There has been a lot of comparison of Putin to Hitler recently, due of course to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is an interesting comparison. Of course, Hitler is the go to leader who anyone we dislike is compared to, and so in this sense it isn’t too wise to take much out of it. But it does raise the question: who is Putin most comparable to? I think that the Hitler comparison is an intriguing one, but misses many of the elements of Putin’s rule and policy. Let’s search for what dictator is the best antecedent for Putin.
Hitler is the standard vision of evil in the Western world, and for entirely good reason: Hitler carried out an aggressive war of conquest against surrounding states, engaged in genocide against a wide variety of groups ranging from, most famously the Jews, to notably the Eastern Slavs such as the Poles and Soviets, had a repressive internal regime which denied civil rights and liberties to large swathes of the German population, built up a massive military which threatened to bankrupt the country, and aimed for a campaign of territorial expansion against Eastern Europe. Calling someone “Hitler” is overstated, both in number of times this device is used, but above all else in that few come anywhere close to matching this record. In North America, Obama, Trudeau, Trump, all received some form of comparison to Hitler, which is patently absurd: even if you believe they are bad, it is akin to comparing a firecracker to the Tsar Bomb (at least domestically: externally American foreign policy is capable of committing great destruction, although it’s still ridiculous to compare it to Nazi Germany). But for better or worse it has entered the record - as the height of evil, to call someone Hitler is both simultaneously dramatically overdone and the greatest insult.
Putin does strike some of Hitler’s beliefs and policies. Like Hitler, Putin is willing to countenance aggressive foreign war, on dubious principles. Other leaders do this too of course, but it is a comparison that is legitimate regardless. Like Hitler, Putin believes strongly in a nationalistic history and history justifies his actions: Putin’s article On the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine can be viewed as best presenting Putin’s historical views of Russia and Ukraine, justifying his belief that they are essentially one people but split apart by outside historical actors. Like Hitler, Putin believes in reuniting his own group of people within the borders of one nation: Hitler after all, sought to do so with the Sudetenland, Austria, and various German minorities throughout Central Europe. There is a great degree of contempt for democracy and human rights shared by the two. Russia is willing to embrace a certain degree of official racism which would be ill viewed in other countries, although it is certainly nothing comparable to the German kind. And Putin is willing to use brutal methods to achieve his objectives: the Russian war in Chechnya was marked by massive usage of artillery which levelled Grozny, and the Russians are increasingly turning to such heavy handed tactics in Ukraine, just like the Germans countenanced the first use of terror bombing.
But there are some very clear differences as well. Above all else, Putin does not aim for genocide: Russia might embrace a relative degree of racialization, such as police identifying people of “Slavic appearance,” but Putin’s Russia, despite stereotypes, has its own form of diversity and tolerance. The largest mosque in Moscow, the Moscow Cathedral Mosque was commissioned in Moscow in 2015 by Putin, with a speech which declared that Islam is part of Russia’s cultural history. Chechnya might have been flattened and ground down by the Second Chechen War, but the Russians didn’t attempt to annihilate Chechen identity, and Chechen mercenaries and soldiers form some of the elite troops of the Russian military. As long as Chechens have been willing to work with Moscow and been loyal to Putin, there has been no problem.
Of course, it could be said that the Nazis were pro-Islam themselves: the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem favored the Nazis, Hitler made various pro-Islam statements and regretted that the weak, non-martial religion of Christianity had been adopted by the Germans instead of Islam: a Bosnian Muslim SS unit was formed and there was a Free Arabian Legion. This however, ignores that this isn't a question of just Islam: rather it is a question of internal minorities. This isn’t a unique area of tolerance in Russian policy: there’s been no real effort to crush the identity of the vast numbers of other ethnic groups throughout Russia, such as Tatars, Yakuts, Kalmuks, etc. Russia is certainly nationalist, but it can’t really be called ultra-nationalist nor definitively exclusionary, and certainly there is nothing in the slightest comparable to the Germans and their conduct towards the Jews or other internal (and conquered) minorities.
