Ukraine: To Avoid World War III, Remember World War II

Watching the war in Ukraine unfold, it’s hard not to hear echoes of World War II, especially for those of us born in the 1940’s. It’s not just the pictures of devastated cities, corpses in the streets, throngs of terrified refugees, or the familiar locations. It’s the whole gestalt of that war, though at twenty first century speed, and transmitted instantaneously to the world.

We can learn from World War II — what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Putin Thinks like Hitler

Putin resembles Hitler in important ways. Hitler was, and Putin is, driven by longstanding resentment: Hitler believed that Germany actually won World War I, was betrayed at Versailles, and, of course, “stabbed in the back” by Jews. Putin holds Western powers, especially the U.S., responsible for what he calls the “greatest tragedy in the twentieth century,” the collapse of the Soviet Union and its supposed loss of superpower status. Both men were intent on revenge, indifferent to human suffering; former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Putin a “stone cold killer”. Putin is obsessed with power and strength, contemptuous of weakness, as Hitler was.

Hitler’s ambition was grandiose: Hitler wanted to increase territory for the “master race” by conquering all Slavic lands and expelling or otherwise disposing of their inhabitants (“inferior races”) and all Jews. Germany would be the hegemon of Europe, the Thousand Year Reich.

Putin is equally ambitious: to achieve Russian “security”, he demands NATO return to its 1997 lines and withdraw all its troops and arms from Eastern Europe, leaving it, of course, less secure. Presumably he will then reduce the old Soviet Socialist republics to vassal states like today’s Belarus. Moreover, he wants the U.S. out of Europe. He doesn’t care about death (even of his own troops), destruction, what happens to his oligarchs, or the effect of sanctions on ordinary Russians (Putin tells Russians to blame the West.)

Putin wants to restore the Russian empire.

Finally, neither Hitler nor Putin ever negotiated a compromise with another nation that he did not subsequently violate.

The Nazi Approach to War

So far, unfortunately, Putin has followed the Nazi model: naked, unprovoked aggression, total war.

Hitler occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia months after its sworn allies, Britain and France, forced the Czechs to give him the Sudetenland at Munich (so he could “protect German speakers”) in exchange for “peace in our time”. Six months later, Putin invaded Poland, on the basis of a “false flag” operation. In 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR in violation of a non-aggression pact he signed with Stalin in 1939.

In 2014, Ukrainian demonstrators drove out President Victor Yanukovich, who favored moving Ukraine closer to Russia than to Western Europe. Furious, Putin invaded Crimea with “little green men” (Russian soldiers without insignia), then annexed it on the basis of a rigged referendum. (The quick conquest of Crimea is probably why Putin expected Kyiv to fall so fast.) Putin’s little green men also attacked Ukraine’s easternmost provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, supporting separatists there. Having failed to capture Kyiv, Putin has now directed his army back to those provinces, to concentrate his forces to subdue Ukraine from the east and south.

Putin also has adopted Hitler’s practice of total war — hammering cities and civilians with indiscriminate bombing and rockets. During World War II, Nazi soldiers, in units called Eisengruppen, also gunned down innocent civilians — Jews and others — as well as Soviet POWs. Ironically, Babi Yar, just outside of Kyiv, where almost 40,000 Jews were murdered in two days, became an execution site for the Germans.

Hitler besieged Leningrad (where Putin was born) just as Russia is besieging Mariupol, and as Russian General Divornikov besieged, and destroyed, the historic city of Aleppo, Syria, killing most of its civilian inhabitants. Pleased with his murderous approach, Putin has now put this general in charge of all Russian forces attacking Ukraine.

When forced to a tactical retreat from Kyiv, Putin’s army laid waste to all the countryside and civilians in its path, just as Hitler leveled Warsaw before withdrawing (the Soviets paused their advance to let him do it.). Indeed, this is likely Putin’s plan for any enemy that does not unconditionally surrender.

There is no evidence that Putin will “settle” for part of Ukraine, or even all of Ukraine, in exchange for a “peace” deal. He has shown no interest in a face-saving solution, a Sun Tzu “golden bridge”, or in talking to President Zelensky, except to accept his surrender.

In fact, it is clear Putin is not much interested in Ukraine: he sent his initial, non-negotiable demands to the U.S. and NATO, not Ukraine. As far as anyone knows, he still intends to push the border of Russian controlled territory right up to 1997 NATO boundaries. His definition of “security” for Russia is a group of pliant, authoritarian, demilitarized vassal states, like Belarus, from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, as a buffer against NATO and the U.S. Conquest (and/or destruction) of Ukraine is merely the first step: eastern NATO members, especially small ones like Moldova and the Baltics, understand that if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, they are next, as well as non-NATO Finland and Sweden. On April 26, the Russians announced a ‘Ukrainian’ attack on Russian radio towers in Transnistria (denied by Ukraine), a Russian-occupied breakaway enclave in Moldova. Unfortunately, Putin, like Hitler, may not be daunted by the prospect of world war, even nuclear world war, although he will try intimidation first.

If this is so (and I am no expert), NATO should put everything back on the table — all legal weapons, including the Polish planes. The U.S. is already sending the latest American heavy weapons. NATO boots on the ground may be necessary, though we should not say either way. We can promise only that we will not conduct a first (nuclear) strike. We should not worry about “provoking” Putin to escalate. He is escalating already, and if we do not give him another excuse, he has already some stored up (sanctions, Western weapons), and will invent new ones if necessary.

