Is Andranik Migranyan right?
The head of a think tank associated with Vladimir Putin wrote the following in response to critics who liken the Russian president to Adolf Hitler and what he did so long ago: "One must distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939. The thing is that Hitler collected (German) lands. If he had become famous only for uniting without a drop of blood Germany with Austria, Sudetenland and Memel, in fact completing what Bismarck failed to do, and if he had stopped there, then he would have remained a politician of the highest class."
Migranyan's comment, published in a Russian newspaper, has received quite a bit of attention, both because of his position and for its chilling content. There is no doubt that Hitler crossed a line in September 1939 when he invaded Poland, and Britain and France were finally forced to go to war. (Maybe Migranyan remembers that the Soviet Union also invaded Poland.) Up to then, Hitler had mostly satisfied himself with collecting the lands of German-speaking peoples - Austria, the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, etc. - although Poland also had a substantial German minority.
If something like this is what Putin has in mind - gathering Russian-speaking people under his rule - then Migranyan seems to saying: What's the big deal? What he does not mention, though, is that by 1939 Hitler was already engaged in killing Jews, dissidents, communists, homosexuals and, that year, the mentally and physically feeble. Kristallnacht, a government-sanctioned pogrom, occurred in 1938; the Nuremberg laws, depriving Jews of their civil rights, were promulgated in 1935; and Germany was rapidly rearming, in violation of its treaty obligations. It was, way before 1939, an outlaw state vigorously engaged in murder.
For anyone, least of all a think tank director, to overlook this record is frightening. Maybe, though, Migranyan did not overlook it. Maybe he was simply reciting a fact: What Hitler did to his own people disturbed the West but did not stir it to action. Indeed, many argued that Hitler had a point: Germans belonged in Germany. As for the Jews, they were often blamed for their own plight.
You hear similar arguments now about Putin and Russian-speaking peoples: Crimea is Russian. Eastern Ukraine is Russian. Maybe some of the Baltic states are Russian, too. Who knows?
I would never compare anyone to Hitler. He remains in a category of one. And I would not, either, get too carried away about Russian rhetoric at the moment. The denunciation of dissidents as "traitors" may just be the Russian version of Fox News excess of the type we heard in the run-up to the war in Iraq. (Check YouTube to see what I mean.) At the same time, there are contrary signs - the election of Putin critics to this or that office and the distinct lack of Nazi-style rhetoric regarding minorities. Specifically, Putin seems free of anti-Semitism.
Still, what are we to make of Migranyan? He did not write in a vacuum. The Kremlin is stifling dissent. The Russian foreign minister is either lying with abandon or blithely passing lies on - or both. So-called Green Men, troops with their faces shielded and their identifying insignias missing, have circulated through eastern Ukraine, as they did in Crimea. Ukrainian and some Western intelligence agencies identify them as Russian, down to even providing the names of certain individuals. These are similar to the techniques used by Hitler to provoke intervention in neighboring countries. He was forever coming to the rescue of embattled German minorities.
Migranyan and presumably Putin live in a different era. They think the line they must not cross is one that will provoke a truly punishing Western reaction - like seizing parts of the Baltic states. But they have already crossed a line. The West, including Barack Obama, knows that Putin cannot be trusted. He is a liar - and not a very good one. (He once said no Russian troops went into Crimea but later admitted they had.) He is at heart an autocrat who wants to re-create as much of the old Soviet empire as he can.
The consequences of all this are not yet clear. It is clear, though, that the Russia of Gorbachev and Yeltsin is gone, and something new and yet familiar has taken its place. The Obama administration recognizes the new reality and is appropriately dusting off Cold War playbooks. Russia, it seems, may be turning its back on Europe - but not, ominously, on some of its ugly 20th-century history.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.