The Ukraine war and the Hitler analogy

May 10, 2023
Ukrainian flag. Russian flag.

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters what could be its most decisive phase, the award-winning American journalist, Stephen Kinzer, has announced a ‘Society for Abolishing World War II Analogies’.

Members of this club, he writes in The Boston Globe, must pledge never to call anyone a new Hitler or dismiss peace proposals as appeasement and ‘another Munich’. Above all, members must recognise that most wars end not in total victory but in messy compromises.

As a Second World War specialist myself, I’m eager to join Kinzer’s club. In more than 50 years of research, never have I witnessed such widespread distortions of its history.

History can help make us wiser but not if the past is viewed through the lens of propaganda talking points in which every dictator is presented as a genocidaire bent on achieving world domination and every war involving them as an existential fight for western civilisation.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is the leader of an increasingly authoritarian and repressive regime that is waging a war of aggression against Ukraine. But that is not enough cause to brand him an ideologically-driven dictator determined to re-create a Russian or Soviet empire. Nor does it preclude the possibility of engaging to make peace with him.

Appeasement is not inherently wrong. It depends on who you are trying to appease and for what purpose.

Appeasement could have averted the Russia-Ukraine war. It is western protagonists’ determination to fight a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine that has prolonged the conflict, not Putin’s allegedly overweening imperial ambitions.

Putin started the war and any peace deal with him will be repugnant, not least to Ukraine. But it is important to clarify what such a peace might look like, and to do so unencumbered by inappropriate and inaccurate historical analogies.

Adolf Hitler made no secret of his global and genocidal ambitions. Nor did he hide his striving for military action to reverse the outcome of World War 1 and restore Germany’s greatness. Far from being enthusiastic about Anglo-French appeasement at Munich in 1938, the Nazi dictator was deeply disappointed by a deal that dismembered Czechoslovakia but saved the country from a devastating German invasion. A year later, Hitler invaded Poland, precipitating a conflict that eventually engulfed the whole world and cost the lives of more than 50 million people.

Putin’s outlook and goals are in no way comparable to those of Hitler. Unlike Hitler, in the runup to the Russia-Ukraine war, Putin wanted to be appeased. That is why he strove for years to implement the Minsk agreements on the return of rebel Donetsk and Lugansk to Ukrainian sovereignty, albeit on condition of their regional autonomy. It was not Putin but Ukrainian nationalists who stymied Minsk, fearing it would preclude Ukraine’s membership of NATO.

In December 2021 Putin tried to break that deadlock by proposing a Russian-Western security compact to halt NATO’s expansion into Ukraine. When the West rejected his proposals, he resolved to use military means to safeguard Russia’s security. Yet during the early weeks of the invasion, he remained open to a deal to end a war that has since cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives, but the West rebuffed that possibility for peace, too.

Some people love to quote Putin’s claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a geopolitical catastrophe, but they invariably omit that he also once said that anyone who thought the USSR could be restored needed their head examined. Another favourite is that Putin supposedly said – according to an unverified media report of private remarks to President G.W. Bush in 2008 – that Ukraine wasn’t a real country and did not deserve to exist as an independent state. Publicly, however, Putin remains in favour of an independent, sovereign Ukraine, as long as that state does not constitute itself as what he calls an ‘anti-Russia’.

While Putin is determined to neutralise Ukraine and keep the country out of NATO, that does not preclude a meaningfully independent and sovereign Ukrainian state. During the cold war the Soviets prohibited neighbouring Finland from joining the western bloc but that did not stop the Finns controlling their domestic sphere or from pursuing a highly successful foreign policy of active neutrality. Ukraine’s ‘Finlandisation’ would not be the worst of fates.

Putin is pledged to ‘demilitarise’ and to ‘denazify’ Ukraine – a term of abuse aimed at contemporary neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists. What that might mean in practice has changed during the course of the war. Initially, it meant regime-change in Kiev, recognition of Russia’s control of Crimea (including a coastal landbridge to the peninsular) and concession of greater Donbass, together with Ukraine’s permanent neutrality and the eradication of any threat of its military revival.

That seems to have been the kind of deal on offer during Russia’s Istanbul negotiations with Ukraine in March last year, except that Moscow was also prepared to countenance the continuation of President Zelensky’s government.

Reportedly, the two sides came close to reaching agreement along these lines but the Ukrainians were advised to fight on by their western allies, who pledged full support for Kiev’s war effort.

As the war wore on, Putin’s aims expanded to include annexation of the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhia as well as Donetsk and Lugansk, and all four territories were formally incorporated into the Russian Federation last autumn. Under no circumstances will Putin voluntarily give up these territories, even if it means total war with the West. Russia’s demand for Ukraine’s neutralisation remains on the table as does the requirement for a purge of the country’s ultra-nationalist elements.

Western hardliners dream of a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive that will force Putin to abandon his aggressive designs, while Russia’s cheerleaders foresee Kiev’s complete capitulation in the face of Moscow’s grindingly successful war of attrition.

More likely than either scenario is that Russia’s overwhelming superiority in troops and materiel will enable it to contain any Ukrainian offensive, but Ukraine, with Western support, will be able to fight on, albeit at increasingly high cost and greater risk of even more territorial losses.

Russian and Western hawks will howl at the very idea of a negotiated peace, but in such circumstances the best hope for Ukraine might be a ‘messy compromise’ in which it lost territory but maintained its independent existence, including the possibility of future membership of the European Union.

As Stephen Kinzer suggests, we need to stop obsessing about Hitler and the Nazis and focus instead on the sobering experience and lessons of the ‘forever wars’ fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

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