Category Archives: Russia

Putin & Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law states that as an online discussion grows longer, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. It’s the updated internet version of Reductio ad Hitlerum. I fell into this trap quite early in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, during its annexation of Crimea in 2014, via a Facebook argument with an old colleague. It wasn’t that I felt that Putin’s actions or his intentions were on a par with Hitler, more that he seemed to be using the same playbook. Drumming up stories of persecuted countrymen (for Sudetenland Germans read Russian-speaking Ukrainians), then intervening to ‘protect’ them, conveniently grabbing a chunk of land as an added bonus.

Being a reasonable chap, and on being directed to Godwin’s Law, I immediately retracted. It was not that I felt any more disposed towards Mr Putin, merely that I acknowledged that I had made a lazy argument, based on emotion and a few vague historical comparisons. Then I dug a little deeper into Godwin’s Law. It was created by an American lawyer called Mike Godwin to be used in internet discussion groups. It was actually never intended to prevent an argument, rather to force people to think a little harder before wheeling out the Fascist comparisons. “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler and the Nazis.” I felt suitably challenged. Godwin was actually talking about Donald Trump here, but I thought I’d go for the main man in the relationship, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin.

I’ve mentioned Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine.  And by justifications I mean the excuses he gives for the interference rather than the actual reasons for it. And here we have a valid comparison. Both men, at least in their public pronouncements, claimed to speak for and protect a large group of people, based on ethnicity rather than citizenship, and therefore not constrained by the inconvenience of borders. Thus the Nazi concept of Volksdeutsche was used both to persecute non-Ethnic Germans at home (largely Jews) and to justify the Anschluss of Austria and invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia on the pretext of protecting ethnic Germans abroad. Putin has used the same justifications for invasion of Georgia and Ukraine, and for agitations in Moldova and the Baltic states.

Both played on the fears of their populace, whilst simultaneously stoking those fears. With its large land borders and history of invasion (from the Mongol Horde through Napoleon to Hitler himself) it’s virtually part of the Russian national psyche to feel under constant threat from abroad – and thus need a strong autocratic leader for protection. Putin and Hitler both proclaimed theirs a great country that had been ‘brought to its knees’. With the Germany of the 20s and 30s it was the Treaty of Versailles, with modern Russia it is the break-up of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO.

Both leaders spin a tale of betrayal, not only by foreign powers, but by their leaders at the time. Germany’s patsy civilian government of 1918 had no choice but to sign the surrender terms on offer, allowing the myth to develop that the German Army and its citizens had been stabbed in the back, a perception that Hitler was able to exploit to his advantage in his pursuit of power. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are virtual pariahs in Russia now. Gorbachev for walking blindly into a situation he would quickly lose control of, and Yeltsin for presiding over the complete lawlessness that caused chaos in the country, created the oligarchs that now hold the wealth of the nation in a small number of hands, and established the conditions for a strong man like Putin to offer a deal of stability in exchange for the erosion of civil liberty.

Putin famously called the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. Quite some hyperbole in a century that gave us the two bloodiest wars in history. He constantly talks of NATO encroachment as if Russia is being threatened and penned in. He uses the symbol of the Russian bear – “They won’t leave him alone. They are always trying to put him on a chain. They will always try to put him on a chain and as soon as he is put on this chain, they will pull out his teeth and claws.” This is paranoia as state policy.

Both Hitler and Putin in their way appealed to a false nostalgia and a folk myth. Like many politicians Putin appeals to ‘traditional family values’, although takes it one step further by enacting actively homophobic laws. This is all linked to the regime’s reorientation away from a European rules-based system to a Eurasian set of values where anything goes and might is right. I’m not sure that this actually means anything ideologically, and it is pretty offensive to suggest that Asia and the East are places that do not value rules or respect international agreements. It all just gives Putin a convenient get-out clause for not following international norms. World record pole vaulter and Putin mouthpiece Yelena Isinbayeva backed the regime’s stance: “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.”

The Nazis appealed to ‘blood and soil’, the interconnectedness of the people and the land.  From an early promotion of physical health and May Day parades, this was to lead ultimately to the Aryan ideal and the final solution. A whole history and creation myth was built around this to justify the horrors about to be perpetrated.

Another common factor between Hitler and Putin is the importance of propaganda to both regimes. Joseph Goebbels took propaganda to levels (depths) that we had never seen before. Hitler himself set out the blueprint in Mein Kampf:

“The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.”

