Putin and Hitler: Why the Reluctance to Tell It Like It Is?

March 10, 2014

Winston Churchill once advised, “Study history, study history. In history, lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

Churchill's recommendation may be good advice for us in light of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent controversial remarks on the escalating crisis in Ukraine.

At a private fundraiser, Clinton said, “now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s. All … the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying ‘they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people,' and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous.”

Her comments swiftly came under fire from the political left.

A day later at UCLA, Clinton tried to walk back part of those comments, saying she was “not making a comparison, certainly,” only offering a little historical perspective.

Why the reluctance to tell it like it is? Russian President Vladimir Putin's justification for his naked aggression is in fact disturbingly similar to Hitler's rhetoric to defend the Volksdeutsche, a term for ethnic Germans who lived outside the Reich.

Of course all the talk about merely protecting ethnic Germans was nothing but a pretext. And so is Putin's. There are ethnic Russians throughout the former Soviet republics, from Belarus to Tajikistan

What will the West’s response be if Putin moves against other regions of Ukraine? President Obama says Putin is “on the wrong side of history.” So was Hitler. But a lot of carnage occurred before he was stopped.

Will the European Union's need for heating oil and market stability cause them to accept a new Soviet-style expansionism?

Putin has paid lip service to international critics by justifying his actions in Ukraine as a response to lawlessness, claiming Russia’s military assets are under threat and there is evidence of a “humanitarian crisis.”

But we should not kid ourselves about Russia's bold intentions. Putin's aims on the Crimean Peninsula are remarkably reminiscent of his military intervention in Georgia in 2008.

And it certainly provides the kind of brazen confrontation with the United States and Europe that Putin has provoked time and again.

His grip on the Russian presidency is central to his designs to restore Russian dominance. After all, Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century.

Former Soviet republics like Ukraine or its pro-Russian regions would be a strategic annex.

Clinton is familiar with the challenges to U.S.-Russia cooperation. She was one of the architects of the Obama Administration’s failed “reset” exactly five years ago.

During her tenure as secretary, Senators of both political parties consistently urged the Obama administration to abandon its tentative stance toward Russia's egregious human rights abuses and potential violation of missile defense commitments.

Maybe Clinton’s new vantage point or future political ambitions allow for a different view of Russia’s continued repudiation of good-faith efforts in diplomacy.

But it does not absolve her role in supporting an Obama foreign policy that is unrealistic and naïve. When the United States fails to insist on accountability from those who defy international standards, strongmen like Putin notice and act accordingly.

One need not look further than his ties with the brutal regime of Syria's Bashar Assad.

This international crisis calls for able diplomacy, but it is not advisable to start taking options off the table. The United States and NATO are admittedly war-weary, as were the Allies in the wake of World War I.

Some are hoping the former KGB official will be content with annexations in Crimea and the Caucasus. That was Neville Chamberlain’s expectation after the Munich Agreement. The hope was that Hitler would cease his campaign after adding Czechoslovakia to his collection.

Clinton’s friends on the left may be squeamish about drawing stark parallels between Hitler’s rhetoric and that of Putin, but a bit of reality may be called for as we hope and pray for an acceptable diplomatic solution.

This op-ed was published in the Washington Examiner on March 10, 2014.