Putin and Xi must be taught the lessons Hitler and Mussolini learned the hard way
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met several times in each other’s countries to pledge their unified opposition to the post-World War I liberal international order. The two dictators committed Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to a “common destiny”: to create “a New Order” in Europe, an “axis” around which the fate of the continent would revolve.
Undeterred by the West, they then unleashed the horrors of World War II.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, today’s most threatening world leaders, have also engaged in a series of exchange visits, the latest of which is happening this week with Xi’s visit to Moscow. It is a fitting bookend to Putin’s meeting with Xi for the opening of the Beijing Olympics, where the two dictators announced their “no-limits strategic partnership” and effectively declared another cold war against the United States and its democratic allies and partners.
Like Hitler and Mussolini almost a century ago, Putin and Xi detest the rules-based international system that has brought stability, peace and economic progress to much of the world. But the system also espouses a regime of democracy and human rights that is anathema to totalitarian despots who lust for total power over repressed populations and seek to extend their control over the people of neighboring countries.
Within weeks of their statement of mutual support in February 2022, Putin unleashed the largest, most destructive war in Europe since Hitler’s rampages across the continent, repeating what the Nuremberg Tribunal labeled as Nazi Germany’s first war crime: a war of aggression.
In the course of Russia’s own latest aggression — after the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 — Putin’s forces have perpetrated a daily terror of war crimes and crimes against humanity: indiscriminate killing of civilians; torture, rape and kidnapping of women and children; and targeted bombings of hospitals, schools, theaters, government buildings, crops, energy infrastructure, etc.
For those and other atrocities, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine reported to the United Nations General Assembly last October that a range of war crimes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces: “The impact of these violations on the civilian population in Ukraine is immense. The loss of lives is in the thousands. The destruction of infrastructure is devastating.” The situation has only grown worse in the six months since the report.
Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Levova-Belova, his Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Russia, for the crimes of kidnapping Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia for adoption, where forced “Russification” can be carried out unseen by the outside world. It is Putin’s own version of cultural genocide. To show his disdain for these findings by impartial international observers, Putin immediately paid a visit to the site that endured the first of his crimes against civilian population and infrastructure: Mariupol in southern Ukraine.
Xi’s visit to Moscow this week is intended to lend political and “moral” support to Putin, the accused war criminal, who has become an international pariah for the extensive atrocities committed by his forces in Ukraine. But it should be no surprise that Xi does not recoil at smiling, supping and shaking hands with this mass murderer. After all, Xi heads a communist regime that systematically subjugates and imprisons Uyghurs in Xinjiang — seizing the men and impressing them into forced labor, dispatching Chinese soldiers to cohabit with the women and produce Sinicized babies, desecrating their families and their faith, attempting to erase every vestige of Uyghur or Muslim identity.
The United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights issued a report in August 2022, finding “allegations of patterns of torture, or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.” It concluded that “genocide and crimes against humanity” took place over the course of the past year.
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking for the Trump administration in 2021, condemned the “decades-long campaign of repression against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz.”
The statement detailed the abuses and their sinister purpose: “Their morally repugnant, wholesale policies, practices and abuses are designed systematically to discriminate against and surveil ethnic Uyghurs as a unique demographic and ethnic group, restrict their freedom to travel, emigrate and attend schools, and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech and worship. [People’s Republic of China] authorities have conducted forced sterilizations and abortions on Uyghur women, coerced them to marry non-Uyghurs, and separated Uyghur children from their families.”
Pompeo invoked the Nazi precedent against Xi’s regime: “The Nuremberg Tribunals at the end of World War II prosecuted perpetrators for crimes against humanity, the same crimes being perpetrated in Xinjiang.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken of the Biden administration has criticized Beijing’s obstruction of a fair investigation by the Human Rights Commissioner and declared his own finding that “genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing” in Xinjiang Province.
Like Hitler and Mussolini, Putin and Xi are kindred spirits in brutality and the inhuman treatment of people under their control — their meeting in Moscow could well be called the Genocide Summit. But, aside from “sanitizing” Putin and ending his near-total international isolation, Xi could demonstrate more overt support for his war in Ukraine by supplying “lethal” weapons, some observers worry.
China already has significantly softened the impact of Western sanctions on Russia by increasing its purchase of Russian oil and gas by orders of magnitude, a circumvention that the West tolerates. Washington and other capitals also indulge China’s supply of small arms and dual-use technology that can be integrated into Russia’s military arsenal. Those willing oversights and the deliberate slow-walking of more potent weapons systems to Ukraine inexcusably prolong the war and Ukraine’s suffering.
It also extends the potential drain of Western weapons, resources and attention away from the Indo-Pacific arena, where China awaits the opportunity to pounce on Taiwan, Japan and other American allies and partners.
The answer to that challenge, however, is not to deprive Ukraine of all it needs, as fast as it needs it, to defeat Russia. Instead, the Biden administration should make explicit and official what the president has casually said four times — that the United States will directly come to Taiwan’s defense. Scrapping the longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity is the safest way to deter China’s aggression.
If Hitler and Mussolini — and Putin — had known the fate that awaited them, they might well have tamed their aggressive urges. Xi still has time to learn that lesson, if a resolute West is prepared to teach it.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
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