Why Putin’s war in Ukraine turned into a military disaster

Almost as soon as Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, political pundits began comparing him to Hitler. Both men had imposed dictatorial rule over their respective countries, both men suppressed dissent and eliminated independent media, both men had no hesitation in murdering people they considered a threat to their rule. Both Hitler and Putin invaded a series of neighbouring countries, both used lies and disinformation to justify their actions, both used a symbol – in Putin’s case “Z”, in Hitler’s the swastika – to advertise support for their aims. Both men had no hesitation in causing death and destruction on a massive scale to further their ends.

Jonathan Katz, the Washington-based director of the Democracy Initiatives network, has described Putin as “this century’s equivalent to Hitler”. Putin’s character, he says, “disturbingly mirrors traits of Hitler”. The former director of US national intelligence James Clapper has told CNN that Putin is “a 21st-century Hitler”, a phrase used by a variety of commentators ranging from the former Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to the Ukrainian minister of defence. The British Liberal Democrat politician Norman Baker has claimed in the Daily Mail that “everything Vladimir Putin does echoes Adolf Hitler”. Even the Prince of Wales, speaking to a Jewish Holocaust survivor in Canada in 2014 after the Russian invasion of Crimea, said that “Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.” Critics of the West’s cautious approach to Putin’s territorial aggrandisements routinely draw parallels with the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which Britain and France sought to appease Hitler and avert a general war by forcing Czechoslovakia to give in to the Nazi dictator’s demands for a large chunk of its territory.

As Jewish groups have pointed out, Putin has not established extermination camps or gas chambers as Hitler did to carry out the mass murder of European Jews. But Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has directly called the indiscriminate bombardment of his country’s major towns and cities “a genocide”. Poland’s president Andrzej Duda has said that the Russian invasion bears “the features of a genocide – it aims at eliminating and destroying a nation”. The mounting evidence of indiscriminate massacres of civilian men, women and children by the retreating Russian armies in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns is impossible to ignore, or – despite risible Russian efforts to do so – explain away. Genocide it undoubtedly is: these people are being killed because they are Ukrainians, and for no other reason.

[See also: Why Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

Genocide was at the heart of the Nazi project. This year is the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ “General Plan for the East”, a proposal for the mass murder by disease, starvation, neglect and “extermination through labour” of up to 45 million “Slavs”, to prepare for German settlement across east-central Europe. In its official version, completed in June 1942, the plan, which first came to light in 1957, exposed the full extent of the most radical genocidal programme ever devised. Over 30 years, assuming a German victory in the war, the Nazis proposed to “liquidate” 50 per cent of Latvians, Estonians and Czechs, 75 per cent of Belarusians, and 85 per cent of Lithuanians and Poles. The Ukrainians were to disappear altogether: 35 per cent of them, deemed racially suitable, were to be “Germanised”; the rest were to be eliminated.

Fortunately, the plan never had a chance to become reality, but the genocidal attitude of the Nazis towards the millions they regarded as Slav “subhumans” found expression in the killing of thousands of Polish intellectuals and the deliberate starvation of more than three-and-a-quarter million Red Army soldiers. The latter were taken prisoner, penned into huge enclosures on the east European plains, and left to die without food, shelter or medication.

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Anyone who thinks that Ukrainians are “Nazis”, or that Stalin was the principal enemy of the Ukrainians and the other inhabitants of east-central Europe, needs to read this shocking document. Stalin ordered the shooting of some 40,000 Polish officers captured by the Red Army in Eastern Poland, and deported thousands of mainly upper-class Poles to Siberia, but these crimes were committed in the name of class warfare rather than ethnic hatred. For the victims, it made little difference; nevertheless, the almost unimaginable scale of the “General Plan for the East” puts it in a category of its own.

The Nazis’ genocidal intentions went far beyond the elimination of those “subhumans” who stood in the way of German settlement. Genocide comes in many varieties and degrees, and the mass murder by the Nazis of nearly six million European Jews was qualitatively different from the extermination programme contained in the General Plan for the East. From the beginning, the Jews were for the Nazis the “world-enemy”, dedicated to destroying Germany and the Germans in a global conspiracy aimed at ruling the world. Hitler believed every Jew was predestined by their “racial character” to work towards this end. Nazi wartime cartoons showed the three most powerful enemies of Germany – the British empire, the Soviet Union and the US – being steered from behind by malevolent Jewish conspirators.

It was this belief that led the German invaders of east-central Europe to degrade and humiliate the Jewish inhabitants of the area, forcing Jewish elders to dance in the town squares until they collapsed from exhaustion, making Jewish girls clean latrines with their blouses, and committing other atrocities too revolting to detail. It also caused the Nazis to try to eliminate European Jews in the quickest way possible, in contrast to the longer-term mass extermination planned for the region’s Slavs, who were seldom treated with the grotesque and elaborate sadism reserved for the Jews.

