Effective policy-making begins by accurately assessing adversaries. Americans have a tendency to assume that their opponents are either pathetic pipsqueaks, ranting like irrational madmen, or enormous evildoers, bent on Hitler-like world domination. Russian president Vladimir Putin fits neither of these character types. The pattern of Russian regional aggression, dating back to Moscow’s invasion of the Georgian Republic in 2008 (when George W. Bush was still president), reveals a different kind of adversary.
Putin is an early 20th-century fascist, ruling a country that possesses middling international power, but still maintains aspirations to greatness and deep-seated resentments against the societies—especially the United States and the European Union—that are allegedly keeping it down. Putin is ruthlessly realistic. He recognizes that he cannot challenge the United States from across the globe. He seeks, instead, to assert Russian power by beating up on weak neighboring societies, thumbing his nose at the foreigners who criticize his actions, and mobilizing his own suffering citizens with the promise of national strength. He used the Sochi Summer Olympics this year to display Russian physical prowess, just as he uses the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine to assert that Russians are superior among the other Slavs. The bombast, muscle-flexing, and aggression are designed to manifest Russian ethnic and cultural rejuvenation after decades of decline and humiliation. Putin promotes nearby aggression to redeem Russian politics; he defines the authenticity and greatness of his nation by its ability to bring violence on lesser peoples.
The best historical analogy for Putin is neither Adolf Hitler nor Joseph Stalin. The Russian president does not have the messianic world-conquering vision of the German Führer, and he does not possess the universalistic ideology of his Russian predecessor. Putin is more of a “classical” fascist, in the model of Benito Mussolini in early 20th-century Italy or Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain after the country’s bloody civil war. Mussolini and Franco built their dictatorships on the promise of greatness, the display of force, and the myth of a savior who would carry a fallen people back to the top of the international pyramid of power. They asserted near-total control over their societies for the purpose of bringing complete transformation. Most of all, they exploited opportunities for attacking vulnerable citizens (especially Jews) and weaker neighbors (especially in North Africa). Conspicuous assertions of Italian and Spanish physical superiority served to galvanize followers and generate apparent greatness.
Fascism has come to Russia, and other contemporary societies, because of current international conditions, echoing many of the circumstances in the 1920s and 1930s. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in the world has grown, within and across societies, and many Russians feel deprived and disrespected. The allure of democracy has faded due to the evidence of ineffectiveness, stalemate, and corruption within many of its chief exponents, including the United States. Perhaps most significant, the many lingering wars and conflicts of the last decade have brutalized the image of politics in Russia and other societies. If violence and related forms of coercion are acceptable elsewhere, why shouldn’t Russians use the same behaviors in areas close to home? When Americans and Europeans reject this claim on grounds of international law and human rights, Russians point to the hypocrisy of recent interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Their argument about Western inconsistency has some merit.
The history of fascism in Italy and Spain, and now in Russia, offers some helpful guidance in considering American and European responses to Putin’s military meddling in eastern Ukraine today. First, his domestic legitimacy is deeply connected to his international aggression. We should not expect him to back down or change course anytime soon. We should, instead, expect more acts of intervention in the region around Russia.
From this observation follows a second expectation. Putin’s popularity, like that of other fascists, will remain strong at home as long as he can show “victories” in bullying opponents, dominating neighbors, and standing up against foreign enemies. His domestic power will grow as he defiantly flaunts growing international condemnation. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy and its citizens, but Putin will rally his population around his conspicuous displays of physical courage and strength for years to come.
The third and most important historical insight is that this fascist aggression will only cease when it confronts strong external resistance. Fascists are opportunistic bullies who will turn away from fights they cannot win. They enjoy their positions of power too much to risk losing everything. Hitler is the exception to this historical analysis, of course, and we should recognize that he is not a guide for thinking about Putin or most other dictators.
How, then, should Americans and Europeans encourage external resistance to Putin’s fascism? For sound reasons, citizens in the United States and the European Union are not prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. Americans and Western Europeans held a similar position during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe. What worked in the Cold War, and what is feasible today, is a policy of forceful containment in this region. That involves increasing the readiness of the Western alliance (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to combat Russian military moves. It also requires the aiding and arming of local forces in Ukraine, Georgia, and other states most vulnerable to Russian attack. The United States and its European allies must do everything they can to create native fighting forces that can resist Russian aggression. Local armies might not be able to defeat Russia in the short-run, but they can raise the costs for Russia so high that the bully in Moscow will have to consider the risks of a very bloody nose before his next moves.
Containing Russian fascism is not ideal. It will contribute to further militarization around Russia. It requires working relationships with many less-than-democratic groups that oppose Putin. It cannot reverse recent Russian gains, at least not immediately. Containment, nonetheless, offers a strategy that plainly recognizes the nature of our fascist adversary, diminishes his aggressive opportunities, and allows for effective American and European action that is sustainable in the current political environment. Containment is a credible way of combating fascism in Russia today. Leaders in Washington, Berlin, Paris, and London should coordinate their efforts behind this strategy, and they should start soon.
Jeremi Suri is a professor of history and public affairs at UT. He holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs.
Artwork by Melissa Reese.