Which leads to another critical point: plans for expansion and the future. Hitler was concerned that Germany would be hemmed in and its population, subjected to the power of the Jewish-controlled international market, would be strangled and removed from its nationalized link to the soil: the famous blood and soil link. To counter this, Germany needed to expand to be able to be self-sufficient, pushing to the East, controlling the vast territory of the Soviet Union to give land for its farmers, resources and economic scale for its industry, and space for the population to grow. This style of expansion inherently called for a massive degree of genocide to remove people from the land and resettle Germans.
Of course, this is incomparable to Russia. The Russians have plenty of space, and have a population which is already declining. At most, the greatest similarity is that the Russians, like the Germans, see themselves in the long run as a declining power. But beyond this there is no comparable Russian idea of genocide and extermination of people. If anything, Russian nationalist thinkers, and to some extent Putin’s On the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine, speak to the idea that the Ukrainian people themselves are the target of Russia’s war: to bring together the Ukrainians with the Russians and the Belarussians to form an updated form of the Russian empire, a superpower capable of competing with other great states or regions like the United States, China, and Europe. Of course, this view is proving dramatically at odds with reality: Ukrainians have no desire to be part of Russia and are clearly showing that they do not consider themselves Russian, but it is still a view which is utterly at odds with Hitler’s ideal of colonization-extermination. And in the rest of the “near abroad,” the former Soviet Union, Russia’s efforts are above all directed to a sphere of influence.
Just as important is the internal difference. Hitler sought a radical reshaping of German society. While he was forced to compromise with elements of the conservative and military elite, the Junkers famously, Nazi ideals called for a radically remade German people, nationalized, allied to the soil, imbued with a new Nazi spirit and the fuhrerprinzip. Constant war would breed a new German man, fit for never-ending race war. In a sense it is very similar to other totalitarian ideologies for reshaping the human character, most notably the Soviet Union and its New Soviet Man.
Nothing comparable is occurring in Russia and nothing similar envisioned by Putin: if you can say something about the Russian people as a whole, it is that they are tired of ideology. Putin doesn’t speak of a new Russian man, and while he seems to have the idea of nationalizing the Russian elite, which became extremely cosmopolitan and West-bound in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union, he is in most regards simply an update of the Yeltsin system. There are still oligarchs and an immensely corrupt, wealthy, and powerful people at the top of it who skim off the wealth of the country, and Putin is probably one of them, with circumstantial evidence that he might even be the world’s richest man thanks to the huge earnings from the system. This is impossible to confirm, and I have my doubts: Putin owns Russia and is in many regards indistinguishable from Russia’s government, so why feel the need to skim off the top, ie. make a distinction between your personal and public person when the two are the same? But regardless Putin’s role in the system is that as long as people are loyal to him, and as long as they don’t challenge his power, he has been willing to let it keep running, with just enough changes to prevent the 1990’s crisis from returning.
Putin fundamentally is a reactionary figure. Hitler was too in his own way: he had an idealized past of the Germans and their race to return to. But Hitler was also extremely radical in how he south to reshape German society and how he dealt with it, as it was steadily Nazified over the course of the Third Reich. Putin has had nothing comparable, and he is reactionary in the sense that he responds to external stimuli. The Crimean Invasion and the War in the Donbass were reactions to Euromaidan. The Ukraine Invasion was based on the steady drift of Ukraine to Europe and the West. Putin’s Russia is based on fears of external enemies and internal decline, and despite its outbursts is fundamentally responding to what it perceives as its threats.
