Alexander J. Motyl
January 1, 2024
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s illegitimate president, reportedly says he’d consider a ceasefire in his war against Ukraine. Some Western policymakers, analysts and journalists have responded with interest, even with enthusiasm. Why not take Putin at his word and, to quote that famous geo-politician John Lennon, give peace a chance?
Sure, I say, go ahead. If you have time to waste, by all means do so. But don’t expect anything worthy of serious consideration from the Kremlin’s bloodthirsty tyrant. After all, he’s a serial liar, killer, genocidaire, and warmonger. Not to mention a fascist and imperialist dedicated to destroying the international order. If you think you can strike a deal with such a man, give it a whack, but don’t be surprised if he whacks you instead. By the way, if you’re interested in a nice bridge in lower Manhattan, do get in touch: I can get you a special deal.
The reality is that no right-thinking people should trust Putin with their wallets. Why should anyone trust him with a country — Ukraine?
It’s useful to remind ourselves of Putin’s striking similarity to a dictator who reneged on two sets of negotiations in 1938-1939: the Munich Treaty that gave appeasement a bad name and the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact that formalized the USSR‘s full-throated collaboration with Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime.
Small wonder that a variety of policymakers and experts have all made the comparison, albeit belatedly, almost a decade after Ukrainians began calling Mother Russia’s incomparable führer “Putler.”
These include President Biden, Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, German political scientist Andreas Umland, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Rabbi Abraham Cooper, liberal Russian oppositionist Leonid Gozman, and scores of journalists and analysts.
Naturally, the fact that a bevy of prominent people agree on something doesn’t make it true, but even skeptics would have to agree that this burgeoning collection of individuals just may be on to something in comparing Putin with Hitler.
History bears out the validity of the comparison. Both Weimar Germany and post-Soviet Russia emerged humiliated, bitter and impoverished from systemic cataclysms — World War I in the German case, and the collapse of the USSR in the Russian case. Both countries experienced economic disarray, widespread immiseration, social anomie, and cultural confusion, which they conveniently blamed on the democrats and democracy. In both countries, a demagogic pretender came to power as a result of elite machinations and immediately began turning the screws on political freedoms and democratic institutions, while constructing a personality cult and
propaganda apparatus that promised deliverance from humiliation and a return to greatness. Both regimes quickly turned authoritarian and fascist.
Imperial expansion justified in revanchist terms followed, first pursued with a variety of diplomatic, economic, cultural and political means, and then with intimidation, force and violence. Both regimes and both men demonized a nation — Jews for Hitler, Ukrainians for Putin. Both launched wars, broke treaties, committed genocide, and turned their countries into rogue states. Both also did untold damage to their countries. We’ll see whether their ends will be identical too. Hitler committed suicide; Putin has committed political suicide internationally. Germany lost the war and, for a time, became a pile of rubble. Russia will lose the war and turn into a pile of institutional rubble.
Regardless of how Putin’s time in office ends, his legacy will be one of mass death and massive destruction. Like Hitler, he will go down in history as the man who tried to destroy Ukraine and Europe but wound up destroying his own country.
Unless, naïve policymakers in the West decide that negotiating with him now is the only way to end the war and stop his expansionist drive. Would that it were true! The sad reality is that, just as there was no talking to Hitler, so too there is no talking to Putin. Both staked their political careers, their political survival, and their physical existence on waging war and killing their perceived ethnic enemy. That means, should there be a ceasefire, Putin will use it to lick his wounds, rearm, continue to insist that Ukraine doesn’t deserve to exist, and eventually return to the battlefield, stronger and more self-confident.
Can one really talk to someone living in a parallel universe guided by a code of ethics that contradicts everything the West and Ukraine stand for? Can one trust a congenital liar? Keep in mind that Hitler’s invasion of Poland — which marked the beginning of World War II — was officially a defensive action in response to an alleged attack by “Polish” commandos on a German radio tower in the border city of Gleiwitz. So, too, Putin insists that he never invaded Ukraine: Quite the contrary, he claims, it was the Ukrainians who were killing Russians and who planned to commit genocide — and Putin had no choice but to defend Russia.
Ukrainians, the “peaceniks” insist, should give it a try. If Ukrainians agree, they should insist on one tiny condition. Western supporters of a negotiated settlement should place all their assets — their homes, cars, jobs and savings — on the line as a sign of their certainty that Putin will negotiate in good faith. If he doesn’t, they lose it all, even the shirts on their backs.
So, yes, by all means negotiate with “Putler,” but do put your money where your mouth is. Meanwhile, keep that bridge in lower Manhattan in mind.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”