Vladimir Putin is not Hitler. Comparisons of anyone to Hitler or Nazis are typically unhelpful. “Hitler” or “Nazi” is an easy and lazy insult. Peter Baker’s new biography of former Secretary of State James Baker recalls that in 1980 Senator Bob Dole, when refused participation in a New Hampshire Republican primary debate, furiously called George H.W. Bush a “f-cking Nazi” as he stormed off the stage. It’s safe to say Bush was not a Nazi.
Even most dictators don’t merit the Nazi or Hitler comparison. The ambitions and reach of most dictators are usually a fraction of the Third Reich’s. Most dictators are content to steal from their nation, imprison critics, privilege their lackeys, and perpetuate their own power. They may kill a few adversaries but don’t engage in mass murder. They may have delusions about their own grandeur at home but not internationally. They tell self-serving lies that few believe, but usually they don’t attempt grand cosmic lies on a Hitlerian scale that actually persuade their own populations.
Yet some dictators do merit some Hitler comparison. In recent memory, Saddam Hussein qualified through personal cruelty and brazen sadism, mass murder of his own countrymen numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and attacks and threats against neighboring countries. His invasion of Kuwait provoked the first major post-Cold War war. Fortunately, Saddam’s geopolitical, military, technological and ideological reach did not match Hitler’s, but the spirit was there. Naturally, Saddam admired Hitler.
Putin for years resembled a conventional autocrat content with personal power and enrichment but lacking Hitler-like geopolitical or ideological goals. He murdered perceived opponents through covert poisonings but did not build gulags, seek genocide, or promote a deranged global agenda in which he himself is the savior. He destroyed nascent Russian democracy but offered in return purportedly a politically and economically stable autocracy.
Unfettered power within Russia across two decades either deranged Putin or more fully revealed his megalomania. He is no longer just a massively corrupt tyrant who can’t relinquish power lest he risk prison or worse. He now claims a messianic global role for himself and his regime against the decadent West that supposedly seeks to destroy him and Russia. The blood-drenched amorality of his statecraft earlier showed itself in Chechnya and Syria. But the scale of his barbarism is now revealed in Ukraine, where tens of thousands have been killed, and thousands have been captured and disappeared into Russian camps. Only the incompetence of the Russian military has prevented greater Ukrainian losses. Unlike Putin, Hitler had a highly competent, disciplined and technologically sophisticated military that enacted his cruelty but somehow avoided the mass corruption crippling Russia’s military.
Perhaps Putin’s most Hitlerian quality is the vastness of his maniacal claims that Ukraine is, ironically, Nazi-controlled and, in cahoots, with the West, plotting Russia’s destruction. Hitler also justified his invasions as reactions against or preemptions of attacks against Germany, orchestrated by Jews and Communists. In Hitlerian fashion, Putin also asserts hysterical historical mythologies about the illegitimacy of Ukraine as a state and the nonexistence of any Ukrainian people, who are actually just Russians in denial. And he contrives Ukrainian attacks against the minority of Russian speakers in Ukraine, claiming these Russian-speakers crave to rejoin the motherland, just as German minorities craved absorption into the fatherland. Like Hitler, Putin has erected puppet leaders in Eastern Ukraine to echo his claims of liberation.
Like Hitler, Putin claims to lead a sacred nation whose divine vocation is to resist the West’s supposedly imperial designs. Hitler was the savior against Bolshevism, Anglo capitalism, and world Jewry. Putin leads Holy Russia against the decadent West that supposedly wants to dismantle Russia. Putin’s September 21 speech announcing Russian military mobilization included these themes.
Putin claimed he is only protecting the “the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Russia” against the “aggressive policy of some Western elites” that blocks “independent development centers” and continues “aggressively [to] force their will and pseudo-values on other countries and nations.” He portrayed his invasion of Ukraine as a clash of civilizations between traditional Russia and the secular West.
Putin’s insisted the West wants to “weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country,” as with the Soviet Union, by splitting Russia “into numerous regions that would be at deadly feud with each other,” which of course “they devised long ago.” Messianic tyrants always imagine their enemies share their penchant for long-term intrigue. Putin claimed the West had deployed “international terrorists” against Russia, with “indiscriminate Russophobia as a weapon, …by nurturing the hatred of Russia for decades, primarily in Ukraine, which was designed to become an anti-Russia bridgehead.”
Messianic dictators nurse obsessive hatreds, and they assume their targets do too. Putin even claimed Ukraine was seeking nuclear weapons. He insisted Russia was “saving lives,” and purging “cities and towns of the neo-Nazis.” And he claimed Ukrainian “Nazi punitive expeditions are killing, torturing and imprisoning people,” projecting onto Ukraine Russia’s own brutality. Russia is “fighting not only against neo-Nazi units but actually the entire military machine of the collective West,” Putin reported.
Messianic tyrants tell their peoples that they are victims of outside forces. “Washington, London and Brussels are openly encouraging Kiev to move the hostilities to our territory,” Putin claimed. “They openly say that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield by any means, and subsequently deprived of political, economic, cultural and any other sovereignty and ransacked.” Putin even warned the West was threatening “nuclear blackmail” against Russia and pointed out that Russia has its own nukes that are “more modern than the weapons NATO countries have,” which will “defend Russia and our people.” Messianic dictators have special love for their super weapons and like to wield them threateningly.
Putin concluded by pledging that it is “the destiny of our nation to stop those who are keen on global domination and threaten to split up and enslave our Motherland.” Essentially Russia, by invading Ukraine, is fighting for its survival against attempted Western subjugation of Russia. Hitler too told his people that they were fighting defensively against Germany’s relentless enemies. For now, Russians, like Germans, are prone to believe their dictator’s historical and geopolitical paranoid absurdities. Victimhood and revenge are seductive narratives for any nation that wants seduction, whether offered by Hitler or Putin.
Even now, Putin lacks the scope of Hitler’s grandiosity. And he’s murderous but not genocidal on a Hitlerite scale. At this stage, Putin is older than Hitler, takes fewer chances, likely enjoys his creature comforts, is not personally courageous and perhaps lacks the full range of Hitler’s personal sadism. But Putin has what Hitler never had: a nuclear arsenal that could incinerate millions. Given Russian military graft and ineptitude, it likely is not as effective or reliable as Putin imagines, but it’s deadly enough.
Unlike with Hitler, the West must not oppose Putin by direct war, which could be cataclysmic, but by proxy and patience. Messianic tyrants often brainwash themselves and implode. Managing Putin and the Ukraine conflict will require enormous Western skill, perseverance, and restraint. Putin is not Hitler. But like Hitler, he is a malevolent and paranoid little man with a crusader complex who has harnessed a great nation for dangerous and sinister purposes. We can pray that in this contest of wills with Putin, and ultimately with China, that the West will rediscover its own spiritual and moral premises upon which liberty and decency are based.