This makes the comparison to Hitler an incomplete one: a useful shorthand for violence, coercion, transgressing international law, and invasion of other countries, but with massive differences between the two. This isn’t to defend Putin, but rather to point out his differences. With this said, what sort of other dictators could serve as a model? There's a long list of European dictators, but out of brevity I'll just look at a few to whom Putin is the most comparable. Horthy in Hungary, Tsar Nicholas in Russia, and possibly Mussolini in Italy strike me as the clearest, although Napoleon III is also an interesting comparison.
Mussolini before 2022 would have seemed like a vacuous comparison: after all, Mussolini’s main reputation is that of failure. In our popular memory of WW2, he serves as comic relief to Hitler, with his string of failed invasions and military disasters, based on a bombastic over-estimation of Italy’s capabilities. Putin by contrast, has been perceived as leading an extremely military powerful and effective state, whose army won decisively in Chechnya, smashed Georgia in 2008, almost effortlessly seized Crimea in 2014, whose troops decisively outmatched the Ukrainians in the Donbass fighting following that, and which proved decisive in saving Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime from collapsing via effective usage of airpower. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 revealed severe shortcomings in the Russian military. These were partially caused by poor leadership decisions and an under-estimation of Ukrainian forces, but also by systemic problems in logistics, communications, rear area security, suppression of enemy air defense, precision munition striking capacity, paratrooper operations, infantry fighting capacity, and even air defense, previously assumed to be a Russian strong suit. Russia’s military clearly suffers from many more shortcomings than was assumed prior.
This makes the Mussolini comparison more reasonable. Russia’s army received generous funding but it adopted questionable military organizations (such as the battalion tactical group, with its lack of infantry and flexibility which has made for problematic operations in Ukraine due to insufficient integral capacity and infantry for security, although to be fair most of the problems come from its poor deployments rather than any inherent Russian organizational difficulty), there are prestige projects mounted on top of a military which as a whole is substantially less advanced (see Italy’s battleships and excellent airshow formations while much of the military suffered, and Russia’s naval spending and new T-14s or Su-57s on a largely Soviet-era military), and above all else its doctrine and standard mode of employment was thrown by the wayside in favor of politically mandated orders and invasions – just like Italy. Mussolini’s comparison stank of incompetence, and this is less outlandish to talk about nowadays.
Mussolini also has individual characteristics which match Putin somewhat. A notable similarity between the two is that in their public cult of personality, not nearly as strong as for say, Hitler, but still extant. There is substantial focus on their personal physical prowess. One of Mussolini’s most famous photos is him on a tractor during the Battle for Grain, showing off his muscles as he helped in the harvest, and there are plenty of him bare chested Mussolini was a very athletic figure, very muscular, and state propaganda idolized this. Similarly, Putin bare-chested while horse riding or swimming, or hunting, is one of his most recognizable depictions, and an important part of the public persona. It’s a relatively minor point but a fascinating similarity. This has not escaped attention and there are multiple comparisons on the subject online.
Mussolini and Putin both share more limited goals while still being willing to use unsavory and aggressive means to achieve them. Mussolini’s war in Libya is an excellent comparison to Putin’s war in Chechnya: in both cases, the usage of force by the Italians or Russians was massive, inflicting vast casualties, much of it on a civilian population. But at the same time it wasn’t designed to eliminate the people per se, and just as Putin has declared Islam an integral part of the Russian identity, Mussolini declared himself the Protector of Islam and cultivated various Arab groups’ loyalties. Both are irredentist, with Putin aiming for various territories, such as Crimea or the Donbas, which he views as being traditionally part of Russia, and potentially an absorption of Ukrainians and Belarussians, while Italy had designs on France (In Savoy, Nice, Corsica, and Italy), Yugoslavia in the coastal regions denied to Italy after WW, and the United Kingdom with Malta, as well as ambitions for spheres of influence and control over Greece and various other Balkan countries. And like Russia today with its resentment of the United-States centric world system, Italy felt constrained by the British Empire whose control of the entrances and exits of the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and the Suez effectively imprisoned Italy within. Despite this the direct foreign ambitions of Italy were mostly directed against France and Yugoslavia up until the last years before WW2, just like how Russia has been mostly concerned with Ukraine and other states of the Russian Near Abroad.
