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Benson: Vladimir Putin and the Crimea

Three weeks ago, Hillary Clinton spoke at a fundraiser at Long Beach, Calif., and suggested that Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea equaled those of Adolf Hitler eight decades ago.

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She said, “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s. All the Germans that … were the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”

Yes, the world condemns Putin’s actions as immoral and unlawful, but others say it is a stretch to equate the Russian autocrat with the Nazi dictator. One commentator said, “Hillary’s too smart to actually believe that Putin’s actions are remotely close to anything that Hitler did.” Another said that “Putin does not have Hitler’s global vision of world domination.” Still, Putin’s actions concern us.

The United Nations proved itself helpless again, and the Obama administration’s tepid response failed to alleviate fear in the Ukraine and in former Soviet Union republics that Putin’s Russian army would ignore those countries’ sovereignty and grab more of their territory.

“The current generation of Western leaders has chosen to ignore Putin’s malevolence.”

Those who remember the past, or who have read it, are reminded of Neville Chamberlain’s claim of “Peace for our time,” after he had signed the Munich agreement with Herr Hitler and gave portions of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, to Germany. Yet Hitler grabbed more; he wanted all of Europe.

In 1990, a student named Mike Godwin made an observation: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Known ever since as Godwin’s Law, it means that in all discussions or arguments that last for a length of time, someone will dredge up Hitler or the Nazis, mainly because they are the example of the worst ever.

A corollary to Godwin’s Law is that whoever invokes Hitler’s name first has lost the argument as well as credibility, and a second corollary is that “the frivolous use of such analogies tends to rob the valid comparisons of their impact.” Based on the law and its corollaries, Clinton lost some of her credibility to speak on Crimea.

Instead of dropping Hitler’s name into her speech, she should have explored the Western powers’ options and informed Putin that the United States and western Europe will take issue with his land grab, and that he must pay a price for his ruthless actions.

Sixty years ago, in 1954, the Soviet Union’s leader at that time, Nikita Krushchev, decided to grant to the Ukraine the Crimean peninsula, for undisclosed reasons, even though there was, at that time, a heavy concentration of Russians living there. Today, 60 percent of Crimea is Russian-speaking.

Just days after Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukraine’s former president, fled the country, the new government in Kiev passed an “odious law” that “eliminated Russian as an official second language.” That law gave Putin the excuse he needed to send 16,000 Russian troops into the Crimea and seize control. His pretext was that he wanted to protect the Russian people there.

The truth is that Putin was horrified that the Ukrainian people had moved closer to the European Union and away from Russian domination, and he was horrified by “the sight of Yanukovych being driven from his palace.” He feared the loss of Crimea’s ports for his Russian navy and he feared a liberal democracy emerging in Ukraine.

John McLaughlin, a writer for USA Today said, “Russia’s czar knows that if liberal democracy takes hold next door, many middle-class Russians will get dangerous ideas.” The Russian people may revolt and drive him and his thugs from his palace in Moscow, a scenario that must terrify him.

Putin did not win favors in Washington last fall when he granted asylum to Edward Snowden, who stole NSA secrets, but he dazzled the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics last month.

Putin is 61. He retired from the KGB as a lieutenant colonel and was in line to accept the presidency of Russia once Boris Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999. Putin loves judo and karate, and he can be seen on YouTube sparring with others. He and his wife, Lyudmila Putina, have two daughters: Maria is 29, and Ekaterina is 28.

On June 6, 2013, Putin and Lyudmila announced that after 30 years they would divorce soon. Since 2008, Putin has dated the Russian gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who won a bronze medal in rhythmic gymnastics in 2000 at Sydney and the gold in 2004 at Athens. Alina helped carry the torch in Friday night’s Olympic Opening Ceremony in Sochi.

Despite the glittering display at Sochi, Western analysts and Putin’s neighbors have reason to suspect him of greater territorial ambitions. Some speculate that he is the richest man on the globe, and Forbes magazine claims that he is the most powerful man in the world. The Russian Empire is back.

Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.