Recently, former Secretary of State (as well as one-time First Lady and U.S. Senator) Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in on the developing crisis in Ukraine while visiting Long Beach, CA. Speaking at a private fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club on Tuesday, March 4, Clinton compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea to the aggressive moves made by Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler in the years before WWII, saying: “[I]t’s what Hitler did back in the (nineteen) ‘30s … [T]he ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.” Elaborating on these remarks, Clinton then stated that she thought of Putin as a person who “believes his mission is to restore Russian greatness … When he looks at Ukraine, he sees a place that he believes is by its very nature part of Mother Russia.”1
You can almost hear the Senator’s rebuking inner-monologue cautioning restraint after the event: Whoa! Maybe I should walk those comments back a little, considering the politically correct (yet curiously alarmist) climate that we live in??
Sure enough, on March 5 Clinton toned down her rhetoric to a more measured analysis of Putin’s justification for Russian activity in the Black Sea peninsula, during a Q&A session at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), saying: “I’m not making a comparison certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.” She then re-iterated her belief that the Russian President is a man who wants to restore his country’s Soviet-era glory. Clinton also added her personal assessment of Putin — having dealt with the man face-to-face during her tenure as Secretary of State — commenting that she saw the former KGB agent turned diplomat as “a tough guy with a thin skin”.2
But looking past the political ramifications of Clinton’s remarks — not to mention the inevitable reference to Godwin’s Law by snarky coffeehouse aficionados — is there any merit to her comparison between the current Russian President’s activities over the past several years, and the mad Nazi dictator’s actions in the run-up to WWII? In order to determine the answer to that question, your author has constructed a side-by-side timeline detailing key moments in the political careers of Hitler and Putin, respectively. As you will see, the former First Lady may have been onto something:
Table: Comparative timeline for actions taken by Hitler (during the 1930s) and Vladimir Putin (from 2008-2014)
|1935: Hitler begins to enact the Nuremberg Laws, which were designed to systematically isolate Jewish Germans and revoke their civil liberties — e.g., Jews were stripped of citizenship and sexual relations between Germans and Jews were outlawed.||2013: Putin begins to enact a string of “anti-gay” laws, which were designed to systematically isolate LGBT individuals and revoke their civil liberties — e.g., LGBT individuals, as well as individuals “suspected” of being gay (or pro-gay), may be arrested and detained for up to 14 days. Also, homosexuals and lesbians are forbidden from adopting children, and the dissemination of “homosexual propaganda” is classified as pornography under law.3|
|1936: Germany hosts the Olympics amid protests from the international community due to Hitler’s treatment of “non-Aryan” people.||2014: Russia hosts the Winter Olympics amid protests from the international community due to Putin’s treatment of people belonging to LGBT communities.|
|*1938: In October, Hitler annexes northwestern Czechoslovakia (also known as the Sudetenland) under the pretense that three-million German speaking citizens in the area were being subjected to persecution. Western powers, led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, chose appeasement after Hitler threatened war if he was not allowed to keep the annexed territory. Winston Churchill warns that Hitler’s demands wouldn’t end there.||2008: Russia engages in armed conflict with Georgia, over a dispute between the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Within five days, the Russian army is well on its way to capturing Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. French mediation de-escalates the situation, as Putin (then Prime Minister) is appeased when the contested regions are allowed to remain under de facto Russian control.4|
|*1938: In March, Hitler annexes Austria into the Third Reich without violence. The Anschluss, as it was called, occurred with the overwhelming approval of the Austrian people. No countries protested this breach of the Treaty of Versailles.||2014: In March, Putin annexes Crimea into the Russian Federation largely without violence (after occupying the Black Sea peninsula in February). The annexation occurred with the overwhelming approval of the Crimean people. No countries acted to prevent this breach of international law.|
|1939: On 1 September, Hitler’s armies launch an invasion of Poland, sparking the onset of World War II.||2014: Russian military build-up in the Black Sea Peninsula is interpreted by many as an ominous portent of things to come …|
*Note: The chronological order for these two events were switched for the purposes of this table — i.e., Hitler annexed Austria before Northwestern Czechoslovakia. **A complete timeline for Hitler’s life is available through The Open University.