And just like with Mussolini, who ruled Italy from the mid 1920s to the mid 1940s, Putin has been in charge of Russia for a very long time relatively, certainly compared to Hitler who only had a brief 6 years before war broke out. This has produced varying degrees of agressivity and nationalism: in Italy the 1920s were noted by a relatively orthodox Italian economic policy and international relations (with, admittedly, some flares of bellicosity, such as the Corfu Crisis), followed by more interventionist and aggressive policies in the 1930s. Putin did the same, with an orthodox and mostly conventional period of peace in the 2000s, other than the Georgian War and the Second Chechen War, with a more active policy from 2014 onwards.
Certainly, the two are more comparable when it comes to nationalities policy and minority. Mussolini did tolerate pluralism to some degree: in Libya as mentioned before, but most notably with his declarations on race and his stance on the Jews. "Race! It is a feeling, not a reality: ninety-five percent, at least, is a feeling. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today. ... National pride has no need of the delirium of race." And Mussolini was not anti-Semitic until he veered closer to the German line in the late 1930s. Certainly, Mussolini’s actions could vary and the Italians committed many war crimes and engaged in their own degree of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in WW2, and Italy also famously used poison gas on the Ethiopians in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. But Mussolini is far closer to Putin as a biased but fundamentally non-radical nationalist than he is to Hitler.
There are however, still some clear differences between the two. Mussolini did aim to radically restructure and reshape Italian society: that Fascism would be a new ethos, a new way of action, that the Italian people would become a warlike, active people, taken away from their sloth and their pasta-eating indolence: Fascism was born after all, in the assault squads of the Italian Army. The Italian Futurists and their dream of a sharp break from Italy’s quaint past into industrial futurism were a major influence on Italian Fascism. Mussolini’s lofty objectives were not accomplished: he was forced to accommodate existing interests, divisions between Italians remained strong, and this violent, militaristic, aggressive mentality could not be instilled into the Italian man to make him fight as savagely, ferociously, bitterly, as more indoctrinated peoples in Germany or Japan would. But he still had them: Putin doesn’t seem nearly as much of an ideological dictator.
The comparison to Mussolini is a decent one and it gives a good degree of nuance against Hitler, but it isn’t as complete in the ideals and objectives Mussolini had. They still permit some comparison: Mussolini’s invasion of Greece might be the most fitting comparison to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: both were intended to be short, victorious wars, preying on internal problems in the enemy (bribing of Greek generals, a belief that the Ukrainians would simply give in to Russia), launched on political whims, to show strength internationally, and from relatively recently occupied territory (Albania and Crimea). And both became brutal attrition warfare where Italy and Russia’s principal advantages quickly became just their greater resources rather than any qualitative bonus.
A more obscure but also fascinating comparison is Hungary’s Miklos Horthy. Horthy was the regent of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, a former Austro-Hungarian admiral who became the leader of the now-landlocked Hungary. This is strikingly similar to Putin in some regards, since Putin was a former KGB officer, the Soviet intelligence service responsible for spying, counter-intelligence, surveillance, monitoring, etc. Just like Horthy, Putin served a now-gone state, the Soviet Union, in a role which no longer existed – upholding Soviet communism, just as Horthy was the admiral of the Austro-Hungarian navy and now lead a state without a sea. But of course, both found ways to transition to new positions: Horthy in establishing a conservative order after the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic, and Putin as the head of what has often been termed the FSB (Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB) state in Russia.
Both are irredentist regimes: Russia with its lost lands in Ukraine and Belarus, and its feeling of centrality to the old Near Abroad, and Hungary with the bitter feelings linked to the Treaty of Trianon, where some 72% of formerly Hungarian territory was transferred to surrounding states. And yet both don’t wish to fight a major war against a non-distracted powerful enemy, while being fine with limited wars: the Hungarians invaded Slovakia, after the break up of Czechoslovakia, the Russians Ukraine.
