Violence is spreading throughout Ukraine on a course that looks exactly like conscious and deliberate Russian preparation for a wider war. Without telepathic powers it is impossible to know what is going on in the mind of the one man who can control developments in Ukraine, but overnight the chances of additional Russian military action against its helpless neighbor appeared to grow. On Friday in Donetsk conflict between pro-and anti-Russia groups left one man dead and 26 injured. Now in Kharkiv two more are dead in a similar way as clashes spread through the city. Pro-Russian groups, including, it is said, “rent-a-mob” demonstrators bussed in from Russia, seem to be behind the violence.
Moreover, there were scattered signs today that the next step is already upon us. Unconfirmed reports from local sources claim Russian troops landed in the Kherson region today—and were repelled. The story is starting to get picked up by news agencies, but rumors run rife at times like this. If true, it would mark the first direct military action by Russia outside Crimea and would be a major escalation of the most serious European international crisis since the Yugoslav wars. Here’s how the FT is reporting it:
Ukraine’s foreign ministry described the events as a “military invasion by Russia” and called on Russia to “immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine”.
“Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia,” the ministry added in a statement.
If that is what is happening, and the preponderance of evidence suggests that it is, Putin appears to be following the Adolf Hitler strategy manual pretty much to the letter.
Putin is no Hitler, and from the standpoint of power he isn’t even a Brezhnev. Still, his actions in Ukraine have been following Adolf’s playbook pretty closely. Adolf wanted to tear up the Treaty of Versailles. Putin is attempting to rip up the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and Central Asia. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia is much weaker than its opponents, so it can’t achieve its goal through a direct military challenge against its primary enemies. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia must be clever until it grows strong, and it must play on its enemies’ hesitations, divisions and weaknesses until and unless it is ready to take them on head to head.
“Keep them guessing” is rule number one. Nobody was better than Hitler at playing with his enemies’ minds. For every warlike speech, there was an invitation to a peace conference. For every uncompromising demand, there was a promise of lasting tranquillity once that last little troublesome problem had been negotiated safely away. He was so successful at it (and Stalin, too was good at this game) in part because his opponents so desperately wanted peace. French politicians like Leon Blum and British leaders like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were as hungry for peace (it was the Depression after all, and both countries had suffered immensely in World War One) as Barack Obama and Francois Hollande are today. Commendably and properly, they wanted to fix their domestic economies, create a more just society at home, repair their infrastructure and cut their defense budgets. They were not in the mood for trouble overseas, and so a cold blooded con man found them to be easy marks.
Putin has played on western illusions very successfully for a very long time. Remember all those ‘experts’ (many, alas, in government service) who thought that the Medvedev presidency represented a real shift in Russian politics? How shocked and disappointed people were when Putin stepped smoothly back into the top job? It is the oldest trick in the book: bait and switch. Humiliate John Kerry by making him cool his heels for three hours in the Kremlin, and then dangle hope of a cooperative relationship. Hold out a ‘helping hand’ when the Obama administration has gotten itself into an embarrassing predicament over its Syria red line, then kick Uncle Sam in the teeth at Geneva.
There was never a good reason to believe any of Putin’s talk of peace and cooperation. After the Cold War, America and its allies jammed NATO expansion down Russia’s throat. The European Union worked to expand right up to Russia’s frontiers while making it crystal clear that Russia could never be a member. Putin is no Hitler, but neither is he a Konrad Adenauer, determined to accept defeat and to cooperate wholeheartedly in building his country’s future within the lines drawn by the victors. And the US made Adenauer’s Germany a much better offer than it made Putin’s Russia. You would have to be living in what the Germans call das Wolkenkuckkucksheim, cloud-cuckoo-land, to believe that a man like Putin would passively accept the post-Cold War order.
But cloud-cuckoo-land is exactly where many westerners live, in a resolutely post-historical world where foreign policy is about development, human rights, non-proliferation and trade. If Putin tells us he lives there too, we are hungry to believe him. We don’t want to live in a difficult world. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were having a fabulous time in cloud-cuckoo-land back in the 1930s and many of them clung to their illusions until the last possible moment. We want to live in a stable and secure world order but we don’t want to make the sacrifices world order requires—and so we will gaze deeply into the eyes of anybody who is willing to tell us what we most want to hear.
