The most common explanation of Vladimir Putin‘s motivations is that he’s aiming to revive the Soviet Union. True enough, he peeled off some of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008 and then pieces of Ukraine in 2014 (Crimea) and 2021 (ongoing). He can lay claim to essentially bringing the governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan back into Russia’s sphere of influence. He also is cozy with China, a country which, like the USSR, is a one-party communist nation with labor camps in the heart of Asia.
But I think those are fairly superficial similarities. Putin’s prototypes, it appears to me, are Russian Tsar Peter the Great and German Führer Adolf Hitler.
I know a little about those historical figures. After all, I gave each an entry in my book ranking the 30 most influential figures of Western history. (Peter clocked in at #26, Hitler at #17.)
Between my research on those men and following the events of the last couple months, I can say with some confidence that Putin isn’t nearly as effective as either of those predecessors. And although the ongoing sadness in Ukraine is relentlessly devastating, I don’t think anyone outside of the Ukrainian tragedy has reason to fear that the conflict spills over the nation’s borders. (That is, not unless the West does something ill-advised, like a No Fly Zone.)
To support the above claims, let’s learn from the past and apply it to the present. Here’s my take on these three autocratic leaders, including how they compare and, more importantly, how they contrast.
The seventeenth century Russian Tsardom into which Peter the Great was born did not resemble the formidable Russian Empire he would later leave behind. While Western European powers entered their modern age, expanded their footprints overseas, and exported Western culture to other continents, the isolated Tsardom of Russia lagged behind.
Russia had done little to keep up with the modernizing European continent. Technologically and culturally, it fell centuries behind. It had no Renaissance, no Reformation, and no Scientific Revolution. It was as if Russia were stuck in the Middle Ages. Its army was numerous but outclassed. Its Orthodox clergy controlled education. There was no quality literature or art, no emphasis on mathematics or science. In Western Europe, the seventeenth century was the century of Galileo and Newton, Descartes and Locke. It was a century of a rising merchant class. Rural peasants moved to growing cities for diverse employment.
But as serfdom faded away in the West, it had been increasing in Russia. And while Western Europeans, with their numerous warm-water ports, sailed the seas and brought in enormous profit from subjugated colonies, Russia mostly expanded over land to their east, finding nothing but frigid taiga, icy coasts, and the remnants of a malformed Mongolian Empire that had relied more on pillaging than infrastructure. In this case, going east was the equivalent of going nowhere, and it seemed to be the only thing the Russians were doing fast.
And then came Peter the Great (1672-1725). The arc of his reign can be summarized by one word: modernize. More specifically, he wanted to “Westernize” his nation. Culturally, that meant adopting much of Western culture. Economically, that meant diversifying industries. Geographically, that meant redirecting Russia’s concentration from its eastward orientation toward the west. And militarily, it meant securing warm-water ports for Peter’s isolated kingdom, as Russia’s northern and only coast abutted the aptly named White Sea, frozen up to nine months a year.
To achieve his goals, Peter’s “Grand Embassy” toured the West and learned its ways. He recruited scholars and Westernized Russian law and custom. Most visibly, to win that warm water port, Peter let slip the dogs of war. In 1696, after a shocking win over the Ottoman Empire on the Sea of Azov, which connects to the Black Sea, Russia captured an Ottoman fortress and secured the country’s first naval port.
A few years later, Peter opened up a new front against the Empire of Sweden. The Great Northern War pitted Peter’s rising Russia against an established European empire under the leadership of King Charles XII. The impressive Charles had brought Sweden to its high-water mark as an empire. He had already defeated two other powerful kings — Frederick IV of Denmark–Norway and Augustus II the Strong of Saxony–Poland–Lithuania — with Peter’s Russia hopefully up next.
Germane to Ukrainian history, the Swedes attempted a march on Moscow in 1707, but they were frustrated by — what else — Russian scorched-Earth tactics. The Swedish force moved south to spend the winter in less inhospitable Ukraine. With a major conflict looming, Ukrainian leadership — the Cossack Hetmanate — made the mistake of siding with Sweden shortly before Peter personally commanded Russia’s route of the Swedish-Ukrainian alliance in 1709’s Battle of Poltava, a signal to the West that a new major power had arrived in Europe. Ukraine, which in the years before had its allegiances lured by Poland to its west and Russia to its east, firmly fell into the greater Russian sphere and relinked the two peoples, particularly in Ukraine’s eastern region. (Poltava, relevantly, is near the Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, where pro-Russia separatists, with Putin’s help, have for years been working to officially separate from the country.)
