Dangers of Demonizing Putin

The demonizing of Putin has undercut a diplomatic solution to the dangerous confrontation over the Ukraine.

Adolph Hitler burned to a crisp in his besieged Berlin bunker in 1945. But his specter still haunts the corridors of American power, regularly dragged out to frighten us into supporting the various military misadventures of the US governing class.

The Furher’s latest incarnation is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose villainous behavior, as Hillary Clinton put it, is just “what Hitler did back in the 1930s.” She has been joined by a chorus of blustering editorial writers, pundits and politicians denouncing Putin as the greatest threat to world peace since the Cold War, if not since World War II. If Biden does not force Russia to back down over Ukraine, goes the mantra, it will be Munich 1938 all over again. After the Ukraine, all Eastern Europe. And after that…

The misuse of the Hitler/Munich analogy gets sprinkled like fairy dust to turn complicated conflicts into “good guy vs. bad guy” comic strips. Putin, the latest in a long line of Russian autocrats, is no doubt a “bad guy.” But it it is comic book logic to think that makes US/NATO the “good guys.”

Yet, when a Russian group with Putin’s blessing spends roughly a hundred thousand dollars on social media during a $6.5 billion US election it is a vicious and unforgivable attack on American democracy. When the US government and its ally the International Monetary Fund, raises billions to elect Yeltsin president of Russia and at least $5 billion to generate the street unrest that successfully ousted an elected president of the Ukraine, it’s a defense of democratic freedom. End of story.

This is not just harmless hyperbole. Or, in the case of the Hitler/Putin analogies, a diminishing, if not trivializing, of the historic meaning of the Holocaust and other NAZI horrors. The demonizing of Putin has undercut a diplomatic solution to the dangerous confrontation over the Ukraine.

Words have consequences. You cannot compromise with unmitigated evil. So once you’ve established that your adversary is a Hitler-class monster, the room for negotiation narrows, and often disappears.

Thus, the charge that Ho Chi Minh was another Hitler helped drive our lockstep march into the Vietnam debacle.

“Everything I knew about history” said Lyndon Johnson, “told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what [Neville] Chamberlain did….” From there, it was a small step to the infamous “domino” theory. “Once Vietnam falls,” said a military strategist explained at the time “so will Southeast Asia, then India, Iran, and Turkey,” Others added, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Viet Nam fell. Nothing else did.  Sixty years later, with the same boundaries and still run by the Communist Party Vietnam is a major US trading partner and an ally in the US effort to contain China.

Saddam Hussein was another Hitler cartoon. George HW Bush said Saddam was worse than the Nazi leader. Donald Rumsfeld boasted that unlike the feckless British and French at Munich, he and the Bush’s, both father and son, would stand up to Hussein before he took over the entire middle east. As it turned out, they knew he was a paper monster whose “weapons of mass destruction” never existed. But the result was 20 years of useless destructive war which left the Middle East more dangerous and unstable than it was before we invaded.

Today, by demonizing Putin, the US and NATO are painting themselves into a similar corner over the Ukraine.

The central issue is not that complicated.

NATO announced in 2008, and reiterated in 2013, that it wants the Ukraine and Georgia to join its military alliance against Russia. This came on top of three decades of NATO’s relentless expansion to the east after the Cold war ended. By and large, the Russians accepted this expansion, despite their resentment over what they believed was a promise not to move NATO eastward made to Gorbachev and Yeltsin in exchange for their dismantling the Soviet Union.

But having NATO – with the US military – in the Ukraine and Georgia was too much. The map tells you why; the Ukraine is a huge deep wedge into Russia’s geography and Georgia seals off its southern border.

So, the Russians reacted to NATO’s move by disconnecting a couple of Russian-speaking regions from Georgia, and forcing the Ukraine to give over the Crimea, site of its only sizeable warm water port at Sevastopol, whose existence has enormous strategic importance for the Russians. Not nice. But understandable.

The US/NATO position is that Russia has nothing to fear. If you accept that, then it follows that Putin’s real motives must be 1) he wants to annex the Ukraine on his way to reconquering the Soviet empire and/or 2) he fears a stable prosperous western democracy in its midst.

NATO probably does not intend to invade Russia -unless provoked. 

But neither does Russia probably intend to invade the Ukraine. – unless provoked. The Ukraine, much less Eastern Europe, is far too big for Putin’s Russia, with a GDP less than Italy’s, to swallow. And Russia is as economically dependent on Europe as a customer for its gas as Europe is dependent on Russia for its supply. Isn’t that what global capitalism is supposed to be about?

Given that the US has no vital interests in extending NATO to the Ukraine, the basic lines of a settlement seem clear. The US/NATO agrees not to admit the Ukraine and Georgia to its military alliance. Russia guarantees Ukraine’s independence to develop economically and politically without interference. And the Ukraine guarantees rights for its Russian-speaking regions.

But, according to the Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Wendy Sherman US chief negotiator, keeping the Ukraine from joining NATO is a “non-starter,” meaning the US won’t even talk about it. Why? It’s a moral issue, explains Blinken. the Ukraine has a “sovereign right to write its own future”. “The West,” reports the New York Times, “insists all countries must have the freedom to choose their alliances” 

Really?  The United States has at least 800 bases in 80 countries around the world. In dozens more, it sends “Special operations” military in clandestine efforts to undercut or support government it favors. In many countries, the most important political figure is the US ambassador or commander of the US forces. 

The Monroe Doctrine declares the entire Western Hemisphere to be in America’s sphere of influence. The Carter Doctrine extended that to all the Middle East. During the Cold War, US leaders were willing to go nuclear to prevent Cuba from exercising its sovereign right to have weapons of its own choosing on its own soil.

Can anyone imagine the US reaction if Mexico announced it intended to enter a military alliance with China? 

But so long as our foreign policy is mired in the Good vs Evil comic strip – with frequent guest appearances of the Hitler Hobgoblin — Biden, Blinken and the NATO foreign policy elite don’t have to answer that question.  

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux, Member of the Editorial Board of Insight, is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book "The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class".