Who’s the Nazi?
Although Vladimir Putin has tried to spin his war on Ukraine as a campaign to rid that country of Nazis, it is he who is playing from Hitler's playbook. Faced with the heroic resistance led by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the descendant of Holocaust victims, Russia has already lost the propaganda war.
Vladimir Putin’s regime has banned Russian media from referring to his invasion of Ukraine as a “war.” Instead, it is to be framed as “an operation to liberate Ukraine from neo-Nazis.”
The state-run RIA news agency has published lurid propaganda arguing that Russia “for the second time in history will take on the burden of responsibility for the liberation of Ukraine from Nazism.” Readers are told that “filling in the swastika only slightly with cosmetic correction and high-quality powder” was “the main method of building Ukrainian statehood.” Now, Russia is carrying out a “denazification” operation “in the interests of all Europe, even if Europe is not aware of it.”
It is worth dissecting this propaganda, because propaganda plays an important role in sustaining Putin’s dictatorship, especially in times of crisis. And, without Putin’s dictatorship, there certainly would be no war in Ukraine. The more Russia’s military campaign falls short of what he had hoped, the more he will rely on propaganda.
Over the years, Putin has told the Russian people many contradictory things about Russia and Ukraine. During his first two terms as president (2000-08), he had ambitions to modernize Russia and deepen its ties with the West. But after he had gotten a taste of power, he started thinking primarily about how to keep it. Modernization gave way to police-state brutality, and now, thinking about his place in history, he has concluded that without Ukraine, Russia cannot be a world power. Yet when he took office, Ukraine was still pro-Russian, and the Kremlin still had significant influence over it. It was his annexation of Crimea and seizure of 7% of Ukraine’s territory in 2014 that lost Ukrainian hearts and minds.
Between failing to modernize Russia and driving Ukraine away, Putin has committed multiple unforced errors that future generations of Russians will not forgive. Recall that in the early days, Putin himself considered bringing Russia into the European Union and even NATO. Denying Ukraine’s sovereignty was not on his mind. When asked in May 2002 about Ukraine’s declaration of willingness to join NATO, he replied:
“As for NATO enlargement, you know our attitude to this issue. It does not change, but this does not mean that Ukraine should remain on the sidelines of processes aimed at strengthening peace and security in Europe and on earth in general. Ukraine is a sovereign state and has the right to independently choose the path to secure its own security.”
But when Ukrainians took to the streets in the 2004 Orange Revolution to protest corruption and electoral fraud, Putin got scared. What if Russians ever decided to do the same? By 2008, Putin had adopted a new posture. Speaking at a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Bucharest, he offered an early preview of the rationale that has now led him to wage aggressive war against Ukraine. Had Western governments taken him seriously, they would not have spent the past three months guessing at his intentions, and they probably would have supplied Ukraine with more weapons and money. Putin made his intentions plain:
“The south of Ukraine, completely, there are only Russians. Who can tell us that we have no interests there? ... In Ukraine in general, one third of the population is ethnic Russians. Of the 45 million, according to the official census, 17 million are Russians. There are regions inhabited only by Russians, say, in Crimea – 90% Russians. Ukraine in its present form received territory from Poland – after World War II – from Czechoslovakia, Romania. It received huge territories from Russia in the east and south of the country. It is a complicated state creation. And if you add to that the NATO problem, other problems, they can put statehood itself on the brink of existence altogether.”
The two census claims were untrue: 17 million is merely the number of Ukrainians who declared Russian as their first language; and ethnic Russians comprised no more than 60% of Crimea’s population at the time. But the point is that Putin signaled 14 years ago that he would use historical revisionist claims about Russian minorities outside Russia’s borders as a pretext for interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler, who, six months before invading Poland, used German minority populations across the border as a pretext to destroy democratic Czechoslovakia.
Moreover, like Nazi Germany, Putin is consumed by a stab-in-the-back myth. Echoing German nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s, he cannot accept the fact that the Soviet Union fell without losing to the West on the battlefield. The only other explanation is that it must have been betrayed by elites, who dragged the great nation down from within.
Apparently oblivious to these historical parallels, Putin sees Nazis on the march everywhere but at home. Yet it is he who routinely enlists the help of neo-Nazis like Dmitry Utkin, a mercenary with the Wagner Group, a private army financed by pro-Kremlin oligarchs, who bears Waffen-SS tattoos on his collarbone and chest.
As with Nazi Germany, the Kremlin’s provocations seem extraordinarily inept. Russia is ostentatiously and brutally violating international law in an effort to humiliate Ukraine and frighten a dissolute West. That is why the Kremlin’s propaganda has gone to such lengths to smear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a drug addict and a neo-Nazi, even though he is a Jew whose grandfather fought the Nazis in World War II, and who lost many other relatives in the Holocaust.
Until recently, Russian propaganda has worked not only in Russia but also in the West. Beyond the US Republicans who have openly sided with Putin, many Germans have long failed to appreciate that the Soviet victims of Nazism were not all Russian. In fact, Nazism claimed more Ukrainian victims, and a Ukrainian soldier was the first to open the gates of Auschwitz.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, Moscow has already lost the war for hearts and minds. The period of craven forbearance toward Russia is ending. Around the world, the Ukrainian people and their leaders are now regarded as heroes. And as more body bags arrive in Russia or are burned in mobile crematoriums, even Putin’s closest supporters may come to doubt his leadership.
This text was first published on March 1, 2022 by Project Syndicate.