President Vladimir Putin is doubling down on one of his most bizarre claims since the war began – and Russia seems to believe it.
It’s a contradiction in terms. But President Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his bizarre claim that Russia is single-handedly battling a West controlled by “liberal-Nazi dictatorships”.
Putin launched his assault on Ukraine amid assertions that the nation needed to be “de-Nazified”. He claimed its capital Kyiv of being run by “neo-Nazis”. He whipped up a nationalist frenzy based on the Soviet Union’s World War II success.
It’s just that very little of it has any foundation in truth.
With his troops forced into retreat, Putin’s inner circle is struggling to bolster their president’s tenuous position.
So they’re now claiming the new Nazi “Reich” extends far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service director Sergey Naryshkin – the man Putin humiliated on national television in the days before the war – states Western nations are on the brink of falling under Nazi control.
He asserts the West is in the grip of a civic “awakening” – one that rejects its leaders’ corruption and corporate greed, but that will ultimately be self-defeating.
“It will end not by the coming to power in the US and European states of nationally oriented, sensible and realist politicians, but by the establishment of complete and undisguised liberal-Nazi dictatorships in the Western area,” his essay in a Russian defence magazine reads.
It’s just the latest example of a narrative Putin has been building for as long as he’s been in power.
And now he’s directing it at his own people.
“The collective West is trying to split our society, speculating on the combat losses, on the socio-economic consequences of sanctions, provoking a civil confrontation in Russia and using its fifth column to achieve its goal – the destruction of Russia,” Putin raged during national telecast this week.
“But any people, and even more so the Russian people, will be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths.”
“How can I be a Nazi?” asked Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky when Putin declared war. “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.”
Ukraine’s far-right ultranationalists fought with the Nazis against the Soviet Union in World War II. But they were a distinct minority.
Now Ukraine has a Jewish president. He won a two-thirds majority through national democratic elections in 2019. And Ukraine’s far-right emerged from the polls with just a 2 per cent stake.
It seems far from any scenario that could justify “de-Nazification” by military force.
“Since Ukraine’s tiny number of right-wing extremists are about as influential as the Proud Boys in the United States, what Putin really had in mind was Ukrainians with a distinct Ukrainian identity,” says Rutgers University Professor of Political Science Alexander Motyl. “De-Nazification thus meant de-Ukrainianisation.”
But Moscow continues to accuse Kyiv’s “Nazis” of “horrendous crimes”.
And these “horrendous crimes” were touted by state-owned Ria news agency analyst Timofei Sergeytsev as a justification for genocide.
In an article entitled What Russia should do to Ukraine, he accuses Ukrainian citizens of being “passive accomplices of Nazism” for supporting and electing “Nazi authorities”. He describes Ukraine as being on a path towards nationalised Nazism.
He adds Ukraine’s desire for a “European way of development” makes its version of Nazism more dangerous than Hitler’s.
Sergeytsev concludes he wants de-Nazification to extend for “no less than one generation, which must be born, grow up and reach maturity under the conditions of de-Nazification”.
That means making them part of Putin’s Russia.
“De-Nazification will inevitably be a de-Ukrainisation as well,” he declares.
Crusader or conman?
President Putin has World War II on his mind. Historian Ian Gerner says he’s turned the legacy of the Red Army into a “cult of the Great Patriotic War that depicts Russia as humanity’s white knight in the 1940s.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/26/russia-ukraine-war-soviet-legacy/
That cult needs an antithesis. And that’s Hitler’s Nazis.
“A vision of a squeaky-clean Red Army has been disseminated by expansive educational, civil, and cultural initiatives,” Dr Gerner explains. “Mention of wartime atrocities — such as the massacre of Polish intellectuals and officers at Katyn Forest, the rape of civilians by Red Army soldiers, and the strategic incompetence that led to unnecessary deaths — has effectively been criminalised.”
Europe’s World War II eastern front exacted a huge toll. Russia lost 14 million dead fighting Hitler’s Germany. Ukraine lost eight million.
Putin conveniently forges that bit.
“Central to this cult has been the claim that Russia, and Russia alone, can claim ownership over the historical term of “anti-fascism,” while a decadent West permits the growth of neo-Nazi factions in Ukraine unchallenged,” Dr Garner writes.
The Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s Nazism.
It’s a patriotic success story Putin hopes to capitalise upon.
Even as he entrenches a fascist state of his own.
It’s a scenario that exposes the incoherent fantasy of Putin’s narrative, says University of Oslo extremism expert Kacper Rękawek.
“It paints the West as fascist. Yet it’s somehow also liberal and depraved at the same time,” he explains. “It’s a funny one because Putin is saying that the West is supporting Nazis and then that the West is all gay. When these two messages come together – it’s like, ‘let’s just see what sticks’.”
And Nazis have proven a valuable tool in Putin’s quest for power.
“Putin’s weaponisation of neo-Nazis was always a risky strategy, but it was not irrational,” argues La Trobe University Russia analyst Dr Robert Horvath. https://theconversation.com/putins-fascists-the-russian-states-long-history-of-cultivating-homegrown-neo-nazis-178535 “Neo-Nazis reject democratic institutions and the very idea of human equality. For a dictator dismantling democracy and constructing an authoritarian regime, they were ideal accomplices.”
The myths behind modern Russia
Spy chief Naryshkin touts Putin’s invasion as “a real moment of truth for the Russian world.” He said the so-called “Russian world” is “determined to defend the right to its own identity in the face of aggressive globalism, embodied in US hegemony, NATO’s expansion, the policy of liberal interventionism and LGBT propaganda.”
He conveniently forgot that many Ukrainians speak Russian and identify as ethnic Russian. And Moscow’s troops are killing them.
But it’s a myth many Russians are willing to embrace, says University of Oxford researcher Dr Jade McGlynn.
“Lots of people believe the Kremlin propaganda because it is easier and more preferable to admitting or accepting you are the bad guys,” she says. “Now, imagine accepting your son died in a pointless war and that he was part of a genocidal campaign?”
Naturally, people would resist believing that, Dr McGlynn says, especially when the Kremlin offers you a much more attractive version of events.
“So instead, you become even more attached to the myths and propaganda of brave Russian heroes fighting Nazis,” she says. “Because you want your son to have died for something epic, not for nothing, or even worse as part of your country’s genocidal campaign against an innocent people.”
“It is much easier and nicer to accept this loss as a sacrifice in the name of an epic civilisational fight against fascism – that it is your part in defeating a new Hitler – than to accept everything you ever worked for disappeared because of the sick fantasies of an ex-KGB agent.
“This is yet another way for the Kremlin, Putin, to make ordinary Russians complicit. They become invested in the lies and in the continuation of this horrific war. Until victory at whatever price and in whatever guise so long as it justifies the loss.”
The true face of fascism
President Putin has called for a purge of Russian “Fifth column traitors”.
“There is only one goal – the destruction of Russia,” he declared. I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges. “
According to Rutgers University’s Professor Motyl, modern Russia is a textbook example of a fascist state.
“Putin has completely dismantled all of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Elections are neither free nor fair. Putin’s party, United Russia, always wins, and oppositionists are routinely harassed or killed,” he writes.
And what separates a fascist state from an authoritarian state is the presence of a personality cult.
“Fascist leaders have genuine charisma – that ephemeral quality that produces popular adulation,” Professor Motyl states. “They promote that charisma and the image that goes with it in personality cults. The people genuinely love fascist leaders, and the leaders, in turn, present themselves as embodiments of the state, the nation, the people.”
And Nazis helped Putin get there.
“Even as Russian diplomats condemned “fascists” in the Baltic States and Kremlin propagandists railed against imaginary “Ukronazis” in power in Kyiv, the Russian state was cultivating its own homegrown Nazis,” argues Dr Horvath.
As with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, Russia’s future is inseparable from Vladimir Putin’s.
And things aren’t looking all that great.
“Fascist states are unstable. Personality cults disintegrate with time as leaders grow old. Today’s Putin, with his bloated face, is no match for the vigorous Putin of 20 years ago,” Professor Motyl says. “I believe Putin’s fascist Russia faces a serious risk of breakdown in the not-too-distant future. All that’s missing is a spark that will rile the people and elites and move them to take action.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel