The Ukrainian crisis has put Vladimir Putin under the most intense international scrutiny of his tenure. It has also drawn a wave of hyperbole from the West, with some commentators going so far as to compare Putin’s foreign policy to the insidious expansion of Hitler’s third Reich in the 1930’s.
That crude analogy glosses over the glaring differences between Putin and Hitler. After all, Hitler was interested in acquiring much more than what Germany lost due to the Treaty of Versailles; he was motivated by world domination. He also used some of the most ruthless and extreme measures ever deployed in human history to annex and dominate whatever he could, as well as to exterminate millions.
We should obviously be careful when making historical comparisons, but that does not mean that we cannot learn from history. Vladimir Putin is not the second coming of Adolf Hitler; he is the Russian version of George W Bush.
Two of a kind
In 2001, after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, George W Bush famously said he had looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul”. Though he has been widely derided ever since, Russia’s recent ventures in Ukraine have perhaps shown Bush was on to something: clearly, the two now seem more alike than Bush himself ever thought.
But since the Ukraine crisis began, the seductive lure of the Hitler comparison has obscured the much more striking resonance Putin’s foreign policy has with what has been termed the “Bush Doctrine”.
The rule book
Essentially, it was a combination of different elements from several grand strategies, blended into a unique foreign policy cocktail of interventionism, belligerence, a willingness to go it alone, and a commitment to American global supremacy.
Its key element was a keen strategic focus on the domestic politics of other states, especially non-democracies. Bush’s dogged belief in democratic peace theory – crudely put, the idea that democracies generally do not fight one another – played a significant part in his decision to forcibly topple the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While Putin has stopped short of such measures in Ukraine and Georgia, his concern with the domestic politics of what he calls the “near abroad” is clear for all to see. The West interpreted Georgia and Ukraine’s “colour revolutions” as bona fide democratic uprisings, but Putin saw them as well-branded covers for a hidden Western agenda: to erode pro-Russian regimes along Russia’s borderlands and “Westernise” post-Soviet states.
In Putin’s book, freedom and democracy translate into chaos and separatism, and his foreign policy has long been focused on maintaining stability in his neighbouring countries, keeping them loyal to Russia by whatever means necessary.
But whereas Western leaders like Bush used harsh tools to enact their democratising strategies, Putin has used carrots as well as sticks, with cheap loans, cheap gas, and other perks offered as incentives to pro-Russian regimes in exchange for pro-Russian policies.
Putin shares the Bush administration’s penchant for preventive war as a weapon against terrorism and extremism – though again, in his case, it was as much a weapon against the West.
To Putin, the West’s machinations are supposedly intended to put Russia in a vulnerable and peripheral position, both militarily and economically; this is why preventative military ventures were begun in Georgia and Ukraine before they were allowed to integrate into Western institutions like NATO.
He also shares Bush’s confidence in unilateralism. When international law and the UN sided against Bush’s plans, he scrounged up a “coalition of the willing”; similarly, Putin has also displayed ample willingness to go it alone and fly in the face of international opinion – both in the form of military intervention and through diplomatic manoeuvring at the UN level.
Even key allies such as Belarus have often held to a neutral stance in response to Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy measures – and still, Russia has pressed on.
Top of the heap
And at the core of the Bush doctrine, of course, is an imperative to shore up and maintain America’s global hegemony. In this hawkish perspective, the world needs America to be a benign, dominant superpower if the liberal order is to endure. Without that leadership, competition and chaos would reign.
Putin’s most crucial goal isn’t so different: to maintain and establish Russia as a regional superpower in the post-Soviet arena, and as a global counterweight to the EU, NATO, and the US. He fears that without Russia restored to its role as a dominant force, the chaos that engulfed Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the 1990s will return.
After all, he reportedly considers the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
To the limit
But just as Bush’s inclinations clearly varied with the circumstance, so do Putin’s. Bush was not, despite his cowboyish caricature, primed to wage preventive unilateral war at every opportunity; there was, for instance, no US attack on Iran. And likewise, for all that his approach to Ukraine has been assertive to say the least, Putin is hardly itching to throw the Russian military into every situation.
Putin is not the biggest geopolitical threat since Hitler: his aims, strategy and tactics are obviously far less threatening, and the comparison remains facile. But he should learn the lessons of Bush’s misadventures. His military overreach, and the resulting damage to Russia’s international legitimacy, will eventually come back to bite him, just as Bush’s foreign policy became hugely unpopular around the world and caused serious and long-lasting diplomatic problems.
So unpopular, in fact, that in another resonance between the two men, he too found himself regularly compared to Hitler.