The German people under Adolf Hitler were not the war happy, death-loving machine with skulls emblazoned on their foreheads – Hollywood would have us believe – at the outset of the war anyway. Public approval matters, even to despots and madmen.
Hitler actually had multiple public relations problems in the first 3 years of his power consolidation that severely hamstrung his freedom to act because the German people, war weary and suspicious of aggressive politicians, had only reluctantly supported Hitler’s ascendancy and only then because he had repeatedly promised peace.
Unfortunately, his early and relatively bloodless victories in the Rhineland and the Sudetenland (and of course, eventually the rest of Czechoslovakia), are the public relations glue that cemented his power over the public.
I mention this detail of history because Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a remarkably similar position to the one Hitler was in during 1934. Brought to power on three promises; to restore the economy, to restore German national dignity and finally to rearm Germany for protection purposes only. His pitch? Germany had a right to protect her people, no matter which border they were behind, and that Germany’s national enemies were twisting the world’s economy and banking systems to punish the German people from without, while Germany’s own Jews attacked Germany from within.
Sound familiar? It should, you could take out a few words and substitute a few others and most of Hitler’s speeches from the early 1930’s sound so much like Putin from early last year, it gives one the chills. And like Hitler, Putin kills and jails his enemies and the families of his enemies, weak and strong, great and small. Again, very Hitler like, who also couldn’t take even light criticism.
The world had a chance to handle Hitler and Germany differently in the 1930’s. Foreign governments have to be extremely careful in situations like this because desperate people make poor choices concerning their own leadership, usually warming in great numbers to leaders who talk of and/or deliver military conquests, which of course, are almost always a financial mistake or are temporary, pyrrhic or even made up.
Ukraine is the equivalent of Hitler’s Poland. A worthless strategic and tactical target, Poland was never Hitler’s prize; it was on the doorstep to the prize, Russia. Here, a comparison to Putin finally breaks in his favor. I don’t think Putin has a grand plan to take over Europe and then the world, as Hitler definitely did. Whew.
Putin’s an opportunist. He learns as he goes. The whole Crimea thing really surprised and amazed him. He got a warm water port with so little objection from the West; it impacted his calculus in eastern Ukraine. If Crimea didn’t matter to the West, maybe no one really cared about Ukraine either, after all it’s 45 million people are poorer than the Russian people, much poorer than the Polish people and desperately poor by US standards.
But here Putin hit a wall. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows her borders aren’t far from Ukraine. So, she meticulously dismantled the Russian economy starting a year ago — with one deft financial and soul crushing move after another – many of them still unknown to the business and financial markets, although the results are certainly clear.
After the effect of this took hold, I believe even a self-deluding Putin knows he’s in trouble. The word retreat isn’t in his vocabulary but he knows he has to retreat. He’s complaining about the “obvious” oil price conspiracy the West has engineered, but it’s half hearted, even his outsized paranoia can’t fathom how the oil market tycoons were so easily manipulated into doing this to him and his cash cushion.
Obama and Merkel need to let him up off the canvas. They even need to let him save face by letting him keep Crimea. I know that sounds remarkably like Chamberlains appeasement, but I mean it. Obama and Merkel have won the day; now they need to do the really hard thing, win the peace.
That means protecting the Russian people, but not Putin. Protecting the Russian economy, even if his friends make a billion or two, or ten, more. The Russian economy is so burdened with corruption it doesn’t fully function, but a war with Russia, or one between her and any of her neighbors won’t help Russia or the rest of the world.
But, the Russian people don’t know that, what they do know is that if the sanctions and economic warfare being practiced by Merkel and Obama doesn’t abate soon, it won’t matter, the Russian economy will completely tank – and then – they’ll have nothing to lose. That’s a really dangerous thing to let a complete population come to believe.