
What is different is Putin never will have the control over information that enabled Stalin. If President Obama compares his actions to those of Hitler’s in Germany, the Russian people will know about it. Many will reject the comparison. Others will resent it bitterly and lash out against it. But still others will see the truth in it and recoil.
Importantly, it will wound the psyche of this new, proud Russia. Oligarchs will worry about sanctions. Normal Russians will worry about jobs and the perception held by others in the world. Leaders elsewhere will take their own views of the comparison.
It won’t be easy, and it won’t come quickly. But a sustained campaign of truth-telling, coupled with real sanctions, topped off with the strength and dignity that only the leader of the one country on Earth founded on the principles of individual rights can command will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to continue on his present path.
The question is: Can President Obama summon the courage and wisdom to pull this off? The answer is far from clear. This president simply has not been willing to speak out for freedom. He would not lend support to the Syrian people as they attempted to overthrow Bashir Assad. He walked away from the Green Revolution in Iran. He offered the Ukranians military MREs – meals ready to eat.
We all understand the need to avoid a shooting war. But there are options between all-out war and allowing Putin to continue to re-assemble the Eastern bloc. It will require bold rhetoric, tough sanctions and yes, invoking the name of Russia’s worst enemy.
We don’t use Hitler in our political rhetoric because we accept that nobody in American politics poses that big a threat to the world order or basic human decency. But Putin does, and it’s time we make sure the world, particularly the people on whose support he relies, understand this and where it may lead. Mr. President, the microphone is yours.
Edward Dent, an investments and management expert, served in both of President Reagan’s White House campaigns and with the group that developed the Strategic Defense Initiative. He is an expert on defense and judicial issues.