Both have certain pathologies: Putin has little taste for liberalism and a very bitter dislike for socialism and communism, a dislike which Horthy shared – even more so, since Horthy’s hatred of communism verged onto a pronounced mental obsession. And these clearly do drive their policies: Putin has often been termed as realpolitik, and it is true that he thinks in terms of hard power above all else: in terms of militaries, his nuclear arsenal, territory, resources, and population, but he is not divorced from ideological convictions, as shown by the Ukraine invasion – where his contempt for Soviet-era nationality decisions comes forth, and his historical mindset has well been laid out in On the Historical Unity of the Russian and Ukrainian People.
Both seem similar in their conservatism: neither one aimed to radically change society. Putin largely kept the Yeltsin system intact, just trimming its excesses. Horthy was the counter-revolution in Hungary, after the Hungarian Socialist Republic, but he above all else wanted to preserve the pre-war Hungarian order. Both Putin and Horthy shed “broader” elements of their initial allegiance, Putin to the USSR and Horthy to the Hapsburgs, while maintaining much of the core. For Putin he kept the USSR’s authoritarian security apparatus, the primacy of power politics, distaste for liberalism, and the Yeltsin system of looting of the Russian economy (but more rationally organized), and its oligarchs and some market economy, but without 1990s cultural libertarianism or the USSR’s formal non-nationalism, the propping up of the less developed republics, and global, ideological ambitions. Horthy kept around the landowners and hierarchical society of Hapsburg Hungary, its conservatism and religiousness, while jettisoning Hapsburg cosmopolitanism and its broader non-nationalistic unity: they are both the national rumps of previous empires. And in neither case is there any radical attempt to reform the identity of the people themselves, to dramatically restructure society.
There was also the non-radical nature of their nationalism. Certainly both have committed war crimes, but Horthy for example, was not particularly anti-Semitic in a Europe which by the early 1940s very much was: until his removal from power in the German invasion in 1944, Hungarian Jews were mostly safe, although foreign Jews did suffer at his hands.
Horthy seems like the best comparison to Putin, but one whose small size and scale makes it difficult to make such a side-by-side link appear ridiculous. But Horthy was an unsavory and hard leader who wished to restore Hungary’s historical greatness, while not being driven to dramatically reform or change the country, with limited foreign objectives and a relatively reactive, opportunistic foreign policy. A remnant of the old world making his way in the new, both personally and in policy he seems most similar to Putin.
What about Napoleon or Napoleon III? Napoleon is hardly comparable, since Napoleon was at heart a charismatic military dictator, who saw himself as representing the synthesis of the French Revolution and the old world, a progressive in a sense: Putin is clearly not at all comparable in ideological sense, since he is by contrast a nationalist and former intelligence officer. But the comparison to Napoleon III might be made.
Like Napoleon III, Putin bases much of the authority of his regime and its legitimacy on its religious appeals – in Napoleon III’s case, to Catholicism, in Putin’s case, to Russian Orthodoxy. Both Putin and Napoleon III saw an expanded role for their country after a time of absence from the international stage or containment – Putin, to restore Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Napoleon III, to free France from the constraints of the Vienna system. Both were nationalististic strongmen, but at the same time also personally benefitted massively from their positions: it is impossible to know how much Putin is personally worth, but there is speculation of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, and Napoleon III established a significant overseas cash pile in Britain if he ever had to flee France. Both established a system of flawed, illiberal democracy, neither fully dictatorial nor fully authoritarian. But there is a key difference here in that Putin’s trend has been to greater authoritarianism, while Napoleon III’s regime gradually liberalized. Also, Napoleon III’s nationalism was a liberal one, genuinely supporting the independence of peoples, such as Poland or Italy, even if it was slanted to French strategic interests, and the ideal of a European Union (with the Latin Monetary Union as one example.)
Most obvious of comparisons is the end of Napoleon III’s regime as a comparison to Ukraine. Putin’s war in Ukraine has laid bare many of the weaknesses of Putin’s Russia, in regards to the incompetence of the Russian military, logistical ineptness, its corruption, its catastrophic planning and operational misjudgments, its unreadiness for war, its hybrid nature with the transition to a conscript to a professional army, the excessive secrecy which prevented effective utilization of military potential. This is in many ways eerily similar to France in the Franco-Prussian War, with its catastrophically poor military preparation, lack of intellectual rigor of the military, the botched transition from a professional to a conscript army, terrible command and leadership, compartmentalization of knowledge of new weapons like the mitrailleuse and dreadful logistics. Even more importantly, in both cases the prowess of the army was much overestimated: both Russia and France had put on credible performances in smaller wars, only for their shortcomings to be catastrophically unveiled when a major conventional war happened. Napoleon III has too many ideological distinctions from Putin, but the Franco-Prussian War is a great comparison, only that Russia has far more resources and the misbalance of forces against Ukraine is heavily weighted in Russia’s favor unlike France vs. Prussia.
A final comparison is within Russia, to what Putin is often accused of wanting to turn Russia into: a new Russian Empire. The lasts Tsar of Russia was Tsar Nicholas II, who ruled over Russia for a very long period of time as well: a quarter of a century, from (1894) to 1917. You could open up with that Tsar Nicholas II, like Putin, was an extremely fit and athletic man, who had a passion for long walks and swimming. However, this comparison is vacuous: it makes sense with Mussolini because it was an official part of Italian propaganda, just like how Putin’s physical prowess is trumpeted today as part of his own partial cult of propaganda, while it was never used to glamorize Tsar Nicholas II.
More relevant is that both Tsar Nicholas II and Putin were and are Russian nationalists. Under Tsar Nicholas II, Russification throughout the Russian Empire intensified, from Poland with the establishment of Orthodox cathedrals and Russian language promotion, to Finland with the abolishment of the Grand Duchy of Finland. There was no such thing as Ukrainian, only Little Russian. Pan-Slavism was heavily promoted. The triad of the Russian state was still nationalism, Orthodoxy, and autocracy. Tsar Nicholas II had a far more expansive Russian nationalism with far more soil to work on, rather than Putin’s rump state, but it was still a strong Russian nationalism. And this nationalism for both sufficed them, without the need for radical social reform as with other dictators.
Tsar Nicholas II’s state was, like Putin’s, endemically corrupt and unequal: with a massive base of poor peasants who were ruled over by a rich aristocracy, it had its own major issues with governance and discontent. Its officer corps had many substandard, aristocratic leaders, and this ineptitude is what led to the major defeats of 1914 and 1915, and mismanagement by the bureaucracy resulted in severe problems for war management for the rest of the conflict, greatly contributing to the February revolution. Russia had what appeared as a strong image externally, despite defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (as can be testified by British beliefs that the Russians could easily invade India, or German predictions that the Russians would be unbeatable by 1916), but major internal weaknesses and shortcomings which belied this. In this, it seems remarkably similar to the Russia of 2022, down to Russia’s constant effort to make itself appear as a rival superpower military of the US with its flashy and expensive new weapons, much like Imperial Russia’s belief that it needed a powerful battleship fleet in the waning days of the empire which robbed funds from the army where it was needed much more. Both were motivated by the belief that certain requirements had to be met for Russia to be perceived as a real great power, rather than necessarily examining Russia’s real strategic interests.
