It’s a narrative that’s growing in popularity in the West: Vladimir Putin as a 21st-century Adolf Hitler, an unhinged dictator bent on collecting lost Russian lands.
It was floated first on CNN last week, where former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili – who fought and lost a war with Russia six years ago over a place called South Ossetia – compared Mr. Putin’s stealth takeover of the Crimean Peninsula to the Nazi annexation of Sudetenland in 1938. The Canadian government has since embraced the storyline, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird using the Sudetenland comparison while denouncing Russian military moves in the Ukraine.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made similar remarks, and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a fundraiser in California: “If this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s.”
We are, worryingly, in a situation where such comparisons can’t immediately be laughed off. Mr. Putin’s own press conference this week was characterized by two things: his alarming insistence that Russia had a right to use its military to protect ethnic Russians living in other post-Soviet countries, and his bitterness at the West for ignoring him until he was pushed into a corner.
The immediate triggers for Mr. Putin’s fury are now plain. The Kremlin feels (and has evidence) that the West put its shoulder behind the Ukrainian opposition that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych last month following a deadly week of street battles between protesters and police.
Mr. Yanukovych was pro-Russian and clearly corrupt. But he was also the elected president of Ukraine, with 12 months to go in his five-year term. His overthrow was inspiring to watch, but it was also unconstitutional. (For the record, the Kremlin says it’s the West that is encouraging fascism by siding with the revolutionaries in Kiev who include right-wing ultranationalists in their ranks.)
That precedent set, Mr. Putin now seems willing to go as far as he needs to in order to regain Russia’s lost influence in Ukraine – in the entire country, if he can, or any pro-Russian part he can snap off.
But this New Cold War didn’t start last month. Nor was it doomed to happen this way.
When Mr. Putin came to power 15 years ago, he did so as a candidate who appealed to many sectors of Russian society. His KGB background suggested to those nostalgic for the Soviet days that Mr. Putin was the tough leader Russia needed after the chaos of Russia’s 1990s. But his track record as an aide to Anatoliy Sobchak, the reformist governor of St. Petersburg, also persuaded Russia’s pro-Western liberals that he was a man who shared their mindset, too.
Mr. Putin’s first four years as president were marked by an battle inside the Kremlin, pitting a camp of ministers and aides known as the siloviki, the men of power, who had KGB backgrounds like Mr. Putin’s, against the reformers, men like Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexander Voloshin, the powerful chief of staff Mr. Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Putin was seen as listening to both sides, favouring neither. This was the man who was the first foreign leader to call former U.S. president George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the man who shared intelligence with and opened his airspace for the subsequent NATO invasion of Afghanistan.
But the siloviki gained strength, and the reformers faded, as Mr. Putin saw that favour go unreturned. He furiously railed against the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, but was ignored. Then came the 2003 Rose Revolution in the former Soviet republic of Georgia – which saw the U.S.-educated Mr. Saakashvili brought to power – and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a year later.
The Georgian and Ukrainian revolts had many things in common, among them the fall of autocrats who ran semi-independent governments that deferred to Moscow when the chips were down. Both uprisings were also spurred by organizations that received funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. As in the Middle East, “promoting democracy” in Eastern Europe became a code word for supporting pro-Western politicians.