Hitler’s situation was like Putin’s in another way. Like Russia now, Germany in the 1930s was weaker than its western opponents, but its leader had much more power to change course. Hitler’s Germany was an opportunistic predator; it could move quickly, change direction on a dime, and lay plans in secret. His western opponents ran democratic governments where everything moved very slowly, secrets were regularly published in the press and big foreign policy moves were telegraphed well in advance. Hitler used what he had, and took advantage of his supreme personal power and control of the press to make Germany a much more aggressive and dynamic international actor than his lazy, contented and slow-moving opponents. Hitler could move at speed that made his rivals’ heads spin and frequently left them gaping in flat footed amazement at his quick strikes and rapid changes of course. He knew that surprise was one of his chief advantages and he used it to the hilt.
President Putin is not a stupid man. He knows that Russia faces stronger but slower moving opponents. He knows that deception, misdirection and surprise are among his most effective tools. We must expect him to use them often and to use them well. The west ended up looking utterly flatfooted and clueless as Putin moved into Crimea just as it did in 2008 when he moved into Georgia. That is the way Russia wants it.
This use of surprise, by the way, can be very far reaching. Hitler stunned the west by signing his famous non-aggression pact with Stalin, dividing eastern Europe between them. He then surprised Stalin again by attacking him in June of 1941. For people like Hitler and, in his very different way, Putin, blitzkrieg is a tactic for diplomacy and not just for war. We would be total fools not to suppose that Putin and his closest associates are looking for game changing diplomatic moves that would spoil America’s day.
Putin is using another one of Hitler’s favorite methods in Ukraine: turn your ethnic minorities in other countries into a Trojan horse— whether or not that is what those people actually want. Hitler did this with the Sudeten Germans in what is now the Czech Republic. The FT again:
Russia said on Saturday it was looking at requests for help from civilians in Ukraine, a statement which appeared to resemble those made two weeks ago in justification of its military incursion into Crimea.
“Russia is receiving numerous requests for protecting civilians. These requests will be given consideration,” the foreign ministry said. It added a string of claims that Ukrainian militants and mercenaries were threatening civilians, which could not immediately be verified.
There is nothing here that couldn’t have been taken directly out of Adolf’s Guide for Aspiring Hegemons.
Using another instrument that Putin shares with the German, a well tuned, centrally controlled and well funded state propaganda machine with international outlets, you then elevate the ‘mistreatment’ of that minority into a major issue. You scream and rant and rave, demand redress, and fill the airwaves with your warnings and your laments. You can always organize at least some of them to march and wave flags. When the other country’s police (or, better yet, angry counter-mobs) respond, you raise the temperature. Oppression! Murder! Genocide!
It worked for Hitler in the Munich crisis, and it is exactly the card Putin has played in Crimea and perhaps will play in other parts of the ex-Soviet space. After using the German minority in Czechoslovakia as a tool, Hitler gave the west a brief respite (more soft talk about peace) before turning to his next target: Poland. Once again, it was the German minority that gave him his opening. Polish thugs were trampling on their rights. Their protests were being crushed by heartless barbarians. Babies were being ripped from their mothers’ wombs by bloodthirsty Polish mobs. Whatever.
Again, it was Hitler’s propagandist Goebbels who taught the world an important lesson: when you lie, go big. This has been exactly what Russian propaganda over Ukraine has done. And if it works here, we can expect to see the same kind of thing tried elsewhere: in Central Asia, perhaps, when Putin decides the time has come to reunite the Russian motherland with the gas and oil wealth of countries like Kazakhstan. The Baltic republics, already familiar with Putin’s play of the Russian minority card, are braced for more trouble, and well they should be.
This is why the latest news from eastern Ukraine is so ominous: in the Adolf Hitler playbook, stirring up ethnic strife is something you do when the time has come to intervene. If Putin’s plan was to send troops into eastern Ukraine, we’d see Russian speakers in the streets protesting, sometimes with violence, and demanding ‘protection’. “Defending Russian nationals from fascist mobs when the Ukrainian government is unwilling or unable to do so” is just the kind of fig leaf Putin needs; as of today, he’s got it.
