With 150,000 Russian troops now poised on the border of Ukraine, Western powers should be mobilising their forces in preparation for a full-scale European war. Instead, Britain is obsessed with tales of Boris Johnson attending parties during lockdown, Macron is preparing for an election in France, Olaf Scholz is trying to find his feet as Germany’s new Chancellor, while the increasingly doddery Joe Biden mumbles about a more muted response from the West to a “minor incursion” into Ukraine by the Russians. The parallels with the events that triggered the Second World War are unnerving. Indeed, Vladimir Putin seems to be using Hitler’s playbook as he prepares for a lightning strike on Ukraine.

Today, 77 years after the end of WWII, we regard Hitler as one of the most evil dictators who ever lived. But it is easy to forget how slow Western powers were to obstruct him. The same situation is happening again. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated his ruthlessness by invading Georgia and annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, in a violent conflict that left thousands of dead. 20% of Georgian territory is now under Russian control. He repeated the process in February 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin’s motives have been well documented in his writings and speeches. In an article published last July he wrote: “I am confident that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” His article had echoes of Hitler’s assertions in Mein Kampf (1924), that providing the Germans with lebensraum (living space) in Eastern Europe was one of the central aims of his foreign policy.

Hitler’s decision to invade Poland on 1st September 1939 was encouraged by his view that Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was weak and would not oppose him, while America was keen to stay out of any European conflict. Chamberlain even agreed to the Nazi’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, in the same way that Western leaders have done nothing to thwart Putin’s annexation of parts of Georgia and the Crimea. Putin watched Joe Biden’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan last August and he will be enjoying Boris Johnson’s desperate efforts to cling to power during the partygate scandal. It will have confirmed his view that the West is incapable of mounting any serious defence of Ukraine. Even Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, confirmed on a BBC interview on 30th January that in the event of a Russian invasion, NATO will not send troops to Ukraine.

Germany’s refusal to deliver arms to Ukraine while at the same time urging “prudence” when it comes to threats of economic sanctions against Russia, has also alarmed the Ukrainians. As the EU’s main economic power, German timidity over support for Ukraine will send all the wrong signals to Moscow. Indeed, the chief of the German navy had to resign after his pro-Kremlin comments caused outrage. Vitali Klitschko, the Kyiv Mayor and a former world heavyweight boxing champion who lived in Germany for years, said on Facebook last week: “On whose side is the German government today? On the side of freedom, which means — Ukraine? Or on the side of the aggressor?” 

The deployment of 8,500 “combat-ready” US troops to Eastern Europe and threats of tough American and EU sanctions will cut no ice with the Kremlin. Nor will empty threats of tough European sanctions. Putin regards Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, as another arch-appeaser like Chamberlain. Each of the Western powers have confirmed that they have no intention of sending troops to Ukraine itself, which is a non-NATO member. There is also simmering disagreement on what level of sanctions should be imposed in the event of a Russian invasion. All of this will give comfort to Putin who will now be seeking an excuse to justify a lightning strike on Kyiv. 

Hitler mounted an elaborate ‘false-flag’ operation to justify his invasion of Poland. On August 31st., the day before the invasion, six prisoners were taken by the SS from the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, dressed in Polish military uniforms and shot. Their faces were disfigured to avoid any chance of identification from press photos. The Nazis claimed that Polish insurgents and troops had attacked German police at the Gleiwitz radio station in Upper Silesia, Germany (today Gliwice, Poland). Journalists were invited to the scene where they were shown the corpses wearing Polish uniforms. The Germans claimed that the Poles had forced their way into the station and begun broadcasting messages in Polish, before they were overcome by German troops. 

In fact, Hitler had assured his generals several days previously about his elaborate plans, explaining “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli.  Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.” A further dozen similar false flag incidents were arranged along the Polish border to create the impression that Poland was aggressively assaulting Germany, providing Hitler with justification for the invasion on September 1st, 1939.

Western leaders should be aware that Putin will almost certainly be planning a similar operation. He will be looking for the slightest provocation so that he can claim he was forced to launch an invasion because pro-Russian nationals were attacked by Ukrainians. The Pentagon already believes that trained Russian agents are in Ukraine preparing bomb attacks against the Russian-speaking community, so that Putin can pretend he was forced to go in to help protect them. The Ukrainian government has claimed that it has already dismantled a group of Russian special services saboteurs who had been planning bomb attacks in Zhytomyr, which is close to Kyiv and Kharkiv, near the Russian border. As the situation deteriorates, Vladimir Putin should remember the other lesson from history. Hitler’s invasion of Poland triggered WWII. If Putin is determined to use Hitler’s playbook, he should read the last page.