President Vladimir Putin stunned much of the West when he offered his supposed justification for launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine: The country is run by Nazis, he said. “We will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians,” Putin explained in a nationally televised speech on February 24.
Near the end of his speech, he directly appealed to the Ukrainian military, “Your fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not fight the Nazi occupiers and did not defend our common Motherland to allow today’s neo-Nazis to seize power in Ukraine.” Similarly, when “Good Morning America” Host George Stephanopoulos challenged Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov for describing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a puppet of the Ukrainian Nazi movement, Lavrov replied, “I think the Nazis and neo-Nazis manipulate him, otherwise it is hard to account for how President Zelensky can preside … over a society where neo-Nazism is rife.”
Russian foreign policy hands and media spokespeople have repeatedly echoed the charge that Ukraine is a fascistic, ethnonationalist nation since the beginning of the latest hostilities. Why do Russian officials continually use that term? Is this mere gaslighting, or does Ukraine have ties to Nazi ideology — and, if so, what about Russia?
There has not been a Nazi nation since 1945
Let’s begin with the obvious: Ukraine is not a Nazi nation. There has not been a Nazi nation since 1945. President Zelensky is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust. Zelensky has comprehensively rebutted the charge that he or his fellow Ukrainians are Nazi sympathizers. “Could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?” he asked. “How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.”
With that said, of course, Russia and Ukraine have a long, complex history intertwining with one another and the Jewish people for more than a millennium. Ethnic and other prejudices ran strong in the area. During World War II, after decades of Bolshevik oppression, some Ukrainians such as Stepan Bandera collaborated with the Nazis. But many opposed both Nazi and Communist occupation.
Unfortunately, ethnic and religious tensions did not end with either occupation. In the early 2000s, one of Ukraine’s largest universities — the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (sometimes known by its Ukrainian acronym, MAUP) — set up a teaching gig and, in September 2005, conferred a Ph.D. on David Duke. Duke’s thesis became the kernel of his book “Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question.”
International observers raise the greatest concern over a Ukrainian militia known as the Azov Battalion, which wears Nazi-era insignia — including the swastika — on its uniforms. Its founder, Andriy Biletsky, said Ukraine’s purpose is to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [inferior people]” — a statement that is not Naziesque but Nazism. White nationalists from around the world have traveled to Ukraine to learn the art of warfare firsthand from Azov. After the UN accused the Azov Battalion of torturing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the then-president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, praised the group as “our best warriors,” and the group was officially incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. The United States was so concerned that in 2018, Congress legally banned U.S. aid from going toward any “arms, training or other assistance” to the Azov Battalion. And a year later, dozens of members of Congress lobbied the Trump administration to designate the Azov Battalion as a Foreign Terror Organization. Its official recognition, and the training it offers potentially violent extremists, remain genuine concerns.
While this particular concern is real, it is far from complete. The Azov Battalion is no more representative of the average Ukrainian than the KKK represents the average American. The Azov Battalion has anywhere from 900 to 2,500 members, compared to a Ukrainian military of 200,000. Ukrainians, perhaps understandably, say the unsavory elements associated with the Azov Battalion concerns them less than the prospect of annihilation by Russia’s war machine. Vladimir Putin and his surrogates have made a prosecutor’s case for a war of choice.
Of course, most of these same arguments could be made against Russia. David Duke has made several speaking tours of Russia. Aleksandr Dugin, who has been said to exert significant influence over Putin, has ties to white nationalists around the world, including in the United States. The first white supremacist group ever to be named a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, under President Trump, was the St. Petersburg-based Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). The UN also accused the leaders of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donestk and Luhansk of committing war crimes in 2014 and of having “undermined the human rights of the estimated 2.7 million people residing under their control.”
CRT tactics to justify total war
Vladimir Putin’s use of the incendiary Nazi terminology serves two purposes. Labeling his opponents as fascists serves to delegitimize the Ukrainian government’s existence, while tapping into the most patriotic memory latent in the memory of the Russian people. Russia still calls World War II, which cost 18 million lives due directly to the war and perhaps as many as 26.6 million total, the “Great Patriotic War.” Nearly a million women served in the Soviet war effort as snipers and guerrillas. These staggering losses, and the advice of Communist agent Alger Hiss, allowed Joseph Stalin to bully Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill into giving him the Eastern bloc nations as a buffer zone to Russia’s west — one that many analysts speculate Putin aims to recreate.
The enormous factual and logical flaws that occur by calling Ukraine “Nazi” are ultimately beside the point of a propaganda phrase intended to dredge up emotions (specifically, hatred and fear). The term “Nazi” delegitimizes anyone associated with it, truthfully or erroneously. Putin calling Zelensky’s Ukraine a “Nazi” government is not meant to reflect the everyday reality on the ground. Like the advocates of Critical Race Theory branding the United States “systemically racist,” the term exists only to portray the constitution of the targeted nation as incapable of reform, as “trash” that needs to be removed. History proved historical Nazis could not be trusted, negotiated with, or even relied upon to surrender when the war became hopeless. They must be obliterated — precisely as Vladimir Putin appears intent on doing.