Russian President Vladimir Putin often evokes the Soviet Union’s epic defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II to justify his country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet Putin is committing some of the same blunders that doomed Germany’s 1941 invasion of the USSR – while using “Hitler-like tricks and tactics” to justify his brutality, military historians and scholars say.
This is the savage irony behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine that’s become clear as the war enters its second month: the Russian leader, who portrays himself as a student of history, is floundering because he hasn’t paid enough attention to the lessons of the “Great Patriotic War” he reveres.
“I have been trying to make sense of this for a month, because as terrible as Putin is, you could never say he was illogical,” says Peter T. DeSimone, an associate professor of Russian and Eastern European history at Utica University in New York.
“All of this is illogical, and that’s the scary thing,” he says. “This is not normal for what he’s done in the past. This is something that makes no sense on many levels, and not just in regard to World War II.”
There are, of course, significant differences between the current war in Ukraine and the clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
The Nazi war machine was formidable, agile, and well-trained. The Wehrmacht killed and wounded 150,000 Red Army soldiers in the first week of their invasion in June of 1941. They seized vast swaths of territory, and in one “mega-encirclement” trapped four Soviet armies, capturing 700,000 prisoners of war.
Stalin was a sociopath (he once reached into a cage and killed a family pet parrot because its chirping annoyed him) who starved millions of Ukrainians to death and routinely murdered political rivals. Zelensky is a democratically elected leader who has rallied Ukrainians and inspired the world with his conspicuous displays of courage and eloquent defense of democracy.
But look closer at Putin’s struggles in Ukraine and ironic parallels emerge. Military historians say Putin is following Hitler’s ill-fated playbook in at least three areas.
Putin forgot a basic rule of warfare
The tank has long struck dread in enemy troops. When the British introduced the first lumbering tanks during World War I, soldiers fled in terror.
Ukraine, though, has become, according to one recent headline, a “graveyard for Russian tanks.” Ukrainian soldiers are using everything from drones to Javelins to destroy tank convoys.
But Russian tanks have been stymied for another surprising reason: lack of fuel. The lack of fuel is part of a bigger problem. The once-vaunted Russian army has become bogged down in Ukraine not just because of fierce resistance but by something more prosaic: logistics.
Putin has struggled to feed, fuel and equip his army. There have been reports of Russian troops looting banks and supermarkets, tanks running out of fuel, and soldiers using substandard forms of military communication – like smartphones – that have contributed to what Ukraine says are the deaths of at least seven Russian generals.
“The evidence suggests that Putin thought he could win a quick victory with the deployment of special forces and airborne units,” says Ian Ona Johnson, a professor of military history at the University of Notre Dame. “So when they were forced to go to a much more traditional war involving essentially most of the Russian army along the Ukrainian border, they weren’t prepared for some of the logistics.”
Poor logistical planning also played a critical role in Nazi Germany’s defeat on the Eastern front, where Hitler expected a quick victory.
The German army failed to set up sufficient supply lines for the vast distances and harsh terrain of the Soviet Union. German tanks ran out of fuel. The consequences of this poor logistical planning would prove fatal when the Russian winter hit.
Hitler didn’t equip many of his soldiers with winter clothing because he thought the Soviet army was so inferior. German soldiers were forced to fight in freezing temperatures while still clad in their summer uniforms, with some using newspaper and straw to shield themselves against the cold.
“This proved devastating when a particularly brutal Russian winter set in,” Johnson says. “Something like 250,000 German soldiers eventually suffered frostbite injuries or died from the cold that winter because of logistical issues.”
The German army reached its lowest point at the battle of Stalingrad, considered the turning point of World War II. There ill-equipped German soldiers were forced to eat horses, dogs and rats to survive the winter.
The scale of the fighting in Ukraine today doesn’t approach the Eastern Front, but the lesson from both wars can be summed up in a military maxim attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley, an American general during World War II:
“Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.”
He alienated potential allies
In a war already full of heartbreaking images, one photo may be the worst.
It is a haunting photo of a pregnant Ukrainian woman in torn clothes being carried on a stretcher. The woman is conscious, her hand cradled protectively over her bare womb, which is smeared with blood. Both she and her baby would later die from her injuries. Ukrainian authorities say she was in a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol when it was shelled by Russian artillery.
The image underscored what some commentators now say is Putin’s standard approach to war: He is indiscriminately killing civilians to break the will of the Ukrainian people.
Russia’s army has been accused of bombing hospitals, shopping malls, apartment buildings and a theater with the word “children” written in Russian on the exterior of the building. Russia also been accused of trying to starve a Ukrainian city into submission by blocking humanitarian relief.
The Russian army’s brutality, though, is having the opposite effect, Maria Varenikova wrote from Lviv, Ukraine, in a recent article for the New York Times.
“If there is one overriding emotion gripping Ukraine right now, it is hate,” Varenikova said. “It is a deep, seething bitterness for President Vladimir V. Putin, his military, and his government.”
Brutality can backfire in war.
Putin has potential allies in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are two Slavic nations that share religious and cultural ties. Many Ukrainians have relatives in Russia and speak the language. And there has historically been more allegiance to Russia in the eastern part of the country.