However, we know that there are important differences between the individuals of Nicholas II and Putin: Nicholas II was rather a lightweight. He was not intellectually rigorous, he was little interested in actually governing, he wished to get away from it all on long walks and physical exercise, he displayed little involvement in events – such as when he was delivered the telegram of his fleet being sunk at Tsushima, he simply went back to playing tennis. Perhaps this was due to sangfroid, but Nicholas II as a whole seems quite detached from governing. Putin’s sense of competence can be questioned, particularly over the invasion of Ukraine, but he definitely does have a more intellectual bent to him, as noted by his attempts at expounding his historical views, his reading of ideological thinkers such as Ivan Illyin, and his performances on television in debates are normally that of an intelligent man, with quick and well chosen responses. Putin is far more ruthless and cold-blooded than Nicholas II, the product of being a former KGB officer and his survival in the bloody circle of Moscow politics, and he has an entirely different aura and style than Nicholas II.
Of course, human rights standards have changed dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century, generally to tone of making human right standards significantly higher. So perhaps some of Nicholas II’s human rights violations, while far worse than today, are comparable, but their purpose seems markedly different. Before the invasion of Ukraine, most of the internal rights violations of the Russian government on a mass scale were associated with the suppression of protesters, anti-LGBT laws, and prisoners in Russian prisons. This is just the standard run of the mill list of conservative authoritarianism: it contrasts notably with the utilization of antisemitism by the Russian Empire which used anti-Semitic pogroms as a way to draw attention away from the unpopularity of the Russian government. There isn’t anything like this with Putin: Putin’s popularity has generally been reasonably high in light of economic successes and ending the chaotic 90’s in Russia, and were extremely high since the Crimean annexation in 2014. Most of Putin’s popularity stems from economic and foreign policy success. But there is admittedly some of the same search for vague international boogeyman, a common feature it seems of Russian authoritarianism - so that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the mystical beliefs in Russia opposed by internationalists and saboteurs lives on in documents captured by the Ukrainians in the recent war declaring that "The Russian army is the last bastion against the satanic new world order."
Importantly, there is a huge difference in foreign policy. Putin’s Russia was until recently relatively restrained, even if it has broken out of the mold with its invasion of Ukraine. This could be compared to the Russo-Japanese War, since in both Ukraine and Japan the Russians greatly under-estimated their foes, believing that the Japanese were inferior Asians and no match for Russia, while the Ukrainians would simply give up and surrender to their Russian brothers. And probably there was a hope that a quick triumph would secure the government at home: the Russians really did hope for a short victorious war against Japan, and in Ukraine there were articles prepared for Russian newspapers about how Putin had brought Russia and Ukraine into a new day, very much in the tone of celebrating a triumphant and quick conquest of Ukraine. But Ukraine, even as big of a war it is, is still a more limited one, reactive in the sense of Russian fear about NATO expansion into Ukraine. Imperial Russia was far more adventurous than Putin’s Russia, willing to engage in unprepared wars in the Far East against Japan, to repeatedly intervene in China, and above all else to become ultimately involved in the First World War in defense of its strategically dubious ally of Serbia.
There are similarities between Putin and Tsar Nicholas II, but they are probably inevitable ones, shaped by the nation they led and situations, and less so by personality, outlook, and even ideology. It’s an interesting comparison but Putin is far more similar to Mussolini or Horthy than Nicholas II
None of this is to serve as an ideal for what Putin might look like in the future: just a week before I wrote this, the idea of comparing Putin to Mussolini would have appeared as grievously underselling Putin and an insult. Things can change quickly, and history doesn’t repeat, even if it does rhyme. And to be fair, I think it very unlikely that there will ever be posters accusing Putin of being Miklos Horthy the same way there are those who compare him to Hitler: it isn’t quite as hard-hitting. Putin has turned out to be a vicious and dangerous dictator, and one can respect the spirit behind Putler even if the finer details don't match. But still, Putin’s historical antecedents are an interesting comparison to today – and perhaps not a happy one, since all three of them were ultimately deposed from power and two of them ended their lives brutally murdered by their opponents. Time will tell if Putin avoids their fates.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.