Putin’s propaganda machine has added several layers of modern sophistication to this, but retained the basic premise. Led by Dmitry Kiselyov as the modern day Goebbels, Russia has two distinct operations running concurrently. For the home market it is all about Brand Putin. Television and the news media are full of his good works, constantly repeating the theme. It’s daily mantra building up a cult of personality around the leader probably not seen since Stalin’s time. It is interesting that they have been so successful in this. Yes, the Kremlin controls virtually all print and broadcast media, just as the Nazis had done, but the internet is still freely available there. It seems that the ‘broad masses of people’ prefer the comforting tones of their state-run television and newspapers, rather than the uncomfortable chaos offered by the internet.

For Russia’s image abroad, it is down to RT and a gaggle of Useful Idiots in the foreign press. Here it is all about the conspiracy theory, where any anti-establishment nut job can be presented as an expert. The aim here is to muddy the waters. Like in the case of MH-17, where every possible and impossible scenario is put forward, not with the aim of establishing a chain of events, but instead to sow doubt in the public’s mind, so they say “Who knows what actually happened?”, instead of examining the overwhelming evidence that the plane was shot down by Russian separatists, using a weapon supplied by the Russian government, which was then removed by the Russian government before international press or investigators could see it. Another theme of RT is to highlight all that is negative in the Western political sphere, to enable the Russian press to indulge in ‘Whataboutery’, demonstrating that Russia may be corrupt, but ‘look, so is everybody else’.

So Godwin’s challenge has been accepted and a case for comparison made.  But here’s the thing. Given a fair wind and a modicum of research you could make  comparisons between Hitler and just about any dodgy autocratic leader from the past 100 years. But almost all, with the possible exception of Stalin (currently being rehabilitated in Putin’s Russia) pale by comparison to Hitler, the man and his deeds. The American State Department, quite correctly, always states that you should judge Putin’s regime not by what they say, but by what they do. And although what they have done so far has been pretty reprehensible, it does not even come close to the scale, ambition or downright evil of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

For example, despite his claims that he could be in Kyiv within two weeks, Putin has never had any intention of doing so. He may be correct in his bold claims from a military point of view, but he does not have the resources to hold a defiant Ukraine nor to withstand the inevitable condemnation of the international community. Far better to do what he has done in places like Moldova and Georgia. Retain a portion of the country under Russian control, keep the conflict either warm or never very far from the heat, and use the situation for leverage and to ensure that the country in question cannot join NATO or the EU while a conflict still exists in one form or other.

Look to America, as Godwin suggests, where Donald Trump is now being painted as the most dangerous man in the Western world. He is the most dangerous man in the Western world, in that he is ignorant, shallow, petulant and crucially is one step away from having his finger on the nuclear button.  And the last place you want to find one of Putin’s Useful Idiots is in the Oval Office. But he stands for nothing. He is a reality TV star thrust into the limelight.

No, the real comparisons to be made lie not in the leaders but in the times. Hitler found a fertile ground in a German populace impoverished and embittered following World War 1 and its subsequent reparations. He could not possibly rise in today’s Germany. Putin came to the Russian people with an offer that they desperately wanted to accept – to bring stability and to make Russia a world power again. Small men of the West like Trump, Johnson and Farage have offered a rejection of a change that people feel uncomfortable with and which has not in their perception improved their quality of life.

No, the dangers today lie not in the autocratic world leaders and their proximity to Hitler. Rather in the conditions that exist in the world and the self-destructive nature of its people. I have no idea whether austerity or anti-austerity is the way forward, but we desperately need some good times. When the world seems to be a mess, its people will reach for any remedy.

Putin & Ukraine

It’s probably wrong of me, but I will admit to celebrating every piece of bad news I hear about the Russian economy. And there’s certainly a lot to celebrate at the moment. You can say that sanctions are starting to bite, but it’s of surely greater importance that the price of oil has crashed from nearly $120 a barrel to just under $50 today. The Russian state is built on hydro-carbons and needs a price of $100 or more to meet its domestic commitments. It built up huge currency reserves during the boom years, but these are dwindling rapidly.

When you add together the cost of sanctions and the oil price, its perhaps hard to look past this and see the self-inflicted damage done by the years of stagnation, corruption and an over-reliance on fossil fuels. Vladimir Putin will certainly be hoping that people can’t see it at any rate.

All of this bad news highlights just how badly Putin is doing as a leader, although his apologists will blame the West and  even advance the theory that Putin is being more far-sighted than the rest of us, taking the short term pain and seeing the bigger picture. This view of Putin as the arch strategist, or even the evil genius Bond villain, remains in the psyche of many people. A year or so ago the view was virtually unchallenged.

