Putin has certainly displayed his fascist talents with the annexation of four Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine following sham referendums. He has now claimed Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as parts of Russia, amounting to about 15 per cent of Ukraine and the biggest seizure of sovereign territory since the Second World War.
Of course, the Russian despot has previous when it comes to annexations. He did the same in Crimea in 2014 following a Russian invasion, occupation and another sham ballot.
And back in 2008, he annexed 20 per cent of Georgian territory when he illegally occupied the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both scenes of violent separatist conflicts which left thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Hitler’s first annexation foray involved a terrifying encounter in his Berghof lair in the Bavarian Alps in 1938, when he bullied Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Chancellor of Austria, into signing away his country’s independence, absorbing Austria into the Third Reich.
On his return to Vienna, a deeply shaken Schuschnigg attempted to organise a plebiscite to test public opinion on whether to accept integration with Germany, but a furious Hitler immediately mobilised his forces and invaded before the vote could be held.
Buoyed by his successful annexation of Austria, Hitler turned his attention to his next objective, the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, provoking an international crisis that culminated in Neville Chamberlain’s infamous “peace for our time” statement following the Munich Agreement. This vain attempt at appeasement ultimately paved the way for the Second World War.
Putin seems to be using Hitler’s playbook, and the West, having failed to learn the lessons of history, has seemed hellbent on repeating the same mistakes.
The EU, US and UN did nothing following Putin’s violent takeover of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. They whimpered and complained but failed to intercede following the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea.
Driven by the desire for cheap Russian gas, the appeasers were trying desperately to avoid confrontation with Russia. We should have remembered the words of Winston Churchill who said: “Appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last.”
By claiming that Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are now part of the Russian Federation and that any attack on these areas using Nato weapons will be regarded as an attack on Russia, Putin is hoping that the West will back off.
He is hoping that the threat of massive Russian retaliation, including even the menace of nuclear retaliation, will force the West to restrict its aid to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and restrain future Ukrainian assaults. That would be a fatal mistake. Appeasing the aggressor simply encourages more aggression.
The areas of Ukraine annexed by Putin are not Russian. Their citizens are not Russian, they are Ukrainian. They do not want to be forced to adopt the Russian language and culture. They do not want to see their sons and daughters compelled to take up arms against their Ukrainian brothers and sisters as part of Putin’s mobilisation programme. They wish to see their freedom and sovereignty restored and they look to their elected president, Zelensky, to drive the Russian occupiers from their homeland.
Putin’s tactics have already begun to backfire. Despite a savage crackdown on dissent and a range of new laws passed by the Russian Duma to punish deserters and draft dodgers, more than 200,000 young Russians have fled the country.
Massive queues of cars and vans have lined up at Russia’s borders with Georgia and Kazakhstan, as droves of young men and women flee. One-way plane tickets out of Russia have been sold out.
Putin’s mass mobilisation of military reservists and annexation of Ukrainian territory were panicked reactions to the humiliating defeat suffered by Russian forces in the north-east of the country, when Ukrainian troops regained control of more than 3,000 square kilometres of territory in just six days, driving well into Russian lines. They also reclaimed more than 500 sq km in the southern Kherson region, seizing hundreds of Russian vehicles, weapons, artillery and ammunition.
The Russian military is in total disarray, revealing low troop morale and a chaotic command structure. Indeed, within 24 hours of Putin’s vainglorious annexation ceremony in the Kremlin, Ukrainian forces encircled the eastern city of Lyman in the Donetsk region in a counteroffensive that forced Russian troops to flee.
Western reaction to Putin’s latest annexation has been robust, with the EU saying that they will "never recognise the illegal 'referenda' that Russia has engineered as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, nor their falsified and illegal results. We will never recognise this illegal annexation."
It is vital now that the EU, US and UN follow up their strong words with strong action. There must be no appeasement. We must call Putin’s bluff and redouble the supply of military and technical assistance to Ukraine and redouble sanctions on Russia, to enable the heroic Ukrainian president to drive the Russian invaders out of his country.
It is widely believed that over 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded so far in the conflict. Mounting casualties and growing unrest at home are undermining Putin’s autocratic authority.
People can now see that the Russian military machine can be defeated and Putin’s propaganda is wearing thin. His days of claiming that the ‘military operation’ to cleanse Ukraine of Nazis would be “fast and effective” have long since ended, as it begins to dawn on Russian society that the real Nazi, the real Hitler, is their own leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Struan Stevenson, a former member of the European Parliament for Scotland, is a writer and international lecturer