Putin will make history among the leaders of the European powers who willfully and willingly launched a unilateral war of aggression in Europe.
So says professor and historian Sven J Holtsmark in the Department of Defense Studies at the Norwegian Defense Academy.
It’s not a nice company, says Holtsmark, that Putin finds himself in.
Before him, only Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler did something similar.
Until the outbreak of World War I, there was a dynamic that pushed nations into conflict. While World War II in Europe was Hitler’s personal project, Stalin followed it up with attacks on Poland and Finland and the occupation of the Baltic states.
Now Putin did the same – he went to a one-sided war against another country.
– If we look at the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we will find that he ranks alongside Stalin and Hitler. He is not in good company.
Holtsmark says Putin will also go down in history among the two preeminent dictators in European history.
– In this chapter we find people like Lenin, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and now Putin. All of them introduced a form of dictatorship.
When Putin first came to power in 2000, he took the reins of shaky democracy, Holtzmark explains.
– Then, he turned Russia into a pure dictatorship, with increasingly authoritarian ambitions. It is now ruling a dictatorship trying to interfere in more and more areas of society, such as schools and culture. Putin is an old man, and sooner or later he will meet his end, so we don’t know the end of Putin’s saga, but we know what happened so far.
A corner of shame in history
Jörn Holm Hansen, a senior researcher at NIBR-OsloMet has a deep knowledge of Russia’s political landscape. He believes that Putin will remain in history’s “corner of shame” after the invasion of Ukraine.
I think a lot of people will see him as a war criminal, someone who destroyed many lives and a lot of infrastructure. But I don’t think he would be put on the same level as Hitler. He did not commit genocide against an ethnic population. He is responsible for war crimes, but there are no extermination camps in Russia now, so perhaps he will not be comparable to Hitler.
Holm Hansen believes that the story to be written about Putin would have been very different had he surrendered before his third presidential term in 2012.
– Then he would remain as a leader who put Russia on the right track after communism and after the poverty and chaos of the 1990s. Then he gained a good reputation.
But after 2012, it only started to decline, the lead researcher believes.
Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian and illiberal conservative country at home. In addition, Russia is becoming more militaristic and aggressive abroad. We see it in Syria and Ukraine. Holm Hansen believes that if Putin should not have been responsible for the invasion of Crimea in 2014, and the invasion this year, he would have earned a much better reputation.
Bad reputation in Russia
He believes that how Putin is written in Russia’s history books is a more open question.
– My advice is that he will have a very bad reputation. It can happen very quickly if there is a power grab, for example through a palace revolution. Either from the more aggressive right, which will indicate that the war was not conducted in an effective manner, or from the more democratic people of Russia, who are more oriented towards the West. The latter would probably be able to claim in this case that Putin said he was going to make Russia great, but did little else.
Holm Hansen points out that Putin has destroyed, among other things, what could have made the Russian economy stronger.
– He crushed that only by developing military strength. It made Russia weaker than it was 10-15 years ago. Even if Russia were able to militarily seize some territory, the question is what they would do with it, he says and adds:
Only bear the expenses. Holding the occupied territories is not cheap, and the residents there should receive wages and welfare benefits at the Russian level. It concerns the four to five million new residents living in the illegally annexed areas.
Falling into better soil
However, in parts of the world it will likely be left in a somewhat better picture, believes Holm Hansen.
Putin’s way of explaining the war in Ukraine is perhaps more resonant with parts of the population in, say, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East than it does here. Perhaps they have a little more understanding of Russia’s justification for the invasion, which is that NATO and the United States encroached on Russia through Ukraine, and thus Russia had to act decisively.
He points out that in many countries, there is also resentment of US influence at the international level.
Because they experienced that the Americans interfered with them in ways they did not like. There, the way Putin explains the cause of the war will likely fall a little better. And some of Putin’s talking points appear specifically aimed at an audience in the Global South.
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