However I have long held the belief that Putin is getting this all wrong, and that although there is a high level of planning and cunning involved, he is lurching from one dangerous situation to the next, with only a vaguely optimistic view of the desired end result, and an inability to identify or take advantage of suitable exit strategies.

The peak of Putin’s powers and his popularity in Russia probably came around the time of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. It was certainly a masterstroke, particularly if you are happy to overlook any moral or legal considerations, or geo-political implications.

The annexation was largely bloodless, although the media was largely quiet on the abduction and murder of a number of prominent Crimean Tatars. Putin received international condemnation for his actions, although only minor sanctions at that stage. And there was a certain sneaking admiration in some quarters that Putin had put one over on the West by winning a scrap in his back yard, much as he had done in Georgia in 2008.

But rather than basking in the success of acquiring this particularly attractive piece of real estate at minimal cost, Putin decided to push on into mainland Ukraine, sending in his proxies (and some regular troops) to start a civil war.

So why did he do it? Why did he make that fateful step? Was it hubris? Did he really think that victory would be swift and assured? To answer these questions and to go some way to understanding Putin’s actions, we need to examine his motivations around Ukraine. We can start by establishing what aren’t his motivations. He was never concerned with protecting Russian speakers against a fascist Ukrainian junta determined to persecute them. He is also not standing alongside Russian brothers in Ukraine declaring for independence. Make no mistake, Putin engineered the war and has provided the manpower, the ballistics and the political means. There was no movement to break away from Ukraine until Putin sent in a load of agitators to foment one. I also don’t believe he is particularly worried about NATO encroachment, although paranoid insecurity about its borders is part of the national consciousness in Russia.

His actual reasons are opaque and I suspect known only to a handful. There are three main factors that have guided his hand in Ukraine – a historical perspective, a domestic imperative and an economic reality. I would stress that none of these three factors or even a combination of the three would drive a rational man or a stable nation towards war. But Putin is not rational, and he has long since ceased listening to people that are. And Russia is not a nation at ease with itself or assured of its place in the world.

Let’s start with history. Putin’s policies are certainly expansionist. He has sliced off bits of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in the last 10 years. But whether or not Putin sees his actions as expansionist in the traditional understanding is moot. Putin is a child and a product of the Soviet Union. He called the break up of the Soviet Union “the greatest geo-political tragedy of the twentieth century.” He will see his actions as reclaiming lands rather than invading them, righting historical errors. He would not dream for example of making incursions into other bordering states like Iran or Turkey. But here his world view and his historical perspective are flawed. Ukraine is not Russia and never has been. The Soviet Union was a conglomerate of member states. It was not a Russian empire, as much as Russia might have dominated with Moscow at its centre.

Putin also carries with him the nation’s paranoia about being surrounded and in constant peril. Hence the need to a strong leader to protect the populace (at virtually any cost). Uncertain of the security of its own borders the Soviet Union sought to surround itself with the compliant buffer states of the Warsaw Pact. Putin thought he had reintroduced that on a smaller scale, with Russia surrounded by the former states of the Soviet Union, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Yanukovych-led Ukraine, all with malleable and utterly corrupt leaders tied to Moscow for security, power and personal wealth.

Putin’s actions have certainly been nationalistic, but I see him largely as a man without ideology. Rather a man prepared to wear any ideological clothes that allow him to achieve his goals and stay in power. Scratch that. His goal is to stay in power. He lost the middle classes and the liberals when he rigged the elections in 2011, so now he needs to appeal to the baser nationalistic elements to give himself legitimacy.

And that ties together his other two motives. The Russian economy was heading for meltdown before the sanctions and the fall in the price of oil. Years of stagnation and corruption mean that companies cannot compete properly and do not enjoy the protection of the law unless they are in favour with Putin and his courtiers. There is a positive disincentive to invest in real industry and modernisation. What remains is a collection of oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle carving up the pie to fund their lavish lifestyle. A war every few years, and a perceived threat from outside certainly helps to take the focus away from Putin’s economic mismanagement.

But Russians will put up with economic hardship, repression, inequality and a lack of democracy. They have done many times before and some know little else. But what if their Ukrainian brothers show them there is another way. That there is nothing about the land or the people that condemns them to this sort of life. That it’s possible to live in a stable European democracy, governed by the rule of law. This is what Putin cannot stand. By their example the Ukrainian people could show up the lies and deceits of Putin’s rule. Putin would not survive this revelation, so he has declared a very personal war on Ukraine, whose aim is not military or based on land or economics. Rather it is based on the destruction of the new Ukrainian state. For Putin himself cannot succeed unless Ukraine fails.