Vladimir Putin is following the same playbook as Adolf Hitler, but with sophisticated refinements.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the premier terrorist leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, puts a 21st century face on the long awaited caliphate which he has established in portions of Syria and Iraq. This is the first caliphate since the last caliph was murdered during the Mongol sack of Baghdad in the 13th century after a long string of caliphs following the death of the Prophet.
Millions of Americans have become adults since 9/11, or never have lived in the affected New York City-Washington D.C.-Pennsylvania areas, so many Americans don’t have a visceral connection with that history. My son was living in Manhattan on 9/11 and said to me on 9/12 that the attack was a defining moment of his life. If you were not a part of history, you really have only an intellectual — not emotional — sense of what was going on.
Not too many people recall when Hitler was marching across Europe unchecked. They closely followed events year by year as they unfolded – not from snippets of information on some online news source.
It started when Hitler invaded the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of the Versailles Treaty – and against the recommendation of his generals, because there were an overwhelming number of French troops on the border. Hitler told them he would order a retreat if the French counterattacked. They didn’t. The rest is history. Germans responded enthusiastically to Hitler’s actions.
Encouraged, in 1938 Hitler invaded and occupied Austria. Yet Britain and France did not react. Later that year he cut a deal with Britain and France to take over the Sunderland, a part of Czechoslovakia. All of these military adventures were justified by the presence of ethnic Germans inhabiting these countries. The next year Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Then, in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, hardly a homeland for indigenous Germans. Britain and France declared war.
One German general said if the French had intervened in the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler’s political career would have ended. Result: no World War II.
With striking similarity, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 after Georgia had border clashes with its breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops withdrew in 2009. While some countries recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, many others do not. Russian troops still are in both countries which are under Russia’s “protection,” and 20,000 Russian troops still are stationed on the Georgia border. Georgia is a weakened country; Russia is ready to move.
Russia justified its invasion of Georgia and its annexation of Crimea on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians – a striking similarity to Hitler’s playbook.
The invasion of Georgia was the first time since the Cold War that Russia tried to revise internationally recognized borders. The invasions of Georgia and Ukraine dampened any interest by Europe to admit either country to NATO or the EU. Both had tried.
The question arises: If they had been accepted, would Russia have invaded Georgia or Ukraine? (A little known fact: Stalin was born in Georgia, not Russia.)
And that telling remark that Putin made from the Kremlin in 2005 sets the stage for a repeat of what Hitler began in 1936: “…We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Now here’s what is critical to an understanding of where this is heading: “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
Putin is obsessed with bringing back the glory days of the Soviet empire. The Russian people are thrilled — 80 percent approval — now that Putin grabbed Crimea with its ethnic Russians to correct the silly mistake Nikita Khrushchev made in 1954. (Just as the Germans were elated when Hitler invaded the Rhineland and Sudetenland with its ethnic Germans). All former Soviet countries and Poland know they are in Putin’s cross-hairs.
Baghdadi, like Putin, is committed to restoring the caliphate to its former glory. He may not be the one who will do it, but the die is cast. Like Putin, but unlike Osama bin Laden, he actually is grabbing territory. He will energize countless numbers of jihadists in a Muslim world of countries artificially created by Europeans. They dream of the golden age of the empire of the caliphate when it brought pure Islam into its new conquests.
If Middle East expert Bernard Lewis were alive today, he would feel as vindicated as he was after 9/11, given the rebirth of the new caliphate, and given the failure of Nouri al-Maliki to organize an inclusive government after our ill-advised withdrawal of our residual force from Iraq.
The clash of civilizations goes on. The much revered and reviled Princeton professor emeritus Lewis blamed Islam for its own decline. Labeled an Islamophobe by the liberal politically correct, he presciently had written even before 9/11 that “If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from the downward spiral of hate...”
So here we go again. Putin craves the glory days of the KGB and Stalin’s Soviet Union; and Baghdadi longs for the glory days of the caliphate. Will the EU take on Putin? Will a fractured Arab League take on Baghdadi?
It will take hard ball down to the wire, as in 1962 when JFK, during the Cuban missile crisis, threatened to invade Cuba or launch a nuke strike against the Soviets. Nikita Khrushchev knew that Kennedy was a hawk, a war hero and crazy enough to have been behind the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion – so he backed down. Lesson learned.
As George Bernard Shaw observed: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience?”
But then again, whoever believes that must be a neoconservative.
John Reiniers is a retired attorney and regular contributor who lives in Spring Hill. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.