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WASHINGTON – Harry S. Truman, in retirement from a tumultuous presidency, told a chronicler: “The only thing new is the history you don’t know.” What today’s generation doesn’t know, or is emotionally incapable of accepting, is how closely Russian President Vladimir Putin is imitating the mad German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

Today’s leaders were weaned on the passionately yearned-for collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fleeting mirage of President Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness, or transparency). President George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw Putin’s soul. Bush in 2004 airily told a group of visitors from Buffalo how impressed he was that Putin mentioned God.

President Obama, supposedly smarter than Bush, still thinks you can negotiate with Putin. Let’s admit Putin fooled everybody. We wanted to believe that Russia’s gut instinct was peace with its neighbors; that Russians wanted democracy when they never knew it; that militant agents of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, another merciless killer, who lived among us were really nice guys; and that Americans in Hollywood, Congress and the FBI who pursued communists were monsters.

These romantic notions will die hard. As part of his “reset” of relations with Russia, Obama gullibly killed the missile defense aid that Bush promised to Poland and the Czechs.

Whether those who promoted these myths about Russia really believed them, or just wanted to sell soft drinks and hamburgers over there, Putin and his followers have ended the dream.

The reality is that like Hitler, Putin embraces the cause of ultranationalism – a form of colonialism Obama is supposed to despise. It’s a pretense: that the mother country can brandish its fist, in this case Russian, er Soviet, nuclear power to “protect” all those who can speak the mother tongue. This gives Putin the “right” to rule Poland, again, and three Baltic Nations freed after World War II. Hitler used the theory to force Austria and Czechoslovakia to their knees.

Putin, in violation of all international law, is deploying masked Russian soldiers to intimidate Ukraine. Hitler, to build a pretext to invade Poland, used the black-booted SS, or Schutzstaffel. The SS dressed in Polish uniforms to attack a German radio station on the Polish border. For “victims,” the SS dressed concentration camp inmates as fake German military.

It was all quite sanitary. The SS used lethal injections to do away with the ersatz Germans. World War II was on.

In recent weeks, “patriotic” pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine played the Jewish card to panic citizens in Donetsk. They distributed flyers ordering Jews to register with the provisional government or risk loss of their property and other rights. We thank David E. Fishman of the Jewish Daily Forward for tracking this back to Moscow’s door.

And now there are reports of Ukrainians being tortured by pro-Russian “patriots.” All this is accompanied by empty peace negotiations in Geneva, saber-rattling on the Ukraine border and Putin’s mockery of this country and its president – not unlike Hitler’s derision of President Franklin Roosevelt before his puppet Reichstag in 1939.

President George H.W. Bush wanted a peace dividend in the budget when the Soviet Union died 25 years ago. Everybody does still. We want the peace dividend to rescue our urban poor from decades of neglect and for infrastructure needs. But a Reagan-style buildup of our armed forces and presence may be needed again. The alternative may be withdrawal of the United States from the world stage.

Certainly, our deployment of 600 soldiers to Europe and whispers of sanctions aren’t going to stop Putin, now unmasked, from licking his chops.

email: dturner@buffnews.com