Few things in Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, therefore, seem more absurd than his claim that Ukraine is ruled by a clique of “Nazis”, not least because the Ukrainian president is himself Jewish. Unlike Hitler, however, Putin does not think of Ukrainians as subhumans, let alone a malignant global threat to the existence of his country. He thinks of them as Russians. In March 2014, celebrating the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, he declared that Russians and Ukrainians were one people. “Kiev,” he went on, harking back to the Middle Ages, “is the mother of Russian cities.” In February 2020 he repeated this belief and alleged that Ukrainian national identity was the creation of malign foreign influences. There was no Ukrainian state; it was a fiction. It followed that apart from the tiny minority of “Nazis” who ruled them, Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as they liberated them from foreign occupation.

And so Russian military conscripts were not prepared for the invasion. They were quickly disillusioned as they encountered unexpectedly strong resistance. Since the invasion, they have made only slow progress in some border regions, and none at all in others. In some locations they have been beaten back by Ukrainian forces. Civilians in occupied towns and villages have come out with Ukrainian flags to demonstrate against the invaders. Artillery bombardments and air strikes have inflicted severe damage on the physical fabric of many Ukrainian towns and cities but they do not seem to have weakened the resistance; if anything, they have strengthened it.

Nato and the EU, bystanders when Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula and then the eastern borderland provinces of Ukraine, have surprised Putin by taking strong and concerted action to impose sanctions that are already damaging the Russian economy. The expected swift occupation of the entire country, followed by the rapid removal of Zelensky and his replacement by a Russian puppet, has not happened. For Putin and his regime, this is a military and political defeat of humiliating proportions. It now seems that Russian forces are recognising this embarrassing reality and are withdrawing from central Ukraine to consolidate their position in its eastern provinces.

It is here, if anywhere, that the parallel with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union can be found. For Hitler also expected a quick victory as he sent his armies – more than three-and-a-half million men, with thousands of tanks, armoured vehicles, combat aircraft and artillery – into Soviet territory on 22 June 1941. So confident was Hitler that the edifice of Soviet society would collapse that he did not bother to equip his troops with winter clothes.

[See also: The Western mind no longer understands Putin]

At first, his confidence appeared to be justified. Along a thousand-mile front, the German and allied armies advanced at speed, encircling and capturing or killing hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers. Hitler and his generals were euphoric. “It’s really not saying too much,” Franz Halder, head of the German army supreme command, noted in his diary on 3 July 1941, “if I claim that the campaign against Russia has been won in 14 days.”

But Halder and his master had miscalculated. Ukrainian peasants greeted the invading troops with the traditional offerings of bread and salt, expecting liberation from Stalin’s rule, which had included a famine that killed millions during the forced collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s. Instead they were met with further horrors, as the Germans looted and burned their way through the countryside, reduced towns to rubble, and met even minor acts of resistance with mass executions and the torching of entire villages. Soon, heartened by Stalin’s abandonment of Bolshevik rhetoric to call on people to fight the Germans in the spirit of Russian patriotism, partisan groups were emerging everywhere, while Stalin’s generals mobilised military reserves and brought them to the front. By early August, Halder was confessing in his diary that “we have underestimated the Russian colossus”. The Soviets seemed to have limitless reserves of men and equipment. Reinforcements kept on arriving to replace on the battle front the hundreds of thousands captured or killed.

Worse was to come for the Germans. When the autumn rains arrived, their armies became bogged down in oceans of mud. Soon, the Russian winter was beginning to bite, with temperatures plunging to -40˚C. Such was Hitler’s overweening confidence, born of his continuing contempt for the “Slavs”, that he ignored all these problems. “Never before,” he proclaimed on 8 November 1941, “has a giant empire been smashed and struck down in a shorter time than Soviet Russia.” But his troops were tired after months of continual advance. They were ill equipped for a winter campaign, and their numbers were depleted by continual counter-strikes launched by the Red Army. Disaster loomed.

When the Soviet general Georgy Zhukov launched a counter-attack, the Germans were forced back. In the terrible winter conditions, they began to freeze to death in their summer uniforms. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels launched a widespread campaign in Germany to get civilians to send winter clothing to the beleaguered army. But it was too late. Under the strain of defeat, one German general after another suffered a heart attack or a collapse in health and resigned, including Halder himself. Hitler, meanwhile, regarded anything other than uncompromising resistance to the advancing Russians as cowardice. Any general who ordered a withdrawal in the interests of preserving the lives of his troops was instantly dismissed.