But when dealing with a calculating player who has read people like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, studied under the grandmasters of the old KGB and knows how Adolf did it, we shouldn’t be too confident that we know what’s coming next. Deception, disinformation and disguise are vital to Putin’s kind of foreign policy, and it is very much in his interest to keep us off-base and baffled as much as he can. With that caveat, it’s worth noting what the three likeliest alternatives are.
First, the violence could be a preparation for an invasion that has already been decided in the Kremlin. This is unlikely to happen before the referendum in Crimea — Russia won’t want to upstage its own propaganda spectacle. Let a thumping majority (however acquired) vote for annexation, and then more violence takes place in eastern Ukraine… then boom. More riots, more incursions, more referendums.
Second, it could be that no invasion is intended or wanted at this time. Instead, Russia wants both to demonstrate its power to create crises inside Ukraine and to make the country as ungovernable as possible. A number of western commentators have been consoling themselves with the ‘Putin is trapped’ approach to Ukraine, but looking at the west’s situation the trap may be on our end. We are the ones who now have some kind of obligation to keep Ukraine’s corrupt and incompetent government alive and to keep its chronically lame, oligarch-dominated economy from withering away. We are also the ones who will be blamed if (when) economic miracles fail to occur.
We can also be blackmailed. Are we going to pay Gazprom’s outrageous gas bill for Ukraine, or are we going to let the country freeze in the dark next winter? If the West has taken on the role of paymaster and protector of the Ukrainian state, do we expect Putin to make this any cheaper or easier for us?
Meanwhile, unrest in the east can make Ukraine a much, much more expensive and difficult client for the west — and also increases the nervousness in the Baltic republics and former Warsaw Pact countries. Putin may think that a destabilized Ukraine where he can stir the pot at will is a pretty good thing for Russia — and he can quietly wait to see what develops as he plans his next steps. If nothing else, Ukraine’s is going to make people in places like Kazakhstan pay a lot more attention to Russia’s wishes than before. Let Ukraine simmer and flip your Soviet reconstruction focus to the east. The west didn’t lift a finger to protect Ukraine; the Kazhaks and others will feel very much left alone in a small room with a large bear.
Third, it’s also possible that Moscow is moving opportunistically. It may not have a long term plan, but sees the advantages of stirring things up in eastern Ukraine. Scaring Ukraine and the west is a good thing in itself. And who knows— it may turn out that further opportunities develop.
Any one of these scenarios is plausible, and any one of them offers Putin the prospect of a clear, prestige-enhancing win. The second two look like the smartest plays from the Kremlin’s point of view, but the west would be foolish to assume that Putin calculates the odds in the same ways we do.
We must hope that western leaders finally wake up to the nature of the opponent they face. Putin, I say again, is no Hitler. He isn’t as powerful as Hitler and he isn’t as evil as Hitler. Compared to Stalin, he’s a choirboy. But he’s a smart and able adversary of the west who believes that world politics is a zero sum game. He believes that Russia can only survive and thrive by reconstituting a great power between China and Germany, and that this can only be done by rolling back the post-Cold War expansion of western power across the old Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union.
Dealing effectively with Putin doesn’t require a new Cold War. American foreign policy doesn’t have to become, and shouldn’t become Russo-centric. But unless we take counsel with our allies and put the kind of intellectual and political energy into blocking Russian moves that Russia puts into thinking them through and making them, the world will become a significantly uglier place and it will be much harder to get some important things done.
The biggest cost to Putin of his Crimean adventure may not be the western sanctions, but rather the way that his Ukraine policy makes it harder for him to go back to gulling a complacent west. Not that he won’t try. Once he’s taken as much of Ukraine as he thinks he can get at this point, he is likely to launch a peace offensive, aiming to separate the Germans and the other Europeans from the Americans and let time weaken the outrage that now rolls through the west. Unfortunately, there will be people who are ready to be gulled yet again, but the quick vision the world has seen of the real nature of Putin’s policy and his ruthlessness will make at least some of the people harder to fool once more.