Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic mischief reveals him to be an astute student of history. While every Russian knows something about the Red Army’s heroics in the “Great Patriotic War,” Putin, a former KGB man, studied the enemy. We just saw another example of what Putin learned from Adolph Hitler this week: With impeccable timing, Putin violated yet another dimension of yet another arms-control treaty—the crucial-to-peace 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement. The INF deal forbids signatories from developing and deploying ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges suited to a war in Europe.
Nor did the Russian government trouble to deny the deployment of active cruise-missile battalions. It’s all about the timing. Putin knows that the Western allies are in disarray and will not react substantively (if at all) as he continues to rebuild the rust-bucket armed forces he inherited. He has a nose for weakness, as did Hitler.
When Hitler rose to power, the Reichswehr—Germany’s treaty-emasculated military—was limited to 115,000 soldiers and sailors restricted in their armaments. Hitler didn’t accept the situation, but he didn’t challenge all the Versailles terms at once. He took one step and, when it wasn’t contested, he took another. And a mere six years after Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, a vastly expanded, superbly armed Wehrmacht triggered World War II.
That globe-spanning conflict didn’t come out of the blue. Hitler had kept on testing the wills of the war-weary, financially battered allies. First, he moved troops back into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized as a buffer zone. That was in 1936, and Hitler was bluffing: His secretly expanding military wasn’t remotely ready for a fight. But the Allies were preoccupied and divided, and they didn’t believe the Rhineland was worth the bother.
Two years later, in 1938, he pulled off the Anschluss with Austria—still no reaction. The next winter, Czechoslovakia was the target. Waking to sudden panic, the Allies negotiated desperately and fearfully. Hitler bamboozled them simply by telling them what they hoped to hear.
Then, in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland.
The point grasped by Putin is that the best way to boil a frog is to turn up the heat gradually. Putin seeks to restore a Russian empire and to rebuild a first-rate military. But he takes it one step at a time: Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine’s Donetsk Basin…every move briefly alarms today’s Western allies, but soon enough we hear pleas for business as usual. And just at the right juncture, Putin tells Western leaders what they want to hear—signed assurances of peace in our time. (Of note, Putin has not lost anything in successive negotiations; rather, talks and resulting agreements have tacitly formalized his conquests.)
Like Hitler, Putin pushes until he meets resistance. Hitler didn’t meet any firm resistance until it was too late. So far, neither has Putin.
Putin’s latest move, made at a time of disarray in the new U.S. administration, was to deploy those SSC-8 cruise missiles without any serious efforts at concealment; indeed, the Russian media have covered the story openly, thumbing Russia’s smudged nose at the West. This isn’t just re-armament: It’s yet another test.
And Putin’s Reichswehr becomes Putin’s Wehrmacht. Stopping him is simply too much trouble for a disunited, often-craven West.
The Baltic states start to look like Czechoslovakia, while Warsaw looks alarmingly like…Warsaw.