Hillary Rodham Clinton has sparked a political uproar this week by wading into the middle of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, likening the moves of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the actions of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler leading up to World War II.
The former secretary of state’s provocative comparison drew swift rebukes Wednesday from U.S.-Russia policy experts — including some who served under her husband, former president Bill Clinton — while attracting rare notes of support from hawkish Republicans in Congress.
The comments put Clinton, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, at odds with President Obama and her former administration colleagues, who have been measured in their statements on Ukraine in hopes of avoiding an escalation of Putin’s incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
After invoking Hitler at a private fundraiser Tuesday, Clinton largely stood by the remarks on Wednesday. She said she was merely noting parallels between Putin’s claim that he was protecting Russian-speaking minorities in Crimea and Hitler’s moves into Poland, Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe to protect German minorities.
“I just want people to have a little historic perspective,” Clinton said during a question-and-answer session at UCLA. “I’m not making a comparison certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.”
Clinton added that Putin’s goal is “to re-Sovietize Russia’s periphery” and said he is “a tough guy with a thin skin” — something she said she knows from personal dealings with him.
In Obama’s first term, Clinton was the face of the administration’s effort to “reset” its policy with Russia and cultivated relations with then-President Dmitry Medvedev. Some Republican critics and foreign policy experts suggested Wednesday that Clinton’s rhetoric about Putin represented a political calculation to cast herself as tough on Russia in advance of a possible 2016 campaign.
Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a nonpartisan global risk consulting firm, said Clinton’s Hitler comment signaled she was trying to “stage manage” the Russia issue.
“Hillary’s too smart to actually believe that Putin’s actions are remotely close to anything that Hitler did,” Bremmer said. “The only reason she would say that is that she believes she was vulnerable in having been the architect of the failed ‘reset’ and wants to show that she’s harder-line than anybody else.”
Michael McFaul, who served with Clinton as Obama’s ambassador to Russia, said that critique was off-base. He said Clinton was “much more skeptical” of Putin than other administration colleagues, that she was the first U.S. official to condemn Putin’s disputed 2011 election, and that she made a point of meeting with civil-society critics during official visits to Russia.
“She was always very tough-minded about the Russian government — no romanticism with respect to the regime there,” McFaul said. “It wasn’t like she was ideologically opposed to somehow working with the Russian government when we could, but she had no illusions that it was going to develop into something grand, unlike maybe some others.”
Clinton’s aides offered no explanation for why she chose to invoke Hitler on Tuesday, when she addressed the crisis in Ukraine for the first time at a private fundraiser in Long Beach, Calif.
The brouhaha illustrates Clinton’s delicate political position after leaving the State Department. She is out of office and weighing a possible 2016 campaign during which she would be compelled to chart a new course for the country, yet she remains loyal to Obama and tied to his foreign policies.
Her predicament was crystallized when she made her remarks at the California fundraiser, saying that Putin’s move to provide Russian passports to people with Russian connections living elsewhere is reminiscent of Hitler’s aggressive protection of ethnic Germans across Europe.
“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” Clinton said, according to audio from the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “All the Germans that were — you know, the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry — who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, you know, Hitler kept saying: ‘They’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people.’ And that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”
The Press-Telegram appears to have been the only news outlet present at Clinton’s speech at an otherwise closed-press luncheon attended by about 250 people to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Long Beach.
Some foreign policy experts said her remarks risk worsening the diplomatic situation.
“A statement that equates Russians to Nazis and Mr. Putin to what Hitler was doing is simply going to inflame Russian opinion,” said James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Lawrence J. Korb, a former Reagan administration official and a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the situation“really complicates things” for Obama because it could make him appear weak by comparison.
“We have to be so careful of these historical analogies,” Korb said. “You keep drawing up these analogies, they hurt more than they can help. Whatever Putin is, he wasn’t like Hitler. He didn’t massacre thousands of non-Russians in Georgia or anything like that.”
With Putin’s invasion in Ukraine five years after the “reset” policy, Republicans see a vulnerability for Hillary Clinton. America Rising, the leading anti-Clinton super PAC, released a video Wednesday highlighting what it called “the spectacular failure of the Obama/Clinton Russia ‘Reset’ policy.”
“One of the most visible policies that she advocated for during her time as secretary of state has completely unraveled and is looking both naive and misguided right now,” said Tim Miller, the group’s executive director.
Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton group, rushed to her defense. “Secretary Clinton worked to advance America’s relations with Russia,” spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said.
Among Clinton’s other defenders were Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), two of the more hawkish Republicans on Capitol Hill, who said they agreed with her comparison of Putin and Hitler.
Another defender, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), said: “What she’s saying is let’s be very clear-eyed about this. This is a way in which to maneuver your way into a country and take it over, as we see in the peninsula now controlled by Putin.”
P.J. Crowley, who served as Clinton’s top spokesman at the State Department, noted that there is a long tradition of U.S. leaders invoking Hitler comparisons. Secretary of State John F. Kerry last year likened Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to the Nazi leader. And President George H.W. Bush compared Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Hitler.
“Hitler makes cameo appearances all the time within American political narratives about emerging international crises,” Crowley said. “He’s an easy and recognizable shorthand that signals danger.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.