Would Mikhail Gorbachev have invaded Ukraine if he, and not Vladimir Putin, were president of Russia? Most Kremlin-watchers would probably say no. It’s hard to imagine that the architect of perestroika would have embarked on the wholesale destruction of a country of 40 million.
It’s equally hard to imagine independent Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, attempting genocide. Russian forces committed numerous atrocities on Yeltsin’s watch in two Chechen Wars, but they stopped short of exterminating the population and claiming it had no right to exist. Indeed, even Soviet Party boss Leonid Brezhnev, who launched invasions into Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia, did not pursue the kind of scorched-earth strategy Putin has unleashed on Ukraine.
Historians call these kinds of “what if” questions counterfactuals, and they are useful because they help identify the factor or factors that best explain some phenomenon. Because neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin nor Brezhnev can be imagined attacking Ukraine’s civilian population as indiscriminately as Putin, it follows that the driver behind the genocidal war is Putin.
Some analysts argue that geopolitics is more important than individuals, that any Russian leader would have felt impelled to protect the country against NATO enlargement and possible Ukrainian membership.
That may very well be true, but the counterfactual demonstrates that not every Russian leader would have tried to counter NATO by invading and destroying Ukraine and its people. Gorbachev would probably have engaged the West in negotiations. Yeltsin might have blustered at first, but he too would have ultimately sat down at the table with Western interlocutors. Brezhnev would have delivered a lengthy speech about Western imperialism and he might have even invaded, but he would have done his best to keep the destruction to a minimum, if only because Ukrainians, like the Czechs and Slovaks he “liberated” in 1968, were fellow Slavs in need of their own liberation from capitalist imperialists.
In a word, no Putin, no war of destruction, what the Nazis called a Vernichtungskrieg.
But the centrality of Putin’s role in the war goes beyond his personality and psyche, which may or may not have been warped by two years of Covid-induced isolation in a bunker and malformed by his many years in the KGB. Putin has also constructed a type of regime with himself as its indispensable core. A closer look at this regime helps clarify the nature of the threat Putin poses not just to Ukraine but to the rest of the world.
Putin is the undisputed leader of an authoritarian political system he built over the last 20 years. Unlike Yeltsin or Gorbachev or Brezhnev, he is a charismatic leader who courts praise from the masses and elites and has constructed a personality cult that features him as a hypermasculine man who bares his chest and carries long rifles. As Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, noted in 2014, “If there is Putin, there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia!” Which is to say that Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin.
Analysts have usually shied away from asking just what type of regime has these specific characteristics, preferring to say that Putin’s Russia is Putinist or merely authoritarian. But there is a word that many historians and political scientists use for an authoritarian state with a charismatic leader who promotes a personality cult. That word is fascism. Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany fit the bill, but so does Stalin’s Soviet Union and Kim’s North Korea. Fascism, in other words, can be found on the political right or the political left. And, as most Ukrainians and many Russians agree, it’s now the best word to describe Putin’s Russia.
Fascist systems often have several other characteristics. They routinely employ coercion and violence in their everyday dealings. They promote chauvinist and racist ideologies. They usually have expansionist ambitions.
We can see these same elements in Putin’s regime. Putin destroyed Chechnya and is hellbent on destroying Ukraine. He’s ordered the assassinations of a score of political opponents and is snuffing out any wisps of protest against the war. He promotes a supremacist Russian ideology. And he’s demonstrated his imperial ambitions in Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Indeed, Putin’s trajectory increasingly resembles that of Hitler. Both men came to power after their countries experienced imperial dismemberment and economic collapse. Both promised to revive their nation’s glory and enjoyed enormous popularity. Both militarized and pursued state capitalism. Both relied on the army and secret police. Both identified their nations with themselves. Both promoted reactionary ideologies that identified one nation — Jews for Hitler, Ukrainians for Putin — as the enemy. And both used their national minorities living in neighboring states as pretexts for expansion. Both were also consummate liars and had deranged personalities. In this scheme of things, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is equivalent to Hitler’s attack on Austria, Czechoslovakia or Poland. And we all know what happened afterward — a Vernichtungskrieg.
Naturally, the past never repeats itself exactly. The horrors of the Holocaust are unique, and a world war is anything but inevitable — especially if Ukraine survives or even wins.
But whatever the outcome, the history of other fascist regimes suggests that Putin’s Russia will follow in their footsteps. Russia will be either aggressive and victorious or aggressive and humiliated. Either way, the war in Ukraine is not the end of the West’s troubles with Putin.
It’s the beginning.
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