But Putin’s indiscriminate brutality against civilians is uniting Ukrainians in a way they’ve never been brought together before. One commentator called hate a “hidden treasure” in war because it can sustain resistance for generations.
Hitler’s indiscriminate brutality against Soviet civilians also played a crucial factor in his defeat.
Hitler had many potential allies in the Soviet Union. Many Soviets despised and feared Stalin, who routinely murdered political opponents, executed military leaders and persecuted Soviet citizens. He murdered about four million Ukrainians by starving them during one infamous period known as the Holodomor.
That’s why some Soviets initially welcomed Hitler as a liberator, and gave some German troops Christmas presents.
But Hitler’s brutal treatment of civilians quickly stiffened Soviet resistance. German troops looted and starved Russian cities into submission. They rounded up Soviet Jews and other minorities, shooting them or poisoning them in mobile gassing vans. Nazi propaganda taught Germans that Soviets were generically inferior “Mongolized” Slavs who deserved death or enslavement.
“The Nazis were not an occupying force; they were an extermination force from the start,” says DeSimone, the historian from Utica University.
Stalin was so hated that roughly a million Soviets served in the German army, says Johnson, the Notre Dame historian. Hitler’s brutality destroyed any chance he had of picking off Soviet sympathizers and weakening Soviet resistance, Johnson says.
“Instead of taking advantage of large numbers of people who might been sympathetic or at least think the Germans were better than the Soviets,” he says, “Hitler rapidly alienated all those groups.”
He’s using Hitler-like language to justify war
Last summer, Putin published a lengthy essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” that sought to explain that there was an artificial division between the two countries and that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
The language Putin used caused some historians to shudder. They said he echoed some of the same rhetoric Hitler used in “Mein Kampf,” the dictator’s autobiography and political manifesto. Hitler’s book brimmed with distorted history about Germany’s lost greatness, global conspiracies that undercut Germany’s power, and justifications for conquest of another group of people.
“Like the Führer, the president of Russia bemoans the tragedy that has befallen his homeland, an erstwhile empire, and he too wants to turn back the clock,” wrote Avi Garfinkel, a reporter for Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, in an article entitled, “How Putin’s Ukraine Agenda Evokes Hitler’s Mein Kampf.”
This may be one of the most disturbing links between Putin and Hitler. Some Putin critics say he is using Nazi language and propaganda techniques to justify the invasion of Ukraine. They compared the “Z” inscribed on Russian tanks to a symbol used by Nazis in concentration camps. Others compared a recent massive war rally Putin led in a Moscow stadium to scenes of a Hitler speech in an infamous Nazi propaganda film called “Triumph of the Will.”
Some of the strongest reaction to Putin’s rhetoric stems from his claim that the Russian army is striving for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine and seeks to protect people who have been “abused by the genocide of the Kyiv regime.”
Timothy Snyder, a leading authority on Central European history and the Holocaust, says Putin’s claim about “de-Nazification” is “grotesque” because he’s trying to justify invading a democratic country – led by a Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust – by claiming he’s there to fight Nazis.
Snyder calls Putin’s justification a variation of Hitler’s Big Lie – a Nazi propaganda technique that insists that if a political leader repeats a colossal untruth enough, people will eventually believe it.
“Adolf Hitler had some public relations advice: Tell a lie so big that people will not believe that you would ever try to deceive them on such a grand scale,” Snyder wrote in an essay titled, “Putin’s Hitler-like tricks and tactics in Ukraine.”
By telling lies that Ukraine is run by Nazis bent on genocide, Putin is making a mockery of people who survived the Holocaust, says Snyder, author of “On Tyranny.”
Yet Putin’s embrace of the Big Lie could also backfire. In a country where many citizens’ ancestors perished in the Holocaust, invoking such a historical tragedy to justify war may only make some Ukrainians more determined to defend their homeland.
Perhaps that is why some Ukrainians no longer call Putin the Russian president.
They call him “The New Hitler.”
What could be the biggest irony of all
We know the result of Hitler’s invasion. The Soviet Union eventually destroyed the Nazi war machine. The Soviets, more than any country, were responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Hitler committed suicide as Russian troops closed in on his Berlin bunker in 1945.
An estimated 26 million Soviets died during World War II. One was Putin’s two-year-old brother, Viktor, who died after the German army lay siege to a Russian city, blocking the delivery of food and water.
We don’t know how the war in Ukraine will end. Putin could still prevail. He could split the nation and seize the energy-rich resources of Eastern Ukraine and consolidate his hold on the country’s coastline, some say.
And we know that in war no one side has a monopoly on brutality. A far-right group with a history of neo-Nazi leanings has played a crucial role in Ukrainian resistance. Ukrainian soldiers have been accused of shooting Russian prisoners.
But if Ukraine somehow preserves its independence and its territory, something may happen that could lead to one of the biggest ironies of all.
A Ukrainian victory will be depicted as another Great Patriotic War. Ukrainians will commemorate their country’s victory with parades and monuments. And Putin will no longer be hailed as a shrewd and bold leader who restored Russia’s greatness by manipulating chess pieces on a global stage.
He will be seen as a fool whose hubris and brutality drove him into making the same mistakes as the dictator he professed to despise.