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Is Putin’s Russia a Nazi state?

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Comparisons of Russia’s illegitimate president, Vladimir Putin, with the Nazi Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, have become increasingly common since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. As Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe puts it, “There are plenty of differences between then [the 1930s] and now, but one shouldn’t overlook the striking similarities.”

Indeed one shouldn’t. The question of whether comparisons with Nazi Germany are merited or not is therefore worth pursuing more systematically, especially as Putin has consistently accused the “Kyiv regime” of being Nazi.

We know better than to accept Putin’s absurd standards of what constitutes Nazism, but since he’s the one who opened this particular can of worms, we are fully justified in asking whether Putin’s regime merits the Nazi label. And that means isolating the defining characteristics of the system Hitler built and asking whether, and to what degree, Putin’s system resembles Hitler’s.

Nazi Germany had the following essential features. It was authoritarian (and possibly totalitarian), patriarchal and illiberal; it was led by a self-chosen charismatic leader who claimed to be omniscient, infallible, enjoyed a personality cult and was adored by his many followers, who truly believed that he was Germany’s messiah; it supported state intervention in an otherwise capitalist economy; it mobilized the population; it employed violence against its real and perceived domestic enemies and interred them in a network of concentration camps and prisons; it subordinated the army to the party and secret police; it was revisionist; it glorified and waged imperialist war.

In turn, Nazi ideology promoted and was rooted in the messianism of the German nation and empire; it claimed to liberate the working man and woman; it emphasized the unity and solidarity of the nation; it identified one group, Jews, as the source of all evil; it was racist.

As even a quick glance at these features suggests, Putin’s regime bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Nazi Germany, while Putin himself closely resembles Hitler. Putin’s mobilization of Russians is not quite at Hitler’s level; his use of domestic violence is more limited (though Alexei Navalny’s murder suggests that violence may be about to take off); his network of punitive institutions is smaller than Hitler’s, and his glorification of war is a tad more restrained. Ideologically, Putin’s Russia is racist, though far less obsessively so than Nazi Germany, but it, too, has identified a group — the Ukrainians — as the source of all of Russia’s ills and tries to systematically destroy it.

Do these similarities qualify Putin’s Russia as Nazi? Unless one demands perfect comparability, the answer has to be a somewhat hesitant, though ultimately definite yes. Putin’s Russia may not be quite as rabidly Nazi as Nazi Germany, but it is surely Nazi enough to be termed a Nazi-like state — or, if one prefers, a Nazi-lite state.

Whatever the case, Putin’s Russia is somewhere between full-fledged fascist and full-fledged Nazi, probably closer to the latter than to the former. I argued in 2022 that Putin’s Russia was fascist because it “is an authoritarian state ruled by a charismatic leader enjoying a personality cult.” Clearly, that characterization needs revision, as Putin has moved Russia away from this bare-bones definition in the direction of full-fledged Nazism.

This conclusion will doubtless disturb many in the West, and it will outrage Putin and his supporters, but it follows inescapably from the checklist above. To call Putin’s Russia Nazi is, thus, not a slur or an insult, but a measured assessment of its similarities with Nazi Germany.

Why, then, has Putin’s Russia gone down this baleful path? The key reasons have to do with the Soviet empire’s ignominious downfall and subsequent economic and political distress — developments that underscore post-Soviet Russia’s close resemblance with Weimar Germany.

Both imperial Germany and the Soviet empire experienced a humiliating systemic collapse and subsequent economic hardship, political polarization and widespread cultural anomie. Weimar Germany and late-’90s Russia blamed their woes on the democrats who were then in power and welcomed the man on horseback who promised to make them great again.

Both Hitler and Putin dismantled democracy and replaced it with their own forms of personalistic, authoritarian rule. The defense of their abandoned brethren in the other post-imperial states formed a significant part of their foreign-policy agendas. Hitler came to the rescue of Germans in Czechoslovakia and Austria. Putin had the “Russian World” to defend. Once their power was consolidated, they proceeded to deal with their central national questions — the Jews and the Ukrainians.

Does it matter that Putin’s Russia can legitimately be called Nazi or proto-Nazi? Four reasons for thinking that it does come to mind.

First, it’s important to call polities by their correct names. Despite the pollyannaish views that some Western policymakers still harbor toward Putin and his regime, they need to appreciate that they are in effect apologizing for Nazism and replicating the pro-Nazi positions of Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and the German Bund.

Second, the similarity suggests why Putin adamantly insists that Ukraine is a Nazi state. He’s not just repeating Soviet practice. He’s deflecting attention from himself onto his mortal enemy.

Third, the comparison with Hitler suggests why expectations of a negotiated conclusion to the war with Ukraine are misplaced. If Putin is Hitler’s kin, we know that he will utilize any ceasefire as a breather for rearming and renewing his assault — on Ukraine and then on points farther west and north.

Finally, there is potentially good news. Nazism collapsed, and Putin’s variant thereof is likely to follow in Hitler’s footsteps. Hitler’s grand mistake was to attack the USSR. Putin’s was to attack Ukraine and, by extension, the West. Delusions of grandeur led both men to bite off more than they could chew. They will lose, because sooner or later the West will be forced to abandon its illusions of appeasement and fight Russia. The only question is how much of the West will be destroyed in the process.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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