Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday was announced with similarly brazen rhetoric, as Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the offensive was intended to achieve the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of its neighbour.
The brazen use of the baseless Nazi slur against Kyiv, which recycled a now-familiar Kremlin propaganda line, drew condemnation and disbelief from across the world, including from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.
Just hours before Putin made his televised address, Zelenskyy made an impassioned one of his own, speaking in Russian to address the Russian public directly, and pushing back against the repeated accusations that his country is run by fascists. Zelenskyy hails from a Russian-speaking region in southeast Ukraine.
“The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries — and the main difference between them is: Ours is real.
“You are told that we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?” he said.
The Ukrainian president added: “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.”
Putin’s “Nazi” smear referred to a longstanding narrative, used by politicians both in and outside Ukraine, that Ukrainian-speaking elites in the west of the country are the ideological descendants of the far-right nationalist forces that battled the Soviets in World War II.
It’s been repeatedly harnessed by the Kremlin in recent years to attempt to smear Ukraine as a whole – and given a major boost by the fact that right-wing extremists played an outsized role in both the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14, and the war that followed.
For observers like Kacper Rękawek, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, the use exposes how little justification the Kremlin has for its actions.
“For me, it’s a sign of desperation,” he told VICE World News.
“You have the highest authority in Russia using this propaganda to try to justify war. Well – that’s really low. If you really have to sink to the gutter to invent causes to attack Ukraine, that really means you have no case at all.”
Putin’s Nazi slur repeated a propaganda line that the Kremlin has repeatedly levelled at Ukraine since the eruption of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine late 2013, which lobbied for deeper political ties with the EU, and led to Russian military aggression.
But Rękawek said that while Putin had given the Nazi slur unprecedented exposure, it wasn’t a Kremlin invention. Rather, he was harnessing an existing narrative about Ukraine that had been politically weaponised long before the Euromaidan protests.
The narrative has roots in World War Two, and has been used by a range of politicians inside Ukraine, including former president Viktor Yanukovych, to foster a “political cleavage” in the country between the Ukrainian-speaking west, and Russian-speaking areas in the east.
“Putin tapped into something that has been there for ages and politically used by all sorts of players to mobilise eastern Ukrainian voters,” said Rękawek.
The narrative emphasised the notion that the country was divided into two contrasting constituencies, separated by the River Dnieper. To the west, the narrative goes, were the Ukrainian-speaking elites – allegedly pro-EU, pro-reform, pro-Westernisation – but also somehow the literal or figurative descendants of the far-right Ukrainian ultranationalists who had fought the Soviets during World War Two, and been exiled in Western countries in the post-war era.
“Essentially, [western Ukrainian elites] are painted as the grandchildren of these Ukrainian nationalists who fought the ‘glorious Red Army and were the allies of Nazis,” he said.
It was a narrative that, taken to an extreme, also implied that “maybe Ukraine shouldn’t really exist, because the eastern part is basically Russian, and the western part is basically a bunch of Nazis,” he said.
The narrative gained a significant boost during the events of Euromaidan, when ultranationalists, including those drawn from neo-Nazi, football hooligan subcultures, played a leading role as “shock troops” of the protests, involved in violent clashes with security forces. When war broke out in the east, these same ultranationalists formed the Azov Battalion which played a key role in the decisive battle for the city of Mariupol, carving out a reputation as valiant defenders of the nation.
Azov – which features the Nazi Wolfsangel logo on its uniforms, is led by figures with deep roots in the country’s neo-Nazi scene, and attracted right-wing extremist foreign fighters into its ranks from across the world – was formally incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in late 2014, bringing its extremists onto the government payroll.
That development has proven a concern for Ukraine’s allies – the US government has banned any of its military aid to Ukraine from reaching the movement – and a gift to Russian propaganda, which has played up Azov’s extremism to smear Ukraine as a whole.
But Rękawek said the Russian depiction as a hub of Nazis was perverse, especially given that far-right foreign fighters were also drawn in large numbers to fight on the pro-Russian side of the conflict, in units like the Saint Petersburg-based Russian Imperial Movement, which the US added to its list of specially designated global terrorist groups in 2020, saying it had “provided paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe.”
Moreover, Ukraine’s far-right parties earned a combined 2 percent of the vote in 2019 parliamentary elections.
Rękawek, who has researched Azov and the large numbers of foreign fighters, many of them right-wing extremists, drawn to fight on both sides of the conflict, said that the Kremlin could now be expected to play up any involvement by Azov or other ultranationalist forces in the fighting.
“If there’s a photo of a soldier with [an extremist] badge or doing a [Nazi] salute, they’ll play it up, because they need it now,” he said.
Rękawek said that, as well as being a fantasy, the Kremlin narrative was also implicitly incoherent, as it painted the West as simultaneously fascist yet liberal and depraved.
“It’s a funny one, because Putin is saying that the West is supporting Nazis, and then that the West is all gay. These two messages come together - it’s like, ‘Let’s see what sticks’.”
“This is mad stuff that is happening,” he said.