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Ukraine-Russia war: have we learned the lessons of history?

16 March 2022

4:00 AM

16 March 2022

4:00 AM

War in Europe is well underway and within the first fortnight, most are wondering what effect the range of trade and economic sanctions are really having…

For the most part, the specifics of these sanctions are aimed at disrupting the financial systems within Russia and freezing the international banking accounts of a range of Russian political identities and oligarchs, but really, will this stop war?

I doubt these sanctions will stop Putin – a ruthless but very focused autocrat who has secured unrivalled leadership of Russia for life. He is, without question, the most dangerous European leader since Adolf Hitler. That this fact is only now being realised points to the deliberation he has applied since coming to power over two decades ago. Many are hesitant to draw parallels between Hitler and anyone. Can we afford to be so naive?

At times like this, we should look at the lessons we have from history.

There are several similarities between Hitler and Putin, the most obvious being that both acquired an obsession to restore their nation to former glories. The root of this obsession for Hitler was found in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the impact this had on Germany following defeat in the first world war. For Putin, it was his refusal to accept the dismantling of the USSR in 1990 – an event he described as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’.

Under Hitler’s leadership, the Nazi Party adopted a 25 point program, the first point being a demand for ‘the union of all Germans to form the Greater Germany’. It was under this guise that Germany annexed Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In the same way, Putin also uses the unification of all Russian peoples as justification for his actions. This led to the attempted subjugation of Chechnya and then Georgia, before successfully annexing Crimea and two regional enclaves from Ukraine in 2014. The current invasion of Ukraine is merely Putin returning to continue ‘unfinished business’.

Much is made of the treaty signed between Putin and Chairman Xi Jinping of China just days prior to Putin launching the invasion of Ukraine. Many commentators are of the view that this treaty suggests Russia and China are of one mind and that China stands right behind Russia. For that reason, many in the West are of the view that we need to be careful how we deal with Putin. Nobody wants to face off against China. This misunderstands the history of these two neighbouring superpowers, plays into Putin’s hand and ignores the lessons of history.

In The Art of War, acclaimed military strategist Sun Tzu advises, ‘Keep your friends close: keep your enemies closer.’ All we see here is both leaders, Putin and Xi applying the advice of Tzu the master.

In the same way, August 1939 saw Hitler sign off on a non-aggression pact with Russia. Hitler had been planning the invasion of Poland for several months and was ready to launch hostilities. Similarly, Putin has been planning the invasion of Ukraine for many months. Both Hitler and Putin clearly understood the importance of neutralising any complications with likely competitors when embarking on bold initiatives. Hitler did not want Russia to react when the invasion of Poland began knowing full well that Russia had, for some time, held territorial ambitions for Poland also. Hitler did not want to be advancing across Poland only to meet Russian forces halfway. The non-aggression pact Hitler had put in place effectively eliminated that possibility, but it never precluded Hitler’s intent to deal with Russia later. Putin would be thinking along the same lines.

Putin has simply followed Hitler’s example. He declared his treaty with Chairman Xi days before invading Ukraine simply to keep China quiet. But there are other reasons China will not get involved in the Ukraine conflict, chief among them is that Russia and China have conflicting ambitions. Those ambitions have the same goal, but that goal cannot accommodate both superpowers. It is one or the other.

Despite both Russia and China embracing Marxist ideology over the past 100 years, they have never seen eye to eye. In every speech Chairman Xi deliberately refers to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, drawing a clear differentiation to socialism as Putin wants it. Russian socialism is not Chinese socialism. In addition to their philosophical differences on socialism, sharing a border over 4,000 km long, there are also deeply historical territorial issues that have been long in dispute. Although ‘resolution’ of these border issues was last agreed about 30 years ago, they were agreed when China was militarily much weaker than it is today. Playing the long game, any past ‘resolution’ will always be up for review by China when circumstances change.

Furthermore, each of these authoritarian leaders are cut from the same cloth. As Hitler did, Putin and Xi see themselves correcting past injustice for their nation and have adopted the same strategy – embrace a fiercely nationalistic issue, become ‘leader for life’ and ruthlessly eliminate domestic opposition.  

China always plays the long game. Whereas Hitler was motivated to correct an injustice in the past decade and Putin was motivated to correct an injustice of 30 years ago, Chairman Xi is motivated to correct an injustice from the 19th century – his mission is the ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. Given Chinese are the predominant peoples throughout many nations in Asia, read into that what you will. 

Xi knows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going to give either Russia or the West a bloody nose. If Putin told Chairman Xi of his plan to invade Ukraine within days, Xi almost certainly would have given Putin his blessing. Nothing would be more in China’s interest than a weakened Russia or a weakened West. A bloody nose for one or other, or both would please Chairman Xi immeasurably.

The West needs to be a lot more imaginative if they are to stop Putin. The key is to ensure the Russian people are well aware of the issues. Although extensive sanctions will cause problems for Russia, ultimately it will be the Russian people who bear the cost. The Russian people need to see the invasion of Ukraine through the eyes of the West. Certainly, Putin and his preferred oligarchs will manage, sanctions or no sanctions.  

We should not imagine that Putin will come to his senses, for his senses have departed him. He is little different to Adolf Hitler. He has embarked on a mission with no turning back.

What history tells us is that there were several attempts to take Hitler out from the time he invaded Poland in September 1939. He presided over military blunder after blunder and in reality, defeat stared Hitler in the face from mid-1942. Yet this maniacal tyrant kept going. It wasn’t until his armies were defeated entirely, his country was in ruins, and he had no escape from the bunker that Hitler gave up, without surrendering, three years later. In those three years millions perished. Sanctions would never have stopped him.

We cannot afford to give Putin the same leeway.

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