Clinton’s (arguably) inflammatory remarks come at a time when the White House is scrambling to de-escalate tensions with Russia, despite President Obama’s implementation of harsh economic sanctions against the Slavic superpower. By signing Executive Order 13660, Mr. Obama restricted the assets of wealthy Russian businessmen in Putin’s inner-circle. Less than two weeks later, on Monday, March 17, the President expanded on this order by freezing key sectors of industry in the Russian economy itself.5 However, Putin seems largely undeterred by the sanctions so far, and Russian military activity continues in the Black Sea Peninsula.
Many American policy experts predict that Russia will not relinquish Crimea even after being placed in an economic vise. As if in echo of these predictions, Putin doggedly officialized the illegal annexation of Crimea on Tuesday, March 18, by “signing” for the Ukrainian territory even as more sanctions from Europe and the U.S. took effect. Additionally, the Russian President has advised investors in his country to close their international accounts and concentrate wealth domestically to help Russia survive the sanctions.
Despite Putin’s recent assurances that his country has no designs for the rest of Ukraine, the convenient arrival of politically active Russian “tourists” in the country’s Eastern province of Donetsk, who have been charged with rabble rousing against the government in Kiev, seems overly-coincidental at best. It is also worth mentioning that Putin spent seventeen years in the KGB — working for much of that time in counter-intelligence (i.e., disinformation) — ultimately achieving the rank of lieutenant-colonel before resigning in order to pursue a career in politics. Based solely on his unapologetic view of the notorious organization, it seems unlikely that the man has left his training in subterfuge and dishonesty behind.6,7,8
But whether Vladimir Putin is a maniacal despot bent on world domination like Adolf Hitler, a sleeper agent for the KGB tasked with reviving the Soviet Union through subtle political machinations over the course of twenty-five years, or an overreaching would-be-emperor with Napoleon Syndrome, we may safely assume (at least) this much:
He’s just getting started.
1. Meeks, Karen R. Hillary Clinton compares Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine to Adolf Hitler’s in Nazi Germany [Internet]. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Press Telegram; 2014 Mar 4 [cited 2014 Mar 21]. Available from: http://www.presstelegram.com/general-news/20140304/hillary-clinton-compares-vladimir-putins-actions-in-ukraine-to-adolf-hitlers-in-nazi-germany
2. Rucker, Philip. Hillary Clinton’s Putin-Hitler comments draw rebukes as she wades into Ukraine conflict [Internet]. Washington, DC: The Washington Post – Politics; 2014 Mar 5 [cited 2014 Mar 21]. Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/hillary-clintons-putin-hitler-comments-draw-rebukes-as-she-wades-into-ukraine-conflict/2014/03/05/31a748d8-a486-11e3-84d4-e59b1709222c_story.html
3. Fierstein, Harvey. Russia’s anti-gay crackdown [Internet]. New York, NY: The New York Times – The Opinion Pages; 2013 Jul 21 [cited 2014 Mar 21]. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/opinion/russias-anti-gay-crackdown.html?_r=0
4. Englund, Will. Comparing the Crimea conflict with the Georgia-Russia situation of 2008 [Internet]. Washington, DC: The Washington Post – Europe; 2014 Mar 2 [cited 2014 Mar 21]. Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/crimea-crisis-may-seem-like-georgia-russia-situation-of-2008-but-its-really-not/2014/03/02/39db1890-a242-11e3-a5fa-55f0c77bf39c_story.html
5. Fact sheet: Ukraine-related sanctions [Internet]. Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary; 2014 Mar 17 [cited 2014 Mar 22]. Available from: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/17/fact-sheet-ukraine-related-sanctions
6. Roth, Andrew. From Russia, ‘tourists’ stir the protests [Internet]. New York, NY: The New York Times; 2014 Mar 3 [cited 2014 Mar 22]. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/world/europe/russias-hand-can-be-seen-in-the-protests.html?_r=0
7. Crimea crisis: Russian President Putin’s speech annotated [Internet]. London, UK: BBC News; 2014 Mar 19 [cited 2014 Mar 22]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26652058
8. Hoffman, David. Putin’s career rooted in Russia’s KGB [Internet]. Washington, DC: The Washington Post; 2000 Jan 30 [cited 2014 Mar 22]. Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/russiagov/putin.htm