It's a lazy comparison to make, but the parallels between Putin's moves in the Crimea and Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938 are far too tempting for those of us with a little knowledge of modern history to ignore. Even more so now that Putin himself is making frequent mentions of neo-Nazism as being one of his primary concerns in Ukraine.
Putin is no Hitler. He may share some of the more unhinged characteristics of that moustachioed maniac, such as an unshakeable belief in his own PR and a tenuous grip on the reality of his place in history, but up until now such things have marked the boundaries of his delirium.
Looking at the comparison from the other side, I certainly can't recall seeing any homo-erotic photographs of a bare-chested Adolf astride a mighty steed in the outback. I'm fairly sure the Discovery Channel would have made a fascinating documentary about them if they had been found lying about the Wolfsschanze. And if there ever was any footage of The Fuhrer offering a dodgy Karaoke rendition of Fats Domino, it appears it was destroyed in those final dark days in the Berlin bunker. We can at least be thankful to the SS for that, if for nothing else.
No, Vladimir is far cleverer than your average despot. He spends a lot of time and effort cultivating the impression of a statesman. He dresses the part, looks the part he's got the steely stare for the camera down to a tee. He's also pretty good at ensuring that even the most powerful opposition to him or his authority meets with a drastic change of fortune, one way or another.
Anyone who spent 16 years in the KGB, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, isn't exactly a stranger to the idea of creating a legend about himself, and it's a fantasy that much of the world has gone along with. But we may soon have to be woken up from that comfortable complicity.
After the collapse of the Iron Curtain we were all so keen to embrace the idea of an open Russia and the dissolution of the USSR, even though many of the principles that were prevalent during those Cold War days, such as human rights violations, corruption and misrule have apparently persisted. It's almost as if the west was so busy breathing a collective sigh of relief that we'd avoided nuclear conflagration, that we didn't notice the red flag being replaced with one that was decidedly rose tinted instead.
But of late we've seen the mask slip a little. Firstly with Russia's refusal to join with the most of the world in opposition to events in Syria, driven primarily by self-interest rather than the humanitarianism that Putin is laying claim to in Ukraine. His approach to human rights was even more sharply demonstrated by the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot rock band last year, merely for singing a song he didn't care for. A shame the same sanctions couldn't be applied to poor public renditions of Blueberry Hill on national TV.
This year we had an even clearer demonstration of the lack of civil liberty in Russia when Putin and his government openly condemned homosexuality amid tales of intimidation and persecution of the gay community in Russian towns that wouldn't have looked out of place during 1930's Germany.
So is it any surprise that Putin has taken our global ideological myopia as his cue to make one the most overt militaristic assaults on a neighbouring country since that other well known Hitler exemplar - Saddam Hussein - decided to 'liberate' Kuwait?
In many ways Putin's moves over the Ukraine crisis are very similar to Saddam's motivations in those dark days of the early 90s. Hussein saw an opportunity to deal with his own internal problems by invading a country that he owed a lot of money to and which also had control over the local energy market. Putin, I believe, has his eye on those troublesome Gazprom pipelines that provide some of the bedrock of his country's economic power. Indeed there's already talk of the US manipulating shale gas supplies in order to depress world gas prices and thus harm the Russian economy in response to it's current posturing in Crimea.
The divisions in Ukraine have provided the ideal excuse for Putin to 'stabilise' a neighbouring state that he claims is a threat to his. Moreover his Hitler-like rhetoric of fealty to those Russian-speaking, Russian-loving citizens in the bordering areas offers him a half-plausible justification for seizing control of an infrastructure that to some large extent underpins Russia's position as an energy superpower.
Whilst Gazprom is already working on ways to bypass the troublesome Ukraine, they still rely on the pipeline to a large extent and have had to cut Kiev some quite advantageous deals on gas supply as a result. Even so they apparently owe a substantial sum to Russia in the form of an unpaid gas bill amounting to over $1.5 billion. Not something any of us would fancy seeing on our doormat. Little wonder then that the Ukrainians are being accused of illegally siphoning off gas intended for other EU states as they try to stay warm in badly maintained and poorly insulated buildings. All of this could be tolerated whilst Ukraine remained friendly to, and under the control of, Russia.
So perhaps it's understandable that Putin is grabbing what seems like a golden opportunity to intervene in this troublesome neighbour state. He has no way of knowing what a new administration in Kiev would do, should they be hostile to Russian interests in the future. And let's face it, Russia has form for such incursions in the past. They didn't seem too concerned about world condemnation for their invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s, when the geo-political landscape was every bit as unstable as it is now.
There's also speculation that the recent demonstration of western military restraint over the use of chemical weapons in another of Russia's ally states, Syria, may also have sent the message that we wouldn't really have the stomach for a fight if Russian boots hit Ukrainian soil. Even if the west was in the mood for a dust up, this time we'd be fighting someone who could hit back just as hard. There's be no nice TV friendly, easy wins from arms length war this time. The 'shock and awe' would be on both sides.
I'm certainly not advocating a military response, but with events from 1938 in mind I wonder how far we'll get with appeasement of a state that still seems to be living in the past and sees it's old principalities as fair game. Moreover, what kind of message are we sending to other countries who might be in the same position either as aggressors or the aggressed.
As we commemorate the start of the first world conflict in 1914, it's apparent to an amateur historian like myself that there were various small and seemingly inconsequential events that led up to the start of WWI. With a 100 years of perspective now behind us, I can't help but admit to a small shiver of concern slipping down my spine over events in Ukraine. If nothing else the stand-off, if that's what it becomes, has all the makings of a Cuban crisis for the new generation. Or at the very least something like a 21st century Suez debacle.
Of course, history repeating itself is almost as much of a cliché as comparisons to Hitler. But then again who would have thought we'd all be talking about Russia as the 'Big Bad Wolf of The East' again so soon after we welcomed them back into the fold of the allegedly free world?Suggest a correction