Furious with his senior officers, Hitler took over as commander-in-chief of the army in December 1941. In the following months the German forces advanced once more in the East, but it was a false dawn: in the winter of 1942-43, the Battle of Stalingrad sealed their fate and inaugurated a period of continuous retreat that ended in 1945 with the Soviets occupying Berlin and Hitler taking his own life.

Both Hitler and Putin were encouraged in their deadly illusions by subordinates who did not utter a word of criticism of their policies. This may well be because of fear of the consequences of disagreeing. The televised meeting of Putin with his leading advisers in late February showed him bullying them until he got the support he wanted. As for Hitler, anyone who disputed his policy of never giving an inch to the enemy was likely to find himself cashiered from the army and deprived of his pension. Both dictators surrounded themselves with true believers, men who had long since surrendered any independence of judgement and simply acted as an echo chamber for their leader’s views.

In the cases of both Putin and Hitler, ideology – a nationalist belief in the essentially Russian character of Ukrainians in the first case, a dogmatic conviction of the superiority of the “Aryan” race in the second – created an overconfidence that led to a humiliating military defeat. In both cases, an invasion that was supposed not to encounter any serious resistance turned into a disaster. In both cases a dictator acted on ideologically driven assumptions that quickly turned out to be false. Both Hitler and Putin projected their own murderous beliefs on to those they imagined to be their enemies: Hitler and Goebbels justified the Holocaust by claiming that the Jews were aiming to exterminate the German race, while Putin and his subordinates have justified his assault on Ukraine by claiming that the “Nazis” in the country’s leadership were aiming to exterminate the Russians in the eastern Donbas region.

[See also: Ukraine is better prepared for a long war than Russia]

But there the resemblance ends. To judge from his speeches over the past few years, Putin, who regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a national catastrophe, wants to recreate the Russia of his early years and absorb into it neighbouring states that he believes have no right to their independent status. He is evidently prepared to use any means he considers necessary to achieve his goal. At the moment at least, the conflict seems confined to one part of Europe and the aims of the invasion are limited, even shrinking: Putin apparently has abandoned the idea of regime change in Ukraine and is opting for the division of the country instead.

As the breadth and depth of Ukrainian national consciousness have become clear, Putin and his troops have decided that the “Nazis” they claim to be fighting are not just a tiny clique but virtually the whole people. Still, the mass murder of civilians seems to be a product of defeat and retreat; it was not planned in advance, unlike the mass murder of Ukrainians and other “Slavs” by the invading Germans in the Second World War.

Hitler’s aims, in contrast to Putin’s, were not confined to one corner of Europe. He was never interested in merely reversing the territorial settlement achieved by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919; not interested just in establishing German hegemony over the rest of the continent. Addressing his followers on 5 November 1930, after his stunning success in September’s national elections, Hitler lamented that in the “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s, Britain and France had taken the lion’s share, leaving only the leftovers to the newly minted German empire:

“No people had more right to the concept of ruling the world [Weltherrschaft] than the German people. We would have had this right, and no other nation [stormy applause]. Not England and not Spain, not Holland, no other nation could have had an inborn right on the basis of its energy and competence, and also its numerical strength, to claim the domination of the world… Today, some people claim that we are entering an age of peace, but I have to say to them: Gentlemen, you have a poor understanding of the horoscope of our times, which points as never before not to peace, but to war.”

For Hitler, the invasion of the Soviet Union was only a step in the direction of world domination, as its vast resources would form the basis of even further invasions, including ultimately – as he hinted in his unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf – the US. Perpetual war was, he believed, the only way for the Germans – Aryans, to use his terminology – to succeed in the struggle for existence between races for the survival of the fittest.

Putin’s aims are far more limited. He is driven by a committed and misdirected nationalism that wants to reverse the territorial settlement of the early 1990s and re-establish Russia in the ranks of the great powers. And they are based on a bizarrely twisted view of history that sees anyone who tries to frustrate them as a “Nazi”, to be killed just as Nazis were by the Red Army in the Second World War.

Both Hitler and Putin are consumed by a deeply held ideology rooted in false memories of world war. Hitler believed that the German nation was betrayed by socialists and Jews who stabbed the army in the back during the First World War. He was committed from the outset to reversing that defeat and resuming Germany’s “grasp for world power”, though on a far larger scale than before; and eliminating the “Jewish world-enemy” was a precondition of success. Putin believes that the Russian nation was betrayed by leaders who abandoned its integrity after 1917 and again after 1989. He too is committed to reversing what he imagines to be historic defeats. Genocide is the result in both cases. The fact that Hitler’s was planned, and Putin’s is not, does not take anything away from the horror of what is happening in Ukraine today.

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University and an expert on Nazi Germany

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s war of delusions]


This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder