Reports that Russian forces have systematically looted Ukrainian museums drives home the reality that Vladimir Putin’s policies mirror those of Adolf Hitler. For months we have known that individual Russian soldiers and units of Russian forces have stolen not just food and drink but also sheets, electronics and vehicles from Ukrainians. Like rape, torture and murder, some of those actions could be blamed on lack of direction from military leaders, but repeated missile attacks on civilian dwellings and infrastructure can only be due to high-level strategic planning. Looting museums in multiple locations must be blamed on No. 1 in the Kremlin.
If Putin’s policies are like Hitler’s, they should be punished accordingly. It is unthinkable that Russia’s leaders would not be tried by an international tribunal for war crimes. It is also unthinkable that Russia — the country — is not compelled to pay more than $1 trillion for the damage it has inflicted on Ukraine. Neither event can happen until the present leadership is replaced. This could happen, through a popular uprising or a coup d’état by insiders, but for now, neither outcome seems likely.
For Putin and his aides to be tried, and for Russia to start paying reparations, the country must be defeated — like Germany and Japan in 1945. The Russian public must be made to understand that their leaders are evil and are carrying out wicked policies in Russia’s name. Many Russians have neither the time nor the means to be informed. Many are guilty of willful ignorance. What of the 250 rectors of Russian academic institutions, who approved a statement endorsing Putin’s “difficult but correct” decision to “de-Nazify” Ukraine? What of countless media personages who knowingly parrot Kremlin lies? What of the industry and business managers who see the debilitating consequences of war? Many professionals perhaps could have done more to constrain the “special military operation.”
The final days of the Putin regime will differ from those of Hitler, Benito Mussolini or Hideki Tojo. Unlike Germany, Italy or Japan in 1945, Russia has not been directly attacked. Neither Kyiv nor its Western backers plan to invade Russia. Putin will not be found by invaders, like Hitler, dead in an underground bunker. Nor will he be killed by antifascist partisans, like Mussolini, while trying to escape to a neutral Switzerland or Spain.
The necessary endgame is that a medium-sized country defeats a former superpower so decisively that its president loses all credibility and legitimacy. He is then replaced by another leader, or leaders, who try — like German statesmen Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt — to lead the country gradually back into the family of law-abiding nations. Defeated in war, Russia still would have the resources of a great nation.
There are precedents. Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev cut losses in Afghanistan by bringing home Soviet forces. Much later, U.S. troops were also withdrawn from Afghanistan. Unlike Putin, neither Gorbachev nor President Biden launched these Afghan interventions. There is no way Putin can escape responsibility for every facet of the Ukraine disaster.
A few weeks before the invasion began last Feb. 24, a retired Russian general, Leonid Ivashov, head of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, condemned the imminent war and spelled out its likely consequences online and in the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya. The officers demanded the president resign, according to Article 3 of the 1993 Russian Constitution, which provides that “the people of the Russian Federation exercise their power directly, and also through organs of state power and local self-government. … No one may arrogate to oneself power in the Russian Federation.”
Ivashov appealed to all military personnel, including those in the reserve or retired, and to all Russian citizens to support the demands of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, to oppose war and war propaganda and prevent an internal civil conflict with the use of military force. Ivashov was not silenced. In interviews and articles throughout 2022, he continued to make similar statements. He could be — perhaps like France’s Charles de Gaulle — a well-known patriot who is able to bring his country back from counterproductive adventures.
Ukraine should continue its fight to drive all Russian forces from its territories. NATO should expand aid to Ukraine. Tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and anti-aircraft systems are defensive weapons to expel an invader. Any compromise that helps Putin to stay in power must be rejected. The interests of law and human rights require that war crimes and criminals be punished.
Walter Clemens is an associate with Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. He is the author of “Can Russia Change?”