Hillary Clinton at UCLA: Putin is a ‘tough guy with a thin skin’

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton with moderator and political science professor Lynn Vavreck at UCLA on Wednesday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that she was merely comparing the tactics used by Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin — and not equating the men themselves — when she drew a parallel between Hitler’s efforts to resettle Germans in the late 1930s to Putin’s recent moves to issue Russian passports to citizens in Ukraine with ties to Russia.

The eyebrow-raising remarks were offered at a private fundraiser in Long Beach on Tuesday.

“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ‘30s,” Clinton said, according to the Long Beach Press Telegram. “The Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, 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.”

In an address at UCLA on Wednesday, Clinton reiterated that she was not putting Putin in the category of Hitler, just noting that claims by Putin and other Russian leaders that they needed to go into Crimea to protect Russian minorities were “reminiscent of claims that were made back in the 1930s when Germany under the Nazis kept talking about how they had to protect German minorities” in Poland and Czechoslovakia.


“So I just want everybody to have a little bit more perspective,” Clinton said. “I’m not making a comparison certainly, but I am recommending that we can perhaps learn from this tactic that has been used before.”

The former secretary of State and potential 2016 presidential candidate praised the Obama administration’s use of diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis during her UCLA remarks, and echoed President Obama’s statement that Russia’s intervention in Crimea was a violation of international law. She called for a restoration of order and stability.

“I support the administration’s call for Russia to respect its obligations and to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” Clinton said during the Luskin Lecture for Thought at Royce Hall. “All parties should avoid steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation at this delicate time.”

Clinton said the former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the capital under Ukrainian opposition, had “lost his legitimacy” and “abdicated his responsibilities.” Of Putin, Clinton said: “I know we are dealing with a tough guy with a thin skin. I’ve had a lot of experience — well, not only with him but with people like that.”

Putin wants to “re-Sovietize” nations on Russia’s periphery, she said, and “in the process, he is squandering the potential of such a great nation – the nation of Russia – and threatening the instability and even the peace of Europe.”

Clinton’s remarks Wednesday came at a time when Republicans have questioned her toughness with Russian leaders during her tenure at the State Department. In recent days, several Republicans have argued that the Obama administration’s “weak leadership” has emboldened Putin’s moves in Ukraine.

During her presidential run in 2008, Clinton took a hard line on Putin, joking during a campaign event that as a former KGB agent, “by definition, he doesn’t have a soul.”

Explaining her approach to Putin and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev while she was at the State Department, Clinton said Wednesday that she adopted what she thought was a smart approach — the U.S. would stand its ground on disagreements, but get things done.

Among the U.S. goals at that time, she noted, was an arms control agreement, the creation of a pathway through Russia to resupply U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and an effort to get Russia into the World Trade Organization.

“I was very clear-eyed about what I thought we could get done,” Clinton said. Noting the good relationship between Medvedev and Obama at that time, Clinton said the U.S. “even got them to support sanctions against Iran in the Security Council — something people predicted we couldn’t get done.”

maeve.reston@latimes.comTwitter: @maevereston