Like Hitler, Putin will escalate until he achieves all his goals, or we stop him.

What’s more, stopping Putin is urgent — as stopping Hitler should have been in World War II. Every day Putin fights on, people die, cities are razed.

And, if we can, we should prevent him from ultimately gaining anything from aggression. Otherwise, he will regroup, rearm, and try again. We should warn him, in no uncertain terms, that the longer he wages war, not to mention war crimes, the more he will ultimately lose (like Trump’s approach to the Palestinians.) It may come to a counterattack on Russia itself, if necessary.

Our diplomats should remind him about Hitler’s secret promise in 1939 to divide Poland with the Soviets (an earlier attempt to set up spheres of influence in Europe). In 1941 Hitler took over Soviet-occupied Poland, and went on to attack the USSR itself.

..Hitler never conceded anything to anyone, whatever the cost to Germany.

Putin has no more credibility than Hitler.

Russian Army as the New Wehrmacht/SS, and the Information War

The West can make something of Russians’ obsession with Nazis as the ultimate vicious, powerful enemy, as indeed it was, killing some 20 million Russians. (Ironically, the Red Army wasn’t much different.) Yet today Russia is doing exactly what Nazi Germany did, invading peaceful countries (ironically the same ones in Eastern Europe), bombing them to rubble, terrorizing and starving civilians, even forcibly deporting some back to its home country.

Putin is desperate to prevent ordinary Russians from learning the truth: he has closed down all media outlets that report — or might report — anything other than approved propaganda, jailing anyone who even refers to a “war” or “invasion” for up to 15 years. This tells us that most Russians would oppose an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and the death and destruction the Russian army is raining down on its citizens, some of whom are relatives, and many of whom (including President Zelensky) speak Russian as their first language.

Therefore we must get the truth to as many ordinary Russians as possible in any way we can. I can barely manage my cellphone, but if the U.S. could evade Soviet jamming during the Cold with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, our best electronic whiz kids can do whatever needs to be done today. Ukraine and the West should also try to explain the real situation to the Russian soldiers in Ukraine, many of whom are reluctant conscripts. (Russian forces also include Chechens and mercenaries (the so-called Wagner Group, known for its brutality.)

Americans are Ready for this War

I was in college during the Vietnam War: I turned against it as soon as I learned what was happening. Americans in fact were fighting and dying, not for democracy, but for a corrupt, unpopular government, which fell as soon as the U.S. withdrew support. (Our exit from Saigon was as humiliating as the retreat from Kabul.)

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not much different — we ended up caught in civil wars. (The reason these two wars lasted so long is because Nixon ended the draft in 1973.) Most Americans have sworn off wars in distant countries in which the U.S. had no particular stake.

This war is different. Yes it is true, the Ukrainians are white Christians (fighting other white Christians). However, Putin is no tin-pot dictator — he intends to conquer a large swath of Europe and intimidate or destroy NATO, of which the U.S. is a founding partner. And he has the resources to do it. Yes, we could abandon NATO as Trump wished to do, but in the end, that would only weaken us. The Atlantic Ocean is not the protection it was in 1940, before the invention of ICBMs, satellites, drones, and cyber warfare, not to mention strategic nuclear weapons.

Another respect in which the invasion of Ukraine resembles World War II: the leaders of the two sides. Putin is a psychopath and a war criminal, like Hitler and Stalin; Zelensky is the most inspiring, steady, courageous leader on the international stage in many years, maybe since 1960. Many have compared him to Churchill; he may not be the orator Churchill was, but he is plain-spoken and more relatable.

And the West has had one incredible stroke of luck: Trump is out of office. I shudder to think what would have happened had he won.

The final lesson of World War II is not to wait, not to fear “provoking’ Putin to escalate, not to set red lines below which he can feel safe. We must let him know everything is on the table (except a nuclear first strike), and war crimes trials are a real prospect. After 1945, the world put institutions in place to be sure World War II, with its global death and destruction, would be the last of its kind.

Indeed, it was the Soviets themselves who helped define unprovoked state aggression against another state as a violation of international law as defined at the Nuremberg Trials.

Conclusion

Ironically, it is Russia, not Ukraine, which must be demilitarized so it can never threaten such attacks again: Secretary Austin said as much a few days ago. And it is the Russians, not the Ukrainians, who are fascist oppressors.

The Cold War has, alas, become a hot war. There is no reason to think Putin would stop at a world war, even a nuclear war. Only if the West acts quickly and decisively can World War III be prevented. And we must communicate our resolve to Putin.

No war is a “good” war. (My father, as a 21-year old infantryman, fought in the Battle of the Bulge; he said it was awful and refused to talk about it.), However World War II was necessary. It was an existential war for us and the rest of the Western world.

An activist against “policy” wars, or wars “of choice”, I never imagined that I would be arguing that we escalate a war, especially one which could lead to the destruction of us all, because of another reckless, evil man in a position of immense power. I sincerely hope I am wrong. But we must force Putin to disgorge Ukraine and disarm; otherwise NATO (including the U.S.) will never be safe again. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

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Caroline Poplin, M.D., J.D.

Caroline Poplin, M.D., J.D.

Poplin graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law with the FDA and the EPA. Currently Of Counsel & Medical Director at Guttman, Buschner, & Brooks PLLC.