Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to deploy troops across the strategic Ukrainian region of Crimea has sparked an international outcry. Many Russians, too, are indignant. One of the most stinging attacks so far has come from Andrei Zubov, a noted political commentator who has compared Putin to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Zubov, a 62-year-old historian and professor of philosophy at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO), spoke to RFE/RL's Claire Bigg.
RFE/RL: On March 1, you published a column in Russia's "Vedomosti" daily in which you compare Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to deploy troops in Crimea to the annexation of Austria, together with the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia and Lithuania's Memel Territory, by Adolf Hitler in 1938-39. What makes these events similar, in your opinion?
Germans formed an ethnic majority in those territories. In all these places, they led perfectly normal lives. In Austria, they were the main ethnic group. In Sudetenland, they enjoyed self-governance, they had the right to use their own language, attend their own schools, publish newspapers. It was the same in Memelland, where they even had an autonomous status and their own parliament. These Germans were not repressed in any way.
But Hitler had a maniacal desire to restore the Reich, destroyed in the wake of World War I. This is precisely why these Anschluss were conducted. In all three cases, the local population did not strive for unification. But thanks to the activities of the secret services, of the SS, and of the Nazi party, public opinion gradually shifted. In the end, these territories were seized through unlawful annexations.
Exactly the same happened in Crimea. People without identification badges emerged, armed to the teeth and carrying brand new weapons. The main buildings, including parliament, were seized. Then the parliament, defended by special forces, chose a new prime minister. Everything was established retroactively and more troops were sent in. It's exactly the same scenario.
Putin is pursuing different goals that Hitler. Hitler strove to expand [German] territory and chauvinistically brainwash his people. I think the main goal here is to make Ukrainians hateful to Russians, so that the Maidan is not perceived by Russians as their own experience. So that it is seen as the experience of an enemy that needs to be rejected.
RFERL: You point out in your article that Russia faces international sanctions, political isolation, an irreparable fall-out with its Ukrainian neighbor, and possibly even retaliation from Turkey, which has close ties with Crimean Tatars. It seems like a very high price to pay for the sake of turning Russians against Ukrainians. Do you think Putin is aware of the risks?
Zubov: It's hard for me to judge, I haven't spoken to Putin personally. But in this case, not a single political analyst will make any serious prognosis. We always make prognoses based on the assumption that the politician, even if selfish and cruel, is intelligent and rational. But what we are now witnessing is the behavior of a politician who has clearly lost his mind.
These actions are absurd because of [the possibility of international] sanctions and of the sharp economic downturn, which is causing the collapse of the Russian financial market. If this continues, it will lead to an impoverishment of the population in a matter of months and huge social protests.
RFE/RL: What prompted you to pen such a virulent critique of Putin's actions toward Ukraine?
Zubov: Firstly, I wanted to tell the truth and bring Russians to their senses. People have been going crazy on the Internet, pledging to forgive Putin everything if he succeeds in returning Crimea. Secondly, I wanted to show Ukrainians that not everybody in Russia shares Putin's opinions, that there also is another Russia. This is my duty as a Russian citizen. I'm very grateful to the "Vedomosti" newspaper for its decision to immediately publish my text online on Saturday [March 1] evening.
RFE/RL: What was the initial reaction to your piece at "Vedomosti"? Did you encounter any resistance from editors there? After all, the independent online channel Dozhd is currently being threatened with closure simply for publishing a World War II opinion poll that some deemed offensive.
Zubov: I don't how they reacted. What I know is that it was done immediately. I sent them my article and they got back to me, asking whether I agreed to have the text posted online right away. I gave my consent and it went up.
RFE/RL: So this column was entirely your initiative?
Zubov: Absolutely. When I wrote this text, I did not think any newspaper would publish it. I thought I would have to circulate it on social networking sites.
RFE/RL: Your article has sparked a lively discussion online. Are you following this debate?
Zubov: I am, to a certain extent. But I did what I did and now I don't want to continue this polemic online. I have received many letters of support, though, and not a single one of condemnation. Many people have called me both from Russia and abroad.
RFE/RL: In the context of Russia's deepening crackdown on dissent, comparing Putin to Hitler is a bold gesture. Aren't you afraid?
Zubov: Of course I'm afraid. When a soldier takes up arms, he is scared of being killed in the end. But there are times when you need to take up arms. I'm an old person -- too old to go to battle with a rifle. My computer is my rifle.