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Robert Bennett: An outlook on Russia — Is Putin Hitler?

Published: Monday, March 24 2014 12:01 a.m. MDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting that focused on economic and social issues in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday March 19, 2014.

Alexei Druzhinin, Associated Press

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No, but he is clearly following Hitler's playbook. As he attempts to recreate a new version of the Soviet Union, whose disappearance he calls "the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century," the similarities between his actions and Hitler's are striking.

Both men began by consolidating power firmly at home. Putin reigns supreme and controls Russia's news media to the point that any internal criticism of his regime is either muted, dangerous or both. He has adopted the Nazi approach to lying — when you do it, go big — because it is easier to sell outrageous falsehoods than it is small ones. People think, "That is so horrible, it can't be made up!"

Hitler justified his invasion of Poland by claiming that Polish thugs were beating and killing helpless Germans. Putin justified his invasion of Crimea by insisting that horrible human rights violations were being visited on ethnic Russians by a corrupt Ukrainian government. In both cases, the message was, "I'm not an aggressor, I'm a liberator, a protector of the downtrodden." Given a local media environment where such a claim is not easily challenged, It is not surprising that Putin's internal approval rating went up when he invaded on behalf of the Russian "victims."

In his eyes, Ukraine's sin is that it wants to get out from under Russian domination for good, to look to the West with dreams of joining the European Union. He must prevent that at all costs because any new version of the old Soviet empire would not be complete without Ukraine. If we will just accommodate him on that, he says, there will be no more trouble.

That is another Hitler ploy. Each time he made a demand, he followed it with a promise of peace. Putin has already pulled it off once. After he sent troops to annex parts of Georgia, in 2008, he said that was all he wanted. America's initial disapproval quickly faded as it was decided that what we really needed to do with Russia was "reset" our relations with it.

"Once burned, twice shy." We have made our outrage over his current actions very clear. However, Putin knows there will be no military response because Americans are war-weary and Europeans lack the means to do it, even if they had the will. The situation is further complicated by the fact Europe is the largest consumer of Russian oil and gas and disruption of those fuel shipments would plunge Europe's economy into deep recession. The present situation is "Advantage, Russia."

But it need not become "Game, set and match." Long term, Putin's position is not that strong. In the Internet Age, he cannot keep Russians from learning what is really happening. They probably already know that Angela Merkel has suggested that Putin is delusional and that Europe is solidly with America in condemning his actions.

Next, he must deal with the fact that Russia has become a Petro-state with an unbalanced economy, like Venezuela. That makes her vulnerable to the uncertainties of the global energy market just as a new player in that market — North America — is emerging as the world's greatest repository of recoverable petroleum products. This diminishes Russia 's ability to influence what the price of oil will be. Finally, the flip side of the fact that Europe is his primary market is that Europeans are also his biggest source of revenue. He needs their Euros as much as they need his oil and gas. The elements to change the flow of the game are there.

It will take firm resolve, diplomatic solidarity and a willingness to stay the course, but if Europe and America are determined enough to pursue it, Putin's effort to restore Russia to its former place as one of the world's superpowers can be thwarted, just as Hitler's plans could have been if all Europe had united against him in the early days of his career. It is not a question of tactics but a matter of political will.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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