Adolf Hitler gives the Nazi salute during a 1939 rally next to his deputy Rudolf Hess. Photo: AFP

The idea that Vladimir Putin is a modern-day Adolf Hitler has become commonplace over the past several years. In 2014, after Putin’s first foray into Ukraine, Hillary Clinton famously compared the Russian president to the German madman. And in the five weeks since Putin launched his illegal, brutal invasion of Ukraine, new and at times absurd ways of comparing the Russian leader to Hitler have emerged. 

Yet such analogies reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of who Putin is by those who claim to know Russia best. After all, Putin, for all his obvious faults, has resided over a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state for more than 20 years.

And while there are many things we in the West find objectionable about Putin’s regime, including obscene levels of corruption, a lack of democratic accountability, and the shuttering of independent media outlets, mass genocide in the service of a blood-and-soil ethno-nationalist vision Russia is not one of them.

The comparisons of Putin to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin also fall wide of the mark. The left-wing British magazine New Statesman says  the Russian president is “beholden to Stalin’s legacy,” while mainstream US media outlets like Yahoo! News claim “Putin is an unabashed admirer of Stalin and has worked – successfully, in Russia – to rehabilitate his image.”

Yet Putin’s views on communism are well known and include no nostalgia for the founding generation of Bolsheviks. And while he has praised Stalin for his role in defeating the Nazis during the Second World War, Putin has also condemned Stalin’s purges and gulag prison system in which an estimated 1.5 million people perished.

Indeed, in many ways Putin’s views closely track those of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident and gulag survivor. 

Putin’s admiration for the late Nobel laureate is well known. In 2007 he paid tribute to Solzhenitsyn by visiting him on his 89th birthday, as well as honoring him “for exemplary achievements in the area of humanitarian activities.”

British scholar Richard Sakwa has observed that Putin’s criticism of the Soviet model as something “far away from the mainstream of civilization” is an echo of Solzhenitsyn. According to Sakwa,“Solzhenitsyn and Putin lamented the Soviet project’s lack of grounding in Russian traditions.”

Still more, Putin’s frequent questioning of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state has its roots in Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of Lenin and the criteria used by Soviet leaders to draw up the borders of the 15 constituent republics of the USSR.

Writing in 1994, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn denounced the leaders of the new Ukrainian state “who in the past so staunchly opposed Communism, and in all, it seemed, cursed Lenin” but who now, in an about-face, eagerly accepted “the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchev).”

Vladimir Putin clearly thinks likewise, telling then-US president George W Bush, “You have to understand, George. Ukraine is not even a country.”Announcing the beginning of hostilities against Ukraine in February, Putin announced his view that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” 

And so, in Putin’s view, millions of ethnic Russians – in the Donbas and, until 2014, in Crimea – have been trapped within, as Solzhenitsyn put it, Ukraine’s “false Leninist borders.” And this is a problem the Kremlin is now attempting to remedy through brute force.

What all this suggests is that American pundits and policymakers are not using the proper lens with which to view the current crisis. While it is tempting and perhaps morally satisfying to denounce Putin in the strongest possible terms, comparisons to Hitler and Stalin obscure more than they clarify.

Putin’s war is indefensible, but has little relation to the genocidal nationalism of Adolf Hitler or to the grandiose project of state-building through terror as carried out by Josef Stalin.

Bad history begets bad policy. And the sooner we come to understand the real motivations behind Putin’s crusade, the better equipped we will be to identify much-needed off-ramps to this, the most dangerous crisis between Russia and the West since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

James Carden

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.