Like many rulers of Russia before him, especially Stalin, Vladimir Putin is a keen student of History. Judging by his current actions, it seems as though he has been particularly brushing up on the story of 1938, when another dictator, one Adolf Hitler, deliberately provoked the destruction of an independent European state – Czechoslovakia – by inflating the grievances of an ethnic minority within its borders to undermine and eventually obliterate it.
So has Putin been following Hitler’s playbook in his confrontation with Ukraine? It looks very much like it. Consider: on 28 May 1938 Hitler told a meeting of his top generals:
‘I am utterly determined that Czechoslovakia should disappear from the map’
Similarly, Putin has openly expressed the view – not just once, but frequently – that Ukraine is an integral part of a greater Russia that has been torn from the bosom of the Motherland and must be restored, either peacefully or by naked force. Only this week, in a rambling televised monologue, using language eerily reminiscent of the Nazi Fuhrer, Putin described Ukraine as a ‘colony’ that had ‘no historical right to exist’.
Just as Hitler deeply resented the very creation of Czechoslovakia from the ashes of his native Austria and the shame of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, so president Putin regards Ukraine as a shameful and illegitimate by-product of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; an event he has described as the greatest disaster of the 20th century and has vowed to reverse.
Both men parlayed their personal grouch fests into state policy in defiance of international treaties. Hitler occupied the Rhineland and Austria before setting about the dismantling of the Czechs; Putin has followed suit, causing wars in Chechnya and Georgia, before annexing the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 as a preliminary step to his current aggression.
Both men have used the existence of sizeable minorities of ethnic Germans and Russians respectively as Trojan horses within the walls of their targets. The Sudeten Germans comprised almost a quarter of the total population of pre-war Czechoslovakia, and Hitler used their leader Konrad Henlein as his glove puppet to ramp up demands for local autonomy into full absorption in the Reich.
A similar proportion of ethnic Russians live within Ukraine. And just as Hitler claimed that the Sudeten Germans were suffering ‘unheard of atrocities’ at the hands of the hated Czechs, so Putin has used the word ‘genocide’ to describe the alleged oppression of the Russian minority by the Ukrainian government. He has justified his invasion of eastern Ukraine with this excuse.
Putin has only been able to turn his refusal to recognise Ukraine’s right to exist into actual armed aggression against it by his perception of the weakness of the West. In another eerie echo of the past, a divided and dithering Western alliance lacks both the will and the means to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, just as Britain and France abandoned the Czechs to their fate at Munich in 1938.
As a former KGB officer, Putin is naturally a master of dirty tricks. He will be well aware of how Hitler, having succeeded in dismembering Czechoslovakia, went on to trigger the Second World War the following year in August 1939 with the mother of all false flag operations. Nazi agents seized a German radio station at Gleiwitz on the Polish border, broadcast a provocative message in Polish, and then vanished.
They left behind a gruesome calling card: the bullet riddled bodies of murdered concentration camp inmates dressed in Polish uniforms, and claimed that the Poles had invaded Germany. The following day, having secured their fake casus belli, the Wehrmacht rolled into Poland and the war began. With reports of similar false flag tricks already coming out of eastern Ukraine, the Poles and the Baltic states may be forgiven for feeling a little queasy.
It is, of course, the traditional Russian response to smaller states who dare to defy their will to send in the tanks. What is playing out in the Ukraine today was seen in the streets of Budapest in 1956, and of Prague in 1968. Whether we will see the same scenes in Kiev in the days or weeks ahead still remains to be seen. But before he pushes his luck further, Vladimir Putin may care to reflect on the fate of the ruler whose modus operandi he appears to be following so faithfully: aggressive dictators rarely die in their beds.