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Putin revisits Hitler’s playbook to spark conflict in Ukraine

While much of the world is focused on various aspects of the invasion of Ukraine — everything from the impact on our wallets to the efficacy of sanctions, and even the “Z” symbol — one facet has received little attention: The Kremlin’s reasoning for the violence.

Mr Putin's actions on Ukraine "use tactics Hitler would have approved of", says the author.

Mr Putin's actions on Ukraine "use tactics Hitler would have approved of", says the author.


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While much of the world is focused on various aspects of the invasion of Ukraine — everything from the impact on our wallets to the efficacy of sanctions, and even the “Z” symbol — one facet has received little attention: The Kremlin’s reasoning for the violence.

However, a closer examination of this is needed if one is to come to a conclusion about whether the violence is the result of naked aggression or the West’s dismissal of legitimate Russian security concerns.

In his statement ordering the “special military operation”, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his aims were “de-Nazification of Ukraine”, and “defending of its Russian speaking minority against genocide”.

To examine the “genocide” claim, it is necessary to hark back to Operation Barbarossa — Hitler’s unprovoked attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the propaganda he used to justify it.

Hitler portrayed his invasion as a pre-emptive strike to avert Soviet aggression against the Third Reich — a reflection of the Nazi worldview that Judeo-Bolsheviks were their most serious threats, and an inferior race — as well as “Lebensraum”, a need for more living space for the racially pure.

Nothing was further from the truth.

The Soviet leader at the time, Josef Stalin, had painstakingly tried to avert a war with Nazi Germany, going so far as to ink the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a non-aggression agreement that effectively carved up Poland between both sides, in 1939.

Barely two years later, the Wehrmacht, as the armed forces of Nazi Germany were known, pushed into the Ukraine.

Sound familiar? It should.

In 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons as part of a non-aggression pact signed with Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

In return, it received security assurances, among other things.

Now, Mr Putin has gone back on Russia’s word by invading his much smaller and less powerful neighbour after deeming it a threat — a claim that rings as hollow as Hitler’s did at the time.

The allegations of genocide against the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — which were annexed by Moscow just recently, as a prelude to its attack (after a similarly unprovoked invasion of the Crimean Peninsula) — are similarly mind-boggling.

It bears repeating that the 2014 annexation of Crimea was carried out after “Little Green Men”, Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, wrought havoc to create a pretext for invasion.

At the same time, Mr Putin has used history to echo his belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, bound by language and religion, and that separation threatens the future of his nation.

How far will he go to act on his beliefs?

Here again, the parallels with Nazi Germany are useful.

Hitler ordered his extermination brigades, the Einsatzgruppen, to round up and kill almost the entire Jewish population of Ukraine during World War II.

To accuse a victim of the worst genocide in history of similar crimes today is the height of absurdity.

Worse, it belittles the sacrifice made by millions of Soviet men and women who overcame the Nazis against seemingly impossible odds in the “Great Patriotic War”.

Ironically, today’s Ukrainian defenders are displaying similar grit and tenacity in the face of a fearsome enemy. Sadly, this is likely not enough.

Not content to wipe out the defenders, Mr Putin’s army has taken to indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and targets in an effort to force Ukrainians to capitulate — prolonged sieges of Stalingrad and other Russian cities by the Nazis, which inflicted untold misery on millions of innocents, come to mind.

Now, on to “de-Nazification”.

Just as Hitler moved against Judeo-Bolsheviks by demonising them, the Russian President has painted Ukrainian leaders as fascists and Nazis, a claim he has made several times before and after 2014.

However, Ukraine is home to a large Jewish community. But instead of fleeing the Third Reich this time, many are rushing for the exits because of violence visited upon them by an army that claims to be battling Nazism.

For the record, several Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, are of Jewish extraction.

Ironically, when Mr Zelensky was elected, many Ukrainian Jews spoke out against his candidacy before elections.

Their reason? Electing a Jew, they feared, would ensure a repeat of past massacres.

Words are dangerous weapons.

The terms “de-Nazification” and “genocide” have been carefully chosen by Mr Putin. They are guaranteed to stir up emotions among the only group whose opinions appear to matter to Mr Putin: His fellow Russians.

It appears to be working. Many people who would otherwise be opposed to war have instead supported it, tacitly or otherwise.

While there are those for whom such a choice would be pre-ordained — Mr Putin’s inner circle and the oligarchs that benefit from his leadership — other sources of backing are surprising.

The most widely-known is the gymnast Ivan Kuliak, who faces a lengthy ban from competition for sporting a “Z” symbol on his uniform, but proudly insists he would do so again.

To be sure, many thousands of Russians have spoken out against war.

But Mr Putin has factored this into the equation. New, draconian laws threaten anyone who dares speak up, or even use the word “war” to describe what is going on, to 15 years’ jail.

There is more to come. Rumours of impending martial law are swirling in Russia, forcing many to flee their own country.

The old saying is that those who “forget history are condemned to repeat it”.

Mr Putin has not forgotten history. He knows it all too well.

Instead, he is manipulating it masterfully to achieve his grandiose ends. In doing so, he is dragging into the mud the memory of his country’s own heroes who died resisting the Nazis.

Worse, he is using tactics Hitler would have approved of.



Dr Busztin, a Visiting Research Professor at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a former Hungarian diplomat who served in Indonesia and Iran, among other posts.

Related topics

Ukraine Russia invasion Nazi Vladimir Putin

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