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TORONTO - Prominent public figures who draw comparisons between Russia's president and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler are spreading factual inaccuracies that may ultimately come back to haunt them, historians said Wednesday.
The scholars were among many who reacted with surprise when Prince Charles reportedly compared Vladimir Putin and Hitler during a recent visit to a Halifax museum.
Britain's Daily Mail reported the heir to the throne told a woman who lost relatives after Germany's invasion of Poland that Putin was "doing just about the same as Hitler." Russia recently annexed Ukraine's Crimea region.
The Prince of Wales was not alone in drawing such comparisons. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew a direct parallel between the two leaders at a speech to the University of California this past March.
Clinton criticized Putin's justifications for invading Crimea in February, saying his stated goal of protecting ethnic Russians in the area was remarkably similar to Hitler's rationale for invading Czechoslovakia, Poland and other neighbouring countries in the lead-up to the Second World War.
``Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s,'' Clinton said, according to the Press-Telegram of Long Beach. ``Hitler kept saying, 'They're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people.' And that's what's gotten everybody so nervous.''
Historians concede Putin and Hitler may use roughly the same language to justify their actions, but insist the similarities end there.
Hitler's incursions, they say, were a key step in a plan to implement a racially motivated agenda on a global scale. In contrast, they say Putin's actions are part of a more limited powerplay with a narrower scope.
Jeff Sahadeo, Director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University, said comparing the two leaders smacks more of political posturing than a true understanding of the issues at hand.
"Each leader used claims of ethnic bretheren in countries beyond their borders as justifications to expand. Beyond that it becomes something in the realm of really trying to demonize Putin," Sahadeo said in a telephone interview. ". . . You're taking a surface comparison and trying to use it to make a point that's much more serving political agendas than any aim at historical accuracy."
Sahadeo said Hitler's intentions were clear to the international community by the time he started spreading his influence and troops beyond Germany's borders.
His autobiographical treatise "Mein Kampf," published years before his rise to power, spells out both his anti-Semitic views and his plans for Germany's rise as a global superpower, Sahadeo said.
Putin isn't driven by those racial motives, he said, adding the Russian leader's end game appears to be to try and reintroduce his country as a genuine player in global politics.
Sahadeo said annexing Crimea both drew the world's attention while boosting Putin's image at home. But Sahadeo predicts that Putin will shy away from pushing his powerplay much further.
He's reminded Ukraine of its strong cultural and economic ties to Russia, flexed his muscle before his Global counterparts and boosted his already sky-high popularity at home, Sahadeo said, adding he must now reconcile his approval rating in Russia with the wrath of Western leaders.
"He wants to be relevant, he wants to be important, he wants to make sure that any pan-European decisions include him, but I think he's not willing to risk much more in terms of sanctions than what he has now," Sahadeo said.
Aurel Braun, a Toronto-based scholar who's currently a visiting professor of government at Harvard University, agreed Putin's actions have different motives and repercussions from Hitler's. The Russian President's conduct is more reminiscent of another fascist leader, Braun said, adding both he and former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini seized foreign territory in an effort to cut a more impressive figure on the world stage.
The recent turmoil in Ukraine hearkens back in some ways to Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, which saw him expand Italy's colonial presence in Africa.
"Here in Mr. Putin we have a bombastic leader who blusters and struts on the world stage, who engages in feats of strength and mythology within Russia itself, and is leading a country that is not nearly as powerful as he portrays it to be," Braun said.
The Ukrainian and Ethiopian clashes have parallels beyond motive, Braun said.
While the Italo-Ethiopian war exposed the weakness of the League of Nations, Braun contends the conflict in Ukraine has had a similar effect on the United Nations, the League's successor as a global peace broker.
But Braun cautions against dwelling on historical parallels, either real or perceived.
Western comparisons between Putin and Hitler will make prime fodder for Russia's propaganda mill, he said. International media have widely reported that Nazi imagery already figures prominently in Russia's messaging around Ukraine, as it compares dissenting voices to fascist sympathizers and likens refugee centres to concentration camps.
Worse, Braun says, is the fact that comparisons to the Third Reich distract global attention from more pressing concerns.
Besides raising questions about the UN, he says the crisis in Ukraine has also opened discussions about the international laws that Russia has violated. Putin's invasion has also sent a discouraging message about the perceived powerlesssness of countries that do not have nuclear weapons, he says, adding armed nations may see the Ukrainian plight as a reason to maintain their stockpiles.
"I find it very disheartening that when we should be focusing on those three things, international law, in United Nations and nuclear proliferation, we get diverted by well-meaning people like Prince Charles and sadly cynical politicians like Hillary Clinton, who knows better," Braun said. "We're playing into the hands of Russian propagandists."
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