Russia ultimately won the Great Northern War. In the Treaty of Nystad, Sweden ceded land to Russia’s west all the way to the Baltic Sea. On the newly acquired land, Peter built his masterpiece, a city that exemplified of all his priorities: Saint Petersburg. His city plans looked just like those of the Western cities he visited during his Grand Embassy tour — wide boulevards, beautiful architecture, advanced engineering. Ten years later, he relocated the Russian seat of government from Moscow to his new Westernized city. This move had the advantage of being closer to Western Europe for diplomatic relations, and it was also closer to the Baltic Sea so he could oversee the construction of a new navy. Saint Petersburg became Russia’s “window to the west.”
By the time of Peter’s death in 1725, he had brought Russia alongside the great Western powers, both literally and culturally. Russia stayed fairly Westernized for the rest of its history, but at times Russian leadership could forget the lessons of their restless Tsar. The nineteenth century was not kind to the world’s largest country, most notably with the crimson Crimean War. While Western Europe and the young United States of America steamed ahead with industrialization, Russia stalled. Still, thanks to Peter’s earlier efforts, the potential was still there for a powerful Russian nation, and that potential was seized upon after the First World War, when Russia evolved into the powerful Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, the USSR joined the United States as one of two world superpowers competing for the largest sphere of influence on and off the earth.
We can see that Putin’s attempts to reinvigorate Russia and bring Ukraine back into Russia’s control doesn’t merely harken back to the Soviet Union. It goes back considerably further. The deeper connection is to Peter the Great trying to assert Russia alongside other Western nations.
Putin’s effectiveness in doing so, or lack thereof, is another story altogether, one that will be examined in Part 3. Before then, I’d like to first address a more modern example of a dictatorial aggressor, one whose rise, like Putin’s, has been eased by a timid West.
Hitler’s transition from Chancellor of Germany in 1933 to master of Europe in 1941 was rapid. He had to be a madman to even attempt it.
Shortly after becoming Chancellor, Hitler moved at great speed to take control of Germany. He used the Reichstag fire to push through the Enabling Act, conferring the legislature’s power into his hands. Upon the death of the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler merged the two offices, sustained by a fraudulent referendum where he won 90% of the vote. Now an autocrat, Hitler dramatically reneged on World War I’s Treaty of Versailles, which had placed restrictions on the German military, reparations on the German government, and guilt on the German people, a noxious cocktail forced down Germans’ throat at a time when they were trying to digest having lost over two million citizens to the war. Hitler’s Nazi Party revived Germany’s economy through deficit spending, rearmament, and the full employment that came with it.
The improving economy and morale boosted his popularity and gave him leeway to grab control of all his country’s political and cultural levers. Hitler seized control of newspapers. He banned rival parties. He forced cultural media to promote Nazism. He allied industry, the military, and government in a symbiotic union. He co-opted clerics to toe the Nazi line. He used domestic and foreign crises to strip liberties and crystallize national unity. With a Ministry of Propaganda, Hitler and his closest allies carefully crafted a cult of personality around him, convincing millions of Germans of his near infallibility.
Most infamously, they scapegoated non Germans, particularly Jews, as disloyal conspirators who weakened Germany. Germans tolerated racist language (from the party’s inception, Nazis proclaimed their desire for Germany to be Judenfrei — free of Jews), since the man seemed to embody what Germans wanted: confidence, energy, and a sense of purpose. A rabidly nationalistic German people, eager to concentrate their vengeance somewhere — so eager that they eschewed their morality and tolerate genocide — agreed.
In March of 1936, barely three years into his Chancellorship, Hitler ordered troops into the Rhineland, a western German territory that the war’s victors ordered demilitarized. The West did nothing. In October, he formed an alliance with Mussolini’s Italy, creating the Axis Powers. The West still did nothing. In November, Germany entered into an alliance with the Empire of Japan. The West, again, did nothing.
In 1938, Germany marched soldiers into Austria with little resistance. Germany’s success had the many ethnic Germans in Austria, like Hitler’s old schoolmates, wanting to take another step toward pan-Germanism. With this annexation, the two leading antagonists of the First World War were reunited. The Axis Powers controlled the heart of Europe, from the North Sea to the central Mediterranean.
When Hitler declared his intention to reacquire the Sudetenland, a German-speaking region that had been given to the new country of Czechoslovakia as its western rim, British and French leaders took a more aggressive posture — they attended a meeting in Munich. The Munich Pact allowed Hitler to claim the Sudetenland if he promised it was his “last territorial claim.” He agreed, and poor Czechoslovakia’s western half was surrounded. Ignoring the pact, Hitler then annexed more of the country.
In 1939, it became clear that Hitler was playing chess as the West played checkers. That summer, to avoid a threat to the east, he signed a “non-aggression” pact with Josef Stalin‘s Soviet Union. While Hitler hated Stalin and despised communists, he knew that Britain and France would only tolerate so much more. He tried to ensure that the only power to his east would not intervene and force Germany into the kind of two-front war that boxed in the German Empire during the Great War.
The two rivals also agreed to partition the country that sat between them. In September, Hitler invaded Poland from the west and Stalin from the east. The country was bifurcated in weeks.
This invasion finally brought the British and French into the war, but it wasn’t enough to blunt Germany’s expansion. Hitler the Mad was eager to fight, and his appetite for Lebensraum proved insatiable. The Third Reich’s strength increased throughout 1940. In April, Denmark and Norway fell before Hitler’s blitzkrieging military. In May, Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium also looked up at the Nazi flag. In June, Germany had its proudest moment of the war when Paris surrendered to Nazi commanders. In nine months, Hitler did what the German Empire couldn’t do in the four years of World War I. France had fallen to Germany.
In 1941, Hitler added Greece, Yugoslavia, and northern Africa to the growing Third Reich. At the height of his power, Adolf Hitler controlled more of Europe than anyone in history.
How can we learn from these two Putin predecessors to not only better understand Putin, but project where this is all going?
Let’s start by juxtaposing Putin and Peter the Great, each of whom looked to bring Russia to respectability alongside Western powers. Peter, more than any Soviet leader, is indeed Putin’s hero. In fact, sitting on Putin’s desk is a bronze statue of — you guessed it — Peter the Great. Another Peter statue towers over it.
Although the Soviet Union resuscitated Peter’s dream of Russia as a great power, it only lasted, on the scale of history, for a short time. The Soviet Union simply could not match the breathless pace of its American Cold War rival. By the 1980s, the USSR was collapsing in on itself. In 1991, it disbanded. Although the Russian Federation remained as the nominal heir to the USSR’s geopolitical power — including the Soviet nuclear arsenal and its seat on the Security Council — it quickly fell behind. Whereas the USSR was the world’s second largest economy as late as 1985, Russia’s global GDP rank fell throughout the 1990s to a nadir of 20th in 2000. That was even lower than Peter the Great’s old foes in Turkey and Sweden. Unlike Peter, the Soviet Union ultimately made Russia worse off.
Enter Vladimir Putin. In 2000, he was elected President of Russia for the first time. Like Peter, the 6′ 7″ giant Tsar of Russia’s past, the strapping Putin (who can forget the bare-chested Russian president on horseback!) became the face of his nation. During his initial eight-year stint as President, the Russian economy grew year over year. In the global GDP rankings, Russia reached #9 before Putin transitioned to Prime Minister in 2008, a four-year tenure during which Russia moved up to #8. The growth stemmed from the sale of Russian oil and gas, which comprised most of the country’s exports, and foreign investment. Like the rest of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), a Putin-led Russia positioned itself as an expanding market. In sum, both Peter and Putin opened their doors to the West and saw economic gains as a result.
Meanwhile, also like Peter, Putin had his eye on the West in more aggressive ways, as we’ve seen during his second stint as President since 2012. Both Russian leaders looked for more ports. (In this way, Putin has an advantage Peter did not — a melting Arctic.) Further, both opened up fronts on the Black Sea. In Putin’s case, it was his annexation of Crimea while the West did little more than protest.
It is the West’s timidity that has drawn comparisons to the Great Powers’ reactions to Hitler in the 1930s. Just as Europe appeased Hitler at Munich, might the United States and the rest of NATO be repeating that mistake now?
True enough, there are some parallels as to why the West reacted so slowly, then and now. In the years after World War I, the Great Powers had their own problems. Their economies suffered from the Great Depression, akin to the modern Covid recession, perhaps not in contracting GDP as much as political upheaval and social preoccupation. Worse, in the 1930s, the United Kingdom and France, expected to hold the peace as the lead players in the otherwise toothless League of Nations, were war weary and suffered from a collective PTSD; many were literally shell-shocked. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US didn’t even join the new League of Nations; Congress preferred to return to its pre-World War I isolationism.
The interwar, isolationist United States shares similarities with the US today. Although the post-World War II United States inherited from the British and French their status as the watchdogs of Western values and keepers of the peace (often times through war), there has more recently been a reluctance to play an active role in world affairs. When this century’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars turned unpopular in the US, so did American interventionism. In 2008, President Bush rejected Georgia’s pleas for anti-tank and air defense weapons. President Obama did little to help the Ukrainians when Putin annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, opting instead to merely sanction. President Trump’s takeover of the once hawkish Republican Party was accompanied by an isolationist “America First” doctrine, one that included public disputes with the United Nations and NATO countries, evidence of a fracture along the Atlantic that has likely weakened the country rather than strengthened it. And then, of course, President Biden’s embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan broadcasted that the American empire was in recession.
At the heart of both scenarios, Western leaders and citizens lacked the stomach for a small conflict with an aggressive power in order to avoid a larger one. Even before Munich, remember, Hitler annexed Austria ostensibly to unite Germanic-speaking peoples into a Greater Germany, hardly an excuse for violating international agreements. When Putin attempted to justify his impending invasion of Ukraine, he, like Hitler, played up the shared history and culture of Russians and Ukrainians. In either case, they weren’t hiding their intentions. Whether 85 years ago or just 5, perhaps action from Western powers may have averted what was to come. Perhaps Hitler never invades Poland; perhaps Putin never invades Ukraine. These can be debated.
And yet, does Putin gnawing on eastern Europe resemble Hitler’s rampage across the continent? Not to me it doesn’t. Although Putin, like Hitler, evolved his democratically elected office to something more despotic, Hitler was much more efficient with his new power. In eight years, Hitler went from Germany’s new chancellor to Europe’s new emperor. His military brought France to its knees and, were it not for the heroics at Dunkirk, Britain may have capitulated soon after.
What has Putin done in eight years? He’s moved from Crimea to… the rest of Ukraine. It’s not exactly a pace for continental takeover. Hitler blitkrieged. Putin nibbles.
Meanwhile, Putin has failed to advance his country in a Peteresque way. Putin may aspire to be Russia’s next great modernizer, but he has failed. The ascendent Russian GDP ultimately petered during Putin’s second stretch as President. After a high-water mark of the world’s eighth largest GDP, during Putin’s current, distracted term, Russia has found itself again outside of the top ten.
On the geopolitical scene, meanwhile, Putin isn’t nearly the puppet master Hitler was. Kazakhstani leadership, for example, has distanced itself from Russia’s invasion in Ukraine; it not only declined to send troops to supplement the Russian effort, it hasn’t even agreed to recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as republics separate from Ukraine. Meanwhile, with Russia bogged down in Ukraine, feisty Georgians see an opportunity to re-take those lands lost to Russian-backed separatists 14 years ago.
All considered, the crisis in Ukraine has done nothing to secure a “new Yalta” agreement, one where Russia, like the Soviet Union, would manage Eastern Europe inside Russia’s sphere of influence. Quite the opposite. Georgia has sent in its NATO application two years ahead of schedule. The Fins and Swedes may finally be ready to seek the protection of Article 5. Moldova, another former Soviet republic, just applied to enter the European Union.
Whereas Peter the Great wanted Russia to join the West, nearly every action taken by Putin has distanced the nation from it. To their credit, the US, Germany, and other Western nations have collaborated at levels not seen since the end of the Cold War. While the prior American president lobbied to allow Russia to rejoin the G8 after it had been expelled as a result of the Crimean annexation, it’s impossible to imagine this reinvigorated West letting that happen any time soon. Putin has not only alienated the West, he’s rallied it to a single cause. Germany cancelled Nord Stream 2. The White House banned Russian oil, gas, and coal imports. So have the UK and Australia.
Since his invasion of Ukraine, the ruble has lost nearly half its value. With the currency never weaker, Putin’s government has banned its citizens from buying the US dollar. In doing so, he has further isolated Russia, denying its people the benefits of globalization, devastating their livelihood. Companies can’t leave fast enough. It’s simply been one bad Putinian decision after another.
Putin once said of his idol, Peter the Great, that “He will live as long as his cause is alive.” It seems, then, that Putin is killing more than just Ukrainians. Despite Putin’s ambitions and inspirations, he’s proven himself incapable of matching either, and he’s taking out his frustrations on a brave, innocent, and still independent people. He’s neither Peter the Great nor Hitler the Mad. He’s Putin the Terrible.
If you were hoping to see Part III of my series on abortion — the concluding column that addresses Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — it was just released as a podcast, available on Apple and Spotify